A conversation with director of Freeheld

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Cynthia Wade is a NYC-based documentary filmmaker. Her short documentary “Freeheld” won a Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, and seven other film awards in major cities such as New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver. Wade’s five-time award winning HBO documentary “Shelter Dogs” was broadcast in seven countries. Wade directed the 1999 Cinemax Reel Life documentary “Grist For The Mill”, which The Hollywood Reporter called “a delight…full of quirky moments and clever humor” and Variety called “a jewel … extremely comical.” She was co-producer and principal verite cinematographer for the 1998 PBS documentary “Taken In: The Lives of America’s Foster Children”, which won a duPont-Columbia Award for Excellence in Journalism. Wade has been a Director of Photography for PBS, HBO/Cinemax, Bravo, AMC, MTV, A&E, Discovery, TNT, Oxygen, LOGO and The History Channel. She received a BA cum laude from Smith College and an MA in Documentary Film Production from Stanford University. Wade runs a video production company and teaches advanced digital cinematography at the New School.

Bijan Tehrani: What was your inspiration and motivation to become a filmmaker?
Cynthia Wade: From the beginning, I have always been a storyteller. As a small child I had a very active and colorful imagination. I spent many hours telling stories, writing stories, and performing plays. I wrote a mini book, a novella, when I was twelve. I think my interest in film really came from the beginning, as a child, wanting to tell stories. When I was in high school I was very much into theater. I started and ran the drama club in my high school, and was usually the lead in the school plays. I took private drama lessons for eight years as a child, and as a teenager I went to two drama schools.

As an undergraduate at Smith College I was a theatre major. Somewhere along the line, when I was working in theatre as an undergraduate, I realized that I had very little control as an actor; that my participation in theatre depended on the audition and how I looked. Someone would be looking at me in the audition, usually looking at the outside of me, and not the inside of me. I would get the part based on the way that I looked. Often I didn’t get the part, and later would be told that I was too tall or my hair was too dark. It was very superficial and incredibly frustrating that my outward appearance would determine whether or not I could be part of a creative process. By my sophomore year in college I realized that I wanted more artistic control, and from that, I turned to film. I started going to a lot of cinema in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts where Smith is located. Northampton is a very vibrant, artistic community, and had three theatres that showed all kinds of independent cinema, and I stumbled into documentary that way. Very quickly I realized that I wanted to be behind the camera making documentaries and telling stories about other people. I became disenchanted with theatre, and left it.

By the end of my sophomore year at Smith, I’d made my first documentary with the aid of the Smith’s newly forming film department, which is now an official department. They were very supportive and allowed me to have a camera and access to some linear editing equipment. By my senior year, Smith allowed me to focus exclusively on making a documentary, and the college actually bought me a camera that I could use with the arrangement that it would be given back to the school once I graduated. So I had exclusive use of the camera, which was a half-inch VHS camera, and I was editing on linear equipment. It was incredibly liberating to focus on that documentary project. By the end of my senior year, I’d directed, written, shot and edited a 63-minute documentary called Dream Lovers, which focused on young women’s expectations of love and romance in the 1930s as opposed to the 1980s. By the time I graduated from Smith, I knew that what I wanted to do was make documentaries.

Two years out of college, I went to a master’s program for documentary film at Stanford University in California, and I learned the technical aspects of filmmaking – shooting, lighting, sound recording, editing – there. That was a great program.

Bijan: Is there any particular film that you that had great influence in your decision to make films?
Cynthia: Absolutely. There was one film that changed my life, and probably the lives of a lot of other filmmakers, and that was Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March. I was twenty years old when it was out in theatres, and I went to an independent theatre in downtown Northampton to see this film. I remember the poster outside the movie house said McElwee was “a Southern Woody Allen,” and I thought, “Well, that looks interesting.” I don’t even think that I quite understood that it was a documentary. I went in and watched the film and I just couldn’t believe a documentary could be so personal. This was way before MTV and reality television. It was before everyone had access to a camcorder and everyone was making a documentary. It was really a trailblazing piece, and he really was a pioneer. He was making a documentary about Sherman’s March to the South, but kept getting waylaid by these women he met along the way. It also dealt with his struggle for intimacy and issues we face in the nuclear age. I was watching this personal documentary that was really funny and reflexive, and I couldn’t believe that this could be made and released – and I am not alone in that. I think it was a defining moment for a lot of people. That was the movie that I thought, “Well, if people can do this, then this is what I want to do.”

Bijan: Do you consider yourself an activist/filmmaker?
Cynthia: I consider myself a storyteller first – who uses film as the medium to tell the story. I don’t consider myself an activist at all, although the films that I make end up having a message, and often a strong message, about a controversial social issue. I think that I almost stumble into it backwards, because it is the story that grips me first, and through the making of the film, I become an unlikely activist. I wouldn’t even call myself an activist – I would call myself a storyteller that is attracted to very controversial social issues. I usually tell those stories through the eyes of strong women characters.

