Spotlight on Local Filmmakers: Satya Sullivan

By Andrea E. McHugh

The budding filmmaker has studied at URI and as a newportFILM fellow

JULIET “SATYA” SULLIVAN GREW UP in the Philippines mesmerized by National Geographic documentaries, and she never missed an opportunity to peer inquisitively into her mother’s National Geographic magazines. She had an intrinsic fascination with the art of capturing the natural world for as long as she remembers.

“I just didn’t know at the time that that was a career,” says Sullivan. She headed to the U.S. to pursue her undergraduate degree in fashion marketing at Savannah College of Art and Design, but it didn’t take long for her to rethink her major. “I met my bestfriend there, who was in the film department, and he told me that there was a class called environmental filmmaking,” she says.

Sullivan never looked back.

Today, Sullivan is a cinematographer in her second year of graduate school at the University of Rhode Island, studying marine affairs and science communication.

Growing up in an island country and now, settled into the Ocean State, a love of the sea and surfing are passions of Sullivan’s. Yet, she couldn’t help but notice there were not a lot of people who looked like her in the lineup at local surf breaks. Both she and a classmate who she surfs with had experiences where they didn’t feel welcome— or were on the receiving end of comments that they didn’t belong.

“Because of that, we were like, ‘You know what? Maybe we should create an Instagram account and we can show women of color surfers, because there are a couple of photographers here, folks who specialize in surf photography, and they’re not really featuring women who look like us,’” explains Sullivan. Using her film background, she wanted to show videos and photos of her and her friends, “so people can see that we exist here, and it’s not just like, white women or white men who are surfers here.”

Along with friend Lauren Zane, Sullivan founded “Colorful Lineup,” an organization bringing together women of color surfers. The organization hosts get-togethers, free surfing clinics, and has collected and distributed surf gear to give more women of color the opportunity to surf. Sullivan is working on a short film about the organization and these women with the aim of giving a voice to a marginalized group that, in their experience, has been othered at times.

In 2023, Sullivan was selected by newportFILM as one of six fellows to attend its annual Cinematography Lab, which provides creative support and mentorship to emerging documentary cinematographers positioned to have lasting impact within the industry. During a retreat hosted at the Norman Bird Sanctuary, workshops and discussions are facilitated by critically acclaimed filmmakers from across the country, serving as mentors and advisors.

“When I opened my email and learned I got accepted, I was just elated,” says Sullivan. In a full-circle moment, one of her mentors there was Alex Pritz, an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker. Pritz directed the 2022 National Geographic film The Territory about the fight of the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people against the encroaching deforestation brought by farmers and illegal settlers in the Brazilian Amazon.

Having Pritz, a National Geographic Explorer (a community whose ranks have also included Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau) as a mentor was especially meaningful for Sullivan. “I was so excited that I was going to have this time and his mentorship,” she says.

The bond she has forged with her fellow emerging cinematographers and their mentors has been life changing, especially as Sullivan’s career takes shape. “This lab has really become a vehicle for success in a way because now I’m well connected with other people in the industry, I’ve met new people who I stay in touch with, and we get to share our work with each other — and we’re all cinematographers from different backgrounds.”

Sullivan is currently working on a film about Rhode Island’s seafood community, not only talking to leaders in the industry and the people of color within the seafood space. “I’m working with Narragansett tribal members, Filipino fishermen, and the Laotian community,” she says.

The University of Rhode Island has helped Sullivan pursue films that focus on marginalized perspectives.

She’s working to release the film, which she describes as “an ode to Rhode Island,” this summer. “It’s going to be the longest short film I’ve created,” she said. “It’s all about Rhode Island, about the food of Rhode Island and how we take care of the ocean.”