The Directors in association withLBB Pro

Taimi Arvidson: “Visual Storytelling Is My Favourite Way to Write”

Production Company
Los Angeles, USA
The Farm League director tells LBB about her path to directing, why she tries to avoid exposition where possible, and bringing a documentarian’s touch to her projects

Taimi Arvidson, director at Farm League, always knew that she was going to be a writer. She pursued a journalism degree in college to make that dream a reality, until a mandatory documentary filmmaking class changed the course of her life. It was then that she first connected her love of writing to visual storytelling, pulling that narrative thread across different mediums. 

Taimi’s particularly skilled in the non-scripted genre, bringing a documentarian’s touch to all her projects. Favouring visual cues over exposition where possible, she believes in trusting audiences more and letting the language of filmmaking tell the story at hand. Her commercial projects likewise benefit from this approach with Taimi searching for the authentic perspective in every one, whether she’s working with real people or actors, like in her work for The Salvation Army and Red Wing. Upcoming is Taimi’s documentary, Hossain, which she has worked on for several years; it tells the story of a young Rohingya boy in Bangladesh. The documentary is currently in post-production. 

She’s directed for one the first docu-series from Apple TV+, ‘Home’, which premiered at the 2020 SXSW film festival; a short film for Red Bull’s award-winning ‘Way of the Wildcard’ series, and the short film, ‘Built Wild’. She also directed for the National Geographic Channel’s series ‘Mars’, which was nominated for an International Documentary Association (IDA) Award for Best Episodic Series.

Below, LBB speaks to Taimi about finding the human story at the heart of every project, why telling stories about complicated women feels like her purpose, and how a child’s viewpoint can often reveal truths about the world. 

LBB> What was your path to becoming a director? Was this always the plan?

Taimi> Honestly, becoming a director was never the plan. I dreamed of being a writer from a young age and enrolled in a journalism programme at 18 without question, absolutely certain of what I wanted to become. I used to pass the filmmaking classes on my way to the journalism classes at my college and think how stressed the parents of film majors must be because it was such a competitive path with no guarantees. 

And then, in my final term of senior year, I took a mandatory documentary class at my journalism school, made a film, and fell deeply in love. That love spiralled into a career in nonfiction programming for broadcast networks working my way up the ladder to the director role I’m in now. So I wasn’t that kid who made films and loved Scorsese at age eight – but more a love that unfurled over years of realising that visual storytelling is my favourite way to write. In my early 20s, I actually got a dream job at a newspaper but left it to go back to filmmaking. 

LBB> As a director, what do you look for in a script? What sets a good one above others?

Taimi> I’m going to joke here that I’m an INFJ-Cancer sign so I’m destined to love emotions and feeling all the feels. Basically, I’m always looking for emotion. Something that can move someone. 

I’m also always looking for a script where I can challenge myself to build upon the original idea while still keeping its intention. That’s what I look for out of my own hires: people who can take my original idea and augment it while still staying true to the vision, so that’s what I seek to bring to agencies and brands.  

LBB> Are there any specific themes you’re interested in exploring in your work? If so, why?

Taimi> The more work I do, the more I find that telling the stories of complicated women is my purpose. I think we’re in the pioneer days of more complex stories about women on film and there’s this thrilling, unexplored landscape of female stories. Too often they are cutesy, limiting, relying on tropes, or one-dimensional. It’s sort of the same story over and over – and that’s why female stories have often been considered hard to sell. I relish the chance to tell stories of complicated women in a way that feels both authentic to our experiences and fresh to viewers.

LBB> You’re well versed in the documentary genre. How do you use this expertise when working on commercial projects?

Taimi> The word “authentic” gets thrown around a lot in any pitch space but oftentimes, people are looking for something to feel real. Even if there’s a script, even if there are actors, even if it’s on a set – people want some tangible authentic qualities to the work. Documentary filmmakers speak the language of authenticity and can bring a realness to any project, even if it’s not real people. 

Coming from a documentary background allows me to approach films with outside-the-box thinking and a comfort in working in non-traditional ways. There’s a fluidness and flexibility to documentary work that can bring about magic on commercial projects. We’re open to working on smaller teams or allowing subjects/actors space to more naturally unfold. I’m still learning how to best protect that documentary instinct on big sets when the production machine is moving quickly and there’s less room for flexibility, but I think my best work happens when I keep that part of my creativity working, even on a big commercial project. 

LBB> How did you approach the spot for the Salvation Army? What was the most difficult and the most rewarding part of working on it?

