Vlada Knowlton is the director and producer of The Most Dangerous Year, which will have its premiere at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival!
The Most Dangerous Year spends a year following the anti-transgender "bathroom bills" that began sweeping the nation in 2016, with The Human Rights Campaign publishing a report identifying 2015 as the most dangerous year for transgender Americans. In Washington State six such "bathroom bills" were introduced in the State Legislature. Documentary filmmaker Vlada Knowlton captured the ensuing civil rights battle from the perspective of a small group of embattled parents as they banded together to fight a deluge of proposed laws that would strip away the rights of their young, transgender children. As one of the parents, Knowlton presents an intimate portrait of her own struggle to protect her 5-year-old transgender daughter from laws inspired by hate and fear.
Vlada was a recipient of the Women in Film Grant 2016 for this film. We were thrilled to have an opportunity to ask Vlada some questions about her documentary.
How did your family react when you decided to move forward with the film?
All five of us had multiple family conversations about this film over the dinner table. When I first told the kids I was thinking about moving forward with this project they were all for it. My husband felt the same way I did from the beginning; that this film was a duty, not a choice. But it was important to me that the kids fully understood what a film project like this would mean to us as a family. This could expose us to a lot of hate and bigotry. So I talked to them about it several times...and continued to discuss it as the production stage progressed. I think kids understand a lot more than adults give them credit for. I was pretty impressed with their ability to see the big picture and understand that civil rights were at stake. Their message to me the whole time was essentially, “you’ve gotta do this, mom”.
What was it like for you to film the anti-transgender rhetoric and events?
It was of course very difficult to have to put myself into such spaces and observe these events. But I had to force myself to put all my personal thoughts and emotions aside and do my job. It wasn’t all a bad experience, though, because I also learned a lot and gained a broader level of understanding about the people who are fighting against the rights of transgender people. For example, I had the opportunity to have a lengthy conversation with a husband and wife who were very opposed to their kids going to school with transgender kids. By the end of this conversation, when this couple really opened up to me, it was clear that their position came from one place: fear. They were terrified. And their fear came from a lack of knowledge and familiarity. So being able to understand this and to put myself in their shoes solidified and confirmed my resolution that the only way for us all to move forward is through education.
What has happened since filming wrapped?
In terms of what’s happening in Washington State - thankfully this state has been steadily moving forward in the direction of justice, equality, and inclusiveness. Not only did the anti-trans Just Want Privacy campaign fail again to gather enough signatures for their ballot initiative in 2017, but in 2018 our state legislature passed a law banning so-called “conversion therapy”, which is an antiquated and monstrous method of breaking down and torturing LGBTQ youth into hiding and suppressing their true selves.
Sadly, on the federal level the movement towards justice and equality has been stalled and is even moving backwards. The current administration has been doing everything in their power to turn back the progress that has been made by doing things like banning transgender troops from serving in the military and stating that the justice department and department of education will no longer protect trans adults and students from discrimination. So there is clearly still a lot of work to be done.
On the personal and local level, though, our children are happy, healthy, and thriving inside their homes and their communities. And that’s the most important thing.
This film includes your daughter's story. Were there challenges in balancing the role as her parent and as the director of this film?
Well, it's always more difficult to switch perspectives like that; when you have to put aside your personal knowledge and experience and make artistic or structural decisions based on your professional knowledge and experience. But it's not impossible. Obviously I had to be careful not to include clips of my daughter (or anyone else) simply because I thought they were cute or interesting on a personal level. Every clip I put in the film had to have a specific function and purpose that served the story. So that's what I focused on doing.
The other big challenge was having to battle the daily fear of exposing my daughter and my whole family to discrimination or worse. But you can't let fear control your decisions in life, especially when you're fighting for something as important as people's civil and human rights. I could have kept my whole family out of this film. But then I would have been accused of being willing to expose other kids and families and not my own. (Not to mention that omitting the fact that my own child is transgender could have also lead to the accusation that my storytelling is dishonest or inauthentic). That sort of accusation is of course - on a philosophical level - ridiculous because none of these kids and families have anything to hide or be ashamed of. But on a practical level, given how much hate and ignorance is out there, it could be construed as valid. So for that reason I felt I had to suppress any fears I had in that regard and press on with making the film a personal, as well as political, story.
How do you hope this film will be used in the future?
This purpose of this film is to educate and inform. There is still so much ignorance and misinformation out in the world about what it means to be born transgender. I think the majority of the world’s population still does not understand that transgender people are regular, sane people who are born the gender they say they are just like everybody else. I think we as a society will eventually reach the point when we understand this and being transgender will finally be viewed as part of the natural diversity of the human race, just like left-handedness. However, until we get to that point, trans people are still going to be sorely vilified and mistreated and that is tragic. With my film, I hope to contribute to the education of people on this subject to help get us all to the point of understanding and acceptance a little bit sooner.
For information on screening times at SIFF, visit: https://www.siff.net/festival/the-most-dangerous-year
A conversation with director Megan Griffiths, the writer and director of the film Sadie. Sadie premiered at SXSW and will be making its Seattle debut at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival.
Sadie is the story of a 13-year-old girl who lives at home with her mother while her father serves repeated tours in the military. Sadie is extremely attached to her father despite his prolonged absence, and when her mother begins dating a new man, Sadie takes extreme measures to end the relationship and safeguard her family through the only tactics she knows--those of war.
