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Motherhood and Moviemaking (Not Always in that Order)

Sara Archambault has been thinking about how women in her life extend their roles as mothers into the way they think about social justice, fairness, and equality. As it happens, the women who came to mind are also making documentary films. Finding the time, money, and energy to keep all of their passions afloat is an intricate puzzle, made only more difficult, it often seems, by a charged cultural conversation about what’s expected of parents. Or to put a finer point on it: moms. The Independent asked Sara if she could give a snapshot of what’s going on out there, right now, for independent filmmaking moms. So she and the two filmmakers below graciously responded to our request to have them tell their stories in their own words.

After you read, make sure you check out our Facebook photo album, featuring the filmmakers below and several of their films’ characters.

Mother of Note: Jenny Alexander
Daughter: almost three-year-old Maya
Daytime Preoccupation: part-time producer at Northern Light Productions
Passion Project: Director/producer of the documentary film The Vigil
Log Line: The Vigil is the improbable story of a small group of immigrant women who, armed with their faith and traditions, set out to stop America’s most controversial immigration law.
To Support the Film: http://filmmakerscollab.org/films/the-vigil/

A Favorite “Mom Story” From the Field: The main character of The Vigil is Gina, an undocumented single mother living at ground zero of America’s immigration battle in Maricopa County, Arizona. The film follows Gina as she risks losing her business and being separated from her son when she takes a public stand against Arizona’s controversial immigration law, Senate Bill 1070. Motivated by teaching her young son to “keep his head held high and be a good citizen,” Gina’s advocacy takes her and a small group of determined women all the way to the US Supreme Court.

There’s a scene where the women lead a peaceful vigil on the Arizona State Capitol. I think being a mother has allowed me to have a deeper understanding of the consequences of our choices—and moved me to want to explore, on film, the choices these mothers make at great personal risk. I think motherhood can lead to a particular kind of activism that is usually overlooked and underestimated in the public sphere.

Oddly, at the center of the peaceful vigil that the women hold for over one hundred days on the Arizona state capital lawn is a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a Mexican Virgin Mary who represents… motherhood, of course.

My Own “Mom Story” From the Field: I was interviewing Gina’s son Bryan, who’s 11, on my most recent shoot in Arizona. A friend volunteered to go with me to watch my daughter Maya, who’s almost 3, while I worked. But before my friend could arrive, Maya decided that she wanted to conduct the interview, which went something like this:

Maya: What is your name?
Bryan: Bryan.
Maya: What is your mommy’s name?
Bryan: Mommy.

I can now say Maya conducted her first interview at two years old.

On Balancing Work, Art, Life: I think there is an unofficial club of mothers who are filmmakers; we give each other a knowing nod when we run into each other. Membership requirements include trying to write grants with a baby on your lap, getting up in the middle of night to carve out work time, having a to-do list for a day’s worth of work to complete during nap time. What does it take to not throw in the towel? I have been very lucky to work at a production company that supports parents, and have benefited from opportunities and advice provided by other mamas in the film industry who have somehow managed to make it work—they are the ones I think of on the days I doubt it is all possible.

What I Want for Mother’s Day: I’d like readers of this article to think of a multi-tasking mother they know (not hard to find) and offer to wash the car or cook a meal or watch the kids so that mom can have a moment to sit in the sun and watch the grass grow. (By the way, as I finish writing this my daughter is sticking her finger in my ear.)

Mother of Note: Sara Archambault
Main Occupation: Mom to 20-month-old Oscar Bull
Daytime Preoccupation: Program director at the wonderful LEF Foundation
Passion Project: Producing the feature-length documentary film Street Fighting Man
Log Line: Street Fighting Man is a character-driven documentary that follows three men—each a generation apart—as they seek to define their lives in post-industrial Detroit.
To Support the Film: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/andrewjames/street-fighting-man-documentary-post-production

A Favorite “Mom Story” From the Field: Street Fighting Man follows three primary characters. Luke Williams is a middle-aged man remodeling a former crack house after being homeless for several years; James “Jack Rabbit” Jackson is a retired police officer struggling to save his neighborhood from crime after the local police station is dissolved; and Deris Solomon is a young single father who wants to leave behind a high-risk life on the streets. Through the stories of these men, the film unflinchingly reveals how hard it can be to build a future when everything seems to be crumbling around you.

I speak almost daily with Andrew James, the director of Street Fighting Man, about strategies concerning our film. These conversations are typically about planning, grants, partners, and our general production needs. The tone changed one afternoon. We had just wrapped principle photography when Andrew discovered that one of our main characters, Deris, had been arrested on an old bench warrant and was being held in a Detroit County jail until he could be extradited to Ohio. Concerned, we discussed a few options. I knew that if we were going to do justice to Deris’s story, we had to get our cameras into that jailhouse. I was on the phone for days from my home in Providence, trying to track down and convince the proper authorities in Detroit that they would be safe with our cameras in their world. We were not doing an expose; we were following this amazing kid. After days of messages, emails, and waiting, I finally got the permission we needed and gave Andrew the go-ahead to gather the gear together and see Deris.

And then, I made one more call.

I knew I was stepping out of bounds, and definitely outside of my job description, but I pushed a little harder and asked the powers-that-be if they could please also allow Deris’s mother in to see him. I wasn’t sure how long Deris would be held once he got to Ohio (at the time they were saying anywhere between two weeks and seven years) and I knew how hard, to near impossible, it would be for his mother to get there to see her son. Maybe it was the sound of the baby in the background, or maybe this particular officer was feeling charitable and remembering his own mom. Either way, I’m not quite sure how we pulled this miracle off, but Andrew walked into that jailhouse with a camera in one arm and Deris’s mom on the other.

