"I had an experience of light," she says. But when she tried to write a book about it, "it just wasn't working." That's when she befriended a filmmaker who asked if she'd ever considered making a film about the experience. "That was 1976," she says.
Her first film, "Radiance: The Experience of Light" (1978) and some of her early works were in the genre of experimental filmmaking, but she transitioned into documentary filmmaking after attending, of all things, a Palo Alto City Council meeting.
In 1982, she says, more than 300 people attended a meeting to argue in favor of a nuclear freeze, asserting that "world peace is a local issue," which became the title of her film.
Just about every film she's made, she says, has touched her life or moved her in some way. Her award-winning documentary series on abortion, for instance, was inspired in part by her own experience of having a back-alley abortion. The first film of the series, "When Abortion was Illegal: Untold Stories" (1992), was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary short subject.
The personal-connection rule was no exception for her most recent project, "The Annie Gill Story," which will premiere Jan. 31 in Palo Alto. She and her daughter stumbled across the story during a benefit concert for the nonprofit Lighthouse for the Blind, when Stephen Gill — her two daughters' favorite teacher at Menlo School — took the stage with his daughter Annie.
Annie had survived a head-on accident and a coma, and had experienced blindness and brain damage. The father-daughter pair began singing a duet, and, Ms. Fadiman says, "She could sing like an angel."
The song they sang was called, "When just one person believes in you," from "Snoopy! The Musical," and she decided then and there she wanted to create a film about the Annie Gill story.
The film, she says, is a "heartmelt."
Another thread she sees linking her films is more abstract: a celebration of what she calls "spirit." She doesn't define "spirit" as deity as much as "an intelligence we can't comprehend ... and is there for us as we walk our path."
She says her filmmaking style has evolved with new lessons she's learned. "What I've learned is to step back, and let other people tell their stories." She narrates her stories less. "I let the interviews tell the story more and more." She also avoids telling her viewers what to think or do, preferring to "trust that the viewer will come away thinking, 'I could do something about that,'" she says.
As for what's next, she says she doesn't plan to retire, but aims to transition to something different. "I want to be challenged. I want to contribute," she says.
Perhaps she'll go on a public speaking tour, or travel. She's still seeking guidance. What she does know is that she and her husband will celebrate their 77th birthdays this year, and the past year has sadly brought for her a number of poignant deaths.
"I'm keenly aware that I'm mortal," she says. "The question is: What do you do with that?"
"The Annie Gill Story: If Just One Person Believes in You" will premiere during a free screening at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31, in the El Palo Alto Room of the Mitchell Park Community Center at 3700 Middlefield Road. The event, supported by Abilities United, will be Dorothy Fadiman's "last big screening," she says, and will feature several other of her short films and a mini-concert by Annie and Stephen Gill. Seating is limited and attendees are asked to RSVP to email@example.com.