ACCLAIMED FILMMAKER & WRITER PAMELA TANNER BOLL, WHO CO-PRODUCED THE OSCAR-AWARD WINNING BORN INTO BROTHELS, SPEAKS WITH Paradigm Shift’s COMMUNITY OUTREACH COORDINATOR, JULIA K. WEIS, ABOUT WHY HER STRUGGLE BALANCING A CREATIVE IDENTITY WITH MATERNAL RESPONSIBILTY PROMPTED HER TO DIRECT HER FIRST DOCUMENTARY, WHO DOES SHE THINK SHE IS?
CHECK OUT THE TRAILER ON PShiftTV HERE!
Q: For what reason did you create Who Does She Think She Is? What was your inspiration?
A: I have been a writer and painter for most of my adult life, but the fact is, I stopped writing and painting during college up until I was 32 years old. That was when I had my first child. For those years I didn’t do anything creative because I couldn’t imagine supporting myself as an artist and continuing to create new ideas. So, instead, I decided to work in NYC for a commodity trading company, then for a literary agency, and then for another company. After that, I got married.
I always wanted children, so I had a child and it completely changed my life. It absolutely turned everything upside down in a way that was remarkable to me. I was amazingly in love with this little boy that I had and yet as the same time scared I would do something wrong. I was scared of the responsibility of keeping him alive and I was very cognizant that it was me who was keeping him alive. I had never felt that kind of responsibility and utter love before.
I started writing again because I didn’t know how to make sense of all these feelings. At the time, though I didn’t realize it then, I was also experiencing a bit of post-partum depression and that was terrifying too. And so, I started writing a lot about being a mother and being pulled between the baby’s needs and my own. I quickly had two more sons.
When my oldest was about a year old, I felt I had to express this part of my life again. Long story short, I started doing these things and put aside my fear that I wasn’t very good at them. I started getting some recognition for my work. I taught at Harvard for a couple years, based on the strength of my essays and short stories. Still despite all of that I was feeling caught between the needs of my family and work. No matter where I was it felt like I was in the wrong place.
My boys became teenagers and all of a sudden I wasn’t at the center of their lives. I thought, Gee – what about my own life? I always imagined I would be a writer with five books published. I was terrified of growing older and having nothing to show for it other than these three beautiful boys.
And so, I heard of Maye Torres from Taos, New Mexico. She’s a “thirteenth generation Taosena” who works on a lot of public sculptures. It’s still primarily a male field, but that is her main job – to be an artist. I couldn’t believe that this woman was making her living as an artist despite all of the hardships that she was experiencing. She was a single mother, divorced and I thought, how in the hell does she do that? I felt like I was living my life halfway, without as much zeal. So she was the real inspiration.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced while developing and then filming the documentary?
A: I had never made a film before and I didn’t have any experience. In fact when I told my sons and husband that I was going to do a film, my boys looked at me and said, “Mom, you don’t even know how to turn the camera on,” which is absolutely true because I am not technologically gifted. My husband was pleased, but his notion of the film was that I would take a small camera and turn it on to some of the women I work with, which I didn’t want to do. I said to him: I’m going to make a big, beautiful film with all of these issues I’ve struggled with all of my life.
Some of the biggest challenges I overcame had to do with renegotiating my marriage. It was really the first time I said, “Okay-I’m doing this for me,” whereas, most of the time I said, “Well-I’m doing this, but it’s really for everyone else too.” The project required a lot of time away from home, and because of that my husband and I had to renegotiate the terms of our marriage and the roles we took on with our children.
I also worked with very experienced film people, which was often a challenge. They were pleased to be working with me-it’s a nice field that way-but sometimes, with my cameraman in particular-who is both good and committed-it was difficult to communicate. Our ideas of a shoot were very different and trying to figure out how to communicate was a constant issue, in ways that directly related to some of the issues that men and women deal with in the industry. It was hard for me to say, “No, that’s not what I want.” But it worked out so that he got what he needed to make good shots and I got what I needed in that I didn’t end up driving my subjects crazy by taking too long.
I started shooting in 2005 and by 2006 I had a rough cut. I showed it to some of my filmmaker friends and they said, “Woah, this is interesting but I’m not sure where the story is.” That was difficult to hear because I had obviously been spending all of this time working on it. I knew it was a story that had to be told, so I started over, I “spent time in the woods trying to find a new path,” and I let my original editor go who had done quite a bit, but wasn’t helping my work go in the right direction. I had to continually say “yes” to my own vision while everyone else seemed to be saying to me “no.”
Q: Did you discover anything surprising or revelatory during the filming process?
A: My husband and I have been together since college, so we had been students together. And then in some ways, we fell into a more traditional pattern of marriage where he worked and I took care of the children. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but on my part it came with some self-censoring, which often happens when someone else controls the purse strings.