We were thrilled to ask her some questions about her newest film Sadie.
The movie depicts the life of a young teenage girl who is living with her mother in a trailer park while her father is away serving in the military. What drew you to want you to portray this world? What inspired you?
This film grew out of a desire to participate in a larger cultural conversation around youth and violence. I wanted to explore how we as a society are teaching the next generation that problems should be solved with violence. That is a conversation that can't happen without considering the example we set on an international scale when we engage in armed conflict to resolve our differences, so it felt important to have a military component and have a character who represented that world. As for the trailer park, I liked the idea of setting the story in a world that felt claustrophobic, as many of the adults are dealing with issues that stem from desperation.
From what I've read, this film took nine years to come to fruition. How do you maintain persistence in pursuing a film for that stretch of time?
It's hard to keep pushing for that long, but every time I came back to Sadie it just felt so relevant and like something I so desperately wanted to say. The themes of the material really motivated me. My amazing producers, Lacey Leavitt and Jennessa West, were also really driven to get this film made, which was critical to it happening. You need that collective will to finally get that boulder up to the top of that fiercely steep hill.
How did the film finally come together?
Well, we'd had Melanie Lynskey attached for a year and a half or so, and we came to a time where I had a window in my schedule and Melanie had a window in hers, so I got very determined that we had to pull everything together and make it in that window. And then a few weeks into our efforts to pull things together, the 2016 election happened. Initially, it gave us all such a collective gut punch that it took a moment to regain our breath, but then it lit a massive fire under us. Because the film resonates with so many social issues, it suddenly felt vital that it had to happen. We all needed somewhere to direct all of this intense energy that we felt--this major impulse to DO SOMETHING. All of that came together, and then our executive producer Eliza Shelden stepped in, who was motivated by many of the same things, and provided the financing we needed to finally get the film made.
Some of us were introduced to Sophia Mitri Schloss through [Seattle filmmaker] SJ Chiro's Lane 1974 last year. How was it working with Sophia as well as the rest of your cast and crew?
Sophia is a dream to work with. She's so connected with her character, prepared, and thoughtful about the material. She made my life very easy and really brought Sadie to life in a more nuanced and complex way than I could have ever hoped for when working with such a young performer. And the rest of the cast was equally excellent. I have loved Melanie Lynskey since I saw her in Heavenly Creatures way back in the day, and I think she elevates every film she appears in. John Gallagher, Jr., I had seen in Short Term 12 and loved his natural charisma and subtlety. Tony Hale has been so funny in Arrested Development and Veep, but also has such a strong ability with drama. Danielle Brooks is incredible in Orange is the New Black, and had exactly the energy, vitality and emotional range I was looking for with Carla. Keith L. Williams is just a ball of charm and lovable-ness, which was so needed to balance out Sadie's intensity. And Tee Dennard, another Seattle local, embodied all the intelligence, wisdom, and wit that I hoped for when writing Deak (who was my absolute favorite character to write.)
As for my crew, it's just a collection of my favorite people in Seattle. Amey Rene, who I also worked with on Lucky Them and The Night Stalker, cast all those amazing people I just wrote about. I got to reunite with Rebecca Luke, who has done costumes on everything I've worked on over the past ten years, Ben Blankenship, who shares an aesthetic brain with me and who I'd worked with on The Off Hours and Eden, and Celia Beasley, who edited The Night Stalker and who I've known since 2001. T.J. Williams, who I stood next to for so many years while he was AC'ing and I was AD'ing all these Seattle features a decade ago, came up to shoot it. Gretchen Oyster, who AD'd The Off Hours, ran this set as well. And Dave Drummond and Scott Larkin, two of the top humans in the Seattle film community, tag teamed the locations. And then I had the incredible fortune to collaborate with Mike McCready, of Pearl Jam fame, on the score. He brought in Whitney Petty and Molly Sides from Thunderpussy, and watching them jam in Mike's studio is really one of the highlights of my filmmaking life. There are so many others who played vital roles--Aron Michael Thompson, Sue Corcoran, David Lipson, Mike Astle, Nancy Hvasta Leonardi, David Robbins, Bad Animals, and so many more. I could go on and on about how grateful I am to all of these wonderful people, but we'd be here for five days. It's really an incredible community of people we have here in Seattle.
What were some of the biggest challenges on making this film?
The biggest challenge was just getting it made at all. People have this belief that audiences aren't interested in stories about women, especially young women. And it is a film that confronts the viewers with some very challenging themes. It asks the audience to consider their own complicity in these lessons that we're passing along to our children. All of these elements made for an uphill climb in our quest to tell this story, but I feel strongly that the obstacles we faced were ultimately an important part of the process, because they made us very resolute in our reasons for moving forward. And I came out of it having made exactly the film I wanted to make.
What advice do you have for other directors, particularly female directors.
My advice for all aspiring directors is the same--know who you are and what you bring to the table as a storyteller. Making films can be an endurance test, and if you're not rooted in purpose and a clear vision, you'll have no wind at your back as you push towards that finish line, and nothing new to say when you get there.
For information on screening times at SIFF, visit: https://www.siff.net/festival/sadie