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Debra and Pam and Tina and Jane: Women Like Us

By Timothy Lyons

From Tina DiFeliciantonio and Jane C. Wagner's <em>Girls Like Us</em>

The growing popularity of the personal documentary has created some unusual interest in the person(s) behind the camera. The traditional alliance of documentary with journalism meant little concern for the filmmaker's biography, values or opinions on issues. But the personal— or, self-reflexive—documentary has brought with it a kind of "auteur theory" to nonfiction film and video.

Whether the imagemaker is male or female, married or single, liberal or conservative, heterosexual or homosexual—such matters gain consequence in a documentary whose approach is personal. In the consideration of sexual orientation, documentary as an expressive mode has drawn substantial interest from gays and lesbians, not simply to explore subjects of importance to the gay and lesbian and bisexual community but within the larger areas of gender and civil rights.

To explore the "personal" qualities of nonfiction work, International Documentary will look at selected filmmakers with common interests to review the impact of their work. The following article presents four successful lesbian filmmakers whose documentary work has received considerable attention at festivals and on broadcast cable television. Future articles along this line will focus on other groups, such as gay men, Asian Americans and others.


Debra Chasnoff

Standing at the podium of the 1991 Academy Awards, her Oscar for Best Documentary Short (Deadly Deception) clutched in her hand, Debra Chasnoff called for a nation wide boycott of General Electric and was also the first women to come out as a lesbian in her acceptance speech. Her documentary career both before and after this crowning moment has taken on the cutting edge of issues affecting the lesbian and gay community. "I came to filmmaking from the activist arena," she explained in a recent interview. "I was really frustrated with my ability to communicate a different set of values and a different vision of the world with the means available to me through ordinary community organizing. There had to be a way for me to speak to a larger audience about my vision of what's possible."

Her discovery of documentary film is linked to a viewing of Peter Adair's Word Is Out: "I was sitting in a theatre in Cambridge, and I thought, a film about real gay people?... I was lucky enough to be living in Boston, where Margaret Lazarus (Defending Our Lives) was working, because she was the only person I knew who made the kind of films I aspired to make. She took me and some others and said, this is how you edit on a Steenbeck, and this is what you think about when you hire a crew, and this is how you apply for a grant and raise money. I was really fortunate to have her as a mentor."

Chasnoff's first effort, with Kim Klauser, was Choosing Children (45 min., 1984), a ground-breaking documentary that helped shatter the idea that gay people could not be parents. "For me, documentary filmmaking was the perfect match: you could put out a message and you could share people's experiences and life stories. Choosing Children agitated that it should not be impossible for lesbians to become parents. The film was made for the lesbian/gay community, but it turned out to have a much wider audience."

Four years later, Chasnoff co-founded and served as Executive Editor of OUT/LOOK, the lesbian and gay magazine. She served as associate producer of Acting Our Age, a highly acclaimed documentary about women's experience of growing old; the film was featured on the first season (1988) of PBS's P O.V. series. She has also made many videos to help the organizing efforts of several public-interest organizations working on issues as diverse as affordable housing, AIDS, and progressive philanthropy. Between 1990 and 1995, Chasnoff served on the San Francisco Film and Video Arts Commission.

After winning a 1991 Oscar, Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment (27 min.) went on to receive honors at more than 20 festivals. Chasnoff soon began work on It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School (78 min., 1996), a window into what really happens when teachers address lesbian and gay issues with their students, ages six through fourteen, in age appropriate ways.

Her primary motivation was the fact that her son was about to enter kindergarten—she was concerned about the information he'd get in school about his family, with its two lesbian moms. "The calling card for It's Elementary is not that it's a lesbian­ made film but that the American School Counselors Association and the National Education Association thinks this is a wonderful film. The fact that I'm a lesbian certainly affects the sensibility of the film and, of course, influenced my motivation for making it, but whenever I talk about the film I'm really adamant about the fact that a group of people were responsible for the film—gay, straight, bisexual—100 people worked on this film and brought their passion to it, and many of them were heterosexual."

