Julie Wyman, director of Strong!

We caught up with Julie Wyman, director of Strong!, amid her whirlwind tour of appearances across the country, including at SilverDocs in Washington, DC, Frameline in San Francisco, and many of our Community Cinema and Women and Girls Lead events in cities around the United States. We had questions for this Bay Area filmmaker, whose previous films include Buoyant and A Boy Named Sue. (Strong! premieres on Independent Lens on July 26, 2012 at 10 PM. Check your local listings to see when your local PBS station will air it.)

What impact do you hope this film will have?
I see Cheryl as a role model for other young women — and for anyone who struggles to find a sense of belonging in our world. I hope that her success, her confidence, and her candor will inspire others to embrace and utilize their own uniqueness.

More specifically, I hope that the film can be used to generate discussion about body size and health: suggesting a model of health that is based on nutrition and physical activity rather than body-mass index, while encouraging people of all sizes to inhabit and celebrate the bodies they have. I intend for the film to contribute to the current discourse on childhood obesity. I also intend Strong! to contribute to the vast number of people — young women in particular — who struggle with a wide range of eating disorders and body-image problems.

Cheryl poses for media after making the 2008 Olympic Team at the Team Trials in Atlanta, Georgia

What led you to make this film?
I made this film to address the way that women’s bodies  – especially large or fat bodies – are seen by our culture. People of all sizes are bombarded with the message to lose weight — we share a problematic idea that a smaller body is a better or healthier body. I want to contribute to a model of health that allows for a more diverse body profile — a model of health at any size.

I also wanted to represent the complicated experience of being fat in America and the degree to which the large or fat body is routinely stigmatized or even discriminated against.

[Watch the web-exclusive video extra.]

I believe that stories like Cheryl Haworth’s offer both inspiration and articulation of a problem: In most people’s minds, it is a cultural impossibility that a 300-pound young woman could be an elite athlete, that such an “unstandard” body could perform so magnificently and have such utility.  Cheryl’s success raises questions about how we see the female body and the healthy body. As a filmmaker, my core commitment is to pose these challenges: allowing stories like Cheryl’s to expand our narrow cultural notion of what it means to be powerful, healthy, and beautiful.

Haworth at the bar.

Cheryl’s story also offers testament and a description of these problems – like many people, she struggles with acceptance of her own body and the desire to thinner.  The challenge of capturing this complexity also attracted me to this project.  I wanted to compassionately reflect the complicated experience of being big in America. And I wanted to fight against what I see as problematic, destructive cultural tendencies by constructively forging new models of health and beauty for bodies of all sizes.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making Strong!?
The obvious limitations, especially early on, was funding the travel and crew necessary to cover large events.

Then of course, we needed access to Olympic events. In the sport of weightlifting, the number of people allowed backstage is extremely limited: athletes are not even allowed to be accompanied by their own coaches — much less a personal documentarian. NBC also owns media filming rights, and so our access to filming at the 2008 Trials and Games was extremely limited.

Julie Wyman at work

(Anecdotal aside: Shooting can be EMOTIONAL. In Thailand, shooting mostly alone in 90-degree weather with 100 percent humidity in the venue, I was also really deeply feeling the high stakes of the competition for all of Team USA and especially for Cheryl. I spent most of my shooting time at the venue in a state of tears or near tears – so highly emotional were these events. So much had gone into the preparation for them for each of these athletes and so much was at stake for the team. The tears combined with the 100 percent humidity had me holding my camera so firmly, for fear it would literally slip out of my sweaty hands.)

Cheryl’s own challenges were difficult;  her continuing injuries and her own uncertainty about her own life trajectory post-Olympics.

It was tricky crafting a story that successfully balanced introducing Cheryl as a character with exposition about the sport of weightlifting and the specific challenges and pressures that Cheryl faced – while also allowing for more meditative visual moments that gave access to Cheryl’s interior experience. Working with two incredibly talented editors and a larger team of very perceptive outside eyes, we finally found this balance.

How did you persuade Cheryl to be the subject of such a long-term project?
Cheryl and I connected on my first visit to Savannah – I immediately admired her not only as athlete, but as a person – despite our cultural and political gap, I really related to her connection to her family and her coach, her sense of humor, and her big personality. Also, we are both Aries.

