Filmmaker Liz Oakley was getting her hair cut one day when her stylist, Joanna Katz Chronister, asked her if she would take a look at some footage she had shot in a video production class.
Chronister, the victim of a gang rape years earlier, wanted to make a video about advocates for crime victims in the aftermath of her own experience.
Oakley, who at the time was a video producer, agreed to lend a hand and offer some advice. While she was helping Chronister, she learned more about her powerful story of survival, and was deeply moved by it. She eventually agreed to work with Chronister to produce a documentary film about Chronister's story.
Seven years later, that film, "Sentencing the Victim," aired nationally on PBS's Emmy Award-winning series "Independent Lens" and was presented in a private screening at the U.S. Department of Justice. It ultimately led to a change in South Carolina parole law. It also launched Oakley as a documentary filmmaker.
Oakley started her own video production business, Liz Oakley Productions, in September.
She can find the exciting spark at the core of just about anything, then ignite it and bring it to life say friends who have worked with Oakley.
She's been in Charleston for 21 years. It's her adopted home and says she loves it here.
She had been working as a TV news writer and producer in Columbia when she decided to come to Charleston to work on a four-month grant for a nonprofit organization that served youth. The grant stretched to two years. "After two years, there was no way I was leaving," Oakley said.
She parlayed her TV production skills, commitment to justice and passion for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary world into a thriving career in film and video production. After working for IVS Video for about 13 years, Oakley decided to set out on her own.
She doesn't hold to a nine-to-five schedule. Her work usually consists of producing shorter videos for business, government and nonprofit clients, while chipping away at a long-term documentary film project.
The shorter videos bring in her income. But they also are remarkably interesting to her. "In this business, I don't get bored. Everything is something new," she said.
She has produced videos about pine chemistry, dentistry and even asphalt. "I can get pretty thrilled in a paper mill," she said. "I love to know how things work."
And the everyday video production "supports my documentary habit," she said. Those documentaries nourish her spirit, and allow her to spend time on things that matter deeply to her.
"I never set out to be a documentary filmmaker," Oakley said. But when she heard the story of Chronister's violent gang rape and subsequent legal ordeal, she was spurred to action.
"One afternoon, she told me her story. I couldn't move for an hour and a half. I couldn't believe she was alive."
In 1988, Chronister, who was only 19, and another woman were abducted from a downtown parking lot at gunpoint, and then taken to a building where five men repeatedly raped and beat them for several hours.
Chronister, bloody and half-dressed, was able to get away. She helped police track down the men and the other woman.
The men were sent to prison, but after several years, they began to come up for parole hearings every two years. Chronister had to drive to Columbia for parole hearings for each of the five men, which were held on different days. And each time she appeared, she had to relive the pain and horror of that night.
Chronister said she and others had been pushing for a change in state law to make the process easier for victims of crimes. But nothing was changed until "Sentencing the Victim" was released and drew national attention.
Today, the parole hearings for multiple defendants in the same crime are held on the same day, and victims can attend them via video conference.
"Liz Oakley changed the law for the state of South Carolina's crime victims," Chronister said. "She did that single-handedly."
She also said nobody else could have made the film the way Oakley did. The subject matter was so disturbing that it had to have taken an emotional toll on Oakley, Chronister said. "I don't think that a lot of people would allow themselves to get that close to the story, so deep, and be OK with it. A lot of people would run from it."
After completing that film, Oakley vowed to spend no more than two years on her next production, "Awaken the Dragon," a moving account of cancer survivors involved in the sport of dragon boat racing. But that production took eight years to complete.
The film also landed numerous awards including: Best Regional Film at the Charleston Film Festival; Documentary and Audience Choice Award at the Beaufort International Film Festival; Best Documentary at the All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival; and the Remi Award/Special Jury Award at WorldFest Houston.
Oakley hasn't yet identified her next documentary project. She's concentrating on community outreach work related to "Awaken the Dragon."
And her new business is keeping her busy.
She wasn't afraid to step out on her own. She has a lot of women friends and business contacts who have taken the risk and been successful.
And she's doing the same kind of work she's been doing for years. "I'm still telling stories."
Ricki Carruth, a longtime friend of Oakley's, has been running her own freelance writing business for the past eight years. She met Oakley at her previous workplace MeadWestvaco, when Oakley was hired to do some video work for the company.
She was impressed with Oakley's ability to comprehend detailed, technical information. "I watched her absorb information that made my head spin."
Oakley worked hard and got things done but also told a beautiful story, Carruth said. "As a writer, I have an appreciation for what it takes to tell a good story. Liz has that gift."
And Oakley has become a mentor to Carruth's daughter, helping her when she expressed an interest in video production.
Carruth said she and her daughter attended the opening of the film "Awaken the Dragon" together. "What a proud moment," Carruth said. "My daughter saw this woman accomplish something amazing."
And she's certain that the same drive that motivates Oakley to complete her documentaries will help her to do well in her business. "She'll definitely succeed. She'll do whatever it takes to accomplish her vision."
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.