Grrrl on Film: Part Two of the Grrrl on Film Director Spotlight on Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Dawn Valadez!
In this, the second part of my email interview with directors Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Dawn Valadez, the collaborators talk about breaking the rules of documentary filmmaking, getting the girls to open up on camera, how their film can be used in classrooms, and their future projects.
In your Director's Statement you say that “If there were any rules about documentary filmmaking, we probably broke them all.” How so?
KGF: There are a lot of concerns about objectivity in documentary filmmaking, important concerns in regards to maintaining a fair and unbiased journalism. But I think these concerns are less valid (and less possible) with a character-driven film. Add to that the fact that our characters were little girls when we started filming, and we just decided our style of filmmaking would be more conversational. More relaxed. So we didn’t just train the camera on them the entire time. We hung out, we ate dinner, we let them ask us questions and we ended up filming that as well. We also intruded on their lives in ways many filmmakers wouldn’t: we gave them rides occasionally to make their lives a little easier, to get them to school, or even to the airport because they had no other way of getting there! But overall these had a pretty small impact on the film. We just were being helpful. It was also hard NOT to intervene when kids were bullying or arguing or getting upset. I think because Dawn and I came from backgrounds that worked with children, as teachers and social workers, we wanted to help them! Thankfully, we worked with a cameraman who was not afraid to get in the face of a child who has been upset and is reacting. Because let’s face it, that is what the film was trying to reveal: what is it like to be a pre-teen in all its challenges and rewards.
Can you tell us about the use of video diaries? How much footage did you get from each of the girls? Were they able to keep the cameras?
DV: At first we really wanted the girls to video tape themselves on a regular basis but the girls, of course, had their own ideas. They were not interested in doing that AT ALL! Instead they were curious about the process of film making, or creating a story on camera and of creating stories that were of interest to them. With their direction we decided as the filming of the documentary was coming to a close that hosting a video after-school club was the best method to get them to have time to make films plus we could film them doing that. We worked out of Kristy’s home for at least a semester if not more. We’d pick the girls up once a week and work on their films as a team together and have snacks! It was really sweet and fun. Of course we all got so into the process that we forgot often to film them in the process! Whah! They made great films, some of which are DVD extras on the packaged film. Some of the girls filmed their home life and trips. Rosie filmed at home and you see that in the film and Isha took the camera on her trips to India and shot some amazing stuff, as did her cousins (some of that is in the film as well). Ariana and Esme were not interested in doing that but came up with great short film concepts. The girls kept the cameras and in fact I think one camera got stolen and we replaced it.
Once the films were done I had the crazy idea that we should show case the films, get some publicity and possibly even raise some money. I met with some folks at MOCHA and Pro Arts gallery in Oakland to see if they were interested in the idea. With the Pro Arts team, especially Christian Frock, we came up with the concept of creating the girls bedrooms and showing their films on computers or TVs in their bedrooms. Each girl came up with a theme for their room and then we got stuff from their homes, thrift shops and other places and built the rooms in the gallery. My ex-husband, Andrew Bigler, of Connect Art International helped create the design and then did the logistics of putting the rooms together (it looked amazing!) and artists from Trust Your Struggle created individualized murals for each girl. The photos from the exhibit are on our website.
It was an amazing addition to the project and a great way to celebrate the completion of the production phase of the film.
It seems as if the girls each represent a specific “type” – the “thinker,” the “flirt,” the “tough girl,” and the “good girl.” Of course the girls are much more complex than this, so in choosing specific stereotypes were you hoping to expose the superficiality of those markers? Did you set out to find these types? Or did they come to you during the screening process?
