This World is Not My Own

: Documentary Feature
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Post-Production


Mythical forest creatures, chewing gum sculptures, handmade dolls, a firebrand wrestler, a Kuwaiti art school for kids, a wealthy arts patron, a century old murder case and the segregated south – it’s all part of Nellie Mae Rowe’s fantastical universe. This World is Not My Own reimagines this self-taught artist’s life during a tumultuous time in our nation’s history.


In Kuwait City, a group of kids has gathered for an art class. Today’s lesson is inspired by the artist, Nellie Mae Rowe. The kids work with crayons to turn the letters in their names into a playful animal menagerie. They’re making their names come to life. It’s both a simple exercise and an important statement about the power of imagination, self affirmation and visibility. It’s an example of how art can afford someone the opportunity to be seen.

For most of her life, Nellie Mae Rowe made art in obscurity. She transformed her home in Vinings, Georgia into an imaginative oasis that she dubbed her “playhouse.” Nellie didn’t depict the world around her. She interpreted it and transformed it into an alternate, more inhabitable and fantastical place.

In her “playhouse,” Nellie created art that few outside of her community would see, until, late in life, she met the gallerist, Judith Alexander. In Judith, Nellie found a patron and a conduit to reach an audience. In Nellie, Judith found a kindred spirit and a life-long purpose. Nellie and Judith formed a close friendship despite their racial, cultural and economic differences. These two independent women without families of their own, formed a bond around art and a shared sense of being outsiders.

Nellie and Judith did have another thing in common. Strangely, they shared a connection to one of the most infamous murder cases of the 20th century – the murder of young Mary Phagan, and the conviction and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank. The Leo Frank case, and the anti-Semitism that flourished around it, led to a mass exodus of southern Jews and fueled the rise of the KKK. The story of the case unfolds like a secondary narrative alongside Nellie’s story. We learn early on that Judith’s father served as Leo Frank’s appeals lawyer and was a central figure in the case. Eventually, the Leo Frank thread merges with the film’s primary narrative as Nellie’s connection to the case is revealed.


Like Nellie herself, the film is more concerned with spiritual truth than factual accuracy. What is real, or not, is a matter of interpretation and perception. To use one of Nellie’s favorite pastimes as an analogy, in a choreographed wrestling match, the realness isn’t important, what matters are the characters and the mythology.

This World is Not My Own pursues less conventional documentary storytelling techniques, like animation, re-enactments, set creations and scripted scenes. An actress’ reading of Nellie Mae Rowe’s quotes and new scripted pieces becomes our narration throughout the film. The voice-over passages connect us to important moments and themes in Nellie’s life and help us to feel her presence.

This World is Not My Own is an engrossing cinematic experience where art, music, animation, dream sequences, archival footage and interviews combine to reimagine Nellie Mae Rowe’s story, and visualize the invisible.


Petter Ringbom - Director

Petter Ringbom’s debut feature documentary, The Russian Winter, premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in 2012. His follow up, Shield and Spear, premiered at Toronto’s Hot Docs in 2014, and won the Silver Price at UK’s Passion for Freedom Awards. Petter’s films screened at IDFA, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Film Society of Lincoln Center, BAM, the Hammer Museum, Miami Art Basel, and at the international film festivals of Moscow, Gothenburg, Durban and Stockholm. He has been a Film Independent Fast Track Fellow, a Gotland Film Lab resident at the Ingmar Bergman Estate, a Midpoint Feature Launch participant and a Berlinale Talent.


Ruchi Mital - Producer

In 2014, Ruchi produced the feature documentary, We Could Be King, which won the Emmy for Outstanding Sports Documentary, as well as the follow up short doc series, Hell Week [ESPN]. Her next production, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Her experimental short films have screened at festivals from NYC to the UK.

Marquise Stillwell - Director

Marquise Stillwell is a filmmaker, designer and a catalyst for building communities across art and culture. He believes that we can help inform the future of communities by thinking about people first and by building evidence through storytelling. Marquise co-founded Opendox in order to tell lesser-known narratives around art, science, nature, and politics. With Opendox, he produced Shield and SpearThe Limestone Conflict and The New Bauhaus.


Connect With The Filmmakers:


The Gotham Film & Media Institute - Fiscal Sponsorship Program 2024


Help promote my fundraising campaign
Put our donation widget on your website

Get Widget Code



The Gotham Logo


© 2024 The Gotham. All Rights Reserved.
   Design by Andrew Martin

The Gotham Film & Media Institute is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to finding, developing and celebrating the people and projects that shape the future of story.

Learn more about us or become a member