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Vlada Knowlton is the director and producer of The Most Dangerous Year, which will have its premiere at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival! Vlada is 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 film.
Film Synopsis: In early 2016, when a dark wave of anti-transgender "bathroom bills" began sweeping the nation, The Human Rights Campaign published 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.
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 the civil rights of millions of people 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.
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.
A conversation with director SJ CHIRO. Erin Frisbie, WIF VP, sits down with SJ Chiro to talk about her life, filmmaking, and a feature debut film, Lane 1974
It’s late on a Friday afternoon in Capitol Hill, and Little Oddfellows is bustling with patrons gathered around the small tables that line the walls of the quaint café tucked in the back of Elliot Bay Bookstore.
SJ Chiro, a veteran Seattle-based filmmaker, and Women in Film member sits across from me with a fresh cup of coffee beaming with infectious enthusiasm as she describes the joy of celebrating her feature-length debut of Lane 1974 at SXSW after nine years in the making. The long-awaited film is an atmospheric ‘70s drama following the coming of age journey of 13-year-old Lane as she is forced to discover her independence through conflict with her mother while living in communes in the wilds of Northern California.
The film is Chiro’s adaptation of Clane Hayward’s memoir The Hypocrisy of Disco blended with personal experiences from her own upbringing in Northern California communes as a young girl. Chiro, who has contributed to the Seattle filmmaking community for many years as a short filmmaker, describes creating her premiere feature-length film as extremely personal and therapeutic.
WIF: What was it about this story that compelled you to make a feature film, finally?
CHIRO: “I read Clane’s book in 2008. I knew right away that I wanted to make it into a film. This is the film I had to make before I died. This experience has never been talked about in an authentic way… coming from someone who actually lived it and coming from the child’s perspective. You never see this period from a kid’s point of view. I really wanted this story to be told authentically. The book was totally authentic and so detailed. It was such a great roadmap for me. The broad strokes are her story, and some of details come from me. It’s really hard, now that I’m done with it, to pull back and say,“What is me and what is her?” it’s kind of meshed into its own thing. She and I brought our lives together and created this third thing, that is the film.”
WIF: Did you pull inspiration from or film at any real locations that you experienced as a child?
CHIRO: “I wrote the screenplay with places in mind, for sure. I went back home and shot on the two communes that I grew up on, and in the home I grew up in. It was a trip. One thing I noticed when I went home most recently, there were no more ghosts. It really was a healing experience. It has been my whole psyche, my art, my spirit, my everything. It’s just been mined, and mined, and mined. And in the process, maybe aired out and cleaned up. When Clane saw the whole film done, she couldn't stop crying. There was maybe some catharsis for her there too.”
WIF: Is it hard to maintain enthusiasm about a project over nine years?
CHIRO: “It took a really long time to make. So, I kept making short films in the meantime, while we tried to develop this in the background. I didn’t think it would take this long. This was something, like I said: "I had to make it before I died." It was so urgent to me; it was so imperative that it got made. I never lost my enthusiasm ever for this project. I lived it. I breathed it, I dreamed about it. I ate in the morning. I lived in it for nine years.”
Despite the delays in finding funding for the film, SJ’s deep roots in the Seattle filmmaking community made it relatively easy to gather her crew and assemble a strong female-driven team to help bring this female narrative to the screen. Proud to be distinguished as a ‘female filmmaker,” Chiro is passionate about finding opportunities for women in the filmmaking landscape, both on and off screen. She paired up with other Seattle-based filmmakers, Jennessa West, from Pressing Pictures, who signed on as the film’s Producer, and Mel Eslyn who came on board as the Executive Producer. They helped SJ prioritize hiring female department heads, including the film’s editor Celia Beasley, and focused on celebrating Seattle area filmmakers by bringing as much Northwest crew to California as they could afford to while filming there for the first 15 days of production in 2015.
WIF: You had a very female driven production team. How did your crew react to that energy and what were some ways you collaborated to achieve a cohesive vision?
