To be the focus of attention in officiating is often seen as a curse, but a new documentary short spotlights three women who have worked to not only succeed, but also thrive, while wearing the stripes.
Director Shantel Hansen spoke to Football Zebras about her first film, Her Turf, which premieres at the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival in Santa Monica, Calif., on April 27. She was given extraordinary access onto the field and into the lives of three dynamic officials: Annice Canady, the first woman to officiate in an NCAA game in 2000 and an NFL officiating scout; Mary Podesta, a 15-year NCAA line judge; and Tangela Mitchell, a head line judge trying to earn her way to the power conferences in college.
The initial concept of the documentary was “how does somebody become an official, what the process is like, and filming this with a behind-the-scenes, fly-on-the-wall approach,” Hansen says. “I had opportunities to be with all three extraordinary women … on the field, off the field, and understanding this process of how someone becomes an official.”
During the filming, Hansen found that three storylines were evolving before her. “As a documentary filmmaker, you have to have the opportunity and the patience to really let go, and let the story unfold in front of you.” Hansen’s Nebraska roots had her interested in football from an early age, which also helped tell the story. “It was just a comfortable place for me to be start in terms of filming as a first time director-producer.”
Throughout the film, Hansen shows the work that officials must go through to succeed, generally, as well as the additional challenges women officials have of asserting authority in an evolving, but still-resistant, male-dominated industry.
Canady was a bit reluctant when she attended her first officiating meeting, and sat in the back of the room. But it was when her name was called when she realized she was exactly where she needed to be. “When they turned around, they looked at me,” Canady said in the film. “And a couple of the guys said, ‘We’re not going to officiate with a woman.’ And that’s when I made my mind up. I said, ‘Well, you must be leaving, because I’m here to stay. I’m not going anywhere.'”
Mitchell, at one point during the film, was confronted by a college coach who condescendingly instructed her to “ask the white hat, don’t call that.” On the next snap, Mitchell threw the flag.
To get that perspective, Hansen found there were some challenges. “Because officiating is so male dominated, it is very intimidating for a filmmaker to come up saying ‘Hey, I want to film you’. And the three of them were so open to the opportunity. I was very conscious of when I filmed them, where I filmed them, and there were a lot of preproduction conversations. … I was upfront with them to make sure they were comfortable at all times. And because it was just me and the camera, we really got comfortable with each other.”
Hansen adds, “Because they are already [in a position] where every snap is an audition, and having someone else filming and documenting that, it is just another added pressure for them.”
During the filming, Hansen was introduced to former NFL senior vice president of officiating and current Fox Sports rules analyst Dean Blandino, who became the film’s senior executive producer. Blandino hired Sarah Thomas, the NFL’s first permanent woman official, in 2015. Blandino said as soon as he saw the raw footage that Hansen shot, he was intrigued. “From that moment on, I was really hooked. I just wanted to be a part of the project,” he said. “I just thought that this was something important and where we could really highlight not just what female officials go through, but what officials go through.”
Blandino was able to assist the production with officiating storylines. “My role was just being an adviser and helping her as she was in the editing process. She had so many hours of footage, and for me, it was just being there to help Shantel through that process.” Throughout they discussed the on-the-field and behind-the-scenes aspects for the documentary.
From their first meeting, Blandino was sold on the work that Hansen was doing. “This was more than just a cool little project. This was Shantel’s passion project.”
The film provides a truly unique look from field level of the challenges officials face every time they put on the stripes. When there are the good stories of how Thomas advances in the NFL that are widely shared, reality jolts you back that there are still barriers to overcome at all levels. More important than the first woman pro official is the second.
Hansen told me her goal was to have the audience put themselves in the shoes of someone else. Through excellent storytelling of compelling women who prove why they are where they are, Hansen immerses the viewer in a well-produced experience that puts your shoes right on the line of scrimmage.
Football Zebras screened the film for this report.
Her Turf premiere
Artemis Women in Action Film Festival
April 27, 2019
Santa Monica, Calif.
More information: www.artemisfilmfestival.com