We had the good fortune of connecting with Catherine Zambri-Riggs and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Catherine, we’d love for you to start things off by telling us something about your industry that we and others not in the industry might be unaware of?
Probably the entire notion that this industry even exists. Fifteen years ago I had no idea there were actually people who did what I now do and for a living in the field of filmmaking. It’s like niche inside of niche work…is that a thing? Like a stacked Russian doll situation. When people ask what my work is I usually just say, “I’m a documentary filmmaker.” But when you think of documentary films you think of HBO docs or Netflix or film festivals. Whereas my docs are seen by, well, a niche audience. I’ve probably made close to 600 docs at this point and each of them averages 10-20 people at most. People can’t get their heads around working on docs for months at a time for such a small audience. But in our arena, the film is not just a story, it is also a tool, and the challenges of crafting that tool with such a specific appeal can be greater than work aimed at the general public. Having said that, our purpose for making the film is always clear. The impact of the film is immediate. And often monumental. It’s very satisfying work. Sometimes I do unstack the doll: “I make documentaries for legal purposes. For plaintiffs. Who have sustained catastrophic injuries. When there is clear negligence involved.” And then I just stop talking because it just makes people more confused. And I get it. It’s weird.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
While we have made over 600 films that could broadly be tagged “Legal Services,” my husband and I have always worked together as artists. I graduated college with a fine arts degree, moved to NYC, and within a year we were producing theatre together. We ran Camilla’s Theatre Art Gallery in downtown Manhattan for about 4 years. Moved two shows off-Broadway, won a National Pen Award and continued acting when we could. We started making narrative films, indie shorts then some full-lengths. Mitchell was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and one of my films premiered at Sundance. All really fun, but challenging financially. We would sleep at the theatre to save on train fare and peanut butter sandwiches sustained us for days at a time. Ah, youth! Not long after we had our son, we founded our company, LifeNow Video. I think our background in theatre and film gave us an unusual window into empathy, human behavior, connection and an exploration of psyche. I still feel the excitement of this work every day. It is an honor to sit and listen to someone’s story. It is an honor to sit and hold their pain. Even for just a moment. It is an honor to weave it together for, yes, a legal presentation, to help humans value each other more fully, to encourage empathy for this life now. The families that we have the privilege of representing often get one chance at the help they need. They trust us with their story. And I am here for it. The challenge is ensuring I do not take on their pain as my own. I’ve learned a lot about empathy and boundaries. I used to carry guilt for going about my business after spending time with others who couldn’t walk or might never leave their bed. As much as bearing witness to that level of anguish can be devastating, I learned that in order to tell their story effectively, to honor that anguish, I needed to create space for both them and myself. At the end of the day, this is their sacred story. And it is my responsibility to tell it with clarity that motivates me every day.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
The Cobb County Sheriff’s Adult Detention Center. Not the answer you were expecting maybe, but we are working hard for justice for the late, Kevil Wingo – one of the many people who lost their lives in that detention facility before receiving a fair trial. Kevil died after being denied medical help for an easily treatable stomach ulcer. We are working on a documentary with Atlanta trial lawyer, Timothy Gardner, of Gardner Trial Attorneys to tell Kevil’s story. Also: The National Center for Civil and Human Rights and trying to find all the Tiny Doors [Tiny Doors ATL] and, of course, Tyler Perry studios!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Wow, that’s a big question. I have this magnet on my fridge that has probably traveled the span of 20 years’ worth of fridges with me. It is the African Ubuntu saying, really, a philosophy: “I am because you are.” And it just reminds me daily that I do not and cannot exist on my own. There is no self-awareness without knowing and seeing all that has brought me to this moment and all that encompasses me now — my community, my mom and dad, the strong Sicilian family they helmed, my partner and husband, Mitchell, of 30 years, my children. I am because they are. My Shoutout: Our company owes its origins to my brother, Salvatore Zambri, an incredible and tireless DC lawyer. He quite frankly, opened the door of legal video to us. Sal wanted to tell the story of his client through images and film, not just legal briefs and written words. Sal knew our training in film and theatre would make for a fertile collaboration. He gave us permission to strip away all of the narrative devices typical of legal video. He let us present the case with none, just his subjects guiding the story. Simple and honest. Our approach became very popular in DC, and now we work all over the country (internationally too). It really was a case of all the correct pieces finding each other at the right time. I am grateful every day for Sal and so many others, keenly aware my runner’s mark was born of a place of privilege. This much I know. Full Stop.
Headshot, Mitchell Riggs In the Custody Of None Poster, Becca Fox Design Production stills: Mitchell and Catie Riggs,
Translator Roberta Di Stefano