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Inner-City Blues: An Interview with Jennifer Dworkin

For over eight years Jennifer Dworkin documented the personal struggles of a recovering crack addict and her troubled daughter in Love & Diane. Fellow "long-term" filmmaker Steve James talks with Dworkin about her epic work of American vérité filmmaking.

I first heard about Jennifer Dworkin's Love & Diane when it played at the 2002 New York Film Festival. Though I missed seeing it because I live in Chicago, the word was that this was a special film, one in which the filmmaker spent years intimately following the lives of a family. Since that's been my own filmmaking "M.O.," I knew this was a documentary I had to see.

So in November, when I finally did settle into my seat at Amsterdam's International Documentary Festival to watch the film, I had pretty high expectations. Love & Diane lived up to them and more. It's a powerful, uncompromising, yet compassionate portrait of a mother and daughter coping with a hard life in Brooklyn and an even more difficult personal history between them. In the best sense of the word, the film is a throwback to the heyday of cinema vérité filmmaking in the '60s and early '70s,

When the Maysles were in their prime and young filmmakers like Barbara Kopple were making their mark.

Love & Diane is one of those films where the filmmaker earned such intimate access and the trust of her subjects that it gives viewers a rare and complex glimpse into the lives of people we rarely really see in films. And like most great film subjects, Diane Hazzard and her daughter, Love, continually confound our expectations of what it means to be a "ghetto mom" or an "ex-crack addict" or a "black teenage mother."

Meeting and getting to know the director, Jennifer Dworkin, was one of the pleasures of the Amsterdam festival. My film, Stevie, also played there, and Jennifer and I found unexpected common ground in the stories each of our films tells. Both films deal with troubled family history, struggles between a parent and child, foster care, poverty and the social service and legal systems. Yet, in other ways, Stevie and Love & Diane, couldn't be more different.

Filmmaker gave me a chance to talk further with Jennifer about her impressive first film and compare notes about how we each went about making such demanding and challenging films.

Steve James: How long did you spend on this film?

Jennifer Dworkin: You know, I never answer that question.

James: Really?

Dworkin: No, just kidding [laughs]. If you count directions I started but didn't end up using in the film, about eight years, including editing. But not full time.

James: Of course not. How could one survive?

Dworkin: Exactly.

James: When you started this, did you have any idea that you were in for such a long haul?

Dworkin: Not at all. When I started, I wasn't even sure I was making a film for anyone rather than myself and the people in it. I didn't think of it as something that I would try to turn into a "professional documentary." It stemmed from a class I was teaching, a filmmaking and photography class with children in a homeless shelter, and some of these children were Diane's nephews and nieces. So I started to make this film about growing up in the shelter system, with four families who I intended to follow, and then I narrowed it down to one family. When I met Love and Diane, I essentially ditched the original members of the family and focused on them.

James: What made you so sure that you wanted to focus on Love and Diane versus your original subjects?

Dworkin: I just found Love and Diane so impressive and exceptionally able to express what was going on in their lives; I thought they were fascinating and unique people. But beyond that there was another concern: over the years I had ended up personally involved in the lives of these other children. One of them came to live with me, and another was adopted by friends of mine. My original impulse had been to try to make a film that gave some insight into why so many children with so much promise were not fulfilling their potential, and I didn't really want it to be a film about how I was changing that in these cases.

James: So when you originally began, you didn't expect t to become a film in the sense that it has become a film, but clearly it doesn't sound like it was just going to be a home movie for the family either.

Dworkin: I don't think I was thinking very clearly when I started it. I didn't really have any idea what it took to make a documentary. When I was working at the shelter, it was partly a project for me, but it was partly a project for the children in it - sort of a joint project.

James: Like an activity?

Dworkin: Exactly, an activity. And some of the black-and-white footage shot by the children from those classes is still in the film.

James: When did you decide to not use music? Was that a decision you made from the start?

Dworkin: I never thought that music would be a great idea. But my editor and I were trying to keep a sort of open mind about it, and we did try to have some music composed for [the film]. But every time we put it on a scene, we found ourselves not pleased with it. It didn't help the film. I think that the music works well in Stevie. In our case, we really wanted to immerse people in a certain experience, and I think that music can make people aware that they're watching a film.

James: Well, it was interesting in Stevie, because I also wrestled with the idea of whether to have music or not. Early on I was very sure that there would be no [score]. I wanted this story to be as completely honest a film experience for the viewer as I could make it in every respect.

Dworkin: What made you change your mind?

