GIRL TROUBLE filmmakers Lexi Leban and Lidia Szajko discuss the privacy challenges of making a documentary about minors, the girls’ reaction to seeing their lives onscreen and working through tough times.
What led you to make a film about girls in the juvenile justice system?
In 1998, we collaborated with The Center for Young Women’s Development, the first peer-run program for girls in the juvenile justice system, on a fundraising video for their organization. In the process of making it, we heard many of the personal stories of the young women at the Center, stories we had never heard told on film before. We felt the girls were articulate and intelligent and had informative critiques of the ways that the courts were failing girls. We wanted to make a film where young women could tell their own stories, and some of these critiques would be revealed in the process. We started talking about making such a personal documentary with some of the leaders at the Center.
Filmmakers Lexi Leban (pictured right) and Lidia Szajko (left) recall when one subject’s tardiness nearly unraveled the shooting of what they considered a crucial moment.
Early on, we went to court to film Shangra’s case, but Shangra did not show up. Back then the girls had beepers, so we paged Shangra, and told her we were at court to film her, and where was she? She said she forgot, that she was on the corner of Turk and Taylor streets making sales, and could we come pick her up? Lexi went to get Shangra while Lidia did a song and dance in juvenile court so that Shangra’s case could be heard. We thought it was the most important moment…but in retrospect it was a blip on the screen of Shangra’s life.
How did you meet the girls featured in the film?
We met the girls in the film at the Center. They were recent hires there and still entangled in the justice system. We started filming these young women and approximately five or six others and gradually decided to focus on the stories of Shangra, Stephanie and Sheila. The issues that their stories brought up are representative of what many other young women face. They come from diverse backgrounds: African American, Caucasian and Samoan, and share certain circumstances that brought them into the system. We thought young women in juvenile halls across the country would be able to relate to them.
What were some of the challenges in making such a personal documentary?
The girls were all minors at the time. We had to get their permission and permission from their parents, the juvenile court and, in many cases, individual judges. Even when this was possible, there were ethical considerations in deciding what to include in the film. We respected the young women’s ability to give informed consent. We agreed to let them, their lawyers and their families review the movie and, if they wanted to and take out anything that they felt would hurt them in the future. The girls were often living in the streets or on the run, which made them hard to track down. We were constantly dealing with pagers, their cell phones being shut off and lapses of time between filming. In addition, it was hard to know when to film or when to put down the camera and offer support to the young women.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
Our outreach plan includes showing the film to judges, lawyers, counselors and probation officers who work with girls in the system. We also plan to use the film in certain targeted communities to promote more gender-specific services for girls in those counties. The Center is heading up screenings for incarcerated girls and girls at risk and facilitating discussion. We hope that young women will see themselves represented on screen and it will lead to discussion about how they can stay out of the system, as well as start organizations like the Center.
How have the girls and their families reacted to the film?
When the girls first saw the film, all but Shangra were nervous about the premiere and how it would feel to have their lives exposed on the screen. Since the premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where the girls received a standing ovation, we think they have a sense of the contribution they have made by allowing audiences to experience their journeys. However, all of the girls say that it’s hard to see themselves at the difficult periods in the film. Some say they’d like to forget certain things and sometimes the film reminds them of how far they have come. All of the families have been very supportive. Sheila and Stephanie have both participated in Q&A’s after screenings. Since the premiere, Shangra has been very proud of the film and has been talking to groups about her experiences in the making of it.
What period of time did filming take place? When did it conclude?
The filming started in 1999 and concluded in 2004. We did not intend to film for such a long period of time but we soon realized that you may have to wait for a year for a court case to resolve. We edited as we went along, never knowing how the individual stories would turn out. We had over 300 hours of footage to sift through to make an hour-long documentary.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The independent film business can be cruel. It is like running a marathon and when you get to mile 26, they tell you that you actually have 10 more to go. We probably spent 80 percent of our time raising money, as many of us do. ITVS is actually one of the few places that funds work like this. What kept us going were the girls, the Center, each other, and many of the other girls in juvenile detention that we met along the way. We also met many professionals in the system that wanted us to finish the film so they could use it for training. Even so, we shut down many times because of low morale, lack of funds and sheer exhaustion. The responsibility we felt toward those who invested emotionally and financially in the project probably pushed us over the finish line.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
We chose public television because we believed it would give the film the broadest exposure to those who would benefit from seeing it.
What are your three favorite films?
Lexi: Harlan County USA by Barbara Kopple, the Sing-a-long Sound of Music at the Castro Theatre [in San Francisco] and anything by Todd Haynes.
Lidia: Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners, Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied and Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter by Deborah Hoffman.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Some friendships suffered as a result. We neglected our family life and are now making up for it. This life is not for the tired or meek.
What is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
The most inspirational food for making film is the Bay Area documentary filmmaking community. This is the most supportive community in the nation for documentary filmmakers. Everyone is willing to come to a rough-cut screening and give feedback, share technological information, contacts, give advice. We have gotten a great deal of support from the filmmakers of [our distribution company] New Day, as well as from the company as a whole.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
The best piece of advice we can give is to start working on whatever you are passionate about. In the process of making the work, other things will reveal themselves and you may learn to change direction. The process is often just as important as the final project. Also, collaborate! We met in graduate school at San Francisco State University and worked together as students and aspiring filmmakers. Relationships that you form in the beginning of your career can last a lifetime.
If you could have one motto, what would it be?
Get that money.
Last, but not least…
People ask what they can do to help after they see GIRL TROUBLE. They can make donations to the Center for Young Women’s Development, volunteer to go to court with young women for support and to explain what is happening, be a mentor, foster parent or hire a young woman in the system.