Bijan: Do you think a filmmaker is just a story teller or a filmmaker has a responsibility to deal with social and political matters in his/her creations?
Cynthia: I think at the heart I am a storyteller, however, I do think as a documentary filmmaker you have a responsibility to tell an honest story. However, it’s a subjective honesty. It will definitely have a very particular outlook and perspective. I think the only way to engage an audience is to be thinking about it in terms of a good story. Hopefully through the good story there is a message that can either affect people emotionally, or cause them to think about an issue they normally wouldn’t think about. It can enrage them; it can make them laugh; it can make them feel joyous; but at the heart of it, there has to be a real story, a good story. I think that the storytelling needs to take precedence over looking at film as an activist tool.

Bijan: Sure, but I also believe that we are living in a world that has changed a lot since September 11. I think it is very important to educate the people about facts of the world we live in and documentaries are a great tool in spreading information.
Cynthia: Yes, but if people feel like they are eating their vegetables, like, “Okay I am being forced to eat these Brussels Sprouts because they are ‘good for me’”, I think you’ve failed.

I think too many documentaries are crafted in that way, where it is a little bit unpleasant, and we force ourselves to eat the vegetables now because they are ‘good for us.’ I don’t think you make the strongest impact this way. I think that it is important to have compelling characters and some hard conflict at the center of the story. It is also important to have a character that we can feel close to. I prefer to make films where there is intense drama where we are sitting at the edge of our seats, waiting to see how the story unfolds. Through this you learn about the issue, but it is not like you’re being beaten over the head and told to eat your vegetables. A friend of mine in film school had a joke once, he said, “What’s a movie without popcorn?” and then he would say “A documentary,” and he would laugh and laugh and laugh. I think there is some truth in that, where documentaries are not supposed to be as fun as fiction features, and instead they are dry and punitive and “good for you.” I think it’s dangerous for documentaries to retain that kind of reputation. I don’t mean that they need to be thoroughly entertaining, but I think at the heart of the message there should be a strong story and compelling characters. A film like that can be just as powerful as going to see a fiction summer blockbuster. If you start your film defining it as an activist tool, it can feel really didactic.

Bijan: What do you think about Michael Moore and his impact in the world of documentary filmmaking?
Cynthia: I am glad Michael Moore is out there in his Michael Moore style making Michael Moore films. I think he has a role, an important one. I think my role is very different, in that my films tend to be a little bit quieter and more women-centered. He has his own brand and style, and good for him, quite frankly. I am glad he is making his kinds of films, and I’m glad that other people have their own styles.

Bijan: Do you believe as a documentary filmmaker you should lead your audience to make a judgment or have them make their own judgment?
Cynthia: With all of my films, I certainly have a perspective. I don’t think there is any such thing as an objective documentary. There can’t be – just because the way you tell the story, and how you make the edits, and where you put the camera, and what you might leave in and out are all very subjective choices. I think that you are always going to tell the story from a particular perspective for the audience. I think that there should be room for ambiguity and gray areas. Shelter Dogs, which was the movie I made before Freeheld, was very much a film that resided in the gray area – Was it right to kill an animal if he looked like he was going to bite? Maybe he didn’t bite, but he looked like he was going to bite. In the shelter environment, was it morally right to kill him to avoid a future bite, or were you playing God? That was a very morally ambiguous film, and I left it up to the audience. But there was certainly a perspective. The film was told from the eyes of a controversial shelter owner, and in some cases, it was sympathetic to her. I think there should be room for interpretation and gray area, but it is always going to come from a certain perspective. I don’t believe there is anything such as an objective documentary.

Bijan: When I was watching your film, Freeheld for the first time– which I believe is a wonderful documentary – someone after the screening said that you have been very lucky to be at the right place and right time to shoot such an interesting subject.
Cynthia: I think there is no such thing as luck. It is 99 percent preparation. I can tell you that I was very actively looking for my next documentary subject. Documentaries should be like ballet – where it looks completely effortless to fly through space. The documentary should appear as if it just fell out of the camera that way, and that it was effortless, and there was no sweat behind it. In some ways, I think that comment is a compliment. But I was very much very actively looking for my next documentary subject. I was prepared, and I read the story, and went down to meet Laurel Hester. I had two assistants, two cameras, release forms.

Lucky meant I went back and abandoned my husband, newborn baby, and five-year-old daughter. Lucky meant that I turn down paid corporate work to follow a film that had no funding and potentially no happy ending. Lucky meant I risked backing out of teaching work I had committed to. Lucky meant that I was broke, and wasn’t making any money for over a year. This was a great lesson in risk taking, but there is no such thing as luck. It is all preparation and hard work. It may look effortless, but in a way, to say I was lucky is a compliment.

Bijan: When you are finishing a film and moving to the next project do you ever go back to visit the characters of your last film in real life?
Cynthia: Oh yeah, I would say that it is a bit like having a very intense relationship with somebody and sharing this really intense experience. It can be very emotionally intimate because they are allowing you to film them in extremely raw and vulnerable moments in their lives. You have been given the access to do that, and you want to respect that. You don’t want to take advantage of that, but you still want to tell a very compelling story. So you are always walking that line ethically.

