Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher's film RAISING RENEE will be celebrating its broadcast premiere on February 22nd on HBO at 8pm. RAISING RENEE received LEF support at several stages over several years. LEF Program Assistant Nellie Kluz caught up with Steve and Jeanne to talk to them about this film, their work, and more.
Nellie: Your documentary is about artist Beverly McIver, but it's also about her sister Renee, who is mentally disabled. Renee is a catalyst for change in Beverly's life, but she's of course also experiencing her own upheavals. Did you find it hard to balance the perspectives and the voices of the two sisters in the process of editing the film?
Steve: What initially sparked the film was in part Beverly’s promise to her mother that she’d take care of Renee when Ethel died. After we started filming, Ethel suddenly got cancer and the promise came due. In that sense, the film begins from Beverly’s perspective, her voice forms the narration, and audiences may identify with the decision she has to make. Renee’s future is in her hands.
But as time went on, Renee emerged from her initial shyness. In the film you start to see her view of things, her humor, and her very definite ideas about where and how she wants to live. So while you might have assumed she was passive, or that Beverly had all the power, in fact you see the dynamic is much more complicated. The reversals become even more interesting when after five years an opportunity arises for Renee to live independently, and suddenly Renee shows herself capable of things no one expected, especially her mother Ethel.
Balancing those perspectives happens gradually during the editing process. At the beginning, we just cut the scenes we have, gauging which work best. Then, as you start to see the whole you get a feel for balance. Actually, quite late in the game when we thought we were nearly finished, Renee suddenly decided to try living on her own, so we had to rethink the whole meaning and balance of the film. We dropped a lot of stuff to keep the film moving. In those situations Jeannie has a wonderful ability to be totally unsentimental about lopping off material that we’d put a lot of time into, and once seemed essential, but wasn’t anymore.
Nellie: You both met Beverly while both she and Jeanne were fellows at the Radcliffe institute. What was it like to change your professional-colleague relationship with Beverly into a documentary- subject relationship; one that takes a very different degree of trust?
Jeanne: Beverly and I were working next door to each other for nine months—Beverly was painting and I was editing our film So Much So Fast. As we’re both outgoing and humor-based, a friendship developed pretty quickly. As anyone who sees the film knows, Beverly is an amazingly forthright, honest person. She was very frank about her life and early on mentioned the promise she’d made to her mom about eventually caring for Renee. It was clear that her painting was very much triggered by her life, Renee’s life, her mother’s life and the paintings are stunning. So that combination of beautiful art, an astonishing life story, candor and fantastic humor made it a no brainer to want to do a film.
As the filming process got going, it became an extension of the relationship we already had. Bev and I had a lot of trust, and I had a lot of knowledge about her life which informed some of what we filmed. Steve knew Beverly less at the beginning, which actually helped in some ways for him to discover things while shooting. For example, when she was painting it would often be just the two of them shooting late into the night, and he’d ask Bev a question and she’d kind of free-associate while she was working. In those moments, Bev says she’d forget she was being filmed after a while.
Nellie: Beverly talks about her background and personal history in the film - her mother, her relationship with Renee, the racism she experienced growing up in North Carolina - and she's very candid and self-aware in talking about herself. I wondered about your process for capturing her insights - did you talk about the past as you went along, or set up some kind of formal interview process?
Jeanne: Bev’s narration and interviews all come from a combination of sit-down conversations, and free-flowing talk during scenes when other things are going on, like painting. Usually I asked most of the questions during the sit-down interviews and Steve had the conversations with Bev and Renee during scenes he was shooting. History was covered in the more formal sit-downs. From editing Eyes on the Prize
, I knew a lot about the history of Greensboro: the sit-ins at Woolworths and what became known as the Greensboro Massacre in 1979, which actually took place in front of the McIver’s house.
One of the things that fascinated us about Beverly and the McIver’s story is how issues of race and class interact with issues of disability, family dynamics and art. Their history, and the history of the region are key to understanding those things. And we never felt that any of these topics were off limits with Beverly.
Nellie: As Beverly's paintings are very autobiographical , you can see she's already thought a lot about what the details of her biography mean and how to articulate them. On the one hand, this makes her an ideal movie subject, but did you find it hard to surprise her or to find out something new - to get a different perspective for your own portrait of her?
Jeanne: Actually, Beverly isn’t particularly introspective and she certainly doesn’t like to analyze or intellectualize her work. The important piece wasn’t to surprise her but rather to trigger stories—for instance the story of how she met her father—as if you’d never heard it before. In that case it was, “Tell me about your father” and she’s off.
As we’ve found with many of our films, people usually don’t have a perspective of the arc of their lives, or are able to articulate how the different parts reflect on each other. That’s our job as filmmakers. Much of what you experience in our films wasn’t simply there to be “documented,” it’s carefully constructed by Steve and me—it’s our view of the truth of our subjects’ lives.
Nellie: Raising Renee is part III in your "Families in Trouble" series that began with Troublesome Creek and So Much So Fast. Did you plan to make a trilogy of films about families facing crises, or did it become apparent that these are the kinds of stories you are drawn to as filmmakers only after you'd already made the films?
Steve: We never formally planned to do a trilogy, but at some point in the making of Raising Renee we could see a through-line that reached back through So Much So FastTroublesome Creek. All of these films capture a family at a moment when they suddenly have to cope with something difficult and unexpected, and all three families respond with a kind of resilience that’s fascinating and powerful. All of the films are longitudinal views filmed over several years, and the element of time is a key part of the storytelling. And we think of them all in some ways like nonfiction novels in that there’s a central storyline of present-day events interwoven with layers (depending on the film) of history, politics, economics, sociology, disability, science or art. Those layers of meaning are as important to us as the central story itself. And when audiences have a chance to see the films more than once, it’s very gratifying how those interconnections can shift and deepen on re-viewing.
We also decided to call those films a trilogy because we want to do something very different for the next one—i.e. not start with a story that will take years to play out! We’ve always done a bunch of things at the same time. During Raising Renee, we were making So Much So Fast, Jeannie was series producer of Postcards from Buster, I wrote a new edition of the Filmmaker’s Handbook and directed several shorter projects. But for the next feature project, we want to do something that hopefully can be shot in a few weeks or months. Of course, we’ve said that before. And there is something about these kinds of stories that keeps drawing us in… Raising Renee premieres on February 22nd on HBO at 8pm. We hope you get a chance to take in this very special story!