The ambitious, and successful, documentary Going on 13 will begin broadcasting on Public Television this September. The 73 minute film (which is in English, Spanish and Hindi, with English subtitles) takes place over a period of four years and reveals the interior lives, family commitments and school days of Ariana, an African American, Esmeralda, a Mexican American, Isha, an immigrant from India, and Rosie, a mixed race Latina, as they navigate crossing the threshold from childhood to adolescence.
Directors Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Dawn Valadez's award winning project is an intimate look at a difficult transitional period for any child; their compassionate study is landmark not only in its ambition but that in it addresses the concerns of a diverse group of pre-teen and urban girls of color.
Moments we get to share include Ariana crying at her mother's wedding, Rosie discovering Allen Ginsberg at a local bookstore, Esme's sister's Quinceañera, and Isha's trip to India. We see them questioning the changes their bodies are making – or what they've heard those changes will be. One schoolmate asks, "Have your parents talked to you about pube-er-tee? Do you have internal or external bleeding – or something like that?" Another friend says about a boy crush, "They are in love, even though they don't know what love is." A later scene featuring a woefully unqualified male schoolteacher conducting a sex education class makes it all the more painfully clear that our children receive mixed and confusing messages at a critical time, and that girls in particular are in need of female role models and support systems.
But they grow up anyway – with or without them. As Esme wisely puts it, "I'm turning into a young person and I'm supposed to change. I can't stay little all my life. I would if I could, but I can't so I shouldn't."
Co-directors, Guevara-Flanagan and Valadez graciously took the time to answer interview questions by email on their filmmaking careers, finding the girls (and where they are now), the logistics of such an ambitious project, and what they're currently working on. The first part follows; part two will be posted on Friday!
What made you decide to become a filmmaker? Is something you'd always thought you'd do? What and who are your inspirations?
Kristy Guevara-Flanagan: I took a Super-8 class at my local rec center when I was in high school. I was the only student that signed up! It turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life and that was entirely because of my teacher. I believe it was the first time an adult ever took me seriously. He talked to me as a peer. It was incredible! And I made my first film, which he was behind 100% and helped me envision without ever questioning my vision. It was a Patty Smith music video! I was pretty much hooked from that moment on. I realized then that I loved being behind the lens.
In terms of inspirations, they are everywhere. I love the early cinema verité directors: the Maysles Brothers, Barbara Kopple, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. Also Frederick Wiseman and of course, Michael Apted, who was famous, among other things, for the British Seven-Up Series. And I still watch a ton of documentaries. I never tire of them.
Dawn Valadez: I always wanted to make films and made a few with my father's Super 8 camera – silly fashion show stuff. When I was young, I wanted to be in front of the camera and was in the theater arts programs and sang at my junior high and high school in LA. I took classes at the Barnsall community center in Hollywood – it was across the street from my elementary school. My first film was a stop motion film about a stiletto pump falling in love with a converse high top and running away together. I wish I still had that! By the time I got to college I was still performing but not as much and I was more interested in social justice, feminism, and psychology (and being the first in family to go to college to complete my BA and get a good job!). I was taking a lot of photographs at the time, documenting the music scene and the anti-apartheid, social justice movement at UCSC and had a few gallery shows. I created a film for my Women's Studies Thesis called "Hijas De Ramona" on the women in my family and the struggles of farm worker women to get out of the fields. Unfortunately, I really felt that art and film making was only available as a career to people who came from money and had the privilege to see themselves as artists. I resisted it but continued to take classes and always had ideas for films or photos. I applied to grad school and got accepted to CCA in film and UC Berkeley in Social Work. Honestly, the social work degree was cheaper (I got scholarships and an internship) and I knew I'd have a job at the end – plus the reason I wanted to make films was to tell people's stories of triumph over adversity – what better place to hear stories and learn how to interview people than social work? And guess what? That's where I met Kristy! So all things do happen for a reason. While I don't have a lot of the technical skills I understand them and know what I like. I am really more focused on story, structure, raising the necessary funds (Going on 13 cost about $450K to make), and getting the strategic partnerships in place to make the film happen. I currently work as a development director for a social service agency and raising money is raising money – you gotta tell a compelling story to get folks to see why they want to invest in your project.
I was inspired by Michael Apted of course! I love Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA), Lourdes Portillo, Laurel Chiten, Alice Elliot and so many other amazing women doc makers. I am also inspired by great photojournalism especially Mexican women and women photographers of the 30s-60s.
I feel grateful that my first feature was Going on 13 and that Kristy and I survived!!
How do you two know each other and how did you come to work together on Going on 13?
DV: We met in a UC Berkeley Native American film making class in 1992. Kristy was finishing up her BA and Dawn was in her second year of her Master's in Social Work program. We worked on a short film together called Indian Givers commemorating the 500 years since Columbus landed in the Americas. The film was experimental and used found footage and poetry by Leslie Marmon Silko as the core narrative thread. While working on that project we discovered that we grew up in LA just blocks from each other and that Kristy knew people in Dawn's brother's cohort (we are 5 years apart).