CHIRO: “Well, it’s been great making a lot of short films because I meet a lot of people! So then you get people who come to you and say "hey the next time you’re working on something I'd love to work with you," which is great, that feels really good. It means they trust your sensibilities. [On Lane] We had hella women. Which was great. And the men that we did have were 100% down with working with women. There was no negative attitude or any sort of looking down on the women on set. For example Sebastien Scandiuzzi was my DP. Wow, we had a good time together. We really did the homework. We put the time in, in advance. When we were on set the idea was that we would have gone through a mind meld, and it would save time on set. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened.”
WIF: What were some of the things you did to prepare?
CHIRO: “We watched a lot of films together. We talked a lot about various ideas and ethos's. One time we were at a party and Sebastien had brought all these books... Stephen Shore Photography from the ‘70s and other reference books... His wife was like, "What are you doing? Why are you bringing these to a party?" and he’s like "Well SJ might be interested!" and sure enough I was like, "What? Yes!” and we went to a corner, and we spent the whole time pouring over these books. We were very much excited by the same process and in it together. When you see the film I think it really shows. I think he did a gorgeous job. He really understood very clearly what I wanted and delivered. I'm very particular about everything about my films. It's not that I'm going to dictate every last thing, but I am going to make ethos of it very clear.
SJ didn’t only dive in deep with the other members of her crew; she also searched for talent on-screen who would do the extra work to help bring her vision of Lane 1974 to life. Seeking opportunity for lots of facetime and personal connection prior to filming, Chiro felt fortunate to find Washington local Sophia Mitri Schloss to play the leading role of 13-year-old, Lane, and cast Katherine Moennig (“Ray Donovan,” “The L Word”) as Lane’s mother and primary antagonist. The two proved to be dedicated additions to Chiro’s team of above-and-beyond creators for the project.
WIF: How was it working with your cast and crew?
CHIRO: “Amazing. I feel SO lucky. Oh, so lucky. Both the cast and the crew, and were selected carefully. And they had to be fully on board because this is not a normal production. We took people and went the wilds of Northern California People were living in almost camping situations. It was not luxurious. It was hard living. And also I go really deep so if you’re going to be on board with me you have to be willing to go deep and get very specific, and I was so lucky that everyone that came on board understood that and really did go all the way with me.
I was really lucky to find Sophia Mitri Schloss for the main character, I mean she is literally in every single scene, she carries the film so she has to really know exactly what’s going on, she had to do a lot of work, which she loves doing. I just can’t believe we found such a perfect girl. She was great in the audition. She’s the kind of actress that I like because she knew she had to do work. And she did a lot of research, but very enthusiastically. She was like “Tell me about it! What was this like, what was that like? I read this and heard this.” Then I went to meet her and she said “Here’s my script I have it all in a binder with different color post-it notes to color code my notes. And different colored highlighters to keep ideas strong and separate” I mean she was so meticulous.
And Kate was really amazing. I needed her to understand what was going on at the time. It was a milieu she was wholly unfamiliar with. She’s the kind of person that was like “what kind of music was (her character) listening to?” and all this kind of stuff. She was fantastic and specific. I think it’s kind of unusual that an actress gets offered this type of role. I mean it’s not really sympathetic. Kate is a stunningly gorgeous woman, but her character’s not. I needed to find an actress that didn’t mind not looking conventionally attractive, and I was wondering how that would go down. At one point she was getting her hair and makeup, and I came by and said “by the way, no makeup,” and she raised her eyebrows, but she didn’t argue. She went with it.”
After all of the deep dives with her cast and crew, and conquering the arduous journey to obtain funding to cross the finish line, SJ is finally celebrating some well-deserved success right here at home thanks to the support she’s found in the Seattle filmmaking community.
WIF: I read an interview with you where you said, "Seattle is unique in the way that it accepts and even embraces female filmmakers." What did you mean by that? Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
CHIRO: “I haven't seen any other place that celebrates a female filmmaker... that even accepts her, first of all, because that's not a given! Even today. It's just so mind-boggling! It's so hard to get my mind around how this is still a thing, and yet it is. But Seattle... They said "Were not doing that. We're going to embrace our female filmmakers and celebrate them. It's unfortunate that this is so unique.
I feel really supported by my community here in Seattle. A community of fellow artists. It is such an honor and I am so lucky to have really great people willing to step up and work with me. The part that I wish could change is the financial. It was really hard to raise funds, and we were scraping pennies up out of the earth. At times where I should have been focusing on the creative, I had to switch to business. So, in my fantasy, there's maybe some kind of fund developed or... I don’t know exactly how to do it, but it shouldn’t take nine years to make a film!
