Even in 2017, alarmingly few women are helming movies. However, as men continue to dominate the feature film industry, more women are getting behind the camera and putting in a tremendous amount of blood, sweat, and tears to create documentaries. We sat down with three local Jewish cine-wonders -— Lisa Cohen (Confessions of a Former Bully), Lisa Hurwitz (The Automat), and Elisa Levine (Sweetheart Deal) — to talk about their inspiration, trials, and victories.
Something that binds the three of you together is narratives of marginalization. Tell us about that.
Lisa Cohen: There was some bullying in my daughter’s second-grade class. I found very few resources from the perspective of the perpetrator. There was a hole in the conversation. A missing voice, which I thought was unjust.
Lisa Hurwitz: In college, I ate in a cafeteria for the first time. This spurred me to research the history of how we feed people en masse. We don’t cry about McDonald’s, but people cry about the Automat, an empire and corporation that people cared a lot about. People from all walks of life sat together, shoulder to shoulder, at communal tables. These restaurants were dirt cheap, good quality, and good enough for everybody — groundbreaking in the kinds of people they would serve, the people they would hire.
Elisa Levine: When I first moved to Seattle, I moved to the Fremont area, a hip, utopian paradise. Then I became aware that there were a lot of suicides off the Aurora Bridge. I became fascinated with Aurora Avenue — something sinister and mysterious and fascinating, a vortex of vice that draws misery back again and again.
What does it mean to contribute as a woman to the field of filmmaking?
Lisa Hurwitz: It’s hard for me to make grand statements about women in film. I have my suspicions as to why we are such a minority, but I’m not usually considered a minority: I’m white, and being a woman doesn’t usually count. When I’m hiring crew, it’s exciting when I can hire a woman.
"Being part of a culture that has been marginalized throughout history informs my political values and is reflected in my filmmaking."
Lisa Cohen: I’ve worked in the film industry for many years as a technical producer, post-producer, and supervisor. Those organizational positions tend to be where the women migrate. At Alpha Cine labs, a lot of documentaries directed by women came through our shop, and I found that inspiring. The protagonist and more than 50 percent of the creative crew in my current film are female. I’ve been very conscious of it.
Do any Jewish values inform your work?
Elisa Levine: Isn’t there a saying, “We have humor as Jews, but it comes out of tragedy”? There was a moment when my co-director and I were driving a girl who had just gotten out of the emergency room, and we realized we were all Jewish. We started singing and laughing, “Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu” at this tragic point in her life. It was the most unexpected moment of connection and levity in the darkest of times.
Lisa Hurwitz: Being from a culture that has been marginalized throughout history informs my political values and is reflected in my filmmaking. My subject is about the most egalitarian place you could ever imagine. As a Jew, I think there is connection to taking care of everybody and treating everyone with dignity, not leaving anybody behind or out of the story.
Lisa Cohen: There are two Jewish values that have been ingrained in me as a child, in my family and in Hebrew school: to think critically, even to question my own religion, and social justice — looking out for everybody. I wanted to take this position because the perpetrator was never given a voice and to think more critically about the issue of bullying.
Did your Jewish communities also help and support you?
Lisa Cohen: Yes, Kavana helped me finish my first film, and they sponsored it at the 2012 Seattle Jewish Film Festival and showed up to the screening.
You employ different mediums to tell stories. How did you arrive at these approaches?
Elise Levine: After my film Waiting for Nesara, I vowed my next would be vérité, a very difficult style to achieve, to feel like a fly on the wall while things unfold in the moment.
It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort…
Elisa Levine: …and trust. You have to get people used to the idea that we’re invisible. But they know you are in the room. If they let you in, real drama occurs right in front of you.
Lisa Hurwitz: I decided early on that I was going to do the archival research for my film rather than have somebody else do it. Finding and holding things that no one has touched in maybe a hundred years, feeling like I’m the only person in the whole world this thing could give joy to, is very special. I hope to translate that joy to enhance the story.
Lisa Cohen: My subject’s story took place a few years before I interviewed her. So I had to recreate the scenes she was describing. There are many ways to do that. I chose animation because my film is for middle-schoolers, kids age 10 and up. Graphic novels are really popular, and it was the most fitting medium for the story.
"I have a stack of rejection letters. It's very, very hard."
How do you support your projects: day jobs, grants, family, fundraising?
Elisa Levine: The most recent grant we got is from Sundance Institute. It was the first time a major player in the film world took a chance on us, but we've received smaller grants. The first was from a fantastic local organization, Northwest Film Forum. But I have a stack of rejection letters. It’s very, very hard. We have raised most of the funding to date through a hybrid investment/donation structure, so we can accept either. Right now we need to raise the finishing funds to complete post production so we can get this film out in the world. It's more timely than ever.
Lisa Cohen: We received two grants for this film. The financial aspect is one of the reasons it takes so long. My crewmembers have to support themselves, so my project gets put into the cracks in their schedules.
Lisa Hurwitz: So far, my film has been funded from crowd funding, individual donations, and people who have donated a lot of their time.
Where do you find moral support?
Lisa Hurwitz & Elisa Levine: We are both active in the Seattle Documentary Association. It’s super.
Elisa Levine: These are like my sisters. It’s a completely welcoming, nurturing community.
"That's what we are chasing: 'I did this! I finally did it!'"
Lisa Hurwitz: To be able to get your film on a big screen in front of an audience to workshop before it’s finished is so valuable. It’s an amazing community and one of the reasons I’m here.
What is it like seeing your film, or a friend’s film, on screen?
Elisa Levine: It’s hard to put into words how important film is to me, especially documentaries. So many changed my life. You know all the suffering that documentary directors went through. You are seeing that come together. When it’s your friend’s, you feel triumphant for that person. That’s what we are chasing: “I did this. I finally did it!”
Lisa Cohen: It’s an incredible accomplishment to finish a film and see it on the big screen. It’s a magical experience. It’s larger than life even when it is real life. Seeing your own up there and knowing what you went through to get there is immensely satisfying.