Since 1993, Deb Bryan has worked as a real estate agent in Austin, engaging her casual, friendly manner to win over clients. But right around the time George W. Bush was settling in to the White House for the second time, Bryan’s soul began to ache. She’d spend hours thinking about enacting some sort of change, but was unable to turn her desires in to action.
“I decided I needed to do something to make a difference. I couldn’t stand to not do something,” Bryan says.
So she began searching online for inspiration. That’s when she discovered the website for REEL Women, an Austin nonprofit that works to educate and encourage women to get involved in all aspects of filmmaking. Bryan made a visit to the REEL Women office, where she met the group’s executive director, Sherry Mills. Bryan told Mills she had no film experience or training, only the interest and desire to learn about the craft. Encouraged by Mills’ acceptance and support, Bryan attended her first REEL Woman meeting.
“By the end of that meeting I was hooked,” Bryan says. “I felt like I could learn this craft, felt determined to learn it.”
Within months, Bryan became a REEL Women board member, and began work on her first film project, a short film titled “A Day in the Life of a Crime,” which was written and made in 48 hours with Bryan producing and working as script supervisor.
“In about two years’ time, I did the producing, directing and/or lighting on about nine short films,” Bryan says. “Being part of REEL Women worked out perfectly for me. I liked that the group was women – oriented because I felt like that really clicked with me.”
During the past decade, Austin’s film community has grown dramatically, and today there is no shortage of film – related nonprofits in the city, all of which are in need of support. REEL Women has managed to survive, Mills says, because of the group’s distinctive characteristics and desire to welcome anyone who wants to learn about or teach film.
“I am so proud of this organization,” says Mills, who nearly single – handedly quadrupled the nonprofit’s membership numbers within six months of taking over as executive director. “No other film group does exactly what we do, offering the multi – discipline workshops, the regular events and the access to some of the best filmmakers in our city.”
And REEL Women does it all on a pittance. The group’s annual budget is only about $80,000, and a major part of the organization’s funding – $23,000 this year – comes from a cultural arts grant through the City of Austin.
But Mills would like to see REEL Women grow exponentially; though the group now has about 300 members – nearly 20 percent of them men, by the way – REEL Women’s email list consists of about 1,700 people.
“We need to find a way to turn those 1,700 in to actual members,” she says, adding that the group has discussed such growth ideas as franchising or adding chapters in other cities.
In the meantime, Mills and Bryan delight in working on film projects with REEL Women members and each other. The pair recently completed a short film inspired by Mills’ teenage niece called “Natalie at Five O’Clock,” which has hit the film festival circuit and picked up sev- eral awards and nominations along the way.
“One of the best things about REEL Women is the fantastic support system and the connections you make,” says Bryan.
Bryan has also been feeling inspired lately. She wrote a script called “Sleep Short” about a lesbian couple that is torn apart by one woman’s inability to sleep, and her resentment of the other, who has no trouble getting her own beauty rest. Bryan says she plans to tackle filming that project this year.
But for Bryan, her affiliation with REEL Women has done more than involve her in the film world; it has helped her access her creative ambitions, providing her the jumping – off point for a life transformation. A little more than a year ago, Bryan’s partner, Lisa, a graphic designer and painter, encouraged Bryan to start painting. Now Bryan welcomes a different future. She used to envision herself in her eighties, puttering around Austin selling real estate. And while she still loves the idea of selling properties, she’d like to use that career as a means to support what she calls her film and art habit, and longs to open an art gallery where she and Lisa can work on and sell their art.
And though Bryan admits her association with REEL Women wasn’t her only inspiration for tapping in to her creative side, she credits the organization with enabling her to realize her dreams.
“REEL Women gives women a chance,” she says. “It gives women the ability to grow. It provides women an opportunity. And all it requires is the effort and the desire to learn.”