We'll accept that women are filmmakers but are we going to finance them? I think we could do a lot better on that. There's a lot of money in this region, A LOT. And women making films and media... I don't want to sound like I'm solving the world’s problems, but I think a lot of social ills have come from cutting women out of being creative and telling stories.”
WIF: Do you feel like there are ways you were creative about raising money for the film? And maybe any advice you'd have for other female filmmakers who are trying to get their stuff off the ground?
CHIRO: “We were very lucky because we did crowdfunding, or crowdsourcing through Northwest Film Forum and all the smaller contributions add up. But it takes time. I was thrilled that the Northwest Film Forum could provide that kind of support for us. They do the paperwork. And also they get a little cut, which is nice because they deserve to be supported! If we did crowdfunding through Kickstarter or something like that, then that cut would go to that corporation. It's not as satisfying as when it recycles back into home.”
While there is still a lot of celebrating and work to do to keep up the momentum she’s finding with Lane 1974, SJ is already brainstorming ideas for her next feature-length film and inspired to continue marching forward to unearth opportunities for women to have their voices heard.
WIF: How does it make you feel to be distinguished as a ‘female filmmaker’ and do you feel that your journey as a storyteller is different than your male peers?
CHIRO: “Well my experience is probably not exactly the same as theirs. The stories that I am going to tell are going to be from a slightly different perspective and speak to people who maybe feel silenced or completely unheard and sometimes even feel like "am I even a person? Do I even matter?" These kinds of things linger in the background of various people’s minds who stories are not told. It's very powerful to have your story told. And I think that if we say "well sorry but, men, and specifically white men are the only ones that can tell our societies stories... we're missing out on so much and we're hurting our culture. We’re hurting children actually, that’s the way I feel. I know a lot of female filmmakers, say "I'm a filmmaker, don't say I'm a FEMALE filmmaker". But I don’t feel that way, actually. I'm just like "Tell it. Yeah I am a female filmmaker". And there’s a reason for that. If I were a man I don’t know that I would be directing. I don’t know that I would feel the urgency. I mean, it's a lot of freaking work. But as a woman I do feel the urgency. I think all these years of making shorts and going through all these long processes has really given me something in confidence. I feel like for real I can deliver. All this time I thought "I think I can, I am pretty sure I can”. But now it's like oh yes, I can. And I did. I am a director and I’m a woman who directs.”
WIF: How do you stay motivated on new projects?
CHIRO: “The next generation always motivates me. I get emotional. I feel like I've come this far that I can’t let them down. It's not even for future filmmakers. It's for all young people. As they develop. As they think of themselves. As they grow. And, society tells them what’s important. I want to be there to say, "You are important."
WIF: What are some ways that you’re actively shouting that to the community?
CHIRO: “Mainly through Lane right now. I had four sixteen-year-old girls come up to me at SXSW after the second screening. And they were like "Hi... are you the director of Lane 1974?" And I was like "Yeah..." and they were like "oh my god we loved it so much!" and I thought "Your generation loved a story about the ‘70s? Amazing." and I asked them "Did you see it tonight?" And they said "No, we saw it on opening!" So, they were still that moved. I think, that they really recognize on a deep level, that it was respectful to them. And didn’t create this false story. There was a real truth that they tapped into and that they were really excited to see. At least I hope that's what it was. It seemed like it. So that kind of thing motivates me beyond anything else. I mean, I don’t care. I will get up tomorrow morning and just start grinding again. Nothing can stop me on this.”
WIF: It sounds like Lane 1974 is really reaching such a vast audience, spanning across so many different demographics.
CHIRO: “Yeah I am really impressed that that’s happening. Guys are understanding it. You know because, I always have this thing in the back of my mind, because we've been fed this for so long, like, male lead, that’s all that men want to see. And actually, that’s not true. They can relate to this little 13-year-old girl. I think they can also find that core emotion in themselves. This feeling of like feeling like an outsider. Like, shut out and ignored. As a child, feeling a little lost. Men can feel that too.”