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A Conversation with Nesa Azimi (DRIVER)

Director Nesa Azimi, in her debut feature-length documentary, Driver, takes us into the cab of a truck driven by one Desiree Wood. She’s the founder of REAL Women in Trucking (RWIT), an advocacy group for her fellow female truck drivers as they navigate a world rife with misogyny. She’s also a survivor of sexual assault and a former stripper. She’s a woman of many layers, and director Azimi follows her and others in a wide-ranging journey across the country and through the risks and rewards of modern trucking. I spoke with Azimi at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival, where her movie premiered (and where I reviewed it), and here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Hammer to Nail: I’ve always been curious about the cab of a truck. I’ve never been in one. What is it like, or what were the ones like that you saw, in terms of size and amenities?

Nesa Azimi: I’d never seen the cab of a truck, either, and actually was totally ignorant about what it looked like. And I didn’t even know where a driver slept. Like, I had this idea that the driver slept in the trailer, but I now know, after having driven in the cab of a truck, that once the trailer is closed, it’s closed; when there’s a load in there, no one’s going in there. But it depends on the truck. So we were riding in a Kenworth T680, and the cab was for three people. It was me, Desiree, and a cinematographer at all times. So it’s small, it’s tight, especially when you’re carrying gear. And then there’s a small refrigerator.

If a driver has that kind of truck, there’s a bunk bed. The top bunk is teeny though, but very often if drivers are driving team, someone is sleeping on top while one person is driving. So I mean, two people can live in the cab of a truck, but it’s very, very, very tight quarters. It was an intimate space but I think that the smallness of the space was actually what allowed a kind of naturally flowing conversation to develop over time. We didn’t have a very formal interview style in the course of filming. We would just talk. Sometimes we wouldn’t talk for hours on end.

HtN: You talk about riding “team,” and there’s some dialogue in the film about training and people working in pairs. Would people in those situations be living in the cab for those one or two months together?

NA: Yes, very often. Some companies, especially some of the larger trucking companies, the mega-carriers, will recruit people through workforce training programs—either former felons, houseless populations, vulnerable populations—into their ranks, and offer them free training. It’s not actually free, but basically it’s company sponsored training, and they take a new driver and pair them with a more veteran driver. That driver may have only been on the road for a couple of months, but they’re tasked with training this new driver, and often have to live in the truck with one another for at least 30 days before they pass a test and get their commercial driver’s license. And they’re living, sleeping, eating, sharing this tiny space—a bunk bed essentially—with a total stranger. And you can’t choose to have a woman trainer. So you’re often paired with a man, usually, and that person has the power to pass or fail you.

It’s a very tense space. Also, because the training is so quick and they just throw you out on the road, there’s just a lot of stress. Then also, some of the mega-carriers require you to then pay off your tuition and live in the truck for six months and team-drive, so that the truck is always moving, essentially 24/7, 1 person’s driving, the other person sleeping, and you can get to your destination twice as fast. So it’s like a cheap form of labor, but it very often is just an incredibly uncomfortable situation.

HtN: And that would explain a lot of what’s happening in your film with the women talking about those situations. So, Desiree Wood, your protagonist, at one point talks about the things she’s seen from the cab of a truck, some not so nice to look at, some gross, but also some nice things like kids waving their hands. What did you see out of the cab of any of these trucks, both good and bad? Did you see anything that fascinated you?

NA:  You see all sorts of crazy things when you’re driving across the country. I mean, you see people broken down on the side of the road, you see a lot of trucks parked on the side of the road. That was something that I had never noticed before until I was actually driving with Desiree, that you can sometimes see dozens of big rigs parked right on the side of the highway. And I didn’t understand why, but it’s because there’s actually a shortage of truck parking across the country. And very often drivers, even though this country is enormous, don’t have a safe place to park for the night where they can eat, shower, and take care of basic human functions. And also because of some of the regulations, drivers are often forced to stop their trucks in really unsafe places on the side of the highway.

A still from DRIVER

So that was one thing I noticed a lot of across the country. And then you see fewer and fewer Ma-and-Pa truck stops. It’s mostly dominated by Love’s, Pilot, and TA, but occasionally you’ll come across some of these old truck stops that still exist, have a small owner, and have a little restaurant where drivers can stop and hang out. But really, it’s hard to find the kind of community that I envisioned, like the romantic idea of the truck stop in my mind and how it’s been depicted in films, especially in the 1970s. I really didn’t see that type of community that I’d heard about. It used to exist, as Michelle talks about it, at truck stops. They used to have something called “party row,” where truckers would hang out and barbecue at the truck stop, and spend time together. And now it’s really changed, and people just kind of stay in their trucks and are on their phones and are on the internet. And so, luckily the women in the film connect to one another over the phone and through internet, but not so much in person as it used to be.

HtN: It’s kind of a metaphor about where we are in the world, in general.

NA: Yeah.

HtN: The press notes say you left your job in TV when you met Desiree Wood. What was that job in TV and how did you meet Desiree?

NA: I was working at National Geographic at the time, on a current-affairs program, and I came across this story about sexual assault in the industry, and there was a massive class-action lawsuit against a big trucking company, where like 300 women said they’d been assaulted during the course of their training. So I just started looking into communities for women online, and there were all sorts of really specific groups for women—like queer drivers, trans drivers—all sorts of communities that I never really imagined were part of the world of trucking. So that was one surprising thing. And I came across Desiree pretty quickly and she had put her phone number online as a resource for other women drivers. And I called her and within five minutes she called me back, and we spoke for several hours, and I just felt like this job is so solitary and the phone call felt immediately really cathartic, because she told me about what it was in her life that had brought her to this work and just kind of gave me a breakdown of everything that was wrong with the industry.

