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SXSW Interview: “MINE” Director Geralyn Pezanoski

SXSW Interview: "MINE" Director Geralyn Pezanoski

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.

Director: Geralyn Pezanoski
After Hurricane Katrina, thousands of pets were rescued and adopted by families around the country, leading to many custody battles. Through these stories, the film examines issues of race, class and animal welfare in the U.S. [Courtesy of SXSW]

“MINE” will screen in the Documentary Feature Competition.

Please introduce yourself…

When I was 5 years old, my family took a road trip from Wisconsin to visit my sister who was studying in Mexico City. I was one of 10 sardined into the station wagon… I acquired three things on that trip – a need to travel and learn about things outside my immediate circle, the understanding that when you live in tight quarters you better figure out how to get along, and an undying love of tamales.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

It started with a love of travel that brought with it a fascination with cultures and with society and in questioning what holds it all together, as well as an appreciation of beauty, color, nature and construct. It also came from my desire for justice, meaning, and understanding. All of this and the fear of an office job brought me to filmmaking.

How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?

A few weeks after Katrina I got an email from a friend who had been in New Orleans rescuing animals. Her pictures stunned me, I couldn’t believe the condition of the animals they were pulling out of the flood waters and from destroyed homes. I felt that not only did our country just screw over all these poor people, but now we’ve left all these helpless animals to die in an empty city. Not only that but these animals were people’s pets – pets they weren’t allowed to evacuate with. I organized a volunteer crew to go down and film this incredible grass roots rescue effort that was happening – all of these tremendously tough and caring people who had risked their lives to go rescue other people’s pets. And because residents weren’t allowed to return to New Orleans, their pets were shipped around the country where they would either be fostered until they could be reunited, or adopted into new homes. After several weeks of filming everything that was going on, we came back and cut a series of PSAs to try to raise money for the Humane Society of Louisiana. Before I left New Orleans I decided I would foster a dog, a pointer mix I called Nola. She was skin and bones when I met her, and she refused to leave my side for more than a couple of seconds. It didn’t take either of us long to bond.

As the months went on with residents slowly returning to New Orleans, it became apparent that thousands of these people who had lost everything were desperate to find their pets. I started hearing stories of people encountering serious resistance to getting their pets back. I began to investigate what was behind that and found that there were a lot of people who either rescued or adopted pets who had serious concerns about sending back these animals who had been through so much already. I saw a lot of judgment on both sides and very little communication happening. There was so much wrong with this situation, yet everyone seemed to be trying to do the right thing. I thought it was such an interesting context through which to examine questions of humanity and loss and how we engage with each other. And of course there was my personal attachment to the story having adopted a “Katrina pet” myself. This helped me see both sides. While I empathized with the original guardians searching for their pets, what would I do if someone came looking for Nola, to whom I had become so attached? So “MINE” was an outlet for my own exploration.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

What attracted me to this story was that it was a side of Katrina that is rarely talked about. So it was very important to me that the characters were given the chance to speak for themselves. I became close to the stories through my natural empathy for the individuals on all sides of this conflict. My personal connection to the story placed me at the center of the issue, at the center of this world, but once there I listened and observed and let other people do the talking. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project? I felt honored to be entrusted with so many stories, and there are so many complexities involved in the aftermath of Katrina, that it was hard to decide which stories I could tell and which, because of time and narrative structure, I could not. I wanted to tell them all. So the hardest part for me was narrowing it down, because I felt like I’d be letting people down if their story wasn’t told in the film. But I realized that the best thing I could do for everyone involved was to tell the most interesting and nuanced story I could with the characters I chose. I don’t think I would do this story justice if people didn’t walk away understanding that there are many perspectives on this issue. How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker? I never want to tell people what to think, I just want to offer an opportunity to see different perspectives. So if people see this film and leave considering a viewpoint other than the one they came in with, I feel successful. And… eek, do I have to say it? I want to make the world a better place. But don’t we all?

What are your future projects?

Making a film is like being in a relationship. I better really, really like my subject if I’m going to give it my heart and spend all my time with it! Now that “MINE” has a life of its own, I’m excited to be back on the market to see what’s out there. I have tons of compelling stories I’d like to tell and find inspiration everywhere, so it’s just a matter of which one I want to spend the next few years of my life with! You can expect another documentary for sure but I’d also like to direct a narrative short, something ridiculously funny.

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