KGF: We did not set out to find any specific types. But we did know that we wanted each girl to be distinct in terms of personality and family. So we chose schools not only that were amenable to us being there with cameras and open to our idea for the film, and not only schools that were in our neighborhoods, but schools that had a lot of diversity. So we started not with the girls, but with the right classrooms. And from there we talked to every girl in the class! And it really was whomever caught our attention, whose story was compelling and unique. That first interview with Ariana, which was really just a test interview but ended up being in the film, blew our minds. She was so firm in her vision of herself and her world perspective. And Rosie spoke in such a mature way, so different from the other students. And Esmeralda was so giggly and bubbly and revealing about her life. I don’t think we set out to break the stereotypes per se, because we just chose the girls that seemed to really contrast with each other in a provocative way, but we knew they themselves would change over the course of the four years we filmed them. And yeah, I guess subconsciously we knew that just by getting to know them, their “typeness” would be revealed to be more complex than what appears on the surface. Once we met their families, we got to know them in a much more contextual way.
The girls come off as very honest with you and confide secrets about boyfriends, internet usage, periods and so on. Was it hard to get them to open up? Were they afraid of what their parents would think upon seeing the film?
DV: We spend so much time with the girls without the cameras it really ended up paying off when the cameras were on. This is a subject matter that you can’t rush! We spent a lot of down time with the girls and their families so that we could really get to know each other. It is really difficult to get children to talk candidly on camera in full sentences. We were able to hang out in their bedrooms where they became quieter but more open. During the first two years the girls were still very young and very open to us but by 6th and 7th grade they all started holding back, not just with us, of course, but at school and with their families—developmentally so much is going on at pre-adolescence and when the girls bodies start changing—it is no wonder they get a bit quieter! One of the big “aha!”s I had while filming was how important it is to keep talking with and especially listening to girls at this age even when you think they are not fully present. They really need to know that adults sincerely care about what they think and they want to learn from us.
After a few of the shoots the girls were a bit anxious about what they parents would think but Kristy and I reassured them that it would all be OK and most things would not end up in the film. When we showed them the final cut of the film BEFORE their parents got to see it, they did have worries about their parents—Isha was scared she’d get in trouble, again, for her internet use, Esme didn’t want her dad to know about her crush on Jermaine, etc. Ariana had nothing to hide so that was not a problem but she was concerned that people would think she was racist for saying that the white teacher wasn’t in her family—she actually does have white people in her family, just not that teacher! Rosie perhaps was the most upset by the film, while she appreciated it for what it was and what it was meant to do, her story was the most painful and she felt that people would not understand her mother or the portrayal of her family. She and her mother wanted to make sure that we helped people understand the difference between PTSD and depression or other mental illness. We did the best that we could but for us the bigger issue was how a parent’s mental illness affects their daughter’s development and hopefully how caring adults could help mitigate the painful consequences. We made some changes to the film based on the girls feedback.
I hope ultimately we did a good job. All of the girls and then their parents gave the thumbs up on the final film.
How did their families feel about the finished project? What about the girls themselves? What can you tell us about what the girls are up to now? Are any of them interested in film?
KGF: We were a little nervous when we first showed the film to the girls and their families. We screened it to them first, in a group, so they would hopefully feel that they were all represented in both embarrassing and heralding ways. We knew they would be embarrassed because who wouldn’t? They laughed, they held their breadth, they were horrified, and for the most part, it was by small things. Then we had a conversation about why certain scenes were in the film. We made a few minor concessions that we felt didn’t change our film but would make a big impact for the girl and her family. It was hard, but ultimately they felt OK with it all and all of them came to screenings and premieres at one time or another. Their families were overwhelmingly supportive and wanted copies immediately. The interest in the film for them has waned after a year or more of screenings and public appearances. And they have just graduated from high-school. All of them! They are turning 18. We filmed an update with Ariana and Esmeralda that you can watch on You Tube. But watch the film first!
How might one go about arranging a community screening of Going on 13? Also, how do you see the film being used in classrooms? How can teachers contact you for more information?
DV: We would love to have groups do community screenings. We have done a number of these through the County Office of Education in San Diego and soon in Alameda County. We’ve screened at a number of youth development and after-school conferences such as BOOST (Best Out-of-School Time national conference), CalSAC, and School’s Out Washington. I have heard of after-school programs using the film for mother-daughters nights, and youth and church groups showing the film at family night meetings. My local community political group, the San Leandro Community Action Network held a community screening that was standing room only with a great discussion after the film.
