POV: What is your motivation as a filmmaker? Why did you chose documentary in this case?
Judith Katz: This is my first documentary film. My film background is in development, looking for plays and talent from the theatre world that might be suitable for feature films. I never thought about making a documentary before this one. After meeting the women in Eve Ensler’s group and later in my own group (I too am a volunteer teacher) I immediately felt that the only way to tell their stories and make them known to audiences was in a documentary. Part of the film is about a group of celebrated actresses coming to the prison to perform in person; even with very little in the way of production values, they did a brilliant job, yet nothing could be as strong as actually meeting the women.
POV: What generally inspires your interest?
Katz: People, especially people who seek to find the truth, both in art and life.
Gary Sunshine: I’m mostly drawn to people who find themselves on the outside of mainstream culture, either by choice or force-how they fight to find their way to the middle or to protect their position in the margins.
POV: What inspired you to make What I Want My Words To Do To You?
Katz: After visiting Bedford for the first time, I couldn’t stop talking about my experience. But my words were inadequate to describe what I saw and how I felt. My perceptions of who women in prison are had been shattered, and continue to be shattered as I work with the women, and I wanted to share that experience with as many people as possible. I was also bowled over, in 1998, by the incredible generosity of the actresses, who had come to perform for the inmate population. I still remember the faces of the inmates, many of whom had never before seen a live theatrical performance, as they heard their words performed by these talented women. In a world inundated with tabloids and cynical gossip columnists, we rarely hear about famous people doing something unselfish. As their visit was a part of the story, I was delighted to be able to document it as well.
POV: What were your goals in making What I Want My Words To Do To You? And what would you like to see happen with it?
Katz: My goals were to recreate my experience walking into the prison in 1998, and to present the women as the complex individuals I have come to know. To allow people to look beyond the clichés, derisive jokes, and horror of women in prison, to the women themselves.
To allow the women to be defined by something other than their crimes. I recently showed the film to some guards and administrators at the prison, jobs that often causes burn out and frustration, even among the most dedicated. Several said the film was life altering — reminding them of why they wanted to work at a prison in the first place. One, pointed inside the gates, and told me with a lump in her throat that after 20-years, she had had forgotten about the pain and remorse inside, but would hopefully never forget again, as long as she lived. I would like to see the film continue to touch people and hopefully inspire them to do what they can to make sure at risk women don’t land in prison, and that those already in prison are helped to get an education. I believe that a society that examines its violence, is a society on the way towards healing. I would like people who see our film to come away with some of that healing.
Sunshine: My chief goal was to present the women with dignity. And with some measure of objectivity. To portray them with compassion, yet to avoid sentimentality at all costs.I want this film to be seen and discussed and debated by people who are in the thick of the prison reform movement, and by those who have never met an inmate before. And for there to be moments-even nanoseconds-when viewers listen to one of these women, and, putting judgement aside, say, “Oh yeah, I know exactly what she’s talking about.” Or, better yet, “She’s just like me.”
POV: What was the most surprising thing to you in making What I Want My Words To Do To You?
Katz: How the women adapted to having a camera in the classroom, yet remained focused and spontaneous in the group. Also, how seamlessly Gary and Madeleine turned the footage into a cohesive film; at one point, for reasons I never learned, the Department of Corrections refused to let us continue shooting. We were eventually granted access again, but it was a real challenge to fill in the lost time.
Sunshine: I’d say my biggest surprise came early, before the film was born. Eve, in a big, generous leap of faith, asked me to work with her creating a script out of the women’s writing for the very first benefit performance, back in 1998. She handed me about 200 pages of essays and poems. I was blown away by the quality of the writing. Some clearly had craft and years of practice behind them. But even the less refined pieces just throbbed with an honesty and a yearning to communicate deep, shattering truths. I got to know the women through their writing long before I actually met them.
POV: What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?
Katz: I am teaching two classes at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility; a theatre workshop that Melissa Newman and I have been working on for four years, and this semester, college level class on the social impact of documentary films. I am also back covering theatre for Paramount Pictures, and am in the early stages of producing a play. And, I am a member of the faculty of The New School University, where I teach a class on working in the film industry. I would like to continue to do all of those, and hopefully raise some money for the college program at Bedford so that the women continue to get an education, which statistics prove is the best way to avoid recidivism.
Sunshine: I am currently writing a new play called Star of Mine, a somewhat savage comedy about intimacy, friendship and obsession.