North Adams native Nancy Kelly recounts her hometown's reaction to DOWNSIDE UP, what she learned from her national listening tour and why she never gave up on filmmaking.
Why did you make this film?
Traveling back to California a couple of days after Uncle Bud and I took a hardhat tour of MASS MoCA under construction, I was possessed by questions. How could it be possible that tens of thousands of tourists would flock to the post-industrial wasteland of North Adams? And to see contemporary art? It seemed crazy, impossible. But what if it worked? During the '90s, the Jesse Helmses of the world viciously attacked art as a waste. If art could do some good in North Adams, I wanted the world to know.
How have people living in North Adams reacted to your film?
The premiere of DOWNSIDE UP was in North Adams, at MASS MoCA in February 2002. When we chose the date six months before the premiere, I pictured a huge snowstorm and a tiny audience consisting of my family, who were there only because I'd dragged them. The night of the premiere was clear and 500 people packed the Hunter Theater. They got every joke, cheered when Uncle Bud got the art, stood up and applauded at the end. During the Q&A, the most remarkable, moving thing happened. People who'd worked their adult lives in that factory stood up, one by one, and testified to how the museum and the documentary had given their town back to them. It was a terrific way to send DOWNSIDE UP into the world.
You've embarked on a national listening tour to help other communities explore how art and culture have contributed to community improvement. How has that been going?
About five months before we finished DOWNSIDE UP, a program officer at the Ford Foundation approached me. He wanted to explore what was happening out there at the intersection of art, culture and community development. I put together a team of people, and we screened DOWNSIDE UP in the South Bronx; in a Latino neighborhood in Philadelphia; from the south side of Chicago to San Antonio; in the International District in Seattle and in Appalachia. These places are all using craft, music, mosaic, graffiti art, hip-hop and oral histories to change their neighborhoods for the better. There was some concern that North Adams' story wouldn't travel well, wouldn't be able to cross ethnic and geographic divisions. But DOWNSIDE UP really spoke to each and every audience.
What have you learned from the national listening tour?
During the post-screening discussions, we learned that there is an emerging national movement using art and culture to change communities for the better. We saw the power of combining creative activities with community development work. We saw the way the arts and culture organizations attract neighborhood children, who in turn bring their parents. We saw the way these arts and culture organizations create public space in areas where there was no place for people to gather. We saw artists turning derelict buildings into working and performance spaces, and we saw neighborhoods revitalizing as a result.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Independent filmmaking gave me the worst time of my life: the 18 months Kenji Yamamoto (my husband and filmmaking partner) and I spent looking for a distributor for our feature film Thousand Pieces of Gold. That was followed by eight years when we developed three feature scripts, came close, but ultimately didn't get a single one made. These struggles added up to about a decade, during which Kenji and I spent a lot of time talking about getting out of independent film. But I love production, I love editing, I even love the way writing grant proposals helps me tuft the story out of the ether. I especially love the way I can have a thought that sparks an idea that creates a film. And then, after the film is finished, someone from the audience will articulate to me the very thought that originally sparked the film. DOWNSIDE UP is the first film I've made in more than 10 years. I'm glad I didn't give up on independent filmmaking.
What material was the most difficult to edit out of your film?
It was really hard to cut out the poignant scene of Aunt Joan, who is a retired licensed practical nurse, Uncle Bud and cousin Kelly, who has been quadriplegic for about 25 years, looking at Mira Hatoum's "Wheelchair." This work is a stainless steel wheelchair whose wheels are too small for the occupant to reach. Its hard, metal seat is so sharply angled, the occupant would slip onto the floor. Any caregiver who pushed the chair would cut her hands to ribbons on the handles, which were sharp as knife blades. Hatoum was drawing an analogy to the health care system. With all their experience with that system, Hatoum's concept resonated instantly for Joan, Bud and Kelly.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Gillian Armstrong, Robert Altman, Francis Reid and Debbie Hoffman.
What are your three favorite films?
The Black Stallion
What didn't you get done when you were making your film?
Riding horses, finishing my book When We Were Cowgirls, exercising.
If you could have dinner with one famous person, living or dead, who would you choose?
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
Anything that somebody else cooks.