When Kristy finished her MFA at SF State we talked about our childhood and early adolescence (in relation to her great film: El Corrido De Cecilia Rios) and realized that as mixed race/ethnic, urban girls we had a lot of things in common and were curious how both of us survived that time. We started reading books about adolescence and pre-teen girls such as: Peggy Orenstein's book Schoolgirls and the AAUW report "Short Changing Girls, Short Changing America" and found ourselves asking — are these the issues girls are facing in our community? Are the girls in our communities still experiencing drops in self esteem in the pre-teen and early adolescent years? We were friends and crazy enough to think that we could track girls over this time-period using our different skills — Kristy as a technician and film maker and Dawn as a community activist and social worker.
Was there something in particular you were trying to investigate or say with this project?
KGF: Before we started filming we did a ton of research. We were interested in adolescent female development having both remembered how complicated and intense our own experiences as young girls were. So we read all the books out there on the subject and early on, a really influential book was Peggy Orenstein's Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap. The confidence gap was the concept that when girls are still children, they are on an equal footing with boys in terms of academic and athletic confidence and participation. They have spunk! Then puberty hits and all hell breaks loose. And in many instances, schools and teachers unknowingly contribute to this invisibility of girls in the classroom, by ignoring them because they are not disruptive or raising their hands or not encouraging them enough. We wanted to see how this concept played out by following the same girls during this critical time period from childhood to teenhood, but also to see how lower income and girls of color adhered or strayed from this concept. Most of the research done around that time was focusing on middle class white girls.
A look at the lives of four people over a period of four years is an ambitious undertaking – and four girls navigating the threshold of adolescence at that. How did you find and choose Ariana, Esmeralda, Isha and Rosie? What were some of the logistics involved in the filmmaking process (coordinating shoots, etc.)?
DV: The process to make the film was quite challenging. I don't think either of us understood or fully realized how difficult this project would be to shoot or to complete. We would probably not have done it if we could have seen how difficult it was going to be, or expensive or how long it was going to take.
We started out by using my connections in the educational, social service and social justice communities in the Bay Area. We visited the classrooms of my friends who were 4th grade teachers, we sent out requests to BayCES and other school reform groups to help us find teachers and schools that were open to having a film crew in their classrooms. After a few months of research we selected schools that were close to us, were supportive of the project, and that demonstrated the diversity of our community. We interviewed probably about 30 girls in a number of 4th grade classrooms, observed, met with parents and teachers and asked girls to be in the film. At 9 years old it is a stretch to understand what it will mean to have a film crew in your life for 4 years!! The parents of the girls had to be supportive of the project and we were lucky to find the right combination of support from the schools, teachers, girls and their families. We wanted to have a range of types of girls and family structures – beyond race and class – and the girls we ultimately selected for the film represent that diversity as much as possible in a film. Each of the girls that were in the film represented elements in our community – immigrant girls, mixed families, multi-generational families, single moms, ethnically/racially diverse, etc. The girls we selected had the right combination of their own interest, their family's support, and the diversity representative of the East Bay.
We shot the film over 4 years. We were in the classrooms, playgrounds, homes, after-school programs, friends homes, and anywhere the girls went. We tried to film each girl evenly – special events, hanging around at home and at school, at church/ temple, etc. Sometimes we'd hit it and knew we got something great and other times it felt like nothing was working. There were a lot of legal and ethical issues to grapple with as the process went on. Filming children is a very serious and delicate thing. We wanted to get as much coverage in terms of location and individual releases (we ended up with 100's of release forms!!! nightmare!). With a real skeleton crew, often just Kristy and I, it was a challenge to keep all of the logistics and legal stuff together. We fortunately had some amazing interns that really helped us throughout the process. As a social worker there were moments I felt obligated to step in and say something to the girls or their parents and sometimes I got asked to do things at the school. It was great to have Kristy there with her more detached and film-maker perspective pulling me back sometimes to make sure we got the shot. For instance, the sex ed scene was shot over 3 days. By the 3rd day the teacher looked at me and said, "Dawn I know you know this stuff better than me. Can you answer these girls questions?" By then I was so overwhelmed by the mis-information I felt obliged to step in and talk with the girls – I didn't have all of the diagrams, etc that I needed but hopefully they walked away feeling better about their bodies, vaginas/ vulvas, and their sexuality!! What I wanted to say was: YIKES! A male geologist shouldn't be asked to do this! Call Planned Parenthood they do great classes!
More with Kristy and Dawn coming at ya on Friday! In the meantime, check out the website for Going on 13, watch the trailer, rent the movie or check your local listings for the public broadcast schedule.