An interview series by Filipa Dias, intern at Fulbright (2024)
I have always been interested in culture and from my point of view, it is something crucial to our society because it can increase our empathy for the world around us and it can also teach us things, whether it is through media like literature, cinema, or television. To better understand how different people became interested in different fields of culture, how it affected their lives and – most importantly – how the Fulbright Scholarships enabled them to pursue and explore these areas, I decided to interview Portuguese and American Fulbrighters who had studied or are currently working in these fields.
I had the pleasure to interview Inês Pedrosa e Melo, who is a nonfiction filmmaker, editor, researcher-educator, and Ph. D. student in Film and Digital Media at University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2016, she received a Fulbright scholarship to pursue graduate studies in the U.S.


Here’s the full interview:

  1. What motivated you to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue your MFA in Documentary Film and Video Production in California?

I applied for the Fulbright scholarship in 2016. I was only 22 years-old! And at the time, I was really fascinated by the possibility of studying cinema in a different country; I was really craving getting a fresh perspective on filmmaking, learning from people with different experiences than mine, engaging with different ways of thinking about and making documentary cinema. I wanted to work both as a director and as an editor, and I think I saw America as a beacon of possibility (the American dream!) I also knew that for me it only made sense to go to a coastal state like California, that was closer not only to the film industry but also closer to my own political ideals. I had been dreaming of California for a long time!

Back then, the way the application process worked was that we would apply for the Fulbright scholarship before we had already secured admission to an American university, and receiving the scholarship was then conditional on us receiving an acceptance. I had no guarantee that I would be able to get into a good MFA program at all when I first received the Scholarship that Summer of 2016, but I knew that Stanford’s Documentary Film MFA was my first choice: it was a small program, in a prestigious university, that really focused on helping us develop an authorial perspective and documentary language for our own films. I never thought I would be able to get in, and yet I still tried — I applied to a few programs — and I was accepted! It was a significant turning point in my life, though I was not aware of that at the time. I graduated from my MFA in 2019 (5 years ago!) and have never looked back.

  1. Have you encountered any challenges in adjusting to life and study in California? How did you manage them?

It was certainly challenging to adjust to life in the United States. The early months of my stay here were quite difficult. There was a lot of impostor syndrome, feeling like I didn’t deserve to be in my MFA, feeling like my work was less than that of other people. I was also very young – I was 23 at that time —, and I had never lived so far away from home and on my own, and that added an extra layer of anxiety. The MFA academic schedule was very intense, I always had a lot of work to do, and I had to manage doing all of this work while adapting to a new country, and still learning about it and getting used to a different rhythm of life. It was a lot to manage!

I think two things that helped were time and community. Starting with the latter, it’s all about making sure that you continue to stay in touch with people back home while also finding ways to build networks of friends, acquaintances, colleagues in the United States. And I’m not talking about “networking”, the way people feel the pressure to network for work or academic purposes, but rather building meaningful relationships that you feel you can invest in and return to as time goes by. It’s also important to find ways to connect with people outside of your academic work, building communities around hobbies and passions, finding a way to enjoy nature and culture — there’s so much of both in California! Essentially, it’s important to get out of your own head, make plans with people, continue investing in the little things that make your life more manageable (whether it’s exercise or traveling or pursuing specific hobbies); put work aside for a moment and just allow yourself to engage in these things.

As for time, I think it’s important to just give yourself the time to adjust. Don’t try to rush through the process, accept that it’s okay to feel out of place, and you can talk about it with people back home and with your friends on campus as well. International student communities are also very helpful for this purpose. This also takes a lot of pressure off of this idea that we need to immediately adjust; you don’t have to. It’s okay to go through a difficult period of adjustment, everyone experiences it, and things will start falling into place sooner rather than later.

