Filmmaker blair dorosh-walther discusses the making of the film, Out in the Night.
POV: How did you find this story?
blair dorosh-walther: I found out about it the day after the fight occurred. The media attention in New York was very immediate. The Daily News, The New York Post, The New York Times all had articles immediately. The article that really got me was an article in The New York Times entitled "Man Is Stabbed After Admiring A Stranger." Because even though that wasn't as salacious as the other headlines, it was the New York Times and not a tabloid paper. To my mind there was no way they would have called this man an admirer had the women been white. I've never met a woman who hasn't been sexually harassed in some way in her life and it just seemed to me that there was no way these journalists could see these women as women.
And I think the one thing that they also weren't looking at is that this guy wasn't just a verbal sexual harasser, he got violent. And studies have shown that women of color and gender nonconforming women experience a form of catcalling on the street that often turns violent at a much higher rate. And that was never discussed. And one thing that we saw reoccurring was Terrain's image being used a lot. And in the picture they have, she could pass as a young man. They would always use her image and put "gang" under it. And that is adding again to the stereotype of what a gang member is supposed to look like.
POV: So you were involved as an activist before you met the women?
blair dorosh-walther: I got involved as an activist for the first two years. There were meetings in the West Village with the larger LGBT community, discussing what do we do in this situation? We didn't know what happened that night, but we knew the media and the headlines were outrageous. And then we started talking about what do you do if you feel threatened and you don't feel comfortable calling the police.
And I went to school for film, but I initially didn't think that I should tell this story, I didn't think a white director should, which is why the first two years I didn't think about it as a film. But then when their appeals were approaching in 2008 and there was just not as much happening in the news about the case, it was just one of those stories I couldn't get out of my mind. I was still really passionate and outraged by it, so I approached the women. I went to visit them in prison, visited with their family members and all their attorneys and just started to see if there was interest in the documentary. And we kind of started this slow process of getting to know each other, to see if we'd be a good fit and if they were going to be comfortable with me.
POV: I know you were driven by the issue, but once you met them, what was it that made you want to continue?
blair dorosh-walther: Honestly they're this... I don't know if I can say this on TV, but they're this badass pocket of resistance that is so unapologetic. You know, they resisted that night on the street and maintained their innocence and were very unapologetic through the trial and pled not guilty, which is incredibly difficult. They were all facing 25 years, and they were given plea deals that they could have taken for lesser sentences like the other three, but they really stood strong in their conviction. To this day, we've done a few screenings when all four of them are there and someone is like, "Now that you've gone through this horrific experience, would you do anything differently?" And they all at the same time say no. I mean, it's just unequivocally unapologetic. And I, really, really admire that.
POV: Now the man involved in the incident and the judge and the prosecutor in the case, they're not participants in the film. Did you approach them?
blair dorosh-walther: I tried really hard to get the judge on camera and he just wouldn't. And I think that it's hard to get a sitting judge to go on camera. But he made it clear that self-defense is incredibly difficult to prove and that he doesn't see... Because the prosecutor has to go through so many layers to decide whether she thinks the victim is innocent, self-defense in his eyes isn't a legitimate defense. So particularly in his courtroom, it wasn't going to work. The prosecutor, my producer spoke to for months and she was wavering back and forth and eventually decided that she didn't want to be a part of it.
POV: And the man who was involved in the incident?
blair dorosh-walther: So we've had a back and forth for many, many years. Sometimes he responds, sometimes he doesn't. I met him in person once. I thought that he was going to want to do it because he's so vocal online about speaking against these women. In the end he just didn't think that the story was a story he wanted to be a part of.
POV: Your film sheds light on what seem to be some fairly large flaws in our criminal justice system, particularly in terms of how information is communicated to the jury. How has making the film influenced your opinions on the subject and how have they changed?
blair dorosh-walther: There's two things I think specific to this case: self-defense and gang assault. I think self-defense is a very ill-defined term in our legislation and I think it needs to be completely redone. Self-defense isn't just about the moment in which this act is happening. There needs to be context. And that's where I think the news media should have picked up. They should have provided that context. But that's what I tried to argue in the film, that it's about the context that night, it's not just about what happened, that Patreese pulled out her knife or that Renata went back for a second punch. It's about why and about that threat. And this judge who doesn't walk through the world as a queer black woman, doesn't get the same type of harassment on the street. He doesn't receive that type of violence. So he needs that context to understand what they might have been thinking that night. I think the conversation around self-defense needs to be much more nuanced and complex and we need to keep talking about it.