James: I actually held the line for a long time. When my co-editor, Bill Haugse, entered the picture later in the process, he was an advocate of putting music in, and I found myself feeling like this was a very, very tough story to ask people to watch to begin with. I felt like when I started to put some music to it, it gave the viewer a bit of a way in to these characters.

Dworkin: That's interesting, because I also thought that music would make my film more accessible- sort of friendlier. And maybe I was being doctrinaire in a way, but I didn't mind that the film was going to be a tough experience for people. I kind of wanted that. Maybe it's because it's my first film and I didn't realize all the commercial problems it would cause later.

James: When I watched your film and noticed early on that you weren't using music and assumed rightly that you were not going to use music for the rest of the movie, I had this pang of regret that I had put music in [Stevie]. But then, by the end of the film, I felt like, and maybe it was just rationalization, I had actually made the right decision on Stevie and you had absolutely made the right decision.

Dworkin: That's interesting, because I was going to ask you if you would have put music into my film.

James: I might have fallen prey to it, but I think that would have been the wrong decision. I think you made the right decision. There is rawness in a very good sense to your film - the grittiness of the environment, the way it's shot. And the character of Diane, as the film progresses, is such a warm and great person that you want the absolute best for her. You have no mixed feelings about her as a subject in the film.

Dworkin: Not everybody feels that way about Diane, although most people do. There are people who find both Love and Diane incredibly frustrating. I mean, Love is obviously frustrating in the sense that you see her make bad decision after bad decision, and self-destructive thing after self-destructive thing, and you kind of wish you could just shake her, get her to stop feeling so sorry for herself, and stop blaming other people. Although she does grow up during the film, it's a very slow process. Her growth is more internal. She realized that in certain ways she has made the same mistakes as her mother, and she's going to have to forgive her mother. I never expected that the story with Diane would end so happily. It was a gift for us. At a Q&A at Sundance, somebody said, "I don't understand how you could make this film, because if Diane hadn't broken out and had this great success at the end, you would have wasted four years of your life!" I tried to explain that I would have had a film anyway.

James: This whole notion of not anticipating what's going to happen, what twists the story will take, is what makes this long-term filmmaking we do so interesting. As close as you get to your subjects, they continue to surprise you.

Dworkin: That's right. When I decided to focus on Love and Diane, the way I really saw it was in terms of this terrible thing that happened in the past to Diane - her addiction, her leaving her children - which was then resolved with the children's return home. The story was going to be about how they come together as a family, how love moves forward into the future and maybe fulfills some of her dreams. I didn't expect that much to change in Diane's life, and I didn't expect that much to stay the same in Love's life. What was so extraordinary is that [the film] unfolded almost like a tragedy. Love wasn't even pregnant when I stated to film. Then she had this baby and found herself basically reliving her mother's experience. The course of events seemed in some ways completely unexpected and in other ways inevitable.

James: Like fate.

Dworkin: Yeah.

James: Did you ever feel an impulse to try to influence Love in particular during that time?

Dworkin: I did. I mean, I didn't start the film with any sense of how a documentary filmmaker behaves. I didn't have any kind of code of involvement or non-involvement. I guess inevitably, I got very personally drawn in. I was constantly trying to give Love advice, but she ignored it. I could talk until I was blue in the face, and she was going to do what she was going to do.

James: Which is of course not surprising at all when you see the movie, because you see that she's ignoring advice from everybody, from her lawyer to her unseen psychologist or psychiatrist, to her mother, to her boyfriend. Yet, she is really interesting because of the amount of insight she has.

Dworkin: Love is extremely intelligent. I mean, she's very, very bright, and this has enormous potential as a writer. But there is something about her, and I don't know whether this is some particular syndrome or something, but she makes very sensible plans and has extremely good intentions, but somewhere between the decision and the action, there's some kind of failure. She really does feel sort of fated in a certain way. It's almost like she can't start to see herself a successful or competent person because something gets in the way of that thought or that perception of herself.

James: Was there a time when [Love & Diane] began to look at you differently during the course of making the film?

Dworkin: Yes. They did wonder why I was doing this and what I wanted to get out of it. We talked about it frequently. I used to sit us all down and have little meetings to talk about it, which nobody was ever terribly interested in doing. In fact, I made a ritual of handing out releases a couple of times a year so that I could talk to everyone about whether they were still onboard and why.

James: Getting people to re-sign releases is the most dangerous of things. Most [documentary filmmakers] get [the subjects] to sign once and then breathe a sigh of relief.

Dworkin: I made a little ritual out of it. I really don't know if they ever really understood why I was [making the film]. I think that what was good was that Love and Diane had reasons why they wanted to do it.

