Janet Goldwater shares some of her greatest challenges and joys in documentary filmmaking and learns that sometimes content was determined partly by design, partly by chance and circumstance, and partly by compromise.
The poet and activist Sonia Sanchez was our first living subject . . . and is she ever living. When we first saw the 81-year-old African-American poet “perform” her poetry, humming, swaying, rat-a-tat-tatting her words to a spellbound audience, we thought, yes, this will work.
How we got started: In 2009, we (Philadelphia-based filmmakers Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater) attended a jazz/funk opera based on Sanchez’s book, “Does Your House Have Lions?” about the poet’s brother’s death from AIDS. The opera was composed by Evan Solot, with whom we had worked on previous films. We were seated by chance with Sanchez and a lively conversation ensued until Sanchez was swept away by her admirers.
Slowly, a concept took shape. We gave Sanchez copies of some of our earlier documentaries—including two biographies of trailblazing women—and Sanchez checked us out. We invited a third producer, Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, to join the team. Apparently we passed the vetting process, because Sanchez agreed to a biography. From day one, we made it clear that this would not be a collaboration; it was essential for the filmmakers to have complete artistic and editorial control. She agreed.
We pinched ourselves, could it possibly be that easy, especially for a fellow artist, to step back from the creative process? In the early stages of production on BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez, we filmed Sanchez at her dining room table, reworking—for the umpteenth time—a poem in her scribbled notebook. There we witnessed a woman whose choices—in her art, anyway—are meticulously considered, refined and analyzed. How could she cede control of a film that would seek to present her life and work to audiences across the country, perhaps around the world?
In fact, creative control was never, ever an issue. Sanchez was true to her word, never telling us what to film or even asking to see a rough cut. While we shared some early sample reels with Sanchez, who viewed them with her son, she never asked for changes or made suggestions. In fact, the early sharing of material served to increase her trust that we were doing justice to her work, and she allowed us further into her life. Perhaps the greatest surprise was that she allowed us to edit long poems into more manageable clips, never asking to be part of the decision-making process.
When we finally pressed a full rough cut on Sanchez hoping to avoid any unpleasant surprises as we entered the festival circuit, she watched reluctantly, closing her eyes at times and just listening to the words, claiming to dislike seeing herself on camera. The only part to which she took umbrage was a line in which someone implies that she ought to slow down. We explained our thinking: no one expects an octogenarian artist to be traveling to upwards of 50 gigs a year. Gordon, who was editing the film, remembers thinking that Sanchez had a point, and it inspired a slight adjustment to the scene. It was a small, but meaningful, change of one line from “she should stop” to “she’s unstoppable.”
Oddly enough, our experience with a living subject, Sonia Sanchez, stands in contrast to that of profiling a deceased subject, Wanda Landowska. Landowska was the subject of our first film biography, which and was pitched to us by Philadelphia music critic Lesley Valdez. At the time, Valdez was writing a biography of the Polish harpsichordist, credited by some as bringing a “dead” instrument to its height of popularity in the mid-20th century. In the process, she had done much of the foundational research, and presented us with lists of people to interview, complete with phone numbers. This would be easy, or so we thought. Then we discovered the gatekeeper syndrome.
When Landowska, a burgeoning celebrity in Europe, abandoned her school and priceless instrument collection to the Nazi occupation and fled Paris in 1941, she arrived at Ellis Island with her signature instrument, the Pleyel, and a young student, Denise Restout. In 1994, when we first went to Landowska’s home in Lakeville, Connecticut with a camera crew, Landowska was long dead, but Restout, who had become Landowska’s amanuensis, had assumed the burden of protecting her longtime companion’s legacy. She was the gatekeeper, and a formidable one.
Restout doled out information parsimoniously, certain names could be spoken, while uttering others would inspire icy silences. Our documentary depended on information only Restout could supply: not only had they shared half a lifetime but Restout had physical control of many photos and other archival material. Comments by a contemporary of Landowska’s describing Landowska’s risqué lifestyle in Paris in the 30s offended Restout’s parochial sensibilities. Restout, a devout Catholic, was also uncomfortable with references to Landowska’s Jewish ancestry. A bartering process about the content of the documentary began, in which Restout eventually consented to a lengthy and informative interview in return for the inclusion of a photo of a Catholic priest whom she admired. The priest had no relevance to the documentary, but became a 3-second compromise we made in order to secure Restout’s cooperation.
Restout was not Landowska’s only protector: Later, when we interviewed the harpsichord enthusiast William Buckley (who was also Landowska’s neighbor in Connecticut) about the nature of Landowska’s longtime relationships with female companions, he threatened to “ruin” us if we implied “anything of the sort.” That question squelched Buckley’s bonhomie in the room, and the interview ended abruptly. Later he forgot his threat, and claimed to love the documentary.
In the end, in BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez and Wanda Landowska: Uncommon Visionary—as is no doubt the case with many documentaries—the content was determined partly by design, partly by chance and circumstance, and partly by compromise. When we’re lucky or our diplomatic efforts are successful, the compromises are small and the “stuff of life”, both extraordinary and messy, unfurls into a satisfying documentary. Landowska went on to a national PBS broadcast and broadcasts in Europe and Asia. BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez, which had its broadcast premiere on WORLD Channel’s AMERICA REFRAMED in March 2016, continues to win awards and attract enthusiastic audiences at festivals and events across the country.
BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez is the second documentary produced collaboratively by Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater and Sabrina Schimidt Gordon. Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater have been making award-winning broadcast documentaries for more than 25 years. Based in Philadelphia, they are recipients of many awards including the Pew Fellowship in the Arts.
Sabrina Schmidt Gordon is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has been making films about social justice, the arts and politics for over a decade. She is Co-Chair of the Black Documentary Collective and teaches at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.