Taimi> With the Salvation Army, I sought to infuse an unscripted feel to the spot. They hired a documentary filmmaker for a reason and even though it was scripted with actors, I tried to maintain an authentic quality that reflected the magnitude of the amazing work done at Salvation Army Thrift Stores and rehabilitation centres everyday. We spent ample time in those facilities and spoke with folks in recovery, so my ultimate goal was that they could see themselves in the spot. That it felt true to their experience. 

I hadn’t directed actors at that level or helmed such a large, choreographed production machine. There were a few steps to the process that were new to me coming from an unscripted background, but I had a great partner in the amazing producers at Farm League. It required me to be very brave and dive into the unknown. 

I would say the other challenging part was keeping my natural style on such a big project. It’s really easy to get caught up in the machine and forget a looseness or playfulness in the visual style, so I enjoyed the challenge of finding a way to stay myself within this new environment. 

The most rewarding part of the project was an actor telling me the whole experience was so much more meaningful than he ever thought it would be after the last shot. It felt like I had created the environment for him – and potentially others – to best channel the important work of the Salvation Army. That’s something my documentary subjects tell me all the time at the end of a shoot, so it felt meaningful that it had come from an actor as well. That was the sign that I had stayed true to myself.

LBB> While working with real ambassadors for Red Wing, how did you capture their authentic stories?

Taimi> Channelling real people’s stories is about getting out of the way so the story can be told. As directors, it’s often expected that we direct things – the very word communicates pushing someone, being in charge, and having others follow. It’s also why directors are sometimes associated with big egos and big presence. 

For me, real people's stories require the opposite of what’s traditionally expected. I view my job as a delicate presence that’s centred on allowing a real person to lead their own story, on getting my ego out of the way and allowing that story to authentically unfold. I always tell real people it’s a collaboration between us, and I truly believe that core concept as the way I approach people-centred work.

On Red Wing, Shelly and EJ were such fascinating people with beautiful stories to share about work and family. It sounds a bit corny, but I viewed my job as being a vessel for their stories and allowing them to lead the way. Not taking or pushing – but being a partner. 

LBB> You like to use cinematography and visual storytelling to avoid tropes like exposition. What kind of edge do you think this gives your work?

Taimi> I think the look on a person’s face can tell you more than a line or interview byte ever could. Not every project allows for silence and just sitting with someone, or a visual cue to impart information – but it’s often my goal to tell a story without words first and foremost. On my most recent feature, I didn’t receive translations until late in the game and often edited off just looks and unspoken moments alone. We just finished that film and I think the last 30 minutes has only a handful of actual spoken words. 

This inclination probably allows the visuals to speak for themselves – but also, I think, brings a human quality to my work. Having audiences just sit with people for a bit profoundly connects them to that person.  

LBB> Does exposition ever have value? Can it be done well?

Taimi> Absolutely. I’m a writer first and foremost so I love words. I love dialogue, voiceover, and anything involving language. But I think it’s done best when you trust your audiences and don’t handhold them too much. And when you walk away for a day or two and come back to strip down voiceover or interview lines as much as 50% with fresh eyes so you don’t over-explain things. You have to have faith in your audiences. 

LBB> You’re in post-production on ‘Hossain’ at the moment - a documentary feature you’ve been working on for several years following a young Rohingya boy in Bangladesh. Tell us about the project.

Taimi> There’s an old film business adage to never make films with children, and I think that’s a terrible idea. When you’re a kid, you’re really experiencing the world for the first time. It’s when you first encounter emotions from love to anger to sadness – and try to make sense of them. I’ve always thought that a young viewpoint is powerful storytelling territory. 

I’ve also always been intrigued by what that young viewpoint could tell us about our world, even under challenging circumstances. And how it could connect audiences to difficult topics. For example, the Little Rascals was actually set against The Great Depression, but it approached the topic through the nostalgia and universal humour of childhood. 

Around the same time that I was interested in making a film from a child perspective, the Rohingya refugee crisis was worsening, leading nearly one million people to flee to seek refuge in the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh; 60% of those refugees are children, so it felt fitting to see this experience and world through the eyes of kids. Plus, if you ever have the opportunity to meet six-year-old wild and mischievous Hossain Johar then you’d also want to follow him around with a camera all day! 

Additionally, I had done some research on the Rohingya crisis for an Al Jazeera project back in 2013 and the topic always felt unfinished to me when the series I was working on didn’t move forward. The project has given me the opportunity to work closely with incredible Rohingya activists and community members over the past five years of working on it, which has been a rewarding experience.

Work from Farm League
Good Days Daily
Sun Bum