Humans of RMU: The filmmaker


Maura Linehan

While Oscar Wilde once said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life,” RMU Visiting Documentary Filmmaker Nadine Patterson makes it clear that life and art are truly part of each other. For Patterson, in residence for the fall semester of 2016, there is no imitation; instead, art and life are one in the same—one cannot exist without the other.

When not fulfilling her visiting role at the University, Patterson is first and foremost an independent filmmaker, based in Philadelphia, who has been making films for over 30 years. It isn’t by chance that she is serving in a visiting role here this semester because it was suggested by her Pittsburgh-based friend and filmmaker Martha Conley.

Patterson at RMU
Visiting Documentary Filmmaker Nadine Patterson pushes the boundaries of what's possible at RMU. Photo credit: Maura Linehan

She is also now connected to Robert Morris through her film work. One of her latest projects includes the head of the University’s Communication Department, Heather Pinson, Ph.D. This new short film has become one of Patterson’s favorites.

“The current one I just finished with Dr. Heather Pinson [is] called ‘Items Designed By and For My Enslaved Ancestors.’ I enjoy that piece because it’s short, and I only use seven images, and I use a few cards of text. Dr. Pinson plays this beautiful, melancholy and tense violin music to go along with the images, and it’s the perfect marriage of soundtrack and film together.”

Patterson and Pinson
Visiting Documentary Filmmaker Nadine Patterson and Head of the Communications Department Heather Pinson, Ph.D. at Robert Morris University. Photo credit: Patty Then

Like so many other college students, Patterson struggled with the career path she wanted to follow as a student at Franklin and Marshall College. It wasn’t until her senior year there and suffering from a lack of mentorship that she decided to focus on educational media and documentary film making. The beginning of those interests can be traced back to her childhood.

“I’ve always been a storyteller,” Patterson said. “I was always taking pictures. When I was 14, my mother put down half the money, and I think I had to save the other half, on a Pentax K1000 35 millimeter still camera. I took a course at the Franklin Institute in black and white photography, and I was hooked. I’ve always been taking pictures, so my interest in storytelling, character, drama, and creating images didn’t really come together until my second semester senior year in college.”

Her latest feature-length film, “TANGO MACBETH,” debuted in 2012 and was screened on campus this past October. It tells the story of how artistic creation happens through the eyes of the cast, the crew and the documentary team capturing the process. Patterson, who appears on camera as the documentary’s director—while also functioning as the actual director—had to overcome difficult conditions to bring her vision to reality.

“We shot [the film] in the heat of summer in an old, old theater in Philadelphia called Plays and Players,” Patterson said. “Over the course of 11 days, it was so hot that parts of my camera weren’t working. The action unfolds as it would on a reality TV show where you do have a birds-eye view of what happens behind the scenes.”

One of the people that she met early in her career was civil rights icon Rosa Parks. It was an opportunity that left an important impression on her as she shadowed Parks for two days during a visit to West Chester University in the 1980s. She came away with rich memories.

“I think at the time she was about 80,” Patterson said. “She’s a tiny person, but her voice is mellifluous and very rich, and it just resonates in a room—it’s quite commanding when you hear her speak in person. She’s a beautiful person.”

Meeting Parks had an impact on Patterson as did the actions of the entire civil rights movement. The fact that love could help power such an important movement has left an impression on her because it helped her understand the power that emotion brings to whatever you do in life.

“The reason why the civil rights movement in the US—spearheaded by African Americans—was so powerful was because it was fueled by love,” Patterson said. “That inspired people around the globe. Dr. Martin Luther King had that love inside of him and Rosa Parks did, too. That’s what you feel when you are in her presence.”

The love that infused the work of King and Parks needs to infuse any work in order for it to stand on its own. Whether it is an activist trying to change the world’s views or an artist trying to communicate about life, that love—combined with commitment and passion—provides the foundation that will allow them to achieve their goals.

“I realize that in order for any movement to be effective, in order for an artist to create any work of art, there has to be a lot of commitment, and there has to be a lot of discipline, and you have to have a lot of love for what you do because without love nothing happens,” Patterson said. “If there’s no love in a project, all the victories are very hollow and they don’t last, but if there’s love in a film, in a poem and in a dance, it will withstand the test of time. That’s what people respond to over time is the love and passion that’s within the work of art, and the same is true of a political movement.”



Because she has been making films since college, her early work generally isn’t available online. Films made since 2001 are available: