Alexandria Bombach is excited to be home in Santa Fe for most of the month of December. But, for now, it’s still November and the documentary filmmaker is preparing to head to Amsterdam to take part in a forum at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam as one of five recipients of a Chicken & Egg Pictures $50,000 unrestricted grant. Her window of time is short and she prefers to meet at Modern General over tea. “It tastes like a forest floor,” she says of the tea, which is called, suitably enough, Forest Floor.
Bombach is leaving in three days. She’s only been home for four — having just returned from Georgia, where she’s working on a documentary about the Indigo Girls. “I was just in [Indigo Girl] Amy Ray’s basement for a week, going through 300 hours of archived videotapes that she has collected over the last 40 years,” she says. “She apologized that it was so much, and I’m like, ‘No, this is documentary filmmaker heaven right now.’ It’s a really exciting next project.”
Bombach was at a director’s retreat with producer Kathlyn Horan when she overheard Horan mention that she’s known the Indigo Girls for 30 years. “I’ve been a huge fan, and I was like, ‘If you ever need me to bring you coffee on a shoot for a music video or something, let me know.’ And she said, ‘I think I’d hire you for more than coffee.’ ” Horan took her to meet the musicians backstage after a concert. “I was blown away by their music and who they are as people. After talking to them, I quickly looked at my phone to see if anybody had ever made the doc about them, and it hadn’t happened yet.” They, in turn, were impressed by Bombach and were familiar with her previous documentary, On Her Shoulders (2018).
On Her Shoulders is a challenging portrait of human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad. Bombach took the director award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. The 33-year-old filmmaker, who also served as director, cinematographer, and editor, spent a year on the festival circuit, introducing the film, appearing on panels, and discussing uncomfortable topics. Murad was a victim of sexual slavery under the Islamic State and saw hundreds of her fellow Yazidi villagers (including members of her family) massacred. For Bombach, focusing on musicians she admires as her follow-up project is a welcome change of pace.
“I was nomadic for 10 years,” she says. “I started renting a house on Galisteo Street in December to have actual roots. Before that, I was here for about two months out of the year, living in my parents’ garage.”
Bombach was born in Albuquerque and grew up dividing her time between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. As a student attending Santa Fe High School and Albuquerque’s La Cueva High School, she liked to film her friends with a Handycam but never entertained the notion of actually becoming a filmmaker. “It was well beyond what some kid growing up in Albuquerque would think to do, at least for me. I actually went to business school at Fort Lewis College.”
Bombach never attended film school, but she had a natural talent and a drive to tell stories that no one was telling. She graduated from Fort Lewis and, faced with the prospect of not being able to find work, decided to dedicate herself to her passion: working behind the camera.
“There were a lot of stories I really wanted to tell in the documentary space. Creatively, it’s really engaging for me to go out into the field.”
Her first feature-length documentary, Frame by Frame (2015), started as a labor of love. The idea that one could just head out and make a movie with little professional experience — especially somewhere like Afghanistan, where the film was shot — might sound daunting for most, but she had the drive to make it a reality. “I sold my car and most of my belongings to buy a ticket for myself and another cinematographer,” she says. “I sacrificed everything to make it happen. But your first film, you have to make those big investments and take big risks.”
Afghanistan became a sort of proving ground. She was interested in how film and photography present an “image of ourselves and a story of ourselves, to ourselves and to the world.” She feels a responsibility because, she says, “these stories matter.”
The film follows four Afghan photojournalists as they help shape the country’s burgeoning freedom of the press and newfound identity in the years following Taliban rule. “It was a really interesting time to be following people as they were trying to tell stories from their own canvas and through their own eyes,” she says. “As Americans, since 9/11, we’re really used to seeing images of Afghanistan in a way that evokes a feeling of fear. A big focus of Frame by Frame was on these still images of life as it actually is and people as they actually are. I think a big part of all my filmmaking is trying to challenge something that we think we know and to shake people’s perceptions of those things.” Frame by Frame would go on to win the Documentary Feature Special Jury Prize at the 2015 Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.
“I just think she’s such an amazing talent,” says Jacques Paisner, SFIFF’s artistic director. “She’s someone whose work is truly international. At the 2018 SFIFF, we had Alexandria here for On Her Shoulders, and [filmmaker] Chris Eyre presented her with the Visionary Award. After that, she joined our advisory board. She also joined the Santa Fe Film Commission, and I’ve been really excited about the kind of voice she brings to that commission. I just think she’s going to be a serious leader in local film hereafter.”
Bombach is determined to play a role in shaping the future of filmmaking in New Mexico. Santa Fe isn’t really a retreat for the independent filmmaker — it’s home base. For the past year she’s been developing a residency program for screenwriters and editors. In 2018, she told the New Mexican that she intends for it to be the kind of space she would have liked to have had while editing On Her Shoulders. “It’s a project that’s very near and dear to my heart because I know that filmmakers really need the support in pursuing their projects,” she says.
Curiously, Bombach admits to some bewilderment while touring a film because festival organizers always refer to her as a director. “I don’t really feel like a director,” she says. “My process is really ingrained in shooting a film and editing a film. Most of my films have been very intimate stories about very sensitive subjects where access was critical for a very small team. Creatively, I’m editing while I’m filming and both crafts make me better at the other. I’m a better shooter because I edit. I’m a better editor because I shoot.”