The success of It's Elementary has been against an intense campaign from the religious Right to ban the film in schools. Key to Chasnoff's success has been distribution, not surprising for a graduate with a degree in economics from Wellesley College. "Half of the process is making the documentary and the other half—­equally important to me as a documentary filmmaker—is the distribution process. In that distributing, you have the potential to do a tremendous amount of organizing and mobilization of people to take action on a specific issue or a set of issues." As director of the San Francisco-based Women's Education Media, Chasnoff and co-producer Helen Cohen created a 37 min. educational training version of It's Elementary, in part a response to the attack from the Right. The training version of It's Elementary is available at half-price when purchased with the 78 min. version.

Currently a recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Film and Video Arts Fellowship, Chasnoff is directing a documentary for an ITVS—funded series taking a socially critical look at the push to bring computers and internet access into the schools. "To have that initial wedge on an issue, you don't have to speak to the whole population, just to a key group of people who will come to see your film and will act on the feelings that the film arouses in them, go out and do something to change the larger culture. To me, that's success it's a different kind of success than making a feature film, but very rewarding." She recently ended an involved effort to produce a feature film. And while that project did not come to fruition, she is comfortable remaining with the documentary mode. "I admire people who come into documentary, who have something to say. The films that influence me most are those that are really pushing a vision of a change that needs to happen, a vision to open your eyes to some kind of problem that needs your attention. Documentaries require a passion, a burning feeling, something to say, something really special to offer, that will keep you motivated."


Pam Walton

Pam Walton began producing docu­mentaries after a long career of teaching high school English in a San Francisco suburb. "When I was 25, I went to a [Frederick] Wiseman retrospective and I felt like I learned to see the world in a way I'd never seen it, but it wasn't until 15 years later that I decided to try it myself." With one Master's degree from Stanford, in education, she enrolled in the her partner Master of Arts program in Communication at Stanford, well-known for producing successful documentarians. "I was really fed up with teaching high school, twenty years of teaching English—it was killing me, physically."

For Walton, her sexuality is at the center of her filmmaking. "It never really occurred to me to make a film about a non-gay issue. Part of it is probably a function of my age: I think I have only so much time left so I want to make as many films as I can about gay and lesbian issues. I started when I was 40, and I felt very old. So I chose this one area because it was where I thought I could make the greatest contribution ."

Out in Suburbia (28 min., 1989) featured eleven lesbians discussing their daily routine, demonstrating that they lead very "conventional" suburban lives. The film was voted Best Documentary at the 1989 San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and has been broadcast on more than a dozen local PBS stations.

Gay Youth (40 min.) was completed in June of 1992 and won a CINE Golden Eagle, a Silver Apple at the National Educational Film/Video Festival, and a Blue Ribbon at the American Film and Video Festival. The film was screened at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York City and was also included in the first retrospective of gay and lesbian films, curated by New York's Museum of Modem Art, in June and July, 1994. The film contrasts the stories of two gay young people as a way to break the silence surrounding adolescent homosexuality, and the issue of gay teens and suicide.

Family Values: An American Tragedy (56 min., 1996) is a personal documentary about Walton's efforts to reconnect with her father, a leading figure in the radical religious right. The film won Best Documentary Feature at the 1996 Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival and has been broadcast on PBS member stations in 19 cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Miami. Writing about Family Values in International Documentary (December 1996), Melinda Levin reviewed the film's exhibition at the and 1996 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival: "A mostly older audience was captivated by this film on the fourth day of the festival. The film's comment on the definition of family and the role ideologies play in the construction of identities prompted one audience member to turn to his wife and say, 'This isn't necessarily about lesbianism or the Religious Right. It's about families, you and me, and all of us right now in America."'

She is currently in production on Call to Witness, an hour-long documentary about the intersection of two faith communities within the Lutheran Church: those i n favor of gay and lesbian ordination, and those opposed.

