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“Production Was a Kind of Durational Epic”: Nesa Azimi Reflects on ‘Driver’

By Lauren Wissot

A group of middle-aged women dance in a dimly-lit bar.

Desiree Wood and other trucker friends in Driver. Courtesy of Susan Norget Film Promotion.

“No one enters trucking from charm school,” notes Desiree Wood, star of Nesa Azimi’s long-haul road trip film Driver, which follows the founder of  REAL Women in Trucking as she works her minimum wage on (18) wheels job from coast to coast. Indeed, Wood, a forty-something who retired from stripping and now finds herself in a financially precarious gig (that puts her at far greater risk of sexual assault to boot), serves as our no-nonsense guide to a sightseeing-cinematic world hidden in plain sight. As another seasoned trucker attests, it’s a beautiful country and she gets paid to see it—though another veteran later caveats, “Seeing the United States is awesome—but it’s not a vacation.” Which makes sense if, like Desiree, you can’t afford to ever leave your home on the road.

The day before the Tribeca premiere of DriverDocumentary caught up with Azimi, a TV producer who abandoned her own secure job to pursue her first independent feature from the cab of a truck. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: I read in the press notes that after meeting Desiree five years ago you left your job in television to make a film about her. But how exactly did you two first meet? And was Desiree immediately onboard with participating?

NESA AZIMI: I was working in broadcast current affairs and heard a story on the radio about a class-action lawsuit in which hundreds of women truck drivers were going up against a major trucking company, claiming that they had been sexually assaulted during the course of their training. I started looking into communities for women drivers online and I came across groups for trans, Black, Uzbek, queer drivers and more—subcultures within the sprawling world of trucking.

Through my research, I quickly found Desiree, a long-haul truck driver and labor organizer, who had posted her phone number online as a resource for other women drivers. I left a voicemail and she called me back within minutes; she was immediately game. We talked on the phone for over five hours. I kept her company during what drivers call their “windshield time.” Trucking is an isolated way of life, and the phone call felt almost cathartic. She opened up about the many lives that she had led that brought her to this work, and with typical generosity and exuberance, was exhaustive in her analysis of the structural issues that plague the trucking industry. 

Before we even got off that first call, she’d invited me on a cruise ship vacation with a group of women drivers. It was on that first trip that we met some of the most charismatic and one-of-a-kind women in her circle, many of whom are in the film. Just a few weeks later we were riding with her on the truck. getting a load of black beans from Florida up to North Dakota. I quit my job in TV and dedicated the next years of my life to making this film with Desiree and her friends.

D: Why did you choose to also film the other women as well, notably Michelle—and how did you gain the entire group’s trust? Were there other characters you followed that didn’t make the final cut?

NA: Desiree was my entry point into this story, and yet the particularities of her experience were by no means the film’s final destination. In some ways, Driver is undoubtedly character-driven, and Desiree’s story is its heart; but the ambition for the film—like Desiree’s work—is far more universal. 

It was through Desiree that I initially gained the trust of Michelle and other drivers. While solitary and skeptical of outsiders, they welcomed me into their world with a warmth and openness that took me off guard. The deeper emotional connections that I formed with Michelle and others developed over the years. Speaking on the phone for hours on end, which is how most drivers maintain friendships, was central. Michelle and I talked on the phone every other week for almost three years before I even got on her truck. We’d have long and winding conversations touching upon anything and everything—from the guy who had cut her off at the truckstop that morning, to childhood stories about her grandmother, to the latest episodes she’d watched of Bonanza and Gunsmoke. More than anything, Michelle gave me intimate insight into what it means to be a driver.

In life, as in the film, Michelle is a counterpart to Desiree. She plays the role of narrator to Desiree’s experience and that of many other drivers. The relationship between Michelle and Desiree and all of the other women is the emotional center of the film. The bonds they have formed—based on mutual recognition and solidarity—are what give their lives so much meaning and clarity. If Driver is to find resonance out in the world, it is on the strength of the friendships that have made this sisterhood of drivers so special.

D: I’m likewise curious to hear about the shoot itself, especially since you collaborated with two cinematographers, one female and one male (Carissa Henderson and Victor Tadashi Suárez). How did you actually go about filming? And how many hours of footage did you end up working with?

