How do you prepare to meet Michelle Obama? If you are Nadia Hallgren, you prepare like you’ve never prepared before. The Bronx-born filmmaker had been approached by Michelle Obama’s team to possibly come on board and document the first lady’s Becoming book tour. The details were still hazy. At that point, Hallgren was told the footage may well end up being merely part of the Obama archives. Nevertheless, the longtime cinematographer wasn’t about to let go of an opportunity of this magnitude. “Just the idea of filming her and spending time with her was exciting to me,” Hallgren tells Remezcla, which is why she immersed herself in all things Michelle. She listened to podcasts and read interviews; she researched as much as she could to make her thirty minute meeting with Obama count. And while she was nervous as she walked in, she was immediately put at ease when she was greeted with a hug, the kind of gesture we see time and time again in her new Netflix documentary Becoming.
“Of course I want to tell the story of you in this moment,” Hallgren remembers telling Mrs. Obama. “You, two years out of the White House. But also I’m interested in making a film about storytelling. So what is this act of going out and sharing your story with the world, and having people receive stories and that transformative ” Therein lies the guiding principle of Becoming, which is an intimate though never intrusive look at the former first lady as she transitions out of the political spotlight hoping to make a mark on her own, now without the scrutiny that comes from taking residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The documentary accomplishes this by focusing not just on Obama’s many public book tour events, where she was interviewed around the country by special guests like Gayle King, Reese Witherspoon, Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert, but on smaller community events. Indeed, one of the first scenes Hallgren shot was a gathering of students at Obama’s old Whitney Young High School. As we see in the finished film, a student by the name of Elizabeth Cervantes wonders aloud why she was chosen to be a part of the select group who got to spend time with Mrs. Obama. This despite her outlining the way she juggled school, extracurricular activities and a job to help her family. “And she wonders why she’s here,” Obama candidly notes before addressing Elizabeth directly: “That story, with all the highs and lows, and what seems so ordinary and what seems like nothing to you, is your power.”
This is the quintessential moment of Becoming. Not just because it captured the way Obama’s inspiring message is rooted in letting young women see themselves in her own journey, but in the way it models a kind of recognition that runs through the many interactions we see in the film. The power of Obama’s gift for storytelling, both practiced and candid in equal measure, is a way to let young women see that process of becoming within their own stories.
Working on Becoming became also a way for Hallgren to trust her own abilities and her own ambitions. “I could’ve never dreamed big enough to have a dream of making a film about Michelle Obama,” Hallgren recalls, a self-effacing remark that nevertheless gets at the reason, perhaps, why she so connected to a public figure that dares you to imagine a bigger, bolder future for yourself.
Making this documentary, her feature-length debut after working years as a cinematographer and slowly pivoting toward directing, was an incredibly transformative experience. “Everything about myself changed, from head to toe from the time I started making this film, until now. What I think Ms Obama does in an incredible way is to speak to a large swath of people who you have had these experiences that are similar to her. So whether it’s knowing the feeling of being told you’re not good enough or that you can’t do something, the experience of being constantly underestimated for no other reason, except maybe that you’re a woman, or you’re a person of color — those experiences that I connected very deeply with her and in making of the film, those feelings came back.”
“Can I do this?” she wondered. “Am I in over my head?” She only had to pause and listen to her subject to feel comforted. As Obama puts it in another one of her small roundtable conversations, “We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen.” With Becoming, Hallgren manages to make that message feel like both the reason the documentary was made and the message it wants to deliver out into the world.
Becoming is now streaming on Netflix.
Correction, Sept. 11 at 1:105 p.m. ET: Nadia’s last name has been corrected to Hallgren.