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Meema Spadola and 'Breasts'

By Martha Sandlin

 The cover photo from Meema Spadola's 'Breasts.'

Meema Spadola, a 27-year-old filmmaker, just returned from Women Make Waves, a Taiwan film festival and the first for her film Breasts, a cable documentary she made for Cinemax that is making a few waves of its own.

Breasts aired January 27 of this year and was the highest rated documentary ever shown on Cinemax. It features interviews with 22 women-many topless-ranging in age from 6 to 84-years-old. The women discuss how breasts play a crucial role in a woman's life, from puberty to motherhood, sex, health and aging.

What's happening with the film now, and what are you doing?

Meema Spadola: I feel like the mother of a wonderful child who is going out into the world, and I am so happy that people like the film. We [co-producer Thom Powers] have a foreign distributor, Films Transit International, in Montreal, and it's selling very well—to Poland, Sweden, Australia, and on and on. I am working on a book proposal that sort of grew organically out of the film, and I'm screening it here and there. It's coming out on home video this summer.

How did you come to docu­mentary and how do you get work?

I started when I was 18 and a scholarship student at Sarah Lawrence College. I worked every Christmas break, every summer break, and I was lucky enough to start working for a documentary company in Maine called "Varied Directions." I started working as a researcher—whatever was needed—and I got to be their person during the breaks. When I graduated, I had experi­ence, you know, I had a real resume, and I started work as an assistant editor on a documentary that Rocky Collins was mak­ing for The American Experience.

I am very m uch a freelancer. I just did a PSA spot on teen smoking for HBO, and I wrote an article for an online magazine. I did a 9 minute documentary for This American Life on NPR. It 's about an "enucleator," a man who removes the eyes of dead people for transplant. It's a quirky little mini-documentary that gave me a chance to face my own fears of death. And I am going to be doing another project for them soon about my family moving to Maine when I was a little kid. We moved from New York to Maine and lived in a tent, and my Dad built a house, and it was very back to the land for myself and my younger brother.

Where does your interest in documentary come from?

I grew up without a television—just listening to the radio. I grew up listening to NPR and really loving it. When I was little, I wanted to be an actor and I wanted to be a lawyer and I wanted to be on NPR. I wanted to be Susan Stamberg. I listened to a lot of books on radio—a lot of dramatizations. I think part of it is that there are a million stories out there and most people don't know how to tell their stories, and I can take their story and present it for them. You know, I get something out of it and hopefully they get some­ thing out of it. All of the women who were in Breasts have responded very positively to me, saying it was an experience they will take with them. That for me is just amazing. Instead of me coming to them and saying, I would like to exploit you and use you and take your story away and then leave them feeling robbed—instead, we all got something out of it.

Do you know documentaries that have done that?

Sure. Look at the Loud Family.

You've seen The American Famity series?

Well, I've read about it. I haven 't actually seen it.

What makes a good docu­mentary?

I think there is always this dilemma of how far do you want to push people. Do you want to be a good docu­mentary filmmaker or a good human being? And I want to be both. For me, what is exciting in documentary is when you are getting in very deep but still having a sense of respect. I think it is tough because sometimes you are sacrificing some of the juicier bits, but to me that is what it is all about. I never pushed anybody far enough that they cried. I could have been much more aggressive or I could have been more passive, but I was very engaged. I asked a lot of questions and I was very active in directing them. That's just my style, to kind of guide people without putting words in their mouths.

Who has influenced you in documentary?

I knew you were going to ask me that! I admire Barbara Kopple for the work she has done. I worked—not for her, but sort of at her place—and I got to know her a little bit. I have an immense amount of respect for her. I particularly love in Harlan County, USA where she is holding the boom and running and a guy in a pickup truck says, "Hey, have you got a permit to be here?" And you hear her little voice say, "Yeah, I got a permit." And he says, "Let me see it," and you hear her little voice say, "Well, I left it at the hotel..." or something. You know she is bullshitting him, but she is like this tough little woman with balls and I love that.

Beyond documentary I love feature films. I love Howard Hawks. I don't know how that impacts, but I also love screwball comedies and I love film noir. Not to sound arrogant about this but I don't think there are a lot of films like Breasts out there. It's not verite. It is talking heads, in a sense, but it 's not like the historical talking heads: it's a weird hybrid .

What was your goal for the film?