James: Which were?

Dworkin: Love at the beginning wanted to do it because she wanted to inspire other teenagers and she wanted to show that despite this very rough past, she was still going to be successful. Diane really just wanted a memorial to a destroyed life - her life and her family, all of whom were dead except for her kids. At 43, she'd lived longer than anyone else in her family, and she just wanted a record of her past and why she had done what she had done.

James: And by the end, the two of them flipped positions.

Dworkin: Diane was incredibly gung-ho about how she had transformed her life and how other people should see how it was never too late; she was empowered by the film. I think it became harder for Love to see a reason other than that - which is something that I think comes through quite powerfully in the film - her enormous commitment to truthfulness, regardless of the consequences. She never asked me to not film things that were painful for her, or not to show them, because she wanted it to be an honest film.

James: Were there times when you decided for her that you shouldn't film certain things?

Dworkin: Yes. And there were times in the editing room when we decided that certain things crossed some line of discretion. You know, the painful scenes that we kept and that remain in the film, those really were scenes that were about what became the central theme in the film, about guilt and forgiveness, about the mother-daughter dynamic. There were plenty of painful moments that were not relevant to that that we didn't include. And there was a very big debate about one issue in particular which is in the film. Though it was something that Love wanted to be included, we just didn't know where as filmmakers Mona [Davis] and I stood on it, which was Love's accusation that her brother had molested her when they were both children. It was a very, very tough decision because we knew that nobody else in the film believed it. They felt adamantly that it wasn't true. And [Love] said, "they say I'm the black sheep, then I have a right to say how I came to be this way." In the end, we kept it.

James: I think that it's always an interesting question. Usually people think that the reverse situation is going to happen, that the callous and cutthroat filmmaker wants to put everything that's juicy into the film and has to talk the subjects into it.

Dworkin: Did that happen with Stevie?

James: Well, there were things that Stevie did or said that reflected even worse on him that I left out of the film. You see plenty of Stevie's bad behavior in the film, but in some of the earlier cuts it felt like we were just rubbing the audience's nose in that part of who he was.

Dworkin: We had exactly the same issues that we wanted to balance. I think both of us came on the scene in moments of crisis, and in order to give a fair picture of how people are overall, you can't just show those moments of anger and fear, even if you do have a lot of that material. It's more responsible to try, in the editing room, to make sure your character is one the audience can feel the same way about as you do.

James: Looking back, what would you do differently in the film, or is it just perfect?

Dworkin: Uh, no, there's so many of them it's hard to know where to begin. One thing is, I would have committed myself to making this film as a full-time occupation earlier, so that I was around more. I missed some very crucial moments. For instance, when they come to take the children, even though I probably wouldn't have been allowed to film, I wasn't even in New York. By the end of the film, I became very interested in shooting things well and getting clean sound and a nice picture. I learned stuff [while making the film] so that its technical quality improves radically as it progresses. There are a lot of things I could have done better. In terms of overall editing decisions, I'm happy with the editing - it's more the way I shot it. There are just moments that I would have liked to have been there for.

James: On Hoop Dreams, the first two years of shooting, we only shot like 25 days total.

Dworkin: I didn't realize that at all.

James: And then it grew exponentially. The reason we shot so little the first two years is because we had no money, we had to work and it was before the age of cheap DV cameras. To get a camera package was expensive. We had so little money and didn't have the time to invest in the story like we were able to as it progressed. By the time of junior year, we shot like 45 or 50 days, and by senior year we shot like100 days. And if you look at the film, the first 40 minutes of Hoop Dreams cover the first two years of their high school years, and I'm sure people watching it think, oh, this is going to be a nice short, punchy film. But then it expands as it goes. And when we got into editing, there were certainly enough times when I felt in cutting, "God, I wish we'd had this." We missed some very major things because of how limited our shooting was. But overall though, it was a blessing to not have all those choices, because I think there are certain avenues that get closed off to you when you don't have everything. Just imagine how long Hoop Dreams, and Love & Diane and Stevie, would be if we had shot everything!

Did you think about including yourself in the film in some way, either off screen as a more definable presence or onscreen?

Dworkin: To be honest, the hidden reason, though certainly not the obvious reason, is that I would hate to be in a film.

James: Well, I didn't want to be in one either.

