Outside of the dozen or so studio releases that capture the attention of major awards voting blocs and, in turn, moviegoers, few other productions—particularly those that are truly independent or international—receive recognition at most ceremonies.

Although the major categories tend to resemble those at the Oscars, the Independent Spirit Awards are still an event that highlights the hardworking American and global visionaries that put their sanity, financial stability, and overall well-being on the line to bring a movie into existence. Small budgets and limited theatrical releases come with the territory, but so does audacity, innovation, and much more consistent efforts for inclusion and representation than their corporate counterparts.

MovieMaker was on the blue carpet at Film Independent’s crowing award show to catch up with some of the directors that delivered undeniably thought-provoking content last year. From legendary documentarian Agnès Varda, who took home the Best Documentary prize alongside artist JR for Faces Places, to emerging talents from abroad like Antonio Méndez Esparza, who beat out tough competition for the Best First Film award, or Atsuko Hirayanagi, whose lovely debut Oh Lucy! just opened in American cinemas.

We asked all of them what was the biggest lesson they learned while making their nominated films. Their answers were eclectic, but all spoke to the concerns and artistic challenges that independent moviemakers face today.

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