Driving force

Driver director Nesa Azimi on following life on road for women truckers, their campaigning and community

by Amber Wilkinson

Desiree Wood in Driver. Nesa Azimi: 'I was inspired by Desiree and all the other women. They're some of the strongest people I know and they're also incredibly fun and hilarious and intelligent'
Desiree Wood in Driver. Nesa Azimi: 'I was inspired by Desiree and all the other women. They're some of the strongest people I know and they're also incredibly fun and hilarious and intelligent'
Nesa Azimi hits the road with women long-haul truckers in Driver. She discovers the everyday challenges that they face along with the strong support network that has been developed by Desiree Wood, who founded REAL Women In Trucking in a bid to improve their conditions. The film joins Desiree and other drivers as they criss-cross the United States delivering their payloads, while also talking about how they came into the industry, the precarity of it and what makes them tick. Azimi quit her own job in TV to join them in their cabs and her observational style allows us to hop in alongside these remarkable women to get a passenger's eye view of what draws them to the job and the obstacles they still have to overcome within the industry. We caught up with Azimi to chat to her about the film shortly after its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival earlier this month.

How did you meet Desiree in the first place, it seems like that might be tricky, especially given that she spends quite a lot of time on the open road?

Nesa Azimi: I found her because I had heard a story on the radio about a class action lawsuit, where about 300 women had alleged that they'd been sexually assaulted during the course of their driver training. And it was a big lawsuit against an enormous trucking company and I had just never really thought about truck drivers or where they sleep in the truck where you know, how they live. Just hearing that story kind of made me curious and I started looking into online communities for women drivers. I found all sorts of really specific groups for various drivers, like trans drivers, queer drivers, Black drivers. So immediately, this world of trucking became a lot more diverse than I had ever imagined.

Driver director Nesa Azimi: 'When I was on the truck, with Desiree, all I could think about was this forward momentum and where we were heading, it's really easy to leave behind your problems.'
Driver director Nesa Azimi: 'When I was on the truck, with Desiree, all I could think about was this forward momentum and where we were heading, it's really easy to leave behind your problems.'
So that was sort of where it began and then I found Desiree’s phone number online, because she had listed it as a resource for other women drivers. She's a long haul truck driver, but also an organiser. So I called her and then she called me back right away. We spoke for five hours and it just felt like she had a lot to say. During that call she basically gave an incredible breakdown of everything that was wrong with the industry, talked about her life. Originally, she was going to put me in touch with other women drivers to speak to. Then by the end of the call, she had invited me on a cruise ship vacation for about 20 women that she had organised. And I just thought, ‘Oh, I have to go’..

The cruise ship that is in the film? So that was your first time meeting them?

NA: The cruise was basically the introduction to Desiree and this whole community of women. The good thing is because, like you said, everyone's on the road, and they're alone most of the year.The cruise is something they do once a year or once every couple of years, it's the one time they get to just relax and spend time together and not think about work. So everyone was in a good mood, luckily. Some of the women are in the film and each of them could have a whole book or a film made about them, they’re just amazing human beings. So that was the first introduction. Then not long after that we got on a long haul route with Desiree from Florida up to North Dakota and that week on the truck was where I decided I wanted to make a film about them. And then I quit my job in television and spent the next years of my life doing that.

When you first went on that trip from Florida to North Dakota, did you take the camera with you at that point?

NA: Yes. Truck driving attracts people who are, by nature, quite solitary, or they're trying to get away from people, they're trying to escape something. But very counter intuitively, I felt like Desiree and all of her friends really appreciated, at least in the beginning, the presence of a camera and an audience because they had felt for so many years that nobody was hearing them and that they didn't have the ear of anyone outside of the industry.

What comes across in the film is a real tension between the isolation of that job, but also the freedom that it's presenting to them. It put me actually in mind of Nomadland in that there’s a community that exists almost in a nowhere space somehow. Was that something that struck you as you made it?

NA: Definitely. Just the intensity I felt of those contrasts of life on the road, which in any given moment, can be exhilarating, it can be frustrating, you could cry and be exhausted. You can go days and days and days, and not speak to a soul. So what really struck me was the fact that though this job is so solitary, and though the industry really makes an effort to keep drivers separate from one another, that Desiree has still managed to create this incredible community for women where, even though they're out of and alone on the road, they're all in touch with one another and sort of supporting one another in a way that is very rare in that industry.

The contrasts were just something that I noticed, all along just this really like that trucking provides economically, allows people to get away from bad domestic situations, a lot of people transition on the road, that was something I learned, so it's a way that people can sort of build their own space in the truck. But at the same time, there's constantly this pressure from the outside from the industry from the precarity and the violence.