"Almost half of making a documen­tary is creating interest in it, getting people ready for it, to tune into its subject matter, tell them 'this topic is so important... and this film about it is coming!' People might not want to talk about it, but there is a grassroots movement occurring in main stream Protestant denominations, about ordaining gay/lesbian preachers and sanctioning same-sex marriages. Most people hear the word 'religion' and imme­diately clam up, but I think this topic is a key civil rights issue. Once religions say to their congregations that these people are okay, it's okay for them to be your pastors, to get married, that'll be a gigantic step forward. It's about freedom, after all."

Walton teaches part-time in Stanford's graduate film/video program. "I sometimes tell my students that making documentaries is a unique opportunity to participate in democracy. To take on issues, to educate people about those issues, in some ways to change the world. It can be very, very difficult, though, when the biggest reward is just this psychological satisfaction. But when we see the people we're affecting, or visit an audience viewing the work, the lack of those rewards just seems to fade away."


Tina DiFeliciantonio and Jane C. Wagner

The filmmaking team responsible for the recent Two or Three Things But Nothing For Sure and Girls Like Us began their collaboration as students in the film/video graduate program at Stanford University. Di Feliciantonio had graduated from Philadelphia's Drexel University where her film/video professor had recom­mended his alma mater for graduate study. Wagner arrived a year later, having completed undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science from the London School of Economics. The two would study with Kristine Samuelson, Henry Breitrose, and also Ron Alexander, from the National Film Board of Canada, who Wagner characterized as "a really incredible, inspirational teacher [who] taught you that you could make a career out of making documentaries, that it wasn't just a side line."

Each established her own credentials quickly. DiFeliciantonio won a National Emmy as producer/director of Living With AIDS (28 min., 1987), which was broad­cast nationally on PBS and foreign televi­sion. In 1991, she was honored with the Mark Silverman/Sundance Institute's New Producers Fellowship. Since then, she has worked on a variety of feature films, including Mira Nair's Kama Sutra; HBO's Truman and Citizen Cohn; Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia, and the critically acclaimed independent feature My New Gun. She was also associate producer on MTV's Red, Hot & Dance. Wagner's work includes Tom's Flesh, winner of the 1995 Sundance Film Festival Award for Achievement in Short Filmmaking, and aired on Sundance Channel and British television; also the award-winning Hearts & Quarks; and Women, Children and AIDS. In 1994, she received a Telly Award for her show-piece trailer/television ad for The San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Wagner was associate producer on the hour-long historical documentary Maxine Sullivan: Something To Remember Me By, co-produced by France's LaSept and Britain 's Channel 4.

About their initial collaboration, DiFeliciantonio said, "Over a period of time, we began to see that we really had a very similar focus on characters and stories and subject matter, a sociological , political vision of things we wanted people to see and consider in a different light. We shared very similar motivations." Added Wagner: "And we really considered giving voice to people whose voices you don't often hear. We both were interested in this." Their collaborations have included: Culture Wars (58 min., 1995), a program in the series The Question of Equality (on which DiFeliciantonio was also a series consulting producer), broadcast on PBS and British television; Una Donna (30 min., 1993), aired as part of NPR's multi­cultural series Legacies: Tales From America; and co-producing the award­ winning Twinsburg, OH: Some Kind of Weird Twin Thing with director Sue Marcoux (30 min., 1991), which was broadcast on PBS and foreign television.

Unlike some gay/lesbian filmmakers who restrict their topics to those that are part of sexual orientation, DiFeliciantonio and Wagner collaborate on projects more centered in gender than lesbian or gay issues. "Tom's Flesh is about a gay man and his identity," noted Wagner. "And Living With AIDS, my first film," added DiFeliciantonio, "is about a gay man... If you are queer and have made films that deal with your experience, I think there may be the misconception that all of your work may deal with queer issues. Of course, you bring your whole life experience to your work. There are other areas of my experience that I think are also important to explore on film. We certainly never leave behind who we actually are."