  1. How do you think your Fulbright experience influenced your work after completing your MFA?

As I had already mentioned earlier, receiving the Fulbright scholarship was a turning point in my life; I would not have been able to come to the United States and to pursue an MFA without it, and being able to do it really shaped my current career (and will likely continue to shape it). I think engaging in the Fulbright experience not only opened doors for me in a new country, but also opened my mind to new possibilities and perspectives for documentary cinema, new ways of working cross-culturally, new forms of existing and persisting as a documentary filmmaker. I learned a lot from other artists, people with very different ways of working, and I think my artistic work has really benefited from this: I have grown a lot artistically as a filmmaker, I feel more confident of my work and of my voice. It has also made me more independent, more resilient against adversity and rejection, more able to work with people who have life experiences very separate from my own, and more creative when it comes to problem-solving.

  1. Could you tell us any research projects and achievements that you have been involved in since completing your MFA program?

Oh, so much has happened since then! After I graduated from my MFA in 2019, I was able to work professionally as a director, producer, editor and archival researcher both in Portugal and in the United States. I worked on video projects for tech companies and non-profits, but also on independent documentary projects. For two years (2022 and 2023) I was also a filmmaker-in-residence at SFFILM, which is an amazing San Francisco Bay Area organization that supports local filmmakers. It was during this time that I really started feeling like I was part of this larger electric artistic community of the Bay Area, which is so special in so many ways, and where so many people from all over the United States and the world converge.

Eventually I decided that I wanted to focus on my own research and artistic practice more, and work towards my goal of being a professor at a University, so  I started my doctorate in Film and Digital Media at University of California, Santa Cruz in September 2023, with the support of a “la Caixa” fellowship. It has been a really wonderful time, I have been able to really focus on my craft, on my documentaries and other projects, and I feel very supported and empowered in this process. I am working on a documentaries at the moment; one of them is a short film about histories of abortion travel in the United States, which I hope will be released sometime in early 2025; and I am also working on my first documentary feature, which is still in very early stages of research and development, but that centers on Portuguese archives and histories of gender. And I have a few other projects that I am trying to work on (but I’ll keep them a secret for now!)

  1. How did you consolidated the knowledge and experience that you gained from your Fulbright journey into the Portuguese performance community upon your return?

As a form of commitment to my Fulbright experience and to the spirit of returning to my country what I have gained in the US, I have tried to engage in research and artistic production work that is significant to Portugal and the Portuguese artistic community. A lot of my current research and creation work centers around Portuguese historical inheritances and memory; in fact, the feature documentary that I am now starting to develop is centered exactly on this idea, especially around issues of memory, historical inheritances, visual culture, gender and women’s experiences in Portugal through history and into contemporary times. I am really interested in exploring Portuguese archives — especially hidden archives, that maybe don’t receive much attention — and finding ways to bring them to light, to produce work that engages with our History and that deconstructs and speculates around it, and to give this work back to the community as well.

  1. Looking back, what advice would you give to other Portuguese students who want to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States?

Most importantly, and this might be a little bit cliché, I would say that you miss all the shots you don’t take. I remember thinking, as I was going through the Fulbright application process, that there was no chance I would ever get the scholarship. I kept justifying it to myself, thinking “I’m so young, there are so many other applications, I have such limited experience, there is no way I will ever get this”. But I still went after it, and was able to get it, and the same could happen for you! So don’t be overwhelmed by how complex an application seems, or how involved it is, or how many elements it has. Regardless of what the outcome of it is, it’s always worth it to go for it — especially if it’s for something that you are really passionate about and would help you achieve your goals.

My other piece of advice is to not feel ashamed about asking for help when you need it. Asking for letters of recommendation, or for people to give you advice on their application, are really normal things and you shouldn’t feel ashamed of asking. I think this is also something that I learned while being in the US: it’s okay to ask for what you need, and there’s always a chance you will be rejected in the process, but more often than not the people around you — your professors, your bosses, your colleagues, your peers — and more than available to help you and want to see you succeed.

Thank you for participating in this series, Inês! We wish you all the best!