On Balancing Work, Art, Life: Motherhood is an unexpected and happy surprise in my life. For years I could barely keep my plants alive, so the prospect of dedicating my life to keeping a small human alive scared the crap out of me and after many years wondering “what if,” I began to prepare for a life without children. Then it happened and I don’t even remember what life was like before the arrival of Oscar Bull. (I vaguely remember sleeping in and reading.) I gush, but it is definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and, so far, the most worthwhile.

In terms of my professional life, I’ve been involved with and inspired by cinema for as long as I can remember. In my very varied work at foundations, in production, exhibition, and education; my entire career has been dedicated to helping other people get their films made, funded and seen. But I had yet to make something that I really felt had my full creative seal on it, until Street Fighting Man.

Being a producer allows me some flexibility. Though our film takes place in Detroit, my advocacy and support for the project takes place largely from my home in Providence, RI. (Thank you, 21st century!) I am fortunate that I have a supportive partner who takes on many parenting duties when I need to focus on the film. But it’s hard. I feel guilty a lot. I feel torn. I fall asleep at 10:30 pm with my computer on my lap as I’m writing a grant, and constantly wonder if I’m selling the film short or selling my child short or selling my husband short or performing well enough at work.

But beyond all of these internal struggles common to all working moms I know, there is something about being a mom that has given me a new sense of bravery. I want my son to see his mother working hard to not only pursue her own dreams, but to tell stories about the world that might change the way people understand it. I want him to know how much work and focus goes into this kind of life, to see that the personal reward is great and, with some luck and good planning, the public effect can be great too. I want him to have a mom who loves being a mom and loves being a filmmaker in equal measure.

What I Want for Mother’s Day: I want that voice of guilt in my head to stop. I want to be freed from that nagging sense that I’m not good enough, and know with all my heart that I’m the best mom, the best partner, and the best filmmaker that I can be and, dammit, that’s pretty extraordinary.

Mother of Note: Anna Fitch
Main Occupation: Mom to four-month-old Dylan Tilly White
Usual Preoccupation: Freelance director/producer, National Geographic Channel
Passion Project: Producing and co-directing the feature-length documentary film, The Genius of Marian
Log line: The Genius of Marian follows Pam White in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Her son, the filmmaker, documents her struggles to hang on to a sense of self as she attempts to write a book about her mother, the renowned artist Marian Williams Steele. As Pam’s family comes together to support her, they must also prepare for the new reality that Alzheimer’s disease brings.

A Mom Story From the Field: The first time I met my mother-in-law to be was in footage. In the early days of my relationship with Banker White, he showed me excerpts from video he had recently shot with his mom, Pam. It was a casual interview shot with a small DSLR camera. In the video, Banker asked his mom about The Genius of Marian, a book she was writing about her mother, Marian Williams Steele. During these interviews they also talked about Pam’s recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis. In the editing room, Banker was cutting together footage of this tender conversation with ethereal Super 8 home movies from Pam’s childhood. He asked me to help him edit the trailer for the film and when we were done I felt like I knew Pam.

Four months later I found myself driving east from San Francisco—way east, to Banker’s family home outside Boston. It’s a long drive so I had lots of time to think. The footage had given me a rare insight into who she was, and who Banker was, and I wondered how it would feel when we finally met. At 8:30 pm on a Thursday night, after 3,222 miles of anticipation, we drove into the long dark driveway of Banker’s parents’ house. Pam and Ed White were there to greet us. When I finally met Pam in person, I liked her as much as I had expected. But she seemed a little reserved. I figured this was normal; after all she had not had the opportunity to pre-screen video footage of me. A few days later I walked up to Pam and Banker and heard her say, “Should I tell her?” Banker laughed and encouraged her. Pam turned to me, searched for her words, and said, “I wanted to tell you that … I really like you even though … I don’t really know you.”

That was how it started. Banker and I then spent the better part of the next two years living with Pam and Ed, helping the family and working on what would become the documentary film, The Genius of Marian.

On Balancing Work, Art, Life: Banker and I have a four-month-old baby girl named Dylan. Last night I had a dream that we had two babies, Dylan and a slightly smaller version of her. It was a classic anxiety dream. I forgot one of the babies in a parking garage and found her crying hours later. I woke up somewhat relieved Dylan safely in her crib. The metaphors in my dreams are thinly veiled: there are still two babies that need me right now.

One of my babies is Dylan. The other is this extremely important film, which is a loving portrait of the meaning of family. Pam started her book to tribute her mother. Banker began filming Pam to help her continue the project when she lost the ability to write. I joined the project as part of the family and then as a creative collaborator. And during the course of production Banker and I had our own daughter, Dylan. It’s nice to think someday she will get to know Pam, her grandmother, through this footage too.

What I Want for Mother’s Day: Four months into having a baby I still haven’t started to identify as a “mom.” When I hear the word mom, I think of MY mother. I think the switch might happen when our daughter starts to call me Mom. Maybe when I hear myself being addressed that way a few thousand times it will stick. As Mother’s Day approaches I’m focusing less on myself as a mom and more on my own mother. Having a baby has completely changed how I see her. She makes a lot more sense now.

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2 Responses to “Motherhood and Moviemaking (Not Always in that Order)”

  1. lucien101

    I am glad that the day to day plight of women and mothers are being documented and published. people need to be aware more on how difficult it is to be a mother and manage a career at the same time. In fact, being a mother is a full-time career on its own.

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  2. JamesGribbon

    Its really interesting to see how having a baby changed your perceptions on mothers day. Loved reading this :)