Jean Franco Film
by Ardele Lister
Brooklyn, December 2017
FOJ (Friends of Jean Franco) had been saying for a few years that someone needed to make a film about Jean, whose life’s stories have amused and moved us since we have known her… for some, since they were students of Jean’s at Stanford, or at Columbia University… for others, as colleagues and friends from shared worlds. I know Jean through Ed Cohen (who first knew Jean at Stanford) and who teaches with me at Rutgers University. Through Ed, I became friends with Jean and with Josie and many of you….
As my slow-down towards retirement from Rutgers took effect Fall 2016, and I had a semester without teaching, I found myself agreeing to make a film about Jean. There was no grant, no apparent resources… but being an indie from waaay back, I took up the challenge. I said I would need help… and some (you know who you are) took the plunge with me. Forever grateful… but no matter how much help one gets, it’s a much bigger undertaking than I could have really known. I remind myself of the challenges, the lessons always learned that you hope you’ll remember for ‘next time’, the sometimes rude awakenings…. Especially having not made a long-form film for a number of years prior to this. (Or, as my late friend Dianne Metzger was known to say: Another F*cking Growth Opportunity, shortened to AFGO.)
I had introduced Nicolas Pereda, now the Director of the Film Program at Rutgers, to Jean at his N.Y. Film Festival Premiere the previous year, at which time he exclaimed: “Jean, I’ve met you at my aunt’s house—Jesusa Rodriguez.” (Jesusa, a great performance artist and Jean have been good friends for many years.) I emailed Nico about whether or not he knew of any local, good cinematographers who speak Spanish (figuring there would be interviews in Spanish as well). Nico was excited about the project and when he got back to me suggested we shoot this film with film students’ interested in getting practical experience, and utilize the Lab’s equipment. Amazing opportunity and resources for all concerned! (Especially if I managed to raise money for the students to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to shoot a film in Mexico!) Danielle Lessovitz had just come on board as the head of the Film Lab in Mason Gross, and she took on the project as Coordinator and Supervisor of the students and the shoots. A call was put out to film students and Danielle and I, with the assistance of Karina Daves, the Division’s Senior Administrator and Undergraduate Program Advisor, we selected Charles de Agustin, Gianna Bruzzeze, and Niharika Bhave to join the team.
ON MAKING THIS FILM
Making this film about Jean has introduced me to some brilliant, bad-ass, generous, funny women who I hadn’t met before and who I’d love to know some more: Marta Lamas, Marisa Riuz, Jesusa Rodriguez, Elena Poniatowska, Ileana Rodriguez, Raquel Serur, Coco Magellanes. They have each spent years working as feminist artists, teachers, authors and activists; they are subjects in many other films. Working with Carolina Corral (and her Sound Recordist) and learning about her activist work with Sandia Digital, was very instructive for me and for our students. The demands of an actual shoot in another country required our students work with time constraints, unfamiliar languages, and sometimes less than ideal situations. When Carolina was a visiting artist with Chicken and Egg Pictures in New York recently, we spent more time together including shooting at Jean’s a couple of more times. Carolina loved meeting Jean and vice versa.
By rooming together, eating together and meeting these amazing FOJ in Mexico City together, my love and respect for Josie Saldana grew exponentially. She became, completely unintentially, the through-line in this film, maybe even its’ star!
So now, backing up to last fall:
Josie helped organize a few of Jean’s friends/former students to interview Jean and, with our student crew, we set about recording Jean, mostly at or near her home, from late Oct. ’16 to Spring ’17. We aimed for each interviewer to focus on a specific aspect or period of Jean’s life, but it wasn’t always easy to keep those lines separate as Jean loves talking about certain people, anecdotes…
In addition to the questions asked by others, I encouraged the students, increasingly fascinated by Jean and her world, to also ask Jean questions. Gianna asked Jean about feminism in the clip below.
Jean on being a member of the Communist Party:
Interviewers in this phase included: Patrick Deer, Cristina Perez-Jimenez, Josie Saldana, Andrew Gurian. We also recorded a class of Josie’s at NYU, in which students were assigned to read Franco’s work and discuss its’ pertinence to our time.
GOING TO MEXICO!
My hopeful plan was to raise money to take Jean and the students to Mexico in the Spring, so we could interview Jean amongst her friends and colleagues there: Marta Lamas, Jesusa Rodriguez, Maria Isabel Belaustguigoitia Riuz (Marisa), to name several; and to see the places that hold so much importance for Jean’s life and work.
