West County filmmaker Jake Viramontez

West County filmmaker Jake Viramontez uses his craft to help nonprofits tell their stories

Now he’s helping other filmmakers—and inner city teenagers—do the same thing


JAN 23, 2024

Jake Viramontez at his home in Graton. Viramontez also works at the Livery CoWork in Sebastopol. (Photo from his website)

When Jake Viramontez was in high school in San Jose, a friend advised him to take a filmmaking class because it was a guaranteed easy A.

“I was like, ‘Sign me up for the easiest A of my life,’” he said with a laugh. “I was not an academic kid. I was way more social. So I got into that class and I started learning about film, and I got a camera in my hands and I started making documentaries. And I fell in love. I was like, ‘Oh, this is not just something that I enjoy doing. It’s something that I’ll do when I’m not being asked for a class assignment.’ I just started filming things.”

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He made a film about his father, a firefighter, and the fire crew at the Santa Clara County Fire Department. He submitted that to a few local film festivals, and it won some awards.

“It was an ah-ha moment of ‘Not only do I love it, but this is a career path, and this is something I could do for the rest of my life.’”

Still in high school, he convinced a local nonprofit that was taking doctors and nurses to the Ivory Coast to let him go along and make a film about their project. They told him he could go if he paid for all his expenses.

He did, and they were impressed with his work.  

“They actually turned around and asked me to be their media producer while I was still in high school,” he said, “so I got to travel to Morocco and Tajikistan and back to Ivory Coast before I graduated.”

Convincing established film schools to accept him proved more difficult. He was turned down by USC, UCLA, AFI and NYU.  

 “Like I said, I wasn’t really an academic kid. And none of them wanted to see my reel of what I had produced. I got rejected from all of them.”

Eventually, after traveling for a while, he got his BFA in film production from the Art Center in Pasadena.

That paved the way for the next stage of his career, which was commercial directing and filmmaking, working with Chevrolet, Oracle, Pepsi, Panda Express, The Times of London, and others.

“I spent the next eight years working in the commercial world and doing commercial projects for big brands and agencies.”

The pandemic temporarily put an end to that and gave him the time to do some soul searching.

“I asked myself if I was really happy with the path that I was on,” he said. “And the overwhelming sentiment was that I loved being a storyteller, and I loved being a filmmaker, but I didn’t feel fulfilled on a deeper level.”

“I thought back to the tremendous sense of satisfaction I’d felt in high school, when I was working for that nonprofit and using my skills for something that was bigger than me. And it caused me to want to get back into that.”

Near the end of the pandemic, he decided to make films for free for non-profit organizations anywhere in the world.

“I said, ‘It doesn’t matter where you are. I’ll fly to wherever you are, and I’ll tell your story.’ And so I got 75 submissions in two months,” he said. “I looked at all of those, and I started making films for these organizations. I was just doing it out of my own pocket. There wasn’t an official nonprofit. It was just me using my skills and talents to try and make the world a better place.”

He moved to west county with his wife and new baby during this time. He created the nonprofit, which is called Sown.

He did several films for nonprofits around the country, including for Ceres here in Sebastopol. But he quickly realized there were way more organizations that deserved his help than he had time for.

“I feel like this idea of beginning a nonprofit to give away films for free to organizations around the world was only available to me once I moved out of LA and got out of the kind of chaos and mental clutter that exists there and got into the space and openness that exists here where I could reflect and be inspired to launch that.”

“It started with just me at the beginning, and I was doing them myself and I was flying to all these places. But as it evolved, I realized that a lot more filmmakers were feeling what I was feeling when I launched it, which was ‘I’m financially well off enough to where I’m not worried about making a living, but I feel like I’m not using my skills in a way that I could be.’ So I opened up an application for filmmakers as well. And over the last two and a half years, I’ve gotten over 150 submissions from filmmakers all over the world.”

