As a producer, how do you decide on the right projects and directors to work with? Why is the role of a producer important?
I have worked with the same directors over and over again, so for me producing is a lot about creating a relationship that can work in the long term. I think it is actually difficult to find people with whom you share a real aesthetic, political and social sensibility. It’s actually very difficult to find that so when I find them, I stay with these people.
So far, I have worked with a couple different directors in my career and I plan to keep working with them because we share a vision. One of them is Laura Gabbert with whom I made Sunset Story and we are working on a new project together now. Another one I also work with is Grace Lee, we've done American Revolutionary and also the Grace Lee Project. We also made a short film together called Barrier Device.
In terms of a producer’s role and why is it important? In my experience, producers are very important as creative collaborators in the documentary filmmaking process. When you start making a documentary, you are working with a very big topic. In the beginning, you have some sense that there is a story and the topic is very rich and you sense there is ultimately going to be a film. You can kind of feel that. But you never know how you are going to get from an idea to the film, and in the example of the American Revolutionary, that process took 12 years. It just took a really long time and so having a collaborator is very important. I think that film would have died if Grace and I hadn’t been working on it together. It was just too big and unwieldy. So the role of producer is to be a good collaborator along the way.
In really great documentary filmmaking, the producer is also writing the film with the director and conceiving the film at each stage. I think the producer can really help shape the story and the direction of the film whether it is at the idea phase, or when you’re actually shooting or when you’re at the editorial phase. The producer sort of holds the core idea and the core vision of the film and articulates that to the world.
Both Sunset Story and American Revolutionary are about women taking active roles to better themselves and the world they live in. Is there a conscious decision to be attracted to stories about women, made by women? Why is that so?
For me, I am very committed to telling women's stories. I understand these stories because I am a woman and so I want to share the insights that I have with the world. I’m attracted to women characters and women's stories because I relate to them most directly and it’s sort of organic to whom I am.
It is also a conscious political choice. I do really believe in women producers supporting women directors and women stories. There is data that shows that women are really falling behind in the film industry in Hollywood. We represent 4 percent of the directors of the top 100 grossing films in Hollywood and that number hasn’t changed for 12 years or 15 years. Even in documentaries, you often find female producers supporting male directors and so for me politically, I’m trying to make the world a more just place and a place where my stories are just as important as the stories in the mainstream. So yes, it is a conscious choice for me.
There seems to be an increase in the number of female filmmakers, especially in documentaries in recent years. Has media representation of women in films changed?
That static data of 4 percent of films made by women in the top one hundred grossing films are of Hollywood films. In documentaries, you see many more women making documentaries and it is much closer to 50 percent in the documentary world. However, the research has not been done yet about who has more access to funding in the documentary world. My gut is telling me that the higher-budget documentaries; documentaries in the 1 million or 1.5 million dollar range, are mostly directed by men. I think there is a discrepancy in the budget level even though you see a higher representation of documentary films directed by women. Hopefully, there will be new research and I’m hoping we can create more research to show that women are actually accessing the funds in documentaries but right now it is just my gut telling me that from my general observation.
In terms of more stories about women on the screen in documentaries, I don’t have the data on that. I was at a dinner party and people were talking about the film Frozen and how great it is. The Prince does not drive the protagonist’s scenes. The main storyline is actually between two sisters. There is something called the Bechdel test, which is a simple test that you can use on any films. It basically asks if a film features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. That is the test and very few films pass that test. People are talking about the Bechdel test and a lot of research right now talks about gender in media. Our research at the Sundance Institute has been pretty extensive and groundbreaking research in the last few years on independent films and gender. There is a lot of consciousness out there so I do think there is some sort of change happening. I don’t know for sure but it is my gut feeling that we are.
Are female filmmakers getting the recognition that they deserve?
Yes, I think they are making really good films. I think we discovered in our research at Sundance that female directors were getting their films accepted into the Sundance Film Festival at a higher rate, and that the acceptance rate is exceeding the submission rate, because their films are of such high quality.
Are they truly getting the recognition that they deserve?
That is a really complicated question. What the acceptance and submission data told us about the Sundance Film Festival is that they were not making many films. They were submitting only at a rate of 17%. They were accepted at the rate of about 25%. They were making really good films and were somewhat able to get their films made. However, men seem to have more resources to complete their projects than women.
In terms of recognition, no. I don’t think there is enough recognition. I think the male critics, and most critics are male, do not know how to evaluate films with female protagonists that well all the time. There is some lack of understanding, lack of ability to read and interpret films by and about women. So I think the critics are not acknowledging these films enough. I think buyers are not acknowledging films enough because buyers tend to take a more traditional view of what is going to do well in the market place. Meanwhile, the market place has a huge female audience that wants films with female protagonists. So no, I don’t think women are getting the recognition they deserve.
Do you think documentaries should motivate a response or some kind of action from the audience?
I think there is a lot of different kinds of documentaries and that depends if you are talking specifically about social action documentaries. I don’t think that every documentary film is meant to be a film that is about social change or to elicit some sort of directed action to change the world. I think some documentary films are just great stories, I really do. They can be absorbed by the audience and you will never know how they can have ripple effects in the audience.
I think with Sunset Story, there is no direct action to it. Sunset Story is about two old women in their old age, who were also amazing characters. I think it can be informative for the audiences and interesting for them to see two old women who are incredibly smart and incredibly funny and that can inform and expand an audience’s worldview. At the same time, there are films that are very much about action and change like The Invisible War by Kirby Dick It is about changing military policy on sexual assault in the military law so that is very specific and very much going for a policy shift.
I think films on their own can be valid. I think films, documentary films, don’t always have to be educational, informative or to try to create a reaction or action. For example, a film like Cutie and the Boxer is just a great story about a couple and their kind of crazy fights and that is great. To me, art is valid unto itself. Great stories are valid unto themselves. They expand how we see the world and they elicit compassion and empathy in the audience because the act of identifying with a character in a scene is very necessary for human beings. It expands our heart, soul and our sense of connection and empathy.
I guess the short answer is that not every film should have an impact. It really depends on the film. Some films are designed for that and that is totally fine. It is important to remember that documentaries are like any films or any piece of art. Documentaries exist on a spectrum, with different kinds of them.
How do you think documentary filmmakers can continue to push the boundaries and reinvent documentaries as an engaging and educational medium?
There is a lot of conversation about the fact that documentaries and fiction are not that different from each other. Even in documentaries, filmmakers are constructing the reality and versus something that is made up, there is a blurred line these days. Films like Boyhood, are dealing with documentary elements and likewise, there are many documentary films with fictional elements. Even in Cutie and the Boxer, the animation sequences are sequences out of her brain. She is imagining them. So do they belong in a documentary? Yes, they do but they are not pure fact or pure information.
Is there anything I haven’t asked that you want to add?
I’m so happy with GOOD DOCS and the educational work that you guys are doing with American Revolutionary. I think for American Revolutionary, there is a huge university audience out there that will really connect with this film. We were very rigorous in showing the story and the history through Grace Lee Boggs’ eyes and that is the perspective that we rarely get to see. So I think that is why it is such an important educational piece because it is a whole new perspective on history.