We spent a half-day with Jesusa Rodriguez at El Vicio (formerly called El Habito), the nightclub she and her partner founded many years ago, a very important place in Mexico’s cultural life of the past 45 years.
I hired Coco Gutierrez-Magellanes, a former student of Marisa’s, and a protege of Jean’s, to do some research for us prior to our shoot in Mexico. Having thoroughly read all Jean’s writing, her research was impeccable. Jean had written about the plethora of Volkswagens in Mexico and their significance politically and culturally, so Coco suggested that because there are still so many Volkswagens in Mexico, we should shoot a bunch for the film! Here’s just one!
Of all the people we interviewed, Coco was the only one who had not met Jean, and yet has been so deeply influenced by her work, it’s as though she knows Jean thoroughly. We wanted to interview her when we met in Tlalpan, where Jean once lived on Calvario Street. This took place in a local bar that Jean wouldn’t have been allowed in when she lived there, as women were only allowed inside in the 1980s.
With the generous support of Dean Stauffer, Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, and Ben Sifuentes-Juaregui, Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Education at Rutgers University, we obtained the funds for air travel and hotels. Mary-Louise Pratt also most generously granted us funds from her New York University Research account.
We initially planned a spring break trip for March, but Jean wasn’t feeling well, and some of the money we needed to be in Mexico for a week of shooting had not yet come through, so we rescheduled the entire trip for the end of the spring semester (May ’17), in the hopes Jean would be well enough to travel.
By May, Jean still didn’t feel up to travelling, so the students and I set out to interview her people in Mexico City and see where Jean lived and wrote. Josie Saldana met us in Mexico City. We stayed at a lovely small hotel with a breakfast room that doubled as our digital transfer station and general evening hangout. Thank Heavens for Josie as she is a native Spanish speaker (who’s lived in Mexico City) and many of our interviewees preferred speaking in Spanish for the film. On another note of import, Josie knows some of the best restaurants in the city, that were within our budget (sort of). Grasshoppers and ants were the seasonal feature of some of the restaurants we frequented, so the students were invited to try some unusual delicacies– life-learning experiences!
As Danielle was not able to travel with us, I hired a local cinematographer, Carolina Corral, who works with a women’s film collective, Sandia Digital, and who shoots documentaries. She also works as a teacher and activist on amazing projects. She was recommended to me through Mary Pratt, whose friend, anthropologist Rosalva Aida Hernandez Castillo, worked with Carolina on the film Semillas de Guamúchil.
Carolina and I spoke several times before the trip and arranged details of what we’d need to bring equipment-wise and what we’d need to rent or buy in Mexico. For example, as we were already bringing Rutgers camera gear, we decided it was worth it to rent the tripods locally.
We hired Enrique, who Josie had worked with on previous trips, and who would drive Josie, me and the crew where we needed to go. With Mexico City’s millions of drivers and crazy traffic, this was very reassuring to the students’ parents in particular, and to Rutgers Faculty and Administrators. It made our lives so much easier.
All professional drivers in Mexico are also certified tour guides so the students learned a lot about wherever we went, including the pyramids a couple of hours outside Mexico City. On our one non-shooting day, that’s where we went. Again, a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience to learn something of the people and culture in this locale that was mysteriously cut short.
Marta Lamas hosts a lunch for a group of friends and colleagues at her house every Friday, and she graciously invited us to shoot the lunch on the Friday we were there. Marta invited a number of Jean’s friends, colleagues and admirers. At Marta’s we set up for individual interviews with some of the guests, as well as for the lunch table shoot during which we called Jean in New York, and people could speak with her directly.
We interviewed the renowned novelist Elena Poniatowka, whose 85th birthday we were also celebrating. Here, a photo of Elena opening gifts.
Before the lunch we recorded an interview with Raquel Serur, who had invited Jean to contribute to a seminar at UNAM on Modernity and Anti-Modernity; and to the book published afterwards, from which she reads.
During our week in Mexico City, we recorded interviews with: Marta Lamas, Marisa Belaustguigoitia Riuz, Jesusa Rodriguez, Raquel Serur, Elena Poniatowska and with Coco Magellanes. We also got permission to shoot in the Film Archives on the campus at UNAM where I met the Director of the Archives, and we interviewed people in the facility where old films (many of which Jean would’ve watched as part of her research) are being transferred to digital. We filmed around Coyoacan and the Frida Kahlo Museum, and in Tlalpan where Jean had lived.