But it’s funny because here I am in my early 50s, and if someone had told me ten years ago that I would be making a movie that I directed, that I’d found all of these subjects, shown my film all over the U.S., and produced an Oscar-award winning film-it would have astonished me. At the age of 43, I was still in the thick of raising my kids and doing a little show here and there of my artwork. What’s amazing about women’s lives is that we have so much more left in us than we realize. When you’re doing something you love, you’re vibrant and young because of it. So I learned from the making of this documentary that in some ways I had been self-silencing, I’d given someone else the power, I’d done that to myself. But I continued to say “yes” in the face of many “no’s” from people who knew better than I did, who were “smarter” or who said, “Well, you have to do five films before you can do this, or you need to first make a reality series.” But I followed my own vision and I’ve been very pleased that I was able to do that. I learned a lot about myself, for example that I’m an incredibly persistent person. When I was in my 20s and 30s I though I was the kind of person who would always bend her will for people she wanted to please. But now I definitely think that I’m capable of being both kinds of people.
Q: How did you meet the women featured in the documentary?
A: Part of the reason I made this film was because I was burning with curiosity. I wanted to meet new people who had been able to balance a creative life with a home life. At the time I had a partner, Michelle, who had done a number of amazing projects, written papers and books about women’s issues, and she said she was interested because she was a poet who had to put her work aside because she was recently divorced and had two small children. So she and I began to work on these issues, and read, and begin meeting people. We wanted non-famous, “I-don’t-know-if-I’m-going-to-make-it” women. In my opinion, they had to be talented and recognized in some way professionally. Yet, we didn’t want women at the top of their field. Michelle’s actually the one who told me about Maye. A friend of hers lived in New Mexico and told Michelle to meet her, and once she did, Michelle was struck by her. I dreamt about that woman, and then six months later I met her.
The other women involved are Janis Wunderlich, Mayumi Oda, Angela Williams, and Camille Musser. During the development phase there were a few women we decided not to follow. Mostly I went with my heart and my gut – these are women whose stories compel me. They’re self-reflective and question what they are doing.
Q: How do you feel about the notion that art brings communities together?
A: Many people said I couldn’t make a film with this many women. It would be too confusing. Too boring. Too quick. I said, “I disagree. These will weave together in a way that one story will comment on another.”
I wanted to bring the arts and women together to show that we are human beings. And part of being human means to be expressive and creative, but that’s not something wholly embraced in our society. We seem to be told that only certain people have talents or gifts. And some of us actually take ourselves out of the running at a very young age. As children we have very rich imaginative lives, as long as we’re not in front of the television or computer all day. You make up things all the time-it’s how you learn. Yet, somehow in the course of growing up, we get away from that. I wanted this film to look at this issue.
What is it that makes life worth living? Obviously you need to be able to make a living not to die. But you also need to celebrate when you see something beautiful. There’s a whole aspect of being human that has to do with putting your own interpretations out there. It gets you out of your loneliness. And that is what art is for me. We can walk around as though we don’t have anything in common with anyone else. But when you express yourself in a poem or a song or a piece of artwork, you may hear somebody say, “that’s how I feel” or “I didn’t know others saw it that way, but now I understand my life.”
The power of art is that it can bring people together as a community. I feel that’s the most important thing about the film. It may give very ordinary people permission to take a step toward beauty or truth. The first step toward making social changes is telling the truth about your life. I made this film about women because women’s truths have not been seen as critical. And I’m sorry, but I disagree with that. We need women’s voices and point of views. We need to know what women have learned.
But Who Does She Think She Is? is not a film just for women. It’s for anyone who has a dream and who feels life is about accomplishing those dreams. It’s for everyone.
Q: What efforts are being made to distribute this film to a wider audience?
A: The documentary had a limited theatrical release. It was primarily distributed in small theatres across the country. We were at Angelika in October for the premiere and now I’m on my way to Taos right now for the documentary to be showing at the Taos Film Society’s film center.
In December I have a Honolulu screening, Oklahoma in December, Pleasantville, N.Y., Chicago, Santa Fe, Lincoln, N.E., Boston, Mass. — there’s some interest in Florida and now I’m also looking at some theatres in California.
In addition, I’ll be screening in universities and schools and community groups. I’m very open to talk to people – I love talking about these issues. We’ve already done a community screening in North Carolina and in Cambridge, Massachusetts-both of which were sold out. The screenings are typically one-night events. I’m also in talks with people to do DVD sales.
Q: What is the next step after Who Does She Think She Is?
A: There’s a project that I’ve been thinking about for a while, which in some ways is a flip side to Who Does She Think She Is? I’d like to document this small jewel of an all-boys school in Concord, Massachusetts. I know it because my sons went there. They do something very special with young boys in that the boys that come out of the school are really fine young men. I thought about spending a year just watching the interactions with the students and teachers. Once again, here, I’m interested in gender issues.
Boys and men are often relegated to certain roles, and they are just as hampering as those for women. They have a very fine arts program – in this school it is normal for boys to write poetry and also play football, excel at math but also perform in plays. This school isn’t asking boys to be one kind of person.
So that’s one idea, but I’m honestly more drawn to spending six months to one year looking through all my writing and drawings, and getting back to my own artwork. I’d like to see if there is something worth developing there.
On the other hand, I’d also love to spend those same six months walking across Europe, to have time to think about what I want to create. Who knows if I’ll get to do any of this stuff, but they’re just ideas …