Ripley native trades law career for film school

Photographs courtesy of Endo What? Facebook page.

Ellen Simmons
Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

Being a part of the team that prosecuted Enron, working with refugees in Liberia, and interning with Conan O’Brien are just a few of the experiences that have led Shannon Cohn to become a director and producer.

Cohn, who hails from Ripley, lived all over the world before settling in Oxford. She never intended to be a director. Instead, she attended Mississippi State University and majored in international business and foreign language. This led to an internship in Brussels. She later earned a law degree from Vanderbilt and practiced international law in Atlanta. 

“I would see partners in the law firm that would be like me in 20 years, and I didn’t want to be them,” Cohn said, when talking about her time spent in Atlanta working in international law.

After Atlanta, Cohn got a job in Africa working at the largest refugee camp in West Africa with refugees from the war in Liberia.

Her husband, Patricio, was in finance before he decided he didn’t like it. He moved to Cape Town and gave safari tours. He and Shannon Cohn met by chance. They got married a year before she started film school at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

“I applied to film school at NYU,” Shannon Cohn said. “[I] applied to the foreign service program at Georgetown, and I applied to the Southern studies program at Ole Miss, and I basically threw it up to fate and the universe to see where I would go.”

When she was accepted to NYU, Cohn said she was “shocked because I had no film background.” To apply to NYU’s film school, you have to have completed a film or a series of photographs, she said. She borrowed her uncle’s camera, and spent three days traveling around Mississippi taking photos of random people, and listening to their stories.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever just, like, concentrated on talking to people,” Cohn said when describing her photography project for the NYU application.

After finishing film school, Cohn worked with a production company in New York for 10 years. She produced a documentary called Sea Nation. She and her husband sold everything they owned, packed up their, then, 2-year-old daughter, and set out with another family to hitchhike across the world on boats. Sea Nation aired on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic in over 60 countries.

Cohn was both a producer and director of the film. A producer puts all the pieces together technically. They find all of the other crew positions, make financial decisions etc. The director is the creative role, so they put together the message, and the film in a creative way.

Cohn said she is both a producer and director because she likes to have a say in everything that happens on set. She said the hardest part about her job is separating the job from other parts of life. “It doesn’t feel like work to me because it’s something I really like,” she said.

The biggest lesson Cohn has learned from her job is knowing when to trust herself and her own judgment. She has also learned to know when to be open to others’ input. Knowing when to collaborate is very important.

Cohn said the biggest change that has happened in her job since it began is the digital era. When she began filmmaking, there was a specific way that the entire filmmaking process had to be done, and the process “wasn’t very democratic.”

Now, people can distribute films themselves. She used this technique with her film Endo What?, a documentary about the medical condition endometriosis. The film is found exclusively on her website. Cohn said she’ll eventually release it to iTunes and Netflix.

“I learned that just because you start out with one career doesn’t mean you have to stay with that,” she said. 


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