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DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Jilann Spitzmiller – ‘Still Dreaming’

DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Jilann Spitzmiller - 'Still Dreaming'

Jilann Spitzmiller is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and educator with credits including Shakespeare Behind Bars, which premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. The film picked up 11 festival awards, including Best of Show at BendFilm and several Best Documentary awards, and completed a successful theatrical run. Spitzmiller’s work has been shown on outlets such as NBC, PBS, BBC, the Sundance Channel, Starz/Encore, Canal + and Al Jazeera. She co-directed and co-produced Critical Condition, which aired on POV as a special broadcast in partnership with the McNeil/Lehrer Hour.

With husband and long-time creative partner Hank Rogerson, Spitzmiller has just completed Still Dreaming, which will premiere at DOC NYC 2014. Spitzmiller and Rogerson also produced two critically acclaimed doc projects for national PBS, Homeland, and Circle of Stories. Together, they founded DocuMentors, an online resource site for documentary filmmakers at www.documentaryhowto.com. (Press materials)

Still Dreaming will play at NYC Doc on November 18 and 19.

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

JS: At the Lillian Booth Actors Home just outside NYC, a group of long-retired entertainers dive into a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and find that nothing is what it seems to be. With a play that is usually a sex farce about young love, this ensemble finds that, for them, the themes of perception, reality, and dreaming deeply resonate. As they deal with the shifting mental and physical challenges of old age, these elders realize that creativity is a magical force of renewal. Starring Broadway veterans from another era, Still Dreaming thrills with its relevance for those of any age.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

JS: There were several reasons that I wanted to make this film. One was very personal — I was very close with my paternal grandmother, who eventually ended up in a nursing home after a stroke. It was very hard to see her just sitting through her days without much meaningful stimulation. I find it troubling that we largely segregate our senior citizens these days. I feel strongly that we all benefit from intergenerational ties in the community. This film was a way to express and explore those feelings. I find that I’m also always drawn to voices on the edge of society and to bringing those voices more into the conversations of our daily lives. This film fit that larger theme that spans all of my work.

Another reason I wanted to make this film is that I was really curious about how a serious creative endeavor would impact the residents of this nursing home — would it create more social ties and happiness? Would it challenge them creatively? Would it help their health? As I age, I look ahead and hope that intense and challenging creativity can always be a part of my life.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

JS: I made this film with my husband, Hank Rogerson, who is my creative partner, with our two small kids in tow. Making a film can be a 24/7 job, just like parenting. The two can come into conflict quite a lot, and juggling everything sometimes feels overwhelming. We also both do a lot of other film-related work, teaching and freelancing, to make ends meet. It makes for a very rich life, but it is a lot! We work more slowly than we used to. It’s just inevitable. So keeping everything in balance with our family while moving the film forward was a huge challenge over the last 3 years. It feels amazing to have finally finished the film in the way that we wanted to, and also to have these two awesome kids in our lives.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

JS: I hope that people leave more hopeful about their own aging years — that they realize that our later years can be really rich if we engage in what we love to do and keep stretching ourselves even amongst the challenges. I hope that people will be more inclined to include the seniors around them, seeing them as people who can still grow and contribute. I hope that seniors themselves will leave asking themselves, How can I be more engaged in what I love to do?

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

JS: I think that rather than focus on gender, it’s most important to develop your voice and your craft. It’s important that you figure out what you personally need and want to say. While you’re figuring all of that out, try to work with the best people in the business — the people who make the films that blow your mind. Also, keep in mind what makes you happy on a daily basis and engage fully in self-care. This is a tough business, and taking care of yourself really helps to get you through the harder times.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? 

JS: We raised most of our funding through crowd-funding on IndieGoGo and through private donations. We had help from a small number of foundations. I think the skills of crowd-funding are some of the most important survival skills that you can have in this business right now. When the gatekeepers aren’t letting you in, you can just go around them. It’s very empowering.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

JS: Harlan County, USA by Barbara Kopple really left an impression on me as a film student. I realized that women could be courageously embedded with a camera in the social conflicts of our time and come out with stories and voices that impact the course of history.

I also really love Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern by Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher. The film was ahead of its time in signaling the demise of the small family farm. I thought Jeanne told this personal story with tremendous heart, bravery, and humor. I also remember seeing this film at IDA’s DocuWeek when the filmmakers were nominated for an Oscar. Jeanne and Steven were there, and after the screening, Jeanne burst out in tears on stage. She was so relieved, surprised, and happy that the film was doing so well. I really admired her emotional honesty and candidness about the extremely challenging process of being married and making documentary films together.

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