Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Conversation with Pamela Tanner Boll

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Who Does She Think She Is? is a documentary film that profiles several mother-artists, including painters, writers, sculptors, actors and poets, revealing the point at which their motherhood and creativity meet. Editor-in-Chief and Mama at the Movies columnist Caroline Grant, who had written about the film in her column, was intrigued by the woman behind the film, director Pamela Tanner Boll. As a college student, Grant interned with Women Make Movies, an organization that helps female filmmakers at every stage of their projects. "At Women Make Movies, I caught a glimpse of how difficult it was for women to get their story to the screen, but I never saw into these women's private lives, didn't know if any were mothers," says Grant. "Now that I'm a mother myself, I think about the intersection of motherhood and creativity all the time."

Boll works as a writer, painter, filmmaker and activist and lives in Winchester, Massachusetts with her husband. She is the mother of three sons, ages 21, 20 and 18. Grant spoke with Boll about what it was like to embark on a project in the previously unfamiliar territory of film, the ways in which motherhood and creativity exist together and the message she'd like viewers to take with them after seeing her film.

Caroline Grant: How did you first come to filmmaking? Is this what you've wanted to do for a long time, or did you make a career detour along the way?

Pamela Tanner Boll: I never "wanted" to be a filmmaker, but when my friend Michelle Seligson told me about Maya Torres -- a woman who is a full time artist and mother of three sons who has no real income outside of her art -- I wanted to understand how she had the courage to pursue this path.

Michelle is an Associate Director and Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and a true mentor. We spent many hours talking about C.G. Jung's work on the self and individuation. Out of these discussions we both felt that women's stories of their attempts to become themselves were different than those of men. We wanted to tell the story of these experiences, and out of this came the film. Neither of us had ever made a film. We spent nearly two years talking about the subject, reading books on arts and motherhood, on creativity, on women's lives and women's voices, before we even looked for a camera person.

So I came to filmmaking in a rather circuitous way. I had been writing short stories and essays, as well as painting, for years. I wanted to tell the story of women who gave themselves permission to do creative work -- even though that work is often without pay, is not considered "real work," or is undervalued by society.

CG: Once you began, how did you identify your interview subjects?

PTB: Each woman came to me through friends and/or through reading and visiting galleries. For example, Janis Mars Wunderlich, the Mormon ceramicist, had a sculpture in an exhibition on Fairy Tales in Boston. I happened to see it, was drawn to her work, and asked the gallery owner about her. When she told us she was a woman living in Columbus, Ohio, married and the mother of five, I knew I had to contact her! Angela Williams had done theater in Boston; Camille Musser and I used to paint together in a group in Cambridge, Massachusetts and she spends time on the island of St. Vincent. I initially read about Mayumi Oda, the Japanese artist who now lives in Hawaii, in a book of extraordinary women, many years ago. Maya Torres is from Taos, New Mexico.

It was extraordinarily easy to find wonderful subjects. Women of talent and passion are everywhere.

CG: You co-produced Born Into Brothels before directing Who Does She Think She Is? When you started working on this film, did you have mentors who helped guide your career and offer support in your filmmaking?

PTB: I've had many mentors and deep friendships that have guided me. In the mid-nineties, I taught in a course at Harvard University with Dr. Robert Coles entitled The Literature of Social Reflection. The course asked the students to read novels such as Invisible Man, Night, the short stories of Raymond Carver (another one of my deep loves), and many others. Then, rather than ask the students to write critically about these books, we asked them to reflect on their own lives vis-a-vis the characters and/or the author of these books. The questions were really, "What kind of life do you want to live?" "What makes a good life and how does one achieve this?" Robert Coles was an inspiring mentor. He showed that asking the "big questions" was the right thing to do.

CG: In Who Does She Think She Is? I noticed that the women are rarely sitting down to answer questions -- they are too busy! Was that a conscious plan of yours, or was it just the only way to interview them?

PTB: It was a conscious decision to interview them "on the fly." I wanted to really show the busy-ness of their lives. I wanted to show their ability to nurture and to create while reflecting on their own lives. Having said that, we also did some wonderful sit-down interviews.

CG: What do you think is the biggest misconception about filmmaking?

PTB: Well, I think that one misconception is that filmmaking is a lucrative endeavor. Very, very few documentaries make any money for their producers. Most films are made because the filmmaker has persuaded an investor to support them financially.

Another misconception is that you have to have "connections" in the film world to make it. I entered this world sideways and knew no one. But I had an idea and was able to persuade both my interviewees and my eventual production team that we could make this happen. I found that the documentary world is very open to outsiders. In fact, many documentary film makers come at this from other disciplines. They make films because they have a particular story to tell.

CG: How do you write a documentary film? Do you start with a loose script and then adapt based on interviews? Are there certain questions you have in mind before you begin, or do you leave yourself open?

PTB: I did not "write" the documentary until we began editing. I had a very firm conviction that I would follow these awesome amazing women as they made their way through their days, their art studios, their breakfast dishes, and errands, and loneliness and see what happened.

I wanted to stay open to the story. I did have certain questions, the main one being, what made it possible for these women to not give up on their dreams? What made it possible for each of them to believe in their voice, their talent, their truth despite lack of support and often, little recognition?

CG: Who are some filmmakers and writers you admire, or who influences your work?

PTB: I am more influenced by writers than filmmakers. I grew up reading, reading, reading. Some of my favorite books and authors are Virginia Woolf, especially To the Lighthouse; George Eliot's Middlemarch; Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston; The Color Purple, just to name a few.

I was an avid movie watcher all throughout my childhood and early adult years. I loved all the Walt Disney films and the Tarzan series with Johnny Weismuller and Bonanza -- big family dramas.

CG: What is your daily routine like when you're working on a film?

PTB: I am constantly shuttling in and out of household routines. For example, today, I had two conference calls about possible screenings, an interview with a radio station in Santa Fe, and 40 emails from people who have seen the film and wanted to tell me their responses! I also have a husband I haven't seen much of as I've been traveling to promote the film, so we had breakfast together. I have a son in high school who I took to a college interview. We came home, I made lunch for us, and we spent some time talking about the interview. So it goes.

CG: How do you balance work and family?

PTB: Actually, it's a wonderful dance. I'm often making calls about the film from my headset as I am driving to and from errands or expeditions with my family. In one way, I work all the time. In another, my work and my family are seamless.

Oh, and my sons have each worked on the film. My oldest, Ian, went on three shoots with our camera crew back in 2005 and 2006. He worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., a typical shoot day under my camera man, Gary Henoch. Ian was an outstanding worker as he is also a filmmaker and photographer. My other two sons have gone with me to screenings and other events.

CG: What was your family's response when you told them you wanted to make a documentary film?

PTB: When I told my sons and my husband, back at the kitchen table in 2003, that I was going to make a film, they just looked at me. Finally, one of my sons said, "Mom, you don't even know how to turn on the camera!" Very true, I agreed. But I told them that it did not matter. I would find someone to "turn on the camera." My husband assumed I would take our home video camera and interview my artist friends. I said, "Oh no, I am making a beautiful, big, and powerful film about women struggling to raise their voices while loving their people." He was a little taken aback but has been supportive since.

My oldest son said that watching me make this film, despite my lack of experience, was one of the most inspiring things he had ever seen and that it gave him confidence to do something "outside the system and creative" himself.

CG: It's good to hear your family has been supportive! Do you have collaborators or friends with whom you share your work in progress, who offer critique and suggestions on your work?

PTB: In some ways, this film is the result of continual conversations among so many people. The fact is that one person does not make a film -- it is a process with so many voices, so many people adding their support and work. For example, I spent hours with my assistant, Paula Kirk, sorting through different arts groups and possible subjects, in addition to constantly talking with her about the project.

I spent two years on location with input from Michelle Seligson, my angel mentor; Gary Henoch, veteran camera man and filmmaker; Juan Rodriguez, veteran sound guru; Will Dunning, veteran Producer. I sometimes would also have photographer Cynthia Lewis on the project as well as one of my sisters or one of my sons.

