Director/Writer/Producer Suzanne Wasserman talks about her childhood impressions of her cousin Janet, the challenges of filming a family member and thinking about the past.
What inspired you to make a film about your cousin Janet? What were your impressions of her when you were growing up?
My mother told me stories about Janet when I was a little girl. She kept an album filled with telegrams, newspaper articles, photographs and letters in our hall closet in our house in Chicago. Sometimes, she’d take the album out and look at it with me and tell me stories about Janet.
Periodically, Janet would come to Chicago to visit my mother and her brother. But in those situations, I’d always see Janet in the context of family—at weddings, birthday parties, anniversaries. It was hard to reconcile the reality of Janet with the amazing story of her life.
Once I became an historian, I knew at some point I would go back to Janet’s story and write about it. I ended up making a film instead.
How were you received in Guyana?
Janet was initially not encouraging about my visit to Guyana. She was 77 at the time and running for president and she didn’t want to be responsible for family during the election. Very few of our relatives had ever been there (neither her father nor brother had ever visited her there). I reassured her that she wasn’t responsible for us. I doubted we would be able to spend much time with her. But once we arrived, she welcomed us with open arms and spent as much time with us as she could.
What do you remember about the Jim Jones massacre? Was Janet in Guyana at the time?
I remember being horrified by it. Janet and Cheddi were in Guyana. They were opposition leaders and Janet tried in Parliament to get Guyana’s leader Forbes Burnham to answer questions about what had happened and how it had been allowed to happen. He refused. That was a particularly horrible era in Guyana—an era of chaos, corruption and repression, and Jonestown happened in the middle of it.
What surprised you the most while making THUNDER IN GUYANA? What did you learn that was unexpected?
I learned how hard and at the same time rewarding filmmaking is. It’s so different from writing. You can always improve your writing, but if you don’t have money to go back into the editing room, you are stuck with the decisions you made.
I was also surprised by how generous people in the independent filmmaking world are. Many, many people who worked on the film at various points donated their expertise and knowledge. Academia isn’t like that!
Even though I knew the Jagans’ story my whole life and knew it was an important but little-known political story, I learned that it was also a great love story.
What were the greatest challenges involved in making a documentary about a family member?
The greatest challenge was that I had no access to the opposition parties. As soon as people discovered I was related to Janet, her opponents refused to speak with me. I really struggled with the difficulty of being an historian and a cousin. I felt like I was always wearing two hats—my historian hat and my cousin hat. I wanted to make a film that was accurate and told a little-known story. I wasn’t as concerned with being objective because I think all history is written through the subjective lens of the historian. But I also didn’t want the film to be simply hagiographic. I tried to strike a balance between telling the story as an historian but also as a cousin. I’ve always admired Janet tremendously and didn’t want to betray her trust in me.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
I wish I could make films full-time but I know that’s unrealistic. I work full-time at the City University of New York (CUNY) as associate director of the Gotham Center for New York City History. I’m motivated by the fact that I love to tell stories and I’m very much in favor of history that reaches a broad audience.
What were some of the obstacles you faced in the process of making your film?
I’m by nature a nervous person and I wasn’t sure I’d really be able to get on a plane and go down to Guyana for the election. Elections in Guyana had been violent in the past. A few days before we were supposed to leave, I almost chickened out. But I had smartly enlisted my younger sister, Nadine, to come with me as part of the crew. I called her to tell her I was thinking about backing out of the trip. She told me she was going to go without me! She shamed me into going.
There were riots both times while we were there and I was scared but amazed myself nonetheless.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television is the perfect venue for my film. My film tells an important, but little-known, political story. PBS is also the perfect venue because it’s an opportunity to tell a story about a country that Americans know little about. Many people think Guyana is in Africa or that Guyanese speak Spanish. Neither is true. Janet’s election was reported on the local news in Chicago and the newscaster said she lived in the tiny African nation of Guyana! Finally, PBS is fitting because my film features two incredibly courageous and admirable protagonists who should have better name recognition in the U.S.
What are your three favorite films?
Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life
Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I was amazed with how much I did get done! I was working full-time and have a husband with a very demanding job (he’s a criminal defense lawyer) and a teenage son (he became a teenager over the course of making the film!).
What I didn’t get done was cooking, shopping, cleaning, exercising and anything else I could cut out! My family was incredibly supportive.
When I finished the film, I told people I’d never make another one. But then after a month or two, I got bored and now I’m working on a new project. It takes place in Brooklyn though, so easier to get to than South America!
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
By profession, I’m an historian. Because this is my first film, it’s been an adjustment to think of myself as a filmmaker as well. I think it’s the perfect combination.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
The best advice I heard was on a panel at IFFM/IFP in the fall of 1997. Someone on the panel said: If you have a great story and you have access to that story, you can make a film. I realized I had both and set to work immediately! Another piece of advice: the film isn’t done until you say it’s done. I re-edited the entire film with a new editor after the first edit because I wasn’t happy with it. I’m glad I did, even though it ended up taking me longer to finish.
What sparks your creativity?
Thinking about the past. There are so many incredible stories to tell. The past is a great big adventure and I don’t think I’ll ever stop being inspired to write, think and make films about it.