Sharon Liese: Community stories

Parade scene from “The Flagmakers,” Liese’s Emmy Award-winning 2022 film about Milwaukee immigrant factory workers (from the artist)

The Kansas City filmmaker is racking up the recognition for her her soul-baring documentaries, including her first Emmy

For a hot minute there, at the tail end of 2016, a certain thread of chest-beating discourse ran through the tortured essays and op-eds struggling to make sense of Donald J. Trump’s victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It went like this: We Coastal Media Elites need to pay more attention to what’s happening to “real people”… “out there”… in “Flyover Country.”

In other words, to people like us, in places like Kansas City.

Then, as usual, the news rolled on.

But filmmaker Sharon Liese was already here. She was already hearing and attending and telling the stories of “real people,” in TV series and video shorts like “High School Confidential,” “The Gnomist” and “Selfie.”

And Liese has stayed. In fact, you could say she has dug in, producing one story after another from the Heartland.

These stories are local, but they are not small. Liese shines a light on the experiences of Kansas City transgender youth in “Transhood” (2020), Milwaukee immigrant factory workers in “The Flagmakers” (2022), a Kansas City family confronting the generational legacy of slavery in “Parker” (2023) and survivors of institutional sexual abuse at the Missouri Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in “Let Us Prey” (2024).

Liese’s genius for story and subtle treatment of tough themes has garnered her work well-deserved recognition, with last year her biggest yet. 2023 kicked off with the world premiere of “Parker” at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It closed even bigger with Liese’s first Emmy Award, for “The Flagmakers,” which was also short-listed for the Academy Award.

Sharon Liese with members of the Parker family and the crew of “Parker” at its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival (Sundance)

That’s as stellar as it gets, by any standard.

And all the more impressive that such a career began not in film school, but in the suburbs of Kansas City.

Liese was a single mother of a daughter about to enter high school. The two looked for something to watch together to help inform the challenges ahead. When they could find nothing, Liese decided to do something about it herself.

Drawing upon the communication skills honed in her career as a corporate marketer, and the trust won with the school district over years as a devoted parent volunteer, Liese obtained permission to film a cohort of her daughter’s Blue Valley Northwest peers — 12 girls —following them from ninth grade through graduation.

This type of longitudinal documentary is simple enough in concept. But its execution, as the name implies, requires vast reserves of time, commitment and patience — all for a story whose outcome is unknown and uncontrollable. Little surprise few such documentaries are made.

But Liese was not only embedded in her subject, already chaperoning field trips and dropping off at school dances, she was also soon fired with a sense of vocation: “I was just so enthralled with exploring the evolution of these young women. I realized this is all I want to do: I want to tell stories.”

Readers familiar with Michael Apted’s “Seven Up” series, the longest running (1964-2019) and best-known of the longitudinal documentary genre, may recall that, of the 14 children revisited every seven years (thus the title), only four are female. Against this background, Liese’s choices are all the more powerful — the documentation of 12 girls in middle-class middle America, in their own voices and from their point of view.

The lives of suburban high schoolers, who look a lot like ones you glimpse at Andy’s or Oak Park Mall, may seem to promise little drama. But the stories they tell are raw with all the complications of contemporary life — depression and anorexia, more than one pregnancy, a brain tumor, the death and divorce of parents, struggles with alcohol and drugs and self-harm, the pressures of college and perfectionism, and frank discussions about mean girls and frenemies, religion, sex, family and boyfriends.

Women sewing in “The Flagmakers,” Liese’s Emmy Award-winning 2022 film about Milwaukee immigrant factory workers (from the artist)

Upon the graduation of her student subjects in 2006, Liese traveled to Los Angeles with boxes of tapes and the notion of trying to find an agent. Success came with surprising speed. She found a supportive executive at New Line Television, Jon Kroll, with whom she works to this day. Five hundred hours of footage were condensed by a dozen editors into an eight-hour miniseries. Upon its premiere on AMC’s WE tv, “High School Confidential” broke multiple ratings records, won multiple awards and landed Liese a commission for a second season, to be filmed at her choice of a Chicago high school, and funded, to her delight, by someone other than herself.

And that’s how Sharon Liese, self-defined “good PTA Mom” from Overland Park, Kansas, launched her second career as an award-winning, much-in-demand filmmaker.

In addition to the Emmy award, her latest accomplishments include two limited series streaming on Max (“Transhood” and “Let Us Prey”), a short on Disney+ (“The Flagmakers”), and a stage musical version of “The Flagmakers” in development (by acclaimed playwright John J. Caswell, Jr. and producer Mark Gordon).

Through all the excitement, Liese has stayed true to her vision, and to Kansas City: “I grew up in upstate New York, but I moved here decades ago. I call KC home. My daughter grew up here. I have a lot of really good friends here. It’s a great place to live. When I meet people in the industry they ask if I live in New York or LA. It surprises them when I say KC. You can do filmmaking from anywhere.

“I use local talent here whenever I can. I’ve had a lot of interns from area schools, UMKC and KU. I love mentoring and my interns have gone on to great jobs in the industry, doing incredible things. Jackson Montemayor, who grew up in St. Joe and went to UMKC, interned for me for almost two years, learning his way around the camera, obsessed with cinematography, soaking up as much as he could. I immediately saw that he had an incredible eye. And now he has a credit as director of photography on ‘Parker’ and an additional cinematography credit on ‘The Flagmakers.’ Not bad!

“And Kansas City itself, it’s a great breeding ground for very fertile, interesting stories. I can find stories here that other people might not be aware of.

“I love learning about people . . . There’s something very powerful about simply raising voices that are not normally heard. Maybe naively, I think that one person can make a difference, so I try to be that one person.”

Grace Suh

Grace Suh's work has received awards from the Edward F. Albee Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts USC Arts Journalism Fellowship, Hedgebrook Writers in Residence Program, Djerassi Resident Artist Program and Charlotte Street Foundation.

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