Tracy Droz Tragos is an award-winning independent filmmaker. Tragos’ “Rich Hill” explored rural poverty through the intimate lens of vulnerable adolescents and their families struggling for a foothold. It won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Her first film was “Be Good Smile Pretty,” a powerful look at the profound and complicated feelings of loss caused by the deaths of American men in Vietnam, some thirty-five years later. The film aired on PBS’s Independent Lens and won the 2004 Emmy for Best Documentary, as well as The Jury Award for Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival. (Press materials)
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
TDT: This film tells the abortion stories of women in my home state of Missouri, one of the most restrictive states in the nation — a state that has one clinic, and where, in 2014, a 72-hour waiting period was passed into law over the Governor’s veto. This film is a chorus of stories — there is strength, I hope, in the number and range of perspectives. Ultimately, this film gives voice to very intimate, personal circumstances we don’t often hear, going beyond and deeper than politics, rhetoric and jargon.
This film hears from women on both “sides” of the abortion debate — but only in so much as they were willing to speak personally, beyond their public personae.
What I discovered is that it is very hard to have a rigid “side.” When you start to break down the realities that women face, whether they consider themselves pro-choice or pro-life, things get very gray and blurry. I spoke to so many “pro-life” women who had multiple abortions. Many women working in abortion care have never had abortions themselves. Women shared their complicated feelings — while still knowing that they had made the best decision they could make. There was little remorse on both “sides.”
The goal with this film is to start a new conversation — one that includes all women, all stories, all experiences, all choices. I hope audiences accept the invitation to empathize, including with the many women who have been stigmatized and disenfranchised by their connection with abortion. To speak openly of abortion is a brave choice. I am grateful to the women who shared their stories so that other women might benefit.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
TDT: Honestly, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to approach this subject had [producers] Sara Bernstein and Sheila Nevins not been behind me. Abortion is deeply controversial, especially in Missouri, which is such an evangelical strong-hold. To even say the word in public feels like a brave act.
But regardless of what someone may feel about abortion, it is sobering and disturbing to see what happens when women cannot control or make choices for their own reproductive health and when they do not have access to even the most fundamental health care. I have two daughters and I did this as much for them as for anyone. I want them to have as many choices for their future as boys have, and never to be sidelined the way so many girls are who don’t have access to reproductive health care.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
TDT: I want people to think about themselves, their daughters, their sisters, their mothers. The biggest goal here is to lift stigma and shame, and to create an opportunity for a different conversation that allows for all voices and perspectives. If the tent of inclusion is big, it is harder to dismiss the abortion issue, or to reduce it to a black and white analysis.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
TDT: The biggest challenge was the fear that I faced from the women with whom I spoke. There was mistrust on both sides, which, honestly, sometimes made me fearful of what I was doing — the gravity of what I was asking of these women, especially in Missouri.
Access was hard-earned. Many patients were grateful that I was making the film but couldn’t consent to being on camera — they feared repercussions in their small towns or within their families, or that they might lose their jobs. Shame runs deep, which makes the climate for discussion of reproductive health so much more loaded.
The impact of not having free will — and of being shamed for your choices — is corrosive to women’s hearts and souls. It keeps women subjugated in a very real way. I saw that again and again in Missouri.
When women did speak to me on camera, it was deliberate. Many felt that they had been unfairly shamed or not heard and they were ready to take that on. They were doing it for other women — women they would never know, but who might be in the same circumstance and find some comfort in knowing that they are not alone.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
TDT: When HBO passed on “Rich Hill,” I still asked for a meeting. I was thrilled, albeit nervous, to meet with Sheila Nevins and Sara Bernstein. We started talking about how we might bring a personal, intimate perspective to the abortion debate.
In September 2014, when Missouri passed a 72-hour wait period, I started filming. I am grateful that HBO came on to fund the film after an initial development phase. For the first time, I got to focus on making a film without worrying about how to raise the finishing funds.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
TDT: l am plagued with imposter syndrome.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
TDT: It’s easy sometimes to be overcome with insecurity and to become paralyzed. Last year, I was fortunate enough to work with a coach through The Women’s Fellowship with Sundance. My coach had so much good advice for me: from how to stand up in a meeting when I was feeling “small” and to change the power dynamic in the room, to how to be my best and most authentic self rather than trying to pretend to be someone I wasn’t, to remembering that I deserved to be in the room, in the arena — that I had earned that right. That was the best advice.
We also talked a lot about the Japanese concept of “Kaizen,” which basically means change for the better. A step each day toward your goal — it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Baby steps. Don’t necessarily look at the end of the road and think, “Oh my God! How the hell am I ever going to get there?” Just start in — every day — one step at a time. Whether it’s phone calls, writing pages or picking up a camera move forward every day.
The worst advice was give to me by a visiting novelist in college, where I was studying fiction writing. [She said] that I had nothing to write about. She took one look at me and judged me. She told me that I needed to go work on a coffee plantation in order to have anything worthwhile to say. I believed her and I was devastated.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
TDT: Do not wait for someone – anyone — to give you permission to make a film or to tell your story. Your perspective, your window on the world, is unique. Your story has never been told because it is yours.
It may seem impossible, but move forward however you can. Invest in yourself. Use your credit cards. Go all in. Become the unstoppable, runaway train. Success is in the making. Don’t listen to haters and people who question your capabilities or intimidate you — smile, put your nose down and keep on making.
On a more specific level, learn and become competent with more than one aspect of production. Learn to act, to write, to edit, to shoot. Become good at something specific. It can help pay the bills and make you nimble and versatile on your own films. It will also make you a better director.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
TDT: I can’t say I have a favorite film — it’s just not possible. It’s like saying which kid is my favorite — can’t do it. That being said, I am always happy to share films that move me, and on this day, here are a few that I am carrying with me:
Jane Campion’s “The Piano” is a masterpiece. I also love Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”; Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood”; Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s “Little Miss Sunshine”; Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet’s “Only the Young”; and Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA,” just to name a few.