Katja Esson is an Academy Award® nominated filmmaker based in New York City who mixes documentary and narrative genres. Esson began her career in Miami as a production assistant for the notorious rap group 2 Live Crew. Since her days of wrangling booty-shaking babes, Esson has directed a variety of award-winning documentaries and short films. Born and raised in Germany, Esson brings a quirky European sensibility to the distinctively American subjects she chooses.
Her documentary short Ferry Tales, which turns the unlikely setting of the Staten Island Ferry Powder Room into a celebration of sisterhood, received an Academy Award-nomination in 2004 for Best Documentary Short and premiered on HBO. Ferry Tales exposes a secret world that exists in the powder room of the Staten Island Ferry—a place that brings together suburban moms and urban dwellers, white-collar and blue-collar, sisters and socialites. For 30 minutes every day, they gather around mirrors to put on their makeup, talking not as wives, mothers, or professionals, but just as themselves. Sassy and honest, they dish on everything from sex scandals to stilettos, family problems to September 11, leaving stereotypes at the door and surprising viewers with their straight-shooting wisdom. In an interview with the International Documentary Association, Esson explained: “Having maintained the eye of an outsider, I have a different perspective on many things. When Ferry Tales was all over the media, some reporters asked, ‘Why did it take a German director to discover something that was under our noses?’ The answer is that distance and strangeness bring their own kind of focus.”
Esson is currently in production with Cantineros De Cuba, a film that reflects on the story of Cuba, a country undergoing its greatest transformation since 1959.
She also has created, written and directed two 5-part series for ARTE: Backroads USA (2013) and American Rivers (2016)
In 2011, Esson released Poetry of Resilience, which had its world premiere at the Oscar-qualifying festival DocuWeeks in LA. Poetry of Resilience is a documentary about six international poets who individually survived Hiroshima, the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution, the Kurdish Genocide in Iraq, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Iranian Revolution. These six artists present us with a close-up perspective of the “wide shot” of political violence. Each story is powerful, though the film’s strength comes from its collective voice: different political conflicts, cultures, genders, ages, races—one shared human narrative. For Poetry of Resilience, Esson received a NEA and NYSCA grant as well the Simons Fellowship for the Humanities at Kansas University in 2007. The film was also nominated for the Cinema for Peace Award during the Berlin Film Festival in 2012.
Also released in 2011 was Skydancer, a film about the Mohawk tradition of ironworking, for which Esson received a 2008 Jerome Foundation Grant. From the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge to the World Trade Center, six generations of Mohawk ironworkers have raised New York City’s skyline, built the highways over the boroughs, and crossed the rivers by weaving carpets of steel. They are called “sky walkers” because they walk fearlessly atop steel beams just a foot wide, high above the city streets. The film premiered at the Margaret Mead Film Festival, screened at the Smithsonian, has garnered many international awards and aired on PBS and Arte among other broadcasters.
Hole in the Sky: The Scars of 9/11 premiered at Sunny Side of the Doc and received the 2006 Gold Award at the World Media Festival. In 2009, Esson directed an episode for the Emmy-award winning mini-series We Are New York.
A Season of Madness (2006) is a narrative short film based on the essay of best-selling author Hanan al-Shaykh.
In 2004 Esson founded her own production company, Penelope Pictures.