Wagner and DiFeliciantonio's Two Or Three Things But Nothing For Sure, an impressionistic short film on author Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina), was broadcast as part of She Shorts on P.O. V. during this past summer. Produced for Channel 4 UK, the film premiered in the U.S. at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival and has won awards such as the Grand Jury Prize at the Aspen Short Film Festival and the Silver Spire at the 1997 San Francisco International Film Festival. Their film Girls Like Us, a documentary produced for the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and developed at the American Film Institute's Writers Workshop, was broadcast on P.O.V. and foreign television. The film has received numerous awards, including a recent National Emmy nomination, the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, a Gold Award at the Chicago International Film Festival, a Golden Apple at the National Media Education Network, and the Grand Jury Prize at the 1997 Charlotte North Carolina Film Festival. The film features an ethnically diverse group of four working class teenage girls from South Philadelphia, who strut, flirt and testify about corning of age over the course of four years (age 14-18). "It's very interesting ," Wagner said, about how the gay and lesbian film audience has developed. "We were just up in Toronto, at the Inside Out Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and they had a mini-retrospective of our films. They teamed together three films, Tom's Flesh, Girls Like Us and Two or Three Things..., and Dorothy Allison came up. And it was great to have those screened at a gay and lesbian festival. The audience at this particular screening was primarily lesbian and since Girls Like Us doesn't deal directly with lesbian subject matter, and Tom's Flesh is about a gay man, it was interesting to see how the lesbian and gay audience has evolved in terms of their expectations. When we were at the 1993 San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, anything that fell outside of these very narrow definitions of what was lesbian and gay cinema would get hissed off the screen. We did this trailer for the festival and it had this flame blower and an angel: the flame blower was a man and the angel was a woman. And they embrace in the end." ("The flame blower was African-American and the angel was white," DiFeliciantonio added. "It was about the communities coming together. Well, people just went nuts!")

Remarking on the nature of conflict in any collaboration, DiFeliciantonio offered: "If Jane is over here and I'm way out here and we're at loggerheads, I consider that a part of the creative process, and that friction, that tension is something that's going to move the project forward. I look at that sort of friction as a positive. We never have diversions—creative or even political—in what we want to do. Any kind of conflict seems a part of the whole to me, healthy. You have to be really honest about how you approach the creative process. At the beginning of our working relationship, we found that we were having some conflicts—you'd find that in any close and intense relationship, especially a creative one. It's something we addressed and really dealt with, and we tried to learn the skills to move on, to constantly be able to address that throughout the relationship." For Wagner, "It helped that we'd done work as individuals, gotten our own identities."

What is key to their beginning a project is what Wagner characterized as "presenting things that were known but in a new way." DiFeliciantonio continued: "We don't make a film for a general audience. We make a film for a specific reason. We made Girls Like Us to be used as a catalyst for young girls to speak about their own sexual identity and gender identification. What we try to do is to be very specific about the purpose of the film and how we want it to be used. And then our challenge is how do we universalize this very specific story so that a larger general audience can get something out of the film."

Regarding funding their films, DiFeliciantonio stressed that "you really need to be aware of other peoples needs. You need to be aware of what you're doing and what people need, and try to find that match for that particular project. That consideration happens sooner for us now than it used to." Added Wagner, "I tend to fall in love with projects and then just have to do them. The problem is that you have to find a way to do them." During 1998, DiFeliciantonio and Wagner completed Walk This Way, a documentary special on understanding diversity, broadcast as part of USA Network's award-winning Erase The Hate Campaign.

They recently completed working as editor and co-producer on the HBO documentary special Reno Finds Her Mom, broadcast in the spring of 1998. Silent Voices, their upcoming historical documentary on the marginalization of women and independent filmmakers during cinema's silent era, was recently awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship.


TIMOTH Y J. LYONS has served as Editor of International Documentary since October 1996.