I think there can be a great bond between the documentary subject and documentary filmmaker. It is a strange experience when the film ends, because in some ways, the nature of that relationship ends because you are no longer coming into their lives to film. You have befriended the person, perhaps, but you are doing a job, and they know you are doing your job. When it is over, the relationship shifts and changes. That level of intimacy, of having the camera there between the two of you, is no longer there, but that is even more of a reason to reach out to the person and stay in touch with them. With Stacie (one of the main characters in Freeheld), I keep her updated on the film. We recently went out and had sushi together to catch up. I recently saw Sue Sternberg, who was the subject of Shelter Dogs. I am going to bring my kids up to her shelter this fall to see the animals she has at the shelter. Sue and I will always have that bond. It is not always an easy relationship – because as ethically upstanding as you want to be as a filmmaker, you may sometimes push something more than you should emotionally. I have ended up on good terms with the main subjects of my films, and I try to stay in touch with them because we have had this relationship. It is definitely a unique relationship between filmmaker and subject.

Bijan: What do you think about Reality TV shows? Do you think they are coming close to have a documentary feel?
Cynthia: I think there is a place for Reality TV in documentary filmmakers’ lives as it can pay the bills. As a shooter, I earn most of my bread and butter as a Director of Photography for other directors and for reality television. Through a lot of the shooting for Shelter Dogs, I was also shooting for MTV for cash, and that was reality television. I think that there is a place for it in that it helps us all keep going. It can also help hone your shooting, editing and storytelling choices, because you need to work fast and think on your feet.

I think, though, that Reality TV can breed unrealistic expectations among audience members, because Reality TV is often set up and people are brought into an environment that is not theirs, and it can be false. That can then spill over into documentary filmmaking, where audiences are expecting neat endings and for something to happen at every turn, and of course life unfolds at its own course. If you are truly making a documentary, you are not pulling someone out of their organic environment and putting them in a new place; nor are you thrusting a new conflict into their life. You are following them in their life, and it may be months before something interesting happens, or maybe like in the Laurel Hester story, things will unfold rapidly. I think there can be an expectation, and thus sometimes a frustration, among audience members because they have gotten used to everything on a platter and everything wrapped up neatly in a television structure.

Bijan: I think reality TV at least for the shows I have had a chance to watch, have nothing to do with reality. They are just bunch of cheesy lies.
Cynthia: Yes, because they are putting somebody in the jungle when they wouldn’t have gone there originally, or you’re throwing ten people in a house that wouldn’t normally have lived together. You are right about that. But I think it can be – for somebody who is learning how to shoot and edit – it can be a very instructive experience to be thinking about coverage and an arc of a story and how to create a three- or five-act structure. Many of my friends have earned money by producing, shooting and editing Reality Television, and I think it can focus and sharpen your storytelling choices when you are ready to go back and work on an organic, long-form documentary.

Bijan: When should we be expecting a new feature film from you?
Cynthia: Every other film that I have made has been a feature film. Shelter Dogs was a feature film. I co-produced and shot a film about foster care that was on PBS that won some awards called Taken In: The Lives of America’s Foster Children, and that was feature length. I made a personal documentary for Cinemax called Grist for the Mill, and that was longer too.

Freeheld was a departure for me in being a short. This is my 20th year of making films, and I have made a lot of feature length films, and I made a very specific decision to make Freeheld a short film. It’s been a liberating experience.

Bijan: Please tell us about your new projects.
Cynthia: I don’t have enough to say about it. Alan Berliner has said that after every film he retires. I sort of feel that way after every film. I’m spent, and I just want to go home and get my laundry done. I find that the films find you, and creep up out of nowhere. To me, it is like a vine where it starts curling around my arms and then curls up to my neck and starts squeezing me in my throat. It is like its own thing, it’s a creature that just starts saying “Make me! Make me! Make me!” until I can’t breathe and am saying “Okay! Okay! Okay!” and the writing is on the wall and I have to make the film. I find often that the films find me, and I will resist them until I am dreaming about the subject matter so much that I have to make the film. Shelter Dogs was not a film that I necessarily wanted to make. It was very traumatic and I was going to watch a lot of deaths. I was also pregnant at the time with my first child and I was stomping around in the mud with this giant camera in upstate New York in the cold and snow. But I was dreaming about dogs every night, and when I dream about a subject matter incessantly, then I realize that I don’t have a choice and that I have to make the film.

Currently there is something that is forming; there are signs that are beginning to pop up all around me, but I am not quite dreaming about it yet. For now, I am teaching documentary camera work at the New School in Manhattan. I am directing and editing some shorter documentary projects for corporate clients and some high-end non-profit organizations. I do a lot of those for bread and butter. We are doing a lot of outreach for Freeheld because we want to be part of the dialogue during the 2008 election year when people are talking about domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples. I know that this new film, which is only forming now, is going to emerge and beat me into submission, but I am going to ignore it for now before it starts to close in on my neck. When I start dreaming about it, I’ll do it.

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About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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