And then, by the end of the phone call, she had invited me to go on a women’s trucking cruise with about 20 women in her group. And that was actually the first shoot that we had, and it was this introduction to this amazing world of women. And then, a few weeks later, we went on the truck with her and we took a long-haul route from Florida up to North Dakota. And that trip was what convinced me. I spent the next several years of my life making this film with them. And actually it was Desiree who sort of gave me the courage to quit my job and do something independently.

HtN: It’s interesting that that’s the first shoot, because we see it only about halfway through the movie. So you mentioned the few years that you were making this. How many years total did this take? I think the press notes say three years, is that right?

NA: It was three years of filming, but in total with editing, it was about five-and-a-half years.

HtN: So when was that first shoot on the cruise?

NA:  That was in mid-2018.

HtN: Wow. Before the pandemic.

NA: Yeah.

HtN: So you’ve adopted a vérité approach to making the film, which plunges us right into the heart of these women’s lives. Were you ever tempted to modify or break this approach slightly, maybe adding lower-thirds titles of people’s names, or doing formal interviews, or sometimes using explanatory text on screen, even minimally? Or were you committed to this approach from the start?

NA: Well, when I came into making this film, I was coming from a background of current-affairs documentaries. So I had worked at Frontline, at Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines, really sort of journalistic documentaries. And so, it actually took me quite a while to sort of deprogram myself and try to do things differently and not explain. And even though I came to the story wanting to talk about the women’s issues, after spending time on the truck with Desiree and with the other women in her community I realized that if I were to take this approach of making an issue documentary, then I would lose the possibility of just making a film that is more based in emotion, and just kind of understanding the experience, and the day-to-day, and the poetry of what their lives are like on the road.

A still from DRIVER

So for me, it was actually just a process of deprogramming myself, not feeling like I had to explain everything and just really allowing what we captured on the road to help guide the narrative. But there were many people who wanted a film that was about the activism, the hero narrative, sort of sticking to the issues. And I felt like it would’ve been a loss; we would’ve lost getting to know the experience. And then it also wouldn’t have been true because the real story was much more complicated that of the classic hero.

HtN: And it wasn’t the film you wanted to make.

NA: Yeah, that too.

HtN: The only downside to this approach for me is this one conversation that Michelle has in the final third, with a guy on the CB radio. I can’t understand a word he’s saying! (laughs) Could you enlighten me in terms of what that conversation is about?

NA: Oh, yeah. (laughs) We were trying to decide whether to subtitle some of the CB radio, especially because there’s a lot of regional dialect when you turn on the radio, depending on where you’re passing through. So that was really funny. It was a guy who she had known for many years who I guess regularly in that area shows up on the radio advertising something that you call “GoFast,” which is essentially speed to keep drivers awake. So yeah, that was what he was trying to advertise.

HtN: So much of your film is about the difficulties of marginalized people in trucking, using that as a larger metaphor about the United States. How many of the 3.5 million truckers—this is a number I got from your press notes—are women, would you say?

NA: From what I’ve heard, it’s anywhere from 5 to 10% of the industry. But I think that that number is growing. Sadly, because the training is so difficult and the pay is so terrible, most people drop out within a couple of months, if not within the first year. I think it’s like a 200% turnover rate. I don’t even know how that’s possible.

And I think that the amazing thing about Desiree and what she’s doing is that she has created a support system for women to help them get through that first initial couple of months of training, and then also to stay in the industry. A lot of the drivers that I met through Desiree have said they had no support system until they found Desiree, Idella, and Michelle. I think that’s one of the most important things that she’s done, is create this community that basically allows women to recognize one another on the road. They’re often alone for weeks or months on end, and they don’t see each other, but they take that friendship with them, and it gives them strength to kind of get through the difficulties of the job, which are many.

HtN: So given what we see of Desiree’s situation at the end of the film, how is she doing now and how is REAL Women in Trucking doing, since she’s the head of that?

NA: Desiree is doing great. One of the amazing things of just being around her is that at one point in the film, she has lost the truck and she’s living in a tent in Florida, and has lost her home. And yet, what was incredible to me was she made that moment in her life fun, and she was helping other people. She receives this distress call and she goes and meets with a lawyer. At that point, she had broken her ankle. She was really sick, but she was helping other people and doing her work as an organizer, even though her own life was sort of unraveling as a driver. So I think one of the amazing things about her, and many other drivers, is that she’s very resilient. A lot of drivers are really resilient, but the sad thing is they shouldn’t have to be. People shouldn’t have to lose everything.

She’s not currently on the road. She’s on and off the road as a driver. She’s still running the organization and doing organizing work. She’s driving Uber at night and also working in Nevada, doing consulting work for transportation issues and still doing her organizing work. I think she’s doing great, but I think that this push-and-pull of the road is a real thing that all drivers face. It keeps calling to her, the road, but I don’t know when. She’d always tell me, this is the last time I’m going to go back on the road, but that was never the case. She’d always get back on the truck. So anyway, the answer to that is she’s doing great, but I think that it’s a real question of whether or not she can actually continue this work and continue the organizing at the same time.

HtN: Well, I hope she can, as she’s doing great work, and so are you. Thank you for making the film.

NA: Thank you for the interview.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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