A young woman had been murdered on the UNAM campus a week before our arrival, apparently by her boyfriend, and seemingly no security cameras picked up the crime. That mystery has not been solved. Mexico City Police are not allowed on campuses, so there was no other ‘official’ documentation or police service available. Huge protests erupted shortly afterwards highlighting the low value of women’s lives, a tragic continuation of brutality towards women in particular. One of the government employees tweeted heartlessly after the murder, disparaging/blaming the victim (http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-39817650). This generated a viral campaign not so unlike “#metoo” in the U.S. and Canada, #SiMeMatan (#iftheykillme), still viral.
I learned a lot about femicide and feminicide in Mexico that week- and since- and was also made aware of how the feminist project in Mexico differs from that in Canada or the U.S. Since 1990, Lamas has edited one of Latin America‘s most important feminist journals, Debate Feminista (Feminist Debate). After 38 years of work by the feminist movement, driven by Ms. Lamas, in 2007 the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation decriminalized in Mexico City abortions which occur by 12 weeks of gestation. Still, abortions are only legal in Mexico City- not the whole country.
Carolina and her collective had been filming the protests that erupted after the campus murder and they have generously allowed me access to their footage for this film.
Back in the U.S. during the second half of May, I started to go through all the footage with my Assistant Editor, friend, former Rutgers student, Mattison T. Carter.
We sent the Spanish interviews to a translator who Josie had worked with previously and recommended, as neither Mattison nor I are fluent in Spanish. Some of the English interviews were professionally transcribed to make the ‘paper’ edit easier. We began organizing all the footage.
Topics ranged from Jean’s interest in Communism, to life in England during World War II, to Jean’s friends and husbands/lovers, to how Jean went from living in Guatemala during the 1954 coup to living in Mexico City with a lot of other ex-pats, to her starting the first Latin American Studies Dept. in England, to her writing/teaching, coming to Feminism, and so on.
Tabloid was a ‘zine published by a collective at Stanford (1980-84) of which Jean was a founding member, along with longtime friends Mary-Louise Pratt, Ed Cohen, Maria Damon and others. Amongst Jean’s achievements, it’s one she’s most proud of, so we arranged a shoot with Mary Pratt and Ed Cohen discussing Tabloid. Here’s a small section of that discussion.
Jean met Joe Sommers, a professor of Mexican Literature at U.C. Santa Cruz, on a flight to Cusco, Peru for a conference. He was Jean’s ‘big love’, and sadly, their relationship was cut short by his untimely death to cancer. Andrew Gurian, Joe’s nephew, has been a good friend to Jean since those early days in California, when both Jean and Andrew learned to love gambling with Joe; and Tabloid was funded with her track winnings! She hadn’t been to the track in years, so we went to Belmont this Fall, where Jean could get back in the game for a few hours! There were winnings, albeit not sufficient to fund another ‘zine.
During the summer, a good friend of Jean’s, fellow writer and former Sandinista Congress member, Ileana Rodriguez, visited Jean in New York, where we shot another interview. Here’s a little bit of Jean and Ileana’s discussion that afternoon, prefaced by my question.
Recently, I invited a wonderful, artist and composer, David Goldman (http://www.musegardenrecording.com), to work with me on this project. He has composed a number of original pieces of music for what we’ve been editing… and I am very excited for us to move forward on this project.
I’ve been creating both vignettes of individuals and particular topics as well as crafting a preview/intro to define the structure for the finished film. Below is a recent 9-minute sequence/preview that features Marisa, Josie and a wee bit of Cristina talking primarily about Cruel Modernity. In addition to watching this preview, though, I wanted you to be able to see some of the shorter segments so you could get sense of the larger project.
WHAT’S UP NOW?
I’m trying to raise money to finish the film and to pay for some of the as-yet unpaid services-rendered. This would involve some more shooting (Ana Dopico, get ready for your close-up); and more post-production, music, titles and so on. I will apply to the N.Y. State Council on the Arts this January; and NY Foundation for the Arts.
Any other suggestions for sources of finishing funds, or even to generate interest in the finished film, are much appreciated. Thank you so much for your interest and participation in this project. I look forward to sharing more with you soon, and hearing from you too! Happy 2018.