To be blunt, Thom Powers and I were just desperate to make a film. We had been trying to make an hour-long documentary about gay and lesbian parents. We were not successful in raising money, and so Thom said, "What other idea do you have?" I said, "I have always wanted to make a documentary about breasts. He said, "Fabulous!" We very naively did up a budget for a few thousand dollars and a couple of months of work, so we started with very modest goals. And it is amazing to me that it was on Cinemax and I am flying to Taiwan and selling it all over.

What is next? Is there something special that interests you?

Yes, I'd love to do this thing about the kids of gays and lesbians. I'd love to do a documentary on sororities because it is about this very interesting clash between the modem, liberated woman and the 1950s girl who was bred to be a wife. It raises questions about the ideals of womanhood.

Are you committed to exploring sexuality?

No. My commitment is to whatever interests me or moves me or excites me. Breasts goes beyond sexuality. I think it is more about what it means to be a woman. Every time I talk about this, it ends up sounding very grandiose, but I am constantly asking what is this all about. Why are women psychotic about their breasts? What does it say about women? I mean, I am a smart woman: why do I still worry that my body is imperfect?

Documentaries in the '70s and early '80s explored the images of women in advertising, the way girls are raised, and tried to suggest some answers. Did you look at these films?

No. It is interesting, just coming back from Taiwan, where they are very interested in feminism, but where it is like where we were in the '70s. It's really brand new and with many things when they are brand new, there is this kind of didactic finger shaking. Like, this is the way it is supposed to be and it's been wrong up until now and we have to correct it. To me this is a huge bore, whether you are talking about feminism or right wing politics or whatever. It 's just a drag. It is not enter­ taining to me. The thing that I keep thinking about Breasts is that it is stealth feminism, and young guys who are, like, "Yo, check out the breasts!" will tune in and before they know it, they have watched a film that might enlighten them a little bit.

Why do young women avoid issues of feminism?

Because feminism has a bad name now. What people think is that it's going to be some kind of scolding, didactic, boring, bad tasting medicine that is supposed to be good for us. But it's making you feel bad—not like celebrating the fun of it. In Breasts I just want to have fun and to ask nosy questions and to talk about this stuff.

You don't feel compelled to see the films that went before yours as a part of your research?

No... I know, I know. I feel compelled to do so many things and I am embarrassed, but I'm reading Edith Wharton now and although I love film and I love documentary, that is not my life. I like to read and I want to talk to my friends and I want to go on trips. And I work a lot. I didn't go to film school so I don't have that background. I grew up in rural Maine, and I did not have a television, and you did not see movies in rural Maine. It is changing now, but when I was growing up you did not. So, no, I don 't have like a huge encyclopedic knowledge of docu­mentary filmmaking. So, it is on my list of things to do.

You had an all-woman crew on Breasts. Why was that important when the women would be seen eventually on national television?

Because when you are being interviewed, you don 't think about the wide audience; but you think about the immediate circumstances. So it was for their comfort, but it was also for me. I had never worked on an all-woman crew, but many times I've been the only woman on an all male crew. It felt very different. It felt supportive.

Did the women have any misgivings when the film aired?

No. I really was nervous, although I felt in my heart of hearts that I had done right by everyone. I felt it was honest. I felt it was sensitive. I felt that it was compassionate, but at the same time, certain moments—like the woman who did the pencil test [a pencil placed under a woman's breast should fall to the floor if her breasts are ideally perky]: I felt really nervous about it and I called her up. I just wanted to make sure. She said, of course she was scared and nervous and a little flipped out about seeing it with an audience, but she trusted me and felt I did a good job. The funny thing is that I get lots of letters from viewers and they fall into two—women who say thank you so much; and men who say thank you so much, and I am really interested in so and so, I think she is very beautiful, sexy... or something. The woman who did the pencil test and failed is one of the ones who got these letters.

What does it look like, for people just getting out of school and wanting to follow in your path—to strike out in the direction of independent documentary film?

I want to call a moratorium. It is just overwheling, it is really, really hard . Last year I had two days off the whole summer. I was just knocking myself out, and it's ridiculously hard because it is so easy to get cheap, free labor. And often the irony is that they are doing a social issue documentary and want to exploit you to do it. But for all my crankiness about there being too many people—wanting to get into film—I do encourage people. I am really young, too, and I have a lot of friends my age or younger who are also trying to do this. They say, so you actually managed to get your thing on television, how'd you do that? I am happy to tell them, because it can only be good for me if more people are doing good work.

MARTHA SANDLIN is an award-winning documentary filmmaker; as a guest faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College, she teaches a documentary workshop for advanced students .