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IDFA Women Directors: Meet Gina Leibrecht – ‘How to Smell a Rose’

IDFA Women Directors: Meet Gina Leibrecht - 'How to Smell a Rose'

In 1998, Gina Leibrecht began collaborating with the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Les Blank on several projects, including All In This Tea, which she co-produced, co-directed, and edited, and which had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2007. She currently lives and works in San Francisco as a freelance documentary filmmaker. [Kickstarter]

How to Smell a Rose will play at IDFA on November 22, 24, 26, 28, and 29.

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

GL: How to Smell a Rose is an one-hour film in which Les Blank visits Richard Leacock at his home in Normandy, France. Conversations between the two legendary filmmakers, who have both since passed away, explore Leacock’s life and work as a charismatic and trail-blazing documentary filmmaker and co-founder of America’s cinema verite, inspiring generations of filmmakers who followed.

Leacock’s innovations and approach became instrumental in creating a new form of documenting events on film. His quest was to create “the feeling of being there.” Over meals and walks in the French countryside, Leacock shares with Blank the memorable moments of his 70-year filmmaking career and the extraordinary people he met along the way. Clips of Ricky’s films and his talent as raconteur bring to life the magic moments that changed cinema forever.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

GL: Les Blank invited me to accompany him on his trip to Leacock’s in Normandy, and I ended up doing much of the shooting. I’m always interested in hearing people’s life stories, with all of the unexpected twists and turns. Being in the room with these two legends, I knew there was magic happening, and I soaked up every word they said.

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

GL: I had a lot of trouble getting the rights to certain films that Ricky shot, and it really delayed finishing the film. I didn’t feel I could make this film without showing examples of the types of things Ricky was talking about. Over the years, these issues were resolved, [in part through] some funding coming in from the NEA literally two days before Les died. I was able to let Les know that we got the money to finish the film, and he gave me the thumbs up to proceed without him.

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

GL: With both of my films (All in This Tea, How to Smell a Rose) I have hoped that people would leave the theater asking themselves questions about the value of their own lives. Questions like, “What do I really care about in this world? What am I willing to go to the mat for? What kind of a person do I want to be? What do I want to contribute?” And, with How to Smell a Rose in particular, I’d like people to think about how they’d like to grow old.

Ricky is such a great example of someone maintaining their curiosity and excitement for life into old age. He was so present with where he was in life. He had a lot of memories, but he wasn’t sentimental, and the message he conveyed was that the good ol’ days are happening right now.

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

GL: Just know that, as soon as you commit to your path as a filmmaker, the first thing that’s going to happen is that all of the negative voices are going to come up and tell you why you can’t do this — some of them from outside, and some from inside yourself. You have to confront those voices head on and keep putting one foot in front of the other and believe in yourself. Learn your craft and learn it well so you can back yourself up when you stray from convention — you will be questioned at every turn. Filmmaking isn’t easy, and you have to be extremely self-reliant — YOU are your own boss. In the end, it’s incredibly rewarding.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

GL: For me personally, the biggest misconception people have about my work is that I’ve had it easy because my collaborator is a famous filmmaker. I’m not going to lie — in certain situations, yes, Les Blank’s name has gotten us in the door at some festivals. But when it comes to funding and distribution, we’ve had to start from scratch every time. There’s a lot more competition in the doc world now than there was when Les was making films in the 70s and 80s. Not to mention that I still had to sit in that edit chair for months and months on end to make a worthy film — these films don’t make themselves! Les may have the famous name, but I consider our films as much my work as they are his.

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

GL: Les and I made both of our films on a shoestring and we did all of the work ourselves. The positive side of this is that, when the film is finished, we own the film outright and we can pocket any money that comes in from sales. The initial funding came out of Les’ pocket, but at some point he stopped putting his personal cash into it, and I had to raise the money to pay myself to edit the film. The National Endowment for the Arts funded the bulk of this project, with a smaller finishing grant from the Fleishhacker Foundation.

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

GL: When I saw Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public, I thought, this woman has guts. I love the edginess of her films, while going deep into the exploration of her themes. I prefer depth over span, if that makes sense.

Heddy Honigman really blew my mind when I discovered her work, like Forever. There’s such grace and nuance and depth and humanity that shines through. And she takes her time — her films breathe. She’s definitely a hero of mine.

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