The first time I visited Savannah, Cheryl tested me – first by offering me some kind of strange alcoholic concoction – a shot of something strong dropped into a pint of stout that I was supposed to down, and I did. Moments later, she stared me down and asked me – “So what do you think of Michael Moore?” (Fahrenheit 911 had just come out amidst much buzz). At that moment, I looked at her across the table, my new-found Republican subject, and made the decision to be honest with her about my politics. “I have a lot of respect for him,” I said knowing that it was the “wrong” answer, but also, in terms of proving myself someone honest and frank, it was the correct answer.

Anne Etheridge, Cheryl Haworth, and Julie Wyman.

But the deeper connection took time. I think it was after showing up to film and be part of some of the harder times in Cheryl’s life, that a real friendship and deeper connection grew between us. My DP, Anne Etheridge, was an important part of the team and the three of us (Anne, Cheryl, and I also formed a sort of friendship or ensemble that fully gelled when we filmed Cheryl caressing her 1979 Lincoln Continental, Mary Todd, and solidified more when we took a road trip down the California coast in late 2008.

I connected with her parents, and her mom in particular, on my trip to Athens for the 2004 Olympics. Going through the competition anxiety with Mom really forged a bond. In 2005, in Savannah for what I thought was my last shoot, it was Sheila’s casual mention of me being with them in Beijing that it really dawned on me just what I had signed on for.

Cheryl showing her glamorous side.

What would you have liked to include in the film that you had to let go?
I had intended to have a more metaphorical, abstract storyline that included anecdotes about gravity to follow Cheryl’s personal journey, but I had to drop that because it didn’t fit.

I would have liked to show more of Cheryl’s social side – she is much more of a playful, social person than the film really reflects — and also her connection with her sisters and certain family members.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Filming Cheryl shopping for clothing was an especially deep experience – because it was so clearly loaded and difficult for her in both negative and positive ways, because it was so related to the bigger “coming of age” story of personal development that I wanted to tell, and because it’s a story and situation that I have lived and suffered through so many times in my life that having the opportunity to capture it with Cheryl really did feel like “documentary gold.”

The same period, leading up to the 2007 World Championships, when Cheryl was under so much pressure to perform for her teammates – and so far away from home first in Colorado and then in Thailand – these felt like moments when I got to witness Cheryl with her guard down, and where my presence was a kind of solace to her, perhaps, while her rank was at stake.

What has happened to the people in the film since shooting wrapped?
After a final try at weightlifting and subsequent hip injury, surgery, and re-injury, Cheryl proceeded with her life and began working as a recruiter for her alma mater, Savannah College of Art and Design. She spends a great deal of her time traveling and meeting interesting people and talking about art.

Her sisters, Katie and Beth, decided to follow Cheryl’s other dream and in Spring 2011 were sworn in to the coast guard; currently they are in bootcamp.

Her best friend, Cara Heads, has returned to her hometown of Long Beach, California, where works as a trainer and a motivational speaker under two headings, “CH Fitness and Performance” and “Live Like a Champion.”

Other teammates featured in the film have almost all retired and moved on to other endeavors, such as graduate school, marriage, parenthood, and other professional careers. Sarah Robles and Holley Mangold (neither appeared the the film), are competing in the 2012 London Olympic Games.

The independent film business is tough.  What keeps you motivated?
I love the visual and creative experience of envisioning for the big screen, and then seeing those images come to fruition. I love the deep connection I forge with my subjects, the extreme trust that they give me, and the honor of being in the position to both understand and then communicate my subjects’ stories. I also love communicating with an audience through the medium of film – creating an experience, a series of moments that transcend language.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
The challenging nature of my work – both its somewhat marginal or edgy subject matter, and the visual/metaphoric approaches I like to take – combined with my populist urge to reach and really communicate with as many people as possible – make public TV my perfect venue; from PBS’s non-commercial nature, to Independent Lens‘s commitment to presenting groundbreaking content.

What are your three favorite films?

Three is too hard. Here are 10:

Night Cries, Tracey Moffatt
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Ackerman
Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby
Female Trouble, John Waters
Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs
The Shape of the Moon, Leonard Retel Helmrich
Man With a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov
An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion
Paulina, Vicky Funari
Marwencol, Jeff Malmberg

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Only do it if you need to do it. If you need to do it, you will do it.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film? (Literally or figuratively …)
As fuel: Chocolate

As metaphor (what food would indy filmmaking be): a progressive dinner covering rough terrain, but composed of many courses of all different types of soufflés.

As metaphor (what food would an independent filmmaker be): Foie Gras.