“I thought I was creating this nonprofit to serve nonprofits, but  I’m really serving filmmakers. I’m serving storytellers that feel this question deep in their soul like, ‘What are we doing here? And why? What is this all about? What is the purpose?’ Being able to go and give your skills and talents for somebody to help them accomplish what they’re doing for someone else—that really answers that question in a fairly profound way,” he said.

Right now he’s got five or six filmmakers out on assignment around the world.

“So we’ve gone to India to do a story about people living on the edge of a trash dump to help the organization build homes for these families. We did a story in Tanzania where we went and visited a home for orphan girls. We made their film and they were able to use that film to raise $300,000 to build a school for the girls and the surrounding community. We sent filmmakers to Lebanon, where they also did a school-related project…I had two filmmakers go out to Kenya and do a story about young boys who were living on the streets and addicted to drugs and this organization helped rehab them, get them off the street, get them job training, and then education and reunites them with their families. … I just had a filmmaker come back from Haiti where there is a nonprofit that wants to build a $10 million health facility out in the villages of Haiti. We tell the story of a mother and a child who are going to be able to use that health center.”

Viramontez said he currently has a shortlist of filmmakers out of the 150 that originally applied.

“I wanted to make sure that we were only sending out the most talented filmmakers…These are trained professionals that are very expensive in their everyday life who are giving their time for free,” he said.

When Viramontez decides that it’s time to make another film, he selects a filmmaker first. Then he sends that filmmaker a Google sheet of the nonprofits that are on his shortlist.

“Then I let them select which one they want to do,” he said. “So instead of me saying, ‘Hey, congratulations, you’re being sent on assignment to the middle of Haiti.’ I say, ‘Hey, here’s all the nonprofits that I think are story worthy. Look through all of them, read their websites, and let me know which one you resonate with the most?’ Because I want the filmmakers to resonate with the story that we’re telling.”

Once the filmmaking is over, Viramontez does the editing himself.

“I have a tough time trusting editors because I am one. It’s so easy for a film to fall apart in the edit…And so I’ve edited almost all of them myself.”  

Viramontez has also been working with Sony for the last three years, doing films similar to those he does for Sown.

“I told Sony what I was doing and that inspired them to create a Sony campaign that’s called ‘Create Action,’” he said. “They also give away films to nonprofits, and they asked me to direct them to produce and edit all those…And it’s looking like they’re going to financially help so I can bring on a full-time editor starting in May of this year.”

As Viramontez was travelling around the country, making ‘Create Action’ videos for Sony, he often worked with organizations serving teenagers in the inner cities.  

“I would be talking to these kids who lived in these neighborhoods, and most of them had not explored out of their neighborhood or had the opportunity to explore outside of their city. And they kept coming to me and they’re like, ‘How do I do what you’re doing? I want to travel. I want to be a filmmaker. I want to do this. Can I work for you?’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m a one-man band. I’m not the right guy. I’m too flighty. You don’t want to work for me, but let’s stay in touch.’”

Eventually, so many teens asked if they could work for him that he created a new program called the Passport Program.

“I would select five kids from around the country who’d never left the country. We’d get them all passports, and I would take them with me to Rwanda, and I teach them how to make a documentary in Africa.”

“We did that in August,” he said. “I taught them everything from interviews to lighting to how to travel correctly. I got Sony to donate all of them cameras and lens that they got to keep. I also got backpacks and tripods donated to them. Everything that they needed to make a film, I put in their hands.”

Viramontez said one of the lessons he’s learned through all of this is the power of investing your time and energy to help someone else.

“One of the key takeaways is that once I started investing in other people’s lives, the opportunity that’s found me is astronomical. I cannot quantify the return on investment when you start being generous with your energy and your talents and your skills. It’s really the biggest life hack in the world.”

See Jake Viramontez’s work and the work of Sown contributors at jakeviramontez.com. You can also see his TED talk, “The Unlikely Road to Abundance” here.