TRUST screened on Friday night in New Brunswick, New Jersey, at the Douglass Residential College, a women’s residential college at Rutgers University. The screening organizer Carlos Fernandez said most of the students are also the first in their families to go to college. And, on Friday night, the audience for the TRUST screening was almost all women.
Carlos, who is the Executive Director of the Center for Latino Arts and Culture at Rutgers, asked me to talk about what he saw as a common thread in my films, that they are about outsiders and are often about women. That is certainly true of four of my eight films: the documentaries TRUST, (Marlin a Hondureña is the heroine), Downside UP (a first-person documentary about my dying working class hometown, in which I am the protagonist), and COWGIRLS (about women who work as cowboys on cattle ranches) and my narrative feature film THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD (about a young Chinese woman who comes to America during the Gold Rush as a slave).
THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD is probably the most extreme example of an outsider film – almost every element in the story and production was enough to insure that it would never, ever see the light of day.
Killer reason number 1: the heroine of the story. Lalu Nathoy, a young Chinese woman. There are no Asian American actresses whose name attached to the film would compel a Hollywood studio or investors to believe they’d make money on the film.
Killer Reason Number 2: the director – me. A woman. Women direct only 5% of American dramatic feature films. In Hollywood, the image of a director, the “helmsman” is that of a man. That was true in the late 1980s when I was trying to get THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD made and it is true today. It’s just pathetic that the percentage of women directing features has not changed during my career.
Killer Reason Number 3: the story is set in the American West. As a genre Westerns were dismissed with a phrase we heard again and again from men in suits sitting behind their desks: “Dust is dead.”
We succeeded in making THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD (it was released in 1992 and is now available on iTunes) because the PBS American Playhouse series supported it because they wanted to tell American stories whose heroes and heroines were people of color and supported it; because the Sundance Institute was cultivating regional American filmmakers and invited us to participate in its famed June Lab; and because an independent investor, a Caucasian married to a Chinese woman, loved the interracial love story part of the film and filled in the financing gap.
However, dust was still dead when we finished THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD, and we had hell finding a distributor. Then DANCES WITH WOLVES was a box office success, dust was no longer dead (!) and we got a distributor.
Post written by Nancy Kelly, On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker