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Life Arts    H3'ed 3/24/10

Part Two - Filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman Discusses "Choice: Then and Now"

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Welcome back for the conclusion of my interview with filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman. Facts and statistics both definitely have their place in your film trilogy, Choice: Then and Now. Yet, the focal point of the films is the personal stories of the people involved. What special magic do stories have, especially personal ones?

I use facts and statistics to flesh out the larger picture after I hear people's individual personal stories. My experience is that when people share their fears, their hopes, their successes and tragedies, that those interviews carry the essential content of a subject. The engaging quality of a real story is that subjects come alive through interviewees' ways of communicating: in their tone of voice, in the pacing of their words, in the look in their eyes.├ éČ Ę The way people speak about what they have seen and lived through conveys more about the relevance, the value, the human dimension of a subject than a fact. Hearing the stories first then enables me to put the information in perspective, and the statistics I use add weight to the most profound aspects of the stories I will have heard.

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For example, in the film The Fragile Promise of Choice, I spent two days with an abortion doctor (and his wife and their infant child), a man who had been driven out of his practice by threats on his life. I listened with an aching heart as he recounted the vicious personal attacks he and his family suffered. While interviewing him, I realized that his wife's story was an integral part of his reality, as she continually feared for all their lives, including the life of their child.

I had not originally planned to interview her, but then I did. As we spoke, I was horrified to learn how fragile their security was, living from day to day. The local police were not supportive, even when a bullet was fired through his front window. Later, in the same film, I added a statistic about how threats of violence drive providers out of practice. That section climaxes with the actual murder of a provider who had been threatened. No statistic could ever bring this reality into focus like the interviews with the doctor and his wife did. First, the interviews, then the statistic which now has significantly deeper meaning after you hear the real life stories.

It's painful for these women to tell and for us to hear these stories, which have lain dormant, untold in many cases, for decades. How did you go about getting the women to open up about something so private and often deeply buried?

Before I do an interview, I will have spent weeks, often months researching the subject that will be discussed in the interview. Plus, I learn as much as I can about the person I will be interviewing. So, it is with that understanding that I come to the interview. Yes, creating a safe space is about what happens during the interview itself. However, I do think it is important to note that my ability to make "a safe space" is the result of my preparation, with an informed perspective.

The way I conduct interviews has evolved, for me, over many years. The question I asked myself from the beginning was this: how do I, as a filmmaker, often a stranger to the interviewee, doing an interview on a sensitive subject, open the "space" for an intimate dialogue? My goal was for it feel as if the exchange is between two people, alone together, even while being filmed for thousands to see. What I have found is that if I can be very honest, myself, in the moment, that helps to create an atmosphere of trust. When I am "transparent", I am able to make it safe for the other person to share memories and feelings that may not have ever been articulated before.

Being as honest as I can be in the moment means that I say things like "What you've just shared is exciting for me" (if it is) or "This information frightens me, but please continue" or "I never thought of this that way" again, always, as much as I can, expressing what is true for me in the moment. I share of myself in a way that makes it safe for the other person to open. What then follows is that I've learned to let the interviewee guide the interview. I used to start with a list of questions, and try to stay with those.

Now, more and more, I start the conversation with a question or two, then listen to what the interviewee is saying, and pick up on that thread. Chances are that individual has important, often personal things that want to be shared. I can't know what those are until the conversation is well underway. The interviewee will let me know which direction we can move together. Again, letting the interviewee set the pace, builds a feeling of trust.

A good example of that happened in making the film When Abortion Was Illegal. I knew that Rosalie had had a life threatening back alley experience, which is why I invited her to be interviewed. During our time together, after she'd told that story, there was a long silence. I sensed that she wasn't finished, and we just sat in silence. And then, very slowly, she recounted what had been a far more traumatic experience for her. She'd had a second pregnancy and was sent to a home for unwed mothers. Reluctantly, she had to give the baby up for adoption. She began to tell that poignant story as she took over, and in a sense, started to interview herself. I never would have known to ask her about the second pregnancy. But, given a "safe space", she was then able to tell that story after many years of silence.

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Simply providing a safe "space" and proving you're a good listener are apparently enough to make amazing things happen. How do you, as a filmmaker, walk that fine line in order to probe without being intrusive and insensitive?

Actually, I have found that I don't need to probe! I trust that once someone begins to feel the energy of telling the truth, and sharing things they've been holding back, there is an instinctive desire to go further. It really doesn't take much prompting to continue the flow once the door to a candid exchange is opened.

Anything you'd like to add before we conclude, Dorothy?

All three films in the trilogy are on one DVD (two and a half hours of documentaries). People can read more about the films and take advantage of extensive support materials to use the films at

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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