NA: We filmed consistently over the course of three and a half years, looking for drama and poetry in the everyday. Sharing close quarters and filming with a group of women who are known for their independence and yearning for solitude was a uniquely challenging and privileged position to be in. Being in such intimate proximity with our protagonists was a process of constant reflection and negotiation, both internally with the team and with the drivers who allowed us into their lives. The breadth of material that we collected was a product of their unlikely generosity and grace. 

I started filming with my old friend and colleague Victor, and we were a small team. Desiree and other drivers grew comfortable with his presence. He ended up taking a full-time job that took him away from the film. It took years to find the right person who could hole up with us in the cab of a truck for hours and days on end without disturbing the intimacy that had grown between us over the years. I was fortunate to find Carissa, and she was instantly incorporated into our bubble through her sensitivity, curiosity, and good-natured ease that is so rare. We became dear friends and I couldn’t have imagined it any other way.

Production was a kind of durational epic, amassing over 700 hours of footage, and just as many, if not more, hours of conversation and preparation with Desiree and her group. I didn’t know what story would emerge going into this, but only that it was important for us to capture as much as possible, to be present, and to make no assumptions. This approach to production proved fruitful. It allowed us into the quiet and the mundane of a driver’s experience, while also allowing the film to bear witness to the loss that is at the heart of Desiree’s and so many other drivers’ stories. The central drama of the film was totally unexpected, but all too common.

D: I also wondered how you navigated the power imbalance between yourself and Desiree and all these truckers. The class difference between a director who can afford to quit her job to pursue her first feature, and a main character who lives in her truck out of economic necessity, is quite stark. So did this aspect come up, either implicitly or explicitly, in your interactions with your characters?

NA: The question of power is central to Driver. As filmmakers, we have access to a certain amount of it by controlling the means of representation—but how that power can be leveraged in the service of telling a story is what makes or breaks a film. What we do with a film is always a question of who gets to speak, and how then those voices get translated and heard. How could this film translate the lived experiences of a group of workers to then put forward a different set of values? 

This question cuts through to the bone when thinking about the nature of how documentary films are all too often conceived of, trading primarily in information as their currency. Complicating this intention to do something different with the film—something non-“issue-based,” with such clear and egregious issues at stake—was the question of how Driver could then be used as a tool by Desiree and others in her circle to better advocate for themselves on their own behalf.

There are parallels to be drawn between how Driver was made and the work that is collectively undertaken by the women at the center of the film—even if the participant and filmmaker are positioned somewhat differently. Labor is the unifying force, and this idea is central to the work that Desiree, and her group REAL Women in Trucking, undertake. Our shared identity as workers cuts across so many categories and hierarchies—class, race, gender, geography, and more. Working on Driver has sensitized me to this fact. I have been so fortunate to have learned and grown alongside Desiree and her group—to both understand and reflect upon our differences, but more importantly, to find commonality and shared purpose in how we carry out the different types of work that we all do.

D: So what are your and Desiree’s hopes and plans for the film? Is the doc’s impact campaign in coordination with REAL Women in Trucking?

NA: The question of what impact a film like Driver can have in the world has been an ongoing conversation. From the very first phone call I had with Desiree, the mission was clear. However, in order to make Driver a true collaboration, it meant that the film had to be clear in defining its own terms, to find a language that could go beyond mere representation. The film needed to be additive, in the way that only film can create a whole new context and frame of reference for people to understand the issues that were at stake for everybody involved—as both filmmakers and subjects. 

The plan for impact, essentially a synthesis of Desiree’s already encyclopedic decade-plus of advocacy work, is being led by my old friend, collaborator, and mentor—the all-around brilliant and incisive Jessica Green. Its goals are twofold: first, a film tour on wheels that connects Desiree, her group of friends and co-conspirators, and the work that they do through RWIT, to different groups of drivers across the country; and second, to leverage these conversations and contacts to make real headway on legislation that materially affects drivers of all stripes. The National Women’s Law Center and Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund have emerged as key organizational partners. They are thrilled to help amplify the work that Desiree has been doing all along, before Driver became a reality. 

As a tool, Driver can be used as a means to mobilize audiences, open their hearts and minds, while at the same time opening up doors to further institutional support. The goal is to create a movement of drivers that can make real gains on their own terms, which can then counteract the monopoly on representation that these trucking megacarriers have in DC, that do everything they can to exclude working drivers from the conversation in the highest levels of office—in those spaces that then dictate the conditions by which working drivers must then live by.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She also writes regularly for Modern Times Review (The European Documentary Magazine), and has served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.