Michelle Obama interacting with fans on her "Becoming" book tour, which was the genesis of her Netflix documentary feature of the same title. Picture: Netflix
Michelle Obama interacting with fans on her "Becoming" book tour, which was the genesis of her Netflix documentary feature of the same title. Picture: Netflix

EXCLUSIVE: Director of Netflix's ‘Becoming’ sings the praises of Michelle Obama

By Debashine Thangevelo Time of article published Jun 3, 2020

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Michelle Obama is one of the most revered historical figures of our time.

 The former First Lady of the US has also become a role model for young women. Her inspirational journey has become a beacon of hope for many to be the best they can be, even more so with her compelling memoir, "Becoming".  

In fact, that was the catalyst behind the Netflix documentary of the same title. 

Filmmaker and cinematographer, Nadia Hallgren, explains how it all came together, which started with a phone call from Priya Swaminathan from Higher Ground Productions, who informed her that Mrs Obama was getting ready to go on a book tour and that they were thinking about documenting it. 

Hallgren added: “She said, ‘We don’t know yet what it will be. It could end up being a film or it could end up being footage for Mrs Obama’s archive’.”

When Hallgren was asked if it would be something she would be interested in doing, she was keen. 

Several calls later, she received an email confirming an appointment at the Obama offices in Washington, D.C. 

She recalled: “And so the first thing I did was prepare. I went on YouTube, looked up every speech I could find and I read every magazine article that she was featured in and I read both of her husband’s books. I really wanted to get into the Obama head space in understanding their lives.”

Then she got to meet the former First Lady, which was to be the deciding factor in whether or not she would direct the documentary feature. 

“I walk into the office, she is sitting in the far corner and Mrs Obama stands up. She is very tall and I’m quite short, she sort of towered over me. She knew I was nervous and she gave me this big hug and completely tried to relax me and made me feel comfortable in meeting her. 

"We talked about our neighbourhoods where we grew up, how our communities shaped us and we talked about our moms. We had a really friendly conversation. By the end of the 30 minutes we had, she was like, ‘We should do this’. I was like, ‘Okay’. That was it. And that is how I started as a director of this film.”

Michelle Obama autographing her memoir, "Becoming", for fans. Picture: Netflix

On how she approached the feature, she shared: “The idea for me in making this film, was to tell the story of Mrs Obama, her past, how she became who she is, who she is in this present moment and what experiences she is having. 

“The other idea was to tell a story about storytelling, looking at the art of the storytelling, essentially, and how does it transform people. Her going on a book tour of this scale was unprecedented. She travelled all over the world. Hundreds of thousands of people coming to listen to Mrs Obama’s story and I thought that was so powerful. 

“Along the way, she was also meeting with people and hearing their stories. It was amazing to see this happen. I really wanted to capture that, to drive the fact that storytelling is a transformative experience that has a tremendous amount of power.”

In observing the First Lady’s interacting with people on the book tour, there were moments that warmed the heart. 

Hallgren shared: “Some of the standout moments were when she met with groups of young women. We had this young woman, Shayla, from Philadelphia. We visited Shayla at home to get to know her better and, in doing so, Shayla’s life mirrored hers in many ways. Even the home she lived in and her relationship with her mother and brother; how her mother worked so hard to ensure she gets an education and a good life.”

Michelle Obama was quite moved by Shayla's story while on her "Becoming" book tour. Picture: Netflix

She added: “I think one thing that was especially important for me about Mrs Obama, the way she focuses on people when she encounters them; when they tell their stories. It is such a special quality. Her responses are incredibly thoughtful, her body language is so warm and she has this incredible ability to make people feel good. It’s almost magical. 

"When people walk away, they don’t know what do do. I really wanted to highlight in the film. Another quality that she has is her sense of humour. She is really extraordinary and funny. I was really surprised by how funny she is.”

On why audiences should watch "Becoming", the director offered: “I hope some of the takeaways for audiences is, of course, to understand who Mrs Obama is as a historical figure and as someone many people have admired from afar for a very long time; but also understanding how she became who she is and all the complexities in her life that led her to this moment. 

"In addition to that, I hope audiences really embrace the idea of storytelling and that transformative experience.”

Aside from an intimate introduction to Mrs Obama, the sense of community and the power it wields as well as the importance of being an individual and empowering oneself comes through strongly.

"Becoming" is on Netflix

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