Producer/Directors Cynthia Salzman Mondell and Allen Mondell talk about interviewing feminist icons, finding archival footage and gender-based discrimination today.
What motivated you to make SISTERS OF ’77?
When the Dallas Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future asked if we
were interested in participating in an exhibit with a film to commemorate
the 25th Anniversary of the National Women’s Conference, we responded
immediately and enthusiastically. While the idea to make a film about the
Conference came from the museum, we were the ones who developed the
treatment. We have produced several films about and for women. Both of us
have always felt that women have been treated unfairly by society and have
always spoken out for equal and human rights. An added factor here was
that Cynthia, her daughter, her sister and nephew attended the conference.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Finding archival footage was the biggest challenge. Much of this footage had
been misplaced or thrown away.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
We hope it will inspire young women and men to become active and protect their rights. We also hope it will remind all women how far they have come in the last 25 plus years and promote discussion and action about what still needs to be done.
What were some interesting events you experienced while making SISTERS OF ‘77?
Meeting some of the women, like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, was a bit awesome. Gloria came to the interview in a small snowstorm and was extremely generous with her time.
When we interviewed Ann Richards, she was very busy and hard to get to the interview. But when she came into the library where we were conducting our interviews everyone was scurrying around like the queen had arrived. Our daughter Fonya went over to her, patted her on the back and said, “Hi, Ann how are ya doing?” and then proceeded to talk about diets and health. Ann became a good ole gal and everyone relaxed.
It would have been wonderful to have funds to go around and interview many of the women who were delegates to the conference and see what they had done with their lives and how the conference affected them.
Also, we tried to interview Phyllis Schlafly and she refused. Trying to understand her mindset would have been a fascinating interview. Here is a woman who is a lawyer, a successful and highly paid speaker and promotes the idea that women should stay home.
What has the audience response been so far? Does the film provide nostalgia or inspiration for the women who have seen it?
Audience response has been great—a combination of nostalgia, inspiration and motivation to get involved. Young women especially have been moved by seeing how hard women worked to achieve the rights they have today.
How did you gain access to the footage from the 1977 National Women’s Conference?
We spent a great deal of time contacting television stations around the country, production companies, individuals, libraries and the national archives.
Do you think such a conference be possible today? How would it be different?
A conference like this would be possible today, but we don’t think that today’s government would fund it. A conference today would address many of the same, but also many different issues. Today, women have achieved so much, but still face discrimination. Note the president of Harvard’s comments about women not having the innate ability to compete with men in the areas of science and math, the low percentage of women in Congress, the low percentage of women who are corporate CEOs. A conference today would also include how women can use power that they now have, but in 1977 didn’t exist.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
We are passionate about our work. We also feel that films in the hands of the right people can make a difference. Over the years, we have seen evidence of this and that’s what motivates us to produce films and distribute them.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
We felt that public television’s audience included people in positions that could affect change.
What are your favorite films—and why?
Allen: The Magnificent Seven. On the one hand it’s a dramatic example of good overcoming evil. At the same time, a small group of professional gunfighters (the good guys) comes to the aid of poor farmers (also good guys) unable to protect themselves from marauding bandits. However, the only way the gunfighters defeat the large force of bandits is by making the farmers understand that the only way they can possibly win is by fighting together.
Cynthia: My Brilliant Career. It is a film that I took our daughter to see three times when she was young. It says everything I feel about the conflicts a woman faces. I think the film is extremely well done and I just love it.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
Cynthia would be a painter and photographer.
Allen would be a teacher.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Allen: Fred Wiseman and The Maysles
Cynthia: Robert Drew and Don Pennebaker
If you could have one motto, what would it be?
Believe in yourself and be persistent.
What sparks your creativity?
It certainly isn’t money. We love making films. It is difficult to raise funds, but once we begin a film it is exciting to do the research, begin thinking about it artistically and developing the story and then producing it. It is exciting to see it come together. It is the challenge of personalizing complex social issues.
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