Feminist Conversations is a regular series at Feminists for Choice. We spotlight activists from across the interwebs to find out what feminism means to them. Luci Westphal is a documentary filmmaker whose latest film, “All’s Well and Fair,” can be viewed here.
1. When did you first call yourself a feminist, and what influenced that decision?
I’m not sure when exactly the word feminist entered in my vocabulary. I was raised in Germany, which I consider a rather progressive country when it comes to gender roles; and my mother has been a great role model as long as I can remember. So I was raised to believe that women are equal to men.
But if I’d have to pinpoint a specific event of becoming frustrated with gender inequality, I’d say it was reading the novel “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley, when I was maybe 12. Even though it might seem a trivial semi-historic fantasy novel, it was really eye-opening to me. For the first time I realized that some things are only “The Truth” because those in charge tell you so. It’s when I “lost my religion” because I realized that Christianity wasn’t the original religion in my country – it had come with the invaders from the South, it suddenly appeared man-made. And I realized that most of our legends and histories are told from the perspective of men. Bradley decided to tell the King Arthur myth from the perspective of a woman – and it changed the story drastically. Of course I’m aware that both versions are fictional.
So I think this is when I first became frustrated with the inequality of who was in charge of telling the stories and how they were being told and felt the urge to speak out about women’s perspectives and rights.
2. What does feminism mean to you?
The root of feminism to me is an urge for equality. I don’t think men and women are the same; I think they’re actually quite different. But I don’t think either gender is better; I think they are equal. But unfortunately women still get less opportunities and less say in matters of politics, economics, [and] media, and in many households. So feminism to me is verbalizing and actively working on getting women’s voices heard, getting equal rights for women, and ensuring that women and men share the decision-making powers.
Last but not least, feminism to me includes celebrating femininity. To me it isn’t about women becoming like men. On the contrary, I believe the trades, perspectives, sensibilities, and sensitivities that are often considered more female (nurturing, need for harmony, considering multiple perspectives, protective, etc.) should be celebrated and not suppressed – in the media, in the workplace, in politics, in economics, etc. That’s the utopia I’m working towards.
3. Your most recent documentary All’s Well and Fair looks at the lives of three women in 1996 and 2006. What inspired you to focus on these women initially, and to revisit them ten years later?
The spark for the documentary was the song with which the three mothers had won a local “F*** the government” song contest. I already knew the women and had been quite fascinated by their personalities, lifestyles, and perspectives. Their life situations were difficult with all of them at one time or another being young single mothers on welfare. But instead of whining they had sass and a great sense of humor. They were intelligent, thoughtful and outspoken, despite a lack of formal education (in 1996 anyway). There was also anger, some naiveté, and something that could be considered a lack of ambition – or in other words: a denial of the “American Dream” and all that it entails. In 1996, the year of the welfare reform, they were nothing like what was described in the media as a “welfare mom.” Of course, above all they were nurturing and were raising their kids in a progressive way.
Ten years later I started to wonder how exactly those kids had turned out and how much the women had changed from their 20s to their 30s. Had their ideals changed, had they kept their sense of humor, did their dreams come true, did their lifestyles change?
4. All’s Well and Fair has a very intimate feel to it, in terms of the subjects covered and how comfortable the women seemed in front of the camera. What was the actual experience of filming like?
Both times I filmed all by myself, with just a camera and a tripod, not even with any special microphone and any lights. In 1996 this was all I had, but in 2006 it was a conscious choice to give up some production value to gain a more relaxed and intimate atmosphere. So it was just us talking like friends while they were doing regular household chores or while taking a break – not a film crew conducting an interview.
For the 2006 version we set aside more time to record sit-down interviews, but still kept it just as small and personal. Honestly, I admire the women and the kids for being so natural and open when talking to me. I suspect that part of it is that they’re all very unpretentious people, even the kids.
The subjects were based on their song – so they were things they would have something to say about. The way I interviewed them was to just let them talk. Instead of asking them something specific I would often lead just with something like: tell me your thoughts about “war.” I’d just let them take their time and talk and then maybe ask follow-up questions. It probably puts a lot of pressure on the interviewee but I believe it eventually gets the person to talk about what they really care about, which might be more honest and intimate.
5. What drew you to documentary filmmaking, as opposed to other kinds of films and media?
I do feel drawn to other media, including fiction filmmaking. But the appeal of documentary filmmaking is the direct interaction with people. I’m incredibly curious about how people think, feel, and act. This is also why I decided to release All’s Well and Fair not just like a passive documentary but as a transmedia web series that encourages the audience to talk back and share their thoughts and stories through their own videos or comments.
Additionally, because my approach to filmmaking is didactic, documentaries give me the opportunity to channel someone else’s experience, voice, and perspective to educate, inspire, motivate, and hopefully help make this world a better place.
6. Your first documentary, All God’s Children, is about child abuse and religion – two subjects that seem very far removed from All’s Well and Fair. How do you decide what kind of stories you’d like to explore in your films?
All the documentaries I’ve made so far, or am working on, came through personal connections. All God’s Children came to me and my partner and husband Scott Solary through his aunt whose children were abused at the missionary boarding school. A lot of successful documentary filmmakers decide what topic is hot or what general subject they’d like to make a film about and then go out casting the most interesting “hero” for their story. I won’t deny that these often make very dramatic and compelling films – and probably do much better at the box office. In my case I get to know someone and their story or perspective won’t let me go. I’m interested in sitting down with the little guy, the regular woman, the good hard-working people, the somewhat underrepresented – so we can just have a conversation that’s real and relatable – and hopefully inspiring, motivating, and eye-opening to an audience just like the interviewee and the interviewer.
7. I imagine that the release and promotion of All’s Well and Fair is keeping you pretty busy right now, but are there any other projects that you’re working on?
Yes, because this totally DIY I’m currently working full-time on getting people to watch and post responses. Fortunately, I have help with the social media from a young woman named Meaghan Pranda, who is the age the women and I were in 1996. So I’m able to devote some time to my web series “In A Brooklyn Minute,” for which I post a 1-minute no-dialogue “moving postcard” from an interesting location or event every Thursday.
Next I’ll start post-production on a documentary about “Five Sisters” in their 70s and 80s from Jacksonville, Florida.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.