Then, in the editing stage, I was in constant conversation as we looked scene by scene at the more than 100 hours of footage. I worked with an editor in Boston for the first year, then took the project back to determine where it was going. I spent eight months rethinking the experiences of each woman and how to weave them into a compelling story. Then I found the enormously talented Nancy Kennedy to edit. We worked weekly for a year to finish the film. My collaborators were everywhere along the way and all wonderful.

CG: What kind of impact has motherhood had on your work, your process, your priorities?

PTB: Although I spent my childhood writing and drawing and even winning awards for my work, once I went out into the world, I'd somehow lost lost confidence in my storytelling voice. I turned my back on creative endeavors and worked in the business world, first as an editorial assistant, then as a problem solver for a commodity trading company, and then as a writer for a record storage company.

Then I became a mother and fell madly truly deeply in love. I could not imagine leaving this little one for record storage writing. My husband agreed that I should stay at home (he worked 80-90 plus hours a week and traveled constantly) and soon we had two more sons.

I loved being a mother. It gave me confidence. It gave me strength. I began to speak up for what I wanted and for what I needed. I knew I could not take care of these children without taking care of myself. I began to write again to make sense of the neverending love and the panicky feeling of responsibility and the sheer drudgery and loneliness of being alone with and caring for little ones. After a year or two, I was tired of worrying in words so I began to paint, began to make beautiful things, to color, to make images. Yet I also wanted to be the best mother, to respond to each of my children, to read to them, to play with them, to draw and to make clay doggies with them. So this is how the odyssey began. Back and forth between my crying, clinging little ones -- wanting all of me and holding onto my legs as I tried to go to the studio -- and the studio where I had three hours of time each day but rarely arrived on time because of the wanting of those little ones. It was a struggle.

CG: Did someone have good advice for you in those years? What would you say to women in the midst of that struggle now?

PTB: I would say, that even when your children are young, they need to see that you take yourself seriously. They need to see you happily working. They need to be in the room where you are working. I made a bit of a mistake, early on, by painting away from home and then rushing in to cook dinner, supervise homework, go through the story reading and bed time rituals, and did not always let my boys see me painting.

CG: At one point in the film, the sculptor Janis Wunderlich says, "No matter what, I have a right to be in my studio doing this; it's good, it's good for my family, it's good for me." Did you ever doubt -- or did others challenge -- your right to continue making art after you had children?

PTB: Sure, every day. It was considered by friends and family as something "extra," something that must be nice to be able to do. Art making and writing were considered hobbies by most of my community. And wasn't I lucky to be able to afford a sitter and the time, to go do it.

CG: Did anything in the interviews for this film surprise you?

PTB: The interviews all surprised me -- the passion that each woman brought to this subject, being torn between the demands and the luxury of being the one for their families and their own drive to make something out of their experiences. They were so eager to talk about this issue...it was surprising that we all shared this passion and this need to discuss these issues.

CG: How has making this film changed you?

PTB: This film has made me more confident that what I have to say matters. In the course of making this film, I have produced several more. I'm the Executive Producer on a film short-listed for the Academy Awards called In a Dream, as well as Co-Executive Producer on Born Into Brothels, an award-winning documentary. Currently, I'm producing Connected with Tiffany Shlain and Global Moms. It is a wonderful experience to help shape another's vision, to help bring it to the screen and hopefully to an audience!

So how has this changed me? I know that my voice matters and I work to put it out into the world....and I am so grateful for the chance to do this.

CG: What message would you like people to take away with them after seeing the film?

PTB: I want viewers to leave the film inspired to do some expressive work in their own lives--to sing, to write a poem, to paint, to photograph, to dance.�I want people to know that life is richer and more joyful when we put aside our fear of failure or of looking foolish or of not being practical, and plunge into an activity that we love.�I want people to know that they are not alone in wanting to live a more expressive life. I want people to also know that despite over 100 years of "the woman question," that women still do not have parity in the arts or in other fields and that this is a loss for all of us.

Upcoming screenings of Who Does She Think She Is? include San Francisco, Birmingham, and Roxbury, New York; check the website for information about screenings in your area.


Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.


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