Ovarian Psycos brought together filmmakers Joanna Sokolowski, who co-produced the Emmy® Award-winning HBO documentary Very Semi-Serious (2015), about New Yorker cartoonists, and Kate Trumbull-LaValle, an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker who first began in the field of social justice media as an educator and media maker. They collaborated to tell the story of the “Ovas,” a raucous, irreverently named bicycle crew: The Ovarian Psycos Cycle Brigade, who ride together through the streets of East Los Angeles — the birthplace of the Chicano/a rights movement — to confront injustice, build community, and redefine identity.
“By choosing to mainly follow three of the Ovas, who are all in very different stages of their lives, the directors were able to give the film a multigenerational bent, and also highlight the stages of activist burnout,” wrote Emma Gambaro in Vox Magazine. The film “shows the whole picture of what it means to be an activist and step outside of an assigned role. It does not paint change as something that is easy, but rather looks at the process and the history that made the change that is currently happening possible.” Ovarian Psycos premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, March 27 at 10 pm [check local listings], and we checked in with the two filmmakers to learn more about their approach to telling the story of these powerful women.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making Ovarian Psycos?
This was our first feature film. We poured everything we had into this project. We cried, we laughed, and we argued making this film. We collectively gave birth to three children, worked with our partners on the film – who were the DP and Composer – and our colleagues became adopted family during this project. It has truly been a labor of love, an exhilarating challenge since the very beginning.
[Spoiler Alerts] But one of the biggest challenges presented itself from the start: finding the story. From the moment we heard about the Ovas we dreamt about what an amazing film this could be, but initially we had no clue how their work would translate into a story with a narrative thread and three-act structure. We resisted making an issue film and were so lucky to meet Xela. As the founder and a poet M.C. she is a natural storyteller. She was able reflect and articulate her personal relationship to the work and to the Ovas, which ultimately served as the foundation for building the story of the film. But about less than half way through production, Xela suddenly quit the crew. When we heard the news we were devastated. We thought for sure the film was over. But what seemed like the end, turned out to be epiphanous, a true turning point.
Xela’s quitting became pivotal to the story. It allowed Andi, the soft-spoken artist of the crew, to emerge as a powerful leader. And Xela’s abrupt departure was a beautiful counterpoint to Evie, who was finding her voice and striking out on her own. In retrospect, Xela’s departure to spend more time with her daughter really allowed the story to evolve, deepen and re-focus. This was no longer just an origin story about the Ovarian Psycos as a group, or a simple profile of their work, but a deeply intimate film about personal and collective resilience, about violence, sisterhood, motherhood, and community building.
How did you gain the trust of those women featured in the film, the main members of the Ovas?
It’s hard to know what we did, or what we said, that helped build the rapport needed to make this movie. We captured some very raw, painful and beautifully intimate moments with the women in our film, and I think we were able to do so from a combination of trust, mutual respect, and just being there. We can tell you our strategy was to just put in the time. We are a small team, just three of us, and we all spent countless hours off camera with the women in our film. We went to meetings, dinners, fundraisers, held phone calls, video conferences, and even went to birthday parties – all off camera. Early on we shared roughly edited scenes, footage and work samples, and we did our best to speak candidly about our thoughts on how the story of the film was evolving, what themes we were interested in, what we were hoping to capture, who we were interviewing, and what we were researching.
And above all, we tried to convey that we would make every effort to produce a film that honored their story, their work, and allowed their voices, words and ideas to be centered in the narrative. I think there was always a baseline worry that we’d get it wrong. When we shared the final film to the central women, the full collective, including former members, it was so wonderfully raucous and loud. They were giggling, crying, hugging, and hollering. It was thrilling. Afterward, I think we could hear a collective sigh of relief. I think someone even said, “OK, now I trust you.”
In many ways, they took a leap of faith.
Were there any key moments you couldn’t include in the final cut?
When we first approached the Ovas about making this film we were initially drawn in by their activism, politics, and organizing strategy. But we quickly learned that behind the mask, the work happens everyday and is deeply personal. Early on we decided to craft an intimate, character-driven film, but in making that choice we sacrificed screen time showing the dynamics of how they organize. The Ovas had developed a principled approach to organizing, and a thoughtful collective system that includes a handbook, a mission and vision statement, guiding principals of unity, official roles, seasonal leadership, and their own “Herstory.” We wish we’d had more time in the film to represent the crew’s brilliant organizing strategies, structures, consensus building, and language, but the personal work is ultimately the heartbeat of the film.
Could you talk a bit more on how you filmed some of the great bicycling scenes?
One community member compared the sight of these powerful mujeres en mass to seeing the ocean for the first time. We wanted to give the audience the same punch-to-the-gut and create an opening scene that is really an homage to this feeling. We choreographed the Ovas riding in formation and used slow motion and drone footage to reimagine this scene. It was fun to play with that visual imagery and open the film with the Ovas represented in all of their strength and full power.
Some of the most beautiful shots in our film are of the women riding the streets. These were captured by our DP Michael Raines, while…on rollerblades. Initially, when we were tossing around ideas for how to best record the bike footage Michael suggested that we could give filming on wheels a try. He happened to be an amazing rollerblader as a kid and was able to ride fast, get up next to the women, film backwards, grab onto the bikes, jump curbs, get micro shots of the bike wheels and flow with the women as they rode the crowded streets. It also helped build rapport with many of the women in the film who gave his skills much-deserved props, and we think they were a bit disarmed by this goofy guy riding upwards of 10 miles on rollerblades behind them with a big camera in hand.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
We have been inspired by so many films over the years, but some that come to mind are: The Betrayal – Nerakhoon by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath, First Person Plural by Deann Borshay Liem, and Who Killed Vincent Chin by Renee Tajima-Peña & Christine Choy…but there are so many others.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Collaborate, find a partner. When we first began, like many filmmakers do, we had no funding. We put in our own money, worked on borrowed time in between jobs, spent hours into the night writing proposals. We rallied support from our network of friends, colleagues, and mentors, and ultimately, it was partnering up that got us through to the end of production. Life and real paid work gets in the way of documentary filmmaking, not to mention motherhood. Being determined and dedicated to the often grueling, uncertain and unpaid filmmaking process is key, but when you have a collaborative partner that can share ideas and your to-do list, burn-out is less likely.
What film/project(s) are you working on next?
We are in development on an experiential documentary about the lives of young women who have experienced chronic homelessness; and a film about mothers and birth.