Dworkin: You look uncomfortable, too. The occasional shots we did when I was thinking of being the film were just hilarious because I look so incredibly uncomfortable and freaked out. I'm just kind of lurking in the corner with this look of panic on my face. But I did think about it a lot. We were putting audiences in front of a world that might seem alien to them, and one answer to that [challenge] is to give them a guide. And who better than the filmmaker, who is sort of an obvious intermediary figure between the work in the film and the world of many members of the audience? But I wasn't involved centrally in the way that I think you were in Stevie's story. The relationship between you and Stevie was a significant one that explained what you were doing there. In my case, the really central relationship was between Love and Diane, and in that relationship I was completely extraneous.

The other thing is, I decided quite early on not to interview the authorities, lawyers, social workers - not to get another point of view but to try to immerse people in the point of view of people in the film. And I thought [my presence] would have detracted from that. In Stevie though, one of the things that [the film] seems to me to be about is the ways in which a filmmaker has to navigate different worlds as a friend, as a documenter, and as someone trying to make something that people want to see. It's the only time I've seen a filmmaker really explore that.

James: I think you are right that that was part of the intent as the film evolved, but I think it's also a barrier to some people. The press and fellow documentary filmmakers really plug into that very thing you're talking about and engage with the film on that level. But then there are other people who react to the film and say: "Who does [Steve James] think he is that we care at all about his feelings! Can't he just remove himself from [the film] and tell a story?" Or they react to the whole thing as if it's a freak show, and it makes them uncomfortable because that whole voyeuristic question that is at the heart of this kind of filmmaking -that you are a voyeur in the lives of people in turmoil -is put in your face in Stevie. And I think that's not to a bad thing for [audiences] to have to think about. Your film in many ways is a throwback to vérité films. And I mean it as a total compliment, because some of the most powerful, potent and influential documentaries I ever saw were the films made back in the '60s and '70s -Harlan County, U.S.A, the Maysles Brother's films.

Dworkin: I admire those films very much.

James: It's clear from seeing your film. I have to ask this question because I know people want to know: what have the reactions been on the part of the subjects to seeing the film?

Dworkin: It was something that we were both avoiding. Both Diane and Love never asked to see it, and I never wanted to show it to them. But then at the New York Film Festival, I knew they were going to be there, and I had to show it to them. I tried to do it in a very supportive environment. I had Diane come with one of her counselors and see it with me first. Her reaction was very surprising to me because the first thing she said was that she was extremely proud of me that I had made a real movie! She just went on and on about it. She said, "Oh, it's so well-edited, and I like the imagery in the memory sequences, that's just how I felt." She had noticed all these technical things and wanted to talk about them.

James: She was like a film critic.

Dworkin: She was, actually. I expected just from the editing point of view that [she] would point out that I had changed the order of certain events or made some cuts between people who weren't really in the same place. But no, it turned out that her main worries had been that I would not do justice to her story. She is very happy with the film, has invited everyone she knows to see it, and feel empowered by it. Love came and saw it with Diane, and she basically has not said anything negative about it. I think she thinks that it is completely honest and fair. A couple of weeks later after seeing it, she called me and said, "I hadn't realized how angry I was. Was I really that angry?" She told me that she hadn't realized how incredibly difficult her mother's life had been, that there were things that she saw in the film that she hadn't really focused on about her mother. And everyone else who has seen it has been fine with it too.

James: It's interesting how a film like this can be therapeutic both in the act of making for the people in the film, but also in the act of seeing it when it's done. You want to hope that when people are seeing their story can see past the details to the larger truth.

Dworkin: I think everybody felt that the case for their positions had been fairly made, and I think part of what gave them that impression were the memory sequences where we allowed them to talk and use their own words. [These sequences are] important part of the film, and are one way in which it is not a traditional vérité film.

James: And do you have any new projects coming up?

Dworkin: I have one that I'm trying to develop which is about a very different subject. I'm hoping to make a film with a vérité insight about someone who produces television in Hollywood. I'm very interested in doing fiction filmmaking some time in the future. I don't see a huge divide between a documentary and narrative. I think that many of the things that make a good documentary are integral to making a good fiction film. As far as documentary, my allegiance to vérité is pretty strong. I can see myself doing other projects to help pay the bills that are more news-oriented, but I would always like to have, hopefully not quite so long-term, a vérité project at some level of development.

James: I'm glad to hear that, because the vérité tradition is oddly, in my mind, in jeopardy. It's been taken over by reality television.

Dworkin: I think that's right. What people are finding now is that the most exciting thing in documentary is films that are driven by the character of the director. Not just Michael Moore, but quite a few films in which the director is the investigative figure. I find those films interesting and very engaging, but they don't open up a window into an unknown world.

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