After being on a truck for one week with Desiree, it really made sense to me why this would be a job that people would come to if they're trying to get away from their pasts. Because when I was on the truck, with Desiree, all I could think about was this forward momentum and where we were heading, it's really easy to leave behind your problems. This constant movement was really something that I could see could offer a space for meditation, for some sort of calm and peace for people. So that's why it felt it feels so crucial this work that Desiree is doing because she's trying to protect this way of life for women, because it is such a good option in so many ways for people who've gone through domestic violence, sexual assault, have terrible family lives.

Knowing when to stop shooting a film like this must be incredibly difficult, because this battle for rights is something that's continuing and, of course, Desiree’s own story is continuing.

NA: Because we were filming two or three times a year, we would make sure to go on a long haul route with Desiree, and we would try to show up anytime that all of the women were together, because it was such a rare occurrence. But after about three, three-and-a-half years of filming, I just knew we had got enough to show this life and to have enough of a story that we could stop filming. I could have filmed probably for another 50 years, but at a certain point, I also knew that our presence in their lives was something that I didn't want to burden them with any more.

Were you editing as you went along - because you must have had an enormous amount of material?

NA: I was watching and cataloguing and sort of thinking through all of the material every time I came back from a trip over the course of three years. But the actual cutting of the film didn't happen until a few years into it, because I didn't come into this as an editor. And just out of necessity, and also out of a desire because I had spent so much time with Desiree and these other drivers and also with the material, I didn't feel like I found anyone who I can trust with this 700 or 800 hours of footage to sort of make something of it.

Director Nesa Azimi on her film: What really struck me was the fact that though this job is so solitary... Desiree has still managed to create this incredible community for women'
Director Nesa Azimi on her film: What really struck me was the fact that though this job is so solitary... Desiree has still managed to create this incredible community for women'
And because I had come to it in the very beginning with this idea of with of an issue in mind - sexual assault in the trucking industry - it really did take a long time for me to sort of understand what the film wanted to be itself, which was not an issue film, which was more based in the emotional experience of being a driver. I'm happy that it took so long to sort of get through the material and work with it, because if I had made this in a rush, I think it could have been a very different film.If it had been an issue film, I think we would have lost that possibility of sort of understanding Desiree, and just feeling what that life is like. So the editing happened in the last two years.

Do you feel like you've changed your opinion of the country at all as a result?

NA: I think that what changed my opinion of the country was actually being with them in the cab of the truck. It wasn't so much the things that we were passing, but more that space that we had, and the conversations that we had together. I think that's really what changed me the most. It was almost like whatever was happening outside was sort of external in a way.

Though this is such a male-dominated industry and we were filming at peak pandemic, when there was a lot of political tension in the country and it didn't feel like a very friendly time but what was amazing to me was that Desiree and all these other women had managed to create this cocoon for themselves, of this protected space and were able to shield themselves a little bit from either other men in the industry or some of these kinds of political forces in the country. So that was kind of the most striking thing for me.

It speaks to Desiree's commitment to it as well. I imagine she faced quite a lot of opposition when she first decided to do this.

NA: A lot of the women in the group who I've spoken to throughout the filming, but even now, especially as they reflect on the film, they all say, “Desiree, this group, all of these women saved my life, having this community, having these friendships is what helped me continue to do this job”. So that, to me, feels like the most important thing that she has done.

Part of the important work that she's doing is trying to build this solidarity not only among women, but among other drivers.

You must be happy to be able to amplify the message?

NA: The greatest thing in the world was seeing them at the premiere because they were so happy just to have an audience, to be recognised, to see themselves on screen represented in a way that they haven't been before. This industry is so enormous, it's so anonymising and workers are not valued as individuals. So just even getting to see themselves is an incredible thing and very moving. I think they're excited about the possibilities of what we can do with the film outside of the festival circuit; using it as a tool to bring other drivers together. So, yeah, that was the sort of most amazing thing for me.

The way that I managed to have the courage to do this was really because I was inspired by Desiree and all the other women.They're some of the strongest people I know and they're also incredibly fun and hilarious and intelligent. Just getting to be around them and be in their orbit was enough for me to feel encouraged throughout the last five-and-a-half years.

It’s a long time since the start of that journey. Do you think you’ll continue making other documentaries now?

NA: I do want to make another film. I think whether it will be a straight documentary or whether it will be fiction or some combination of both, I'm not sure. But I definitely am ready to make another film after this.

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