Groups can purchase or rent the film from New Day Films and invite their friends, classmates and constituents to the screening. On the DVD is an easy to download study guide, developed by staff at New Moon Magazine, that has great discussion questions, art activities and other ways to engage a group to discuss the film.
The film can be used in college and university classrooms and middle school and high school classrooms (or with the PTA and in after-school programs). We know that teachers can use the film in their classrooms by showing the film over the course of a few days, or just relevant clips, and then create a lesson plan using the study guide. We’ve heard great things from professors and teachers who have used the film in their courses on subjects such as urban studies, race/class/diversity, safe schools issues, adolescent development, parenting, gender equity, education, and many more.
We want teachers and professors to use the film and they may contact us directly at [email protected] or call me (Dawn) at 510-326-0309 for more information on how to host a screening. Kristy and I love to speak at screenings and we are affordable!
Recently we were discussing female directors here at the Bitch blogs. Have you experienced any specific difficulties in being a female, even feminist, director? Do you think that women are drawn to the documentary format? If so, why?
KGF: I think you can find a lot more women in documentary filmmaking than narrative feature filmmaking. I think it’s a question of access and of interest. You need far less crew and equipment to make a documentary. The budgets are much smaller. And perhaps we are more interested in the more intimate, human-interest stories rather than the larger epic ones that claim to tell a universal and definitive story. I do know the minute you say that you are working on a film about girls or women, a lot of men just turn off. They are no longer interested. Which is so crazy because if I did that as a woman, I would close off the majority of the films out there, right? Dawn and I were at a prestigious festival where our film was playing and we were at a filmmaker’s dinner. We were sitting at a table with a group of filmmakers and one filmmaker whose film had just screened. It was an impressive film and a few of us were asking questions about it. I happened to ask what camera he had filmed on, and his comment to me was that that was an odd question for a bird to ask. OK so he was British and rude. But hello, we were at a filmmaker’s brunch! He didn’t ask me about our film at all. I don’t know who he assumed I was or where he thought he was, but he certainly didn’t assume that I was a filmmaker or that I had ever held a camera before. And that is kinda what you are up against.
Kristy, can you tell us a bit about your next project, when and where we can expect to see it, and what we can do to help create buzz?
KGF: The History of the Universe as Told by Wonder Woman [co-produced with Kelcey Edwards] is a feature documentary about female superheroes, warrior princesses and other icons of women’s empowerment in popular culture. It looks at the legacy of our longest running and most enduring superheroine as part of a larger conversation about the possibilities and contradictions of women as popular action heroes. The film invites comic book creators, collectors and critics to comment on the strange and fascinating history of Wonder Woman: what sparked her arrival, the effect she did-or didn’t-have on our popular consciousness, and her various incarnations alongside an emerging and evolving feminist movement.
I am currently in production and plan on being in production for another year and a half. We are aiming at releasing in 2011! We definitely plan to make the festival rounds, air on television, and have a limited theatrical broadcast.
What can you do to help? Tell me your best Wonder Woman story! And oh yeah, if you can get me in touch with Lynda Carter and Joss Whedon that would be swell! Visit Vaquera Films to find out more and keep updated on our progress! A blog will be forthcoming!
Dawn, can you tell us a bit about the projects you’re working on right now?
License To Pimp is a feature-length personal documentary about exotic dancers working in San Francisco’s strip clubs. The film follows a whistle-blower, a teen prostitute, an escort, & the filmmaker as they respond to workplace practices after the clubs have morphed into defacto brothels.
I am co-producing with my friend Hima B. It's her story!! She's the director and producer and I am helping her get it done.
Library Girl is a feature length documentary following the life of Avengers front woman Penelope Houston in her life as a library technician at the SF Library. We see through her eyes the fight for freedom of and access to information, and our right to freedom of speech in our pluralist democracy. Penelope and other key librarians show us the crucial role librarians play in protecting our right to read whatever the hell we want without fear of going to jail.
I am directing and producing. Kris Casler is co-producing, and Robert Arnold is editor and camera.
[Thanks again to both Dawn and Kristy! -JKS]
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