As a documentary on Michelle Obama's book tour is screened on Netflix, filmmaker Nadia Hallgren recalls to Sabrina Barr how a hug settled her nerves on meeting the former First Lady
You enter a room in which one of the most famous women in the world is sitting. She rises from her seat, standing tall as you make your way towards her. You have 30 minutes to make a lasting impression. Where do you begin?
The day that documentary filmmaker and cinematographer Nadia Hallgren met former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, they got off to an awkward start. "I extended my hand to shake her hand, and in my nervousness our fingers got weirdly intertwined with each other," Hallgren says, laughing as she recalls the day in 2018. "I was just like, 'Oh man I'm messing this up already', and we both just laughed."
When Netflix decided to launch a 90-minute programme following Obama on the 34 city stops of her Becoming book tour, produced by Higher Ground Productions, Hallgren was chosen to direct, despite it being her first feature film. Originally from the Bronx in New York and shortlisted for an Academy Award in 2019, Hallgren was tasked with providing an in-depth look at the woman who spent eight years living in the White House and has since remained firmly on the world stage, with regular public appearances and a book that sold 1.4m copies in its first week.
For someone living so much in the public eye, Obama's autobiography offers unprecedented insight into her life before the presidency, and before her marriage, a time when she was Michelle Robinson living on the south side of Chicago. It follows her story from childhood through legal training, meeting a young Barack Obama at a law firm, their marriage and his political ascent to the most powerful job in the world.
Luckily for Hallgren, Obama was as approachable in real life as she appears on screen - a trait it seems not PR-managed for the benefit of cameras. Obama's warm demeanour put Hallgren immediately at ease. "When we first met she was like, 'I'm a hugger' and gave me this huge hug, and it immediately calmed me down," Hallgren explains.
Something the documentarian noticed early on in filming with Obama was how she has an "incredible ability to be present in a moment". She says: "There could be hundreds of people waiting to talk to her, and she will focus on the individual right in front of her and really lock into who they are. I thought that was extraordinary."
Together, Hallgren returned with Obama to her childhood home in Chicago to spend time with her family, where Obama's "incredible sense of humour" emerged most.
"There were moments where I was filming with them and the hardest part was holding the camera steady while I was laughing," Hallgren says, remarking that Obama and Craig Robinson (Obama's brother) "just fell back into almost being kids" when spending time together.
Their father, Fraser Robinson, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, died in March 1991, but his memory lives on in the house, says Hallgren. During filming Obama described her father coming home from work as like "God returning home".
Hallgren says watching Obama reminisce with her mother during the trip was "emotional".
"It was just this moment where they both allowed themselves to get emotional about this memory. I love that they allowed themselves to get wrapped up in [that moment], even though I was present, that the camera was able to get that.
"To be in this space that Mrs Obama grew up … if you've read the book, there's all these stories of her family living in this cramped space, but the way that they sort of manoeuvred around each other, all the love that was in those rooms. That, for me, was mind-blowing."
At one point in the film, Hallgren films a high-school student, Shayla Allen, in her home after the teenager meets Obama. The director remarks that Shayla was like a "young Michelle Robinson", as the "sweet and fun" relationship she has with her brother reminded her of the strong connection between Obama and Mr Robinson. "I imagined this was what the Robinson house was like on the south side of Chicago when they were growing up and I thought that was really awesome."
Following the Obama family's departure from the White House, there has been much speculation regarding whether Obama would ever consider running for office. Although she has denied any intention of joining the presidential ticket, one thing that is clear about her future, Hallgren says, is her desire to work with young people and to "nurture young leaders".
"I think the spirit of community that we see in the film is something that's important to me, it's something that's important to Mrs Obama," Hallgren says.
She wants viewers to take away that we are "always growing, learning and developing", even someone as accomplished and well-respected as Obama.
"It shows that even someone like Mrs Obama is still looking ahead to, 'what more can I be in this world'."
'Becoming' is on Netflix