And I think gang assault doesn't need to exist, there's other charges that can be used. So I think it's a very racially rooted charge and it's disproportionately used against young black men and there's no reason for it to exist in the first place to my mind.
POV: It seems like this project and the film that you embarked on was driven by your own passion and your own outrage. When you're making a film and when you're creating a message for an audience to see, there must be some balancing act that you do.
blair dorosh-walther: I came to filmmaking I think through very two clear channels, through art and activism. I'm very much an artist and, and always have been. And I think in trying to develop where I fit in the world and in terms of activism, film was that perfect marriage. I also approach it from an anarchist standpoint that has.... It's a career that to me feels like I can live within an anarchist framework because it's a small group of people governing themselves. And so that is also a part of what I really love about film. That's the lens through which I look at filmmaking.
POV: Can you point to the biggest challenge you came up against?
blair dorosh-walther: I had never visited a close family member in prison prior, and I will say I just don't know how family members do it. The first time I left one of the maximum security prisons it was just the most helpless feeling. And I really don't know how family members can do that every week or every other week or how often they go.
And in the film world, everyone's like, "You always have the camera on!" And for this particular story, I didn't feel comfortable with that. So that was kind of hard, to decide when to put the camera on and when not to.
POV: Talking about comfort levels, I think every documentary filmmaker in the relationship that they have with their subjects, there's a trust that's built between them, or hopefully. Were there any ethical dilemmas that you faced in relation to your subjects?
blair dorosh-walther: I think if you don't question where your ethics are as a filmmaker constantly, that's the problem. That was where I concluded this, that I feel like I always needed to question it. And so there were certain things that we just decided not to film. Like when Renata regained custody of her son, we decided not to film that. It wasn't a big conversation but we kind of touched base and it just felt wrong. And I've spoken to other filmmakers about that and they said that was a dumb decision on my part. But I think part of the trust was that we didn't always have the camera on. And I think that that helps and I also think that that's important to decide: can you tell the story without this piece of information? Is it worth putting a camera there?
There were a couple times that it felt a little bit invasive. I think at one point I pushed Daniel, my cinematographer, to stop shooting. And he bounced back up and kept shooting. And I was like, "Okay, maybe you're right, I don't know what we should do right now!" But I think every situation was different.
POV: How have audiences reacted to seeing the film? And also, were there any reactions that surprised you?
blair dorosh-walther: I think the thing that none of us really thought about or were prepared for was the amount of audience members that were going to share a similar story and pour their hearts out to the women. They would start in the Q&A and then they would come up to the women afterwards. And I think the women being able to visualize support for them has been really, really powerful.
POV: When did you show the film to the subjects? And how did the women react?
blair dorosh-walther: I think it was really emotional. I think also, it was... Even though they had seen other cuts, it was like okay, now we are going to be showing this to the world. And I think it hit them in a different way. They all kind of got really quiet afterwards. One thing I think really surprised them was that the fight only lasted about four minutes. I think that was a really big deal. They didn't know that. I think that's a huge thing to reflect on, that these four minutes changed so much of your life.
POV: Who do you want to see this film?
blair dorosh-walther: I want everybody to see this film! I think this film should be shown to law students and journalists. I think that journalists need to understand multiple identities and know how to speak about them and not be scared or outrageous or stereotypical and not just do these horrendous blanketed judgments of people they clearly don't know.
I would love to see it in prisons. We showed a seven-minute cut in an all women's prison many years ago. And a number of women stood up and said they were tried in the media before they were tried in court. And there was just no screening like it. And actually on... when we did that screening, I started pen-palling with a few of the women and one woman told me that she had never watched a documentary before, but since they get PBS in prison, now she watches documentaries all the time. So we are constantly pen-palling, talking about which film she saw and what she thought of it. So I think by virtue of being on POV, we will be in prisons. I would love to actually go and have the women go in and talk.
POV: That actually leads to my next question, what does it mean for you to have your film on POV, but more importantly on public television?
blair dorosh-walther: I wouldn't be a filmmaker if it wasn't for public television. I wouldn't have received the funding. We received ITVS funding which is a federal grant, and for independent filmmakers and working class filmmakers, there's no other venue. And POV is the vehicle to get the film in front of a huge audience. There are going to be, like, 1.5 million people watching the film. And I don't think that counts people who are incarcerated, even. So the audience is so broad and that's the reason you make film: to screen it to a larger audience. So for both the content of the film and also for filmmakers, it's the lifeline.