Stanley in Missouri asks: How has this documentary changed your views and your life in general?
Jennifer Dworkin: Making the film and seeing the response to it has changed my life incalculably. The time I spent volunteering in family shelters and then with Diane and her family opened my eyes to the complexity and harshness of poverty in this country. I also understood for the first time how trauma endured in childhood can haunt a family for generations. Most of all I was struck by the courage and hope it takes to persist in the face of overwhelming odds — even just to make it through the day without giving up. Diane and her children showed me the strength of family bonds, of sticking together, as a vital support and source of meaning.
Bonnie in Virginia asks: What feeling about this family allowed you to get so close and tell their story so real and without judgment?
Jennifer: I was struck from the first meeting by Love and Diane’s intelligence and remarkable insight into their own lives and the ways in which past events had shaped who they are. I was also impressed by the courage with which the family expressed and discussed the strong emotions that they felt for each other. They wanted to tell their story truthfully and without sugar-coating — and to a large degree that is what allowed me to get close. Over time we developed a relationship that was very personal and complex.
Rachel in California asks: Did you ever stop to think about what the people might think about this documentary? Did you think that some people might say and think that this is another “white person” going into the ghetto making a film about a “down-trodden African American family” and not really thinking or caring about the welfare of this African American family?
Jennifer: I did give a great deal of thought to the issues you raise. One of the aims of the film is to challenge the stereotypes that are such common currency by telling the story of individuals in much greater depth. You are right that telling a story that includes poverty, drug abuse and teenage pregnancy in the African-American community as Love & Diane does, might merely reinforce the stereotypes. But I felt, as did the family, that the way to breakdown such prejudices is not to ignore them but rather to push through them to the underlying reasons and causes. I think that documentary offers an opportunity to listen to people we might otherwise never hear from and to understand more about their lives and their struggles. While the film does depict a family facing formidable challenges I feel that it also shows the great strengths and courage of the people in it.
A second point that I think is important to understand is that the film was not something I made on my own. If Diane and Love had not been interested in telling their story there would have been no film. Instead, over time, they showed a remarkable courage and commitment to telling the story truthfully. And they chose to do this for their own reasons — both to reach out to others in similar situations and also to combat the sense that they were seen as “statistics.” So while it is certainly true that the film represents my point of view it is wrong to deny authorship also to the participants.
Finally I am not sure what I think about the issue of my role, as a white person, and whether I should be telling stories about communities of color. I understand why this makes some people uneasy though at the same time I don’t really believe that race or gender are barriers to understanding across differences. This is an issue I am still trying to work out.
Linda in Michigan asks: Did the other children deal with as much anger and depression as Love did? And how are they doing? Were they less willing to have their stories told? Maybe Love gave voice to the experiences for all of them. Again, thank you for the gift of this film.
Jennifer: I think that of the remaining children, Love was going through the hardest struggle. The other kids have had an easier time adjusting after they returned home — though they all had a great deal of pain left from their years away from their mother and from their brother’s death. It is also true that Love was more interested in documenting her life than Diane’s other kids were. But the focus is also the result of decisions in the editing room. We had wonderful material with other members of the family but we really had to make a decision about what the heart of the story was.
Tara in Massachusetts and Danielle in California ask: How often did you film? Were you living with the family or just filmed every week/day/event? When was the piece documented?
Jennifer: The film was made over about a four year period, from 1996 — 2000. Then several years of fundraising and editing. I didn’t live with the family nor did I have any kind of regular schedule. Sometimes I saw them several times a week but then sometimes not for a few weeks. But I did keep in touch regularly with Diane and Love and I spent time with them on days when I was not filming.
Jeanne in California asks: So many aspects of this story moved me. As an attorney myself, I was impressed by Love’s attorney — the degree of compassion, concern, and professionalism she brought to her relationship with her client. I can only imagine that attorneys like her must be underpaid and overworked. How did Love find her? Is she typical of the attorneys who work with mothers like Love, or did you find her extraordinary? Thank you.
Jennifer: I was unimpressed by Love’s first court appointed attorney who seemed both uninterested in the case and hostile to the family — and suggested to Love that she call South Brooklyn Legal Services and talk to Lauren Shapiro. I didn’t know that Lauren would take on the case herself but I had heard great things about her and her office. I do think Lauren is extraordinary — she does a very hard job with great dedication and patience. I also was impressed with the other attorneys in her office. In general, however, I didn’t see a high level of legal representation in Family Court. For instance Donyaeh’s law guardian was never present for Court dates and never met anyone concerned in the case. Sadly I do think Lauren is an exception.
Mark in Georgia asks: As someone who enjoys photography, I liked the cimematography. Was the opening and closing shot symbolic? You opened with the rain scene which could have symbolized the storms of life. You also closed with the rain scene which could have symbolized the cleansing and growth after a storm.
Jennifer: The opening shot was filmed by Love herself one day as we were driving around Brooklyn looking for Willie. I suppose the opening and closing rain shots are symbolic. Certainly of storms and grief in general. But the opening shot became associated for me with Love’s description of being taken away from her mother, looking out the car window at the grim streets. The final shot reworks that image but as you say the sequence is less harsh and more hopeful.
A viewer in Ohio asks: What do you tell a family in 2004 who sees this and has similar problems — generational issues, insecurities, pain, mental health dilemmas, children and grandchildren, etc? Especially when they have tried to get help and the system still fails? I am so pleased to see Diane overcoming and improving her life but how do you get to the places she has without being torn up in the system? How do you break the cycles so your children don’t suffer or bring it to their own children one day? How do you even begin to tell your story when there is so much pain? Putting it on paper it seems to be the way to heal but is that the right way? Thanks.
Jennifer: I wish I could give you an answer that would really help. I think Diane’s ability to survive has a lot to do with her optimistic personality and her faith. It would have been easy for her to give up and leave her children in foster care. Diane would also say that asking for help and support from those around her and from those in social services was a key factor. The system may have failed her in many ways but she also managed to get some real help from people who maintained their capacity to care. Diane was greatly helped by counselors and treatment programs and she feels strongly that it would have made a real difference to have some kind of family counseling when her children returned home. It is one of the ironies of the system that it is a source both of harm to families and also of essential services. I do think that telling one’s story, writing it down, can be an important form of healing and of self-understanding.
Shoshana in New York asks: How were you able to fund an enterprise like this over ten years? Were there loans or fellowships? I love this style of social documentary with a real heart and soul, but when I have ideas for this kind of documentary I wonder how I could ever start to execute them. Thank you so very much for this — to repair the world.
Jennifer: Funding for this film was assembled from many different sources. At the beginning until I had a sample tape I funded the filming myself from my salary. My cinematographer worked for partly deferred pay. The first major funding that I had came from ITVS (the Independent Television Service) which funds independent films that will then be offered to PBS. Later funding came from pre-sales to European television stations (BBC and Arte) as well as from several private foundations and New York State Council for the Arts. I received a few festival awards including the “Truer Than Fiction” award at the Independent Spirit Awards which helped me pay off numerous debts. Most of the money was spent on post-production.
Julie in New York asks: How can I write to the family and thank them for the courage to share their lives? I was deeply moved by this film. I am an activist coordinating a program for alternatives to incarceration for women with a history of substance abuse.
Jennifer: We have set up an email account to help people to contact the family directly. The address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.