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DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Cecilia Peck

DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Cecilia Peck

Before Brave Miss WorldCecilia Peck most recently directed and produced, with Barbara Kopple, the feature-length documentary Shut Up & Sing, which chronicles the political backlash against and the artistic triumph of the Dixie Chicks following their criticism of President Bush just prior to the invasion of Iraq. The film, shortlisted for the 2007 Academy Awards, was awarded Best Documentary by the Boston Society of Film Critics and the San Diego Film Critics.

Cecilia also produced and directed Justice For All, an examination of the capital punishment system, which was awarded the Silver Gavel Award. She produced A Conversation with Gregory Peck, an intimate portrait of her legendary father, a Special Selection in the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a special presentation for TCM and PBS American Masters. [Press materials]

Brave Miss World will play at DOC NYC on November 20. 

Women and Hollywood: Please give us your description of the film playing.

Cecilia Peck: Brave Miss World is a verite documentary following Linor Abargil, who was the victim of a violent attack and rape in Milan, Italy, just before being crowned Miss World in 1998. Linor sets out to meet other survivors, which takes the film from the townships of South Africa to elite American universities, where a campus culture turns a deaf ear to reports of rape. During the film, Linor’s rapist comes up for parole, and she hunts down his previous victims in order to convince the parole board to keep him behind bars. The film is about a courageous fight for justice and healing. Linor’s refusal to be silenced ultimately triumphs, in her journey from teenage rape survivor to empowered lawyer and activist.

WaH: What drew you to this story?

CP: Ten years after she was raped, Linor felt ready to reach out to other survivors. She saw Shut Up & Sing, a film I had co-directed with Barbara Kopple, and liked the way it took the audience on a journey with the Dixie Chicks. She reached out to me through producer Howard Rosenman. I was riveted by how unashamed Linor was to talk about rape. “Why should I be ashamed?” was her attitude. “The fault was his, not mine.” Her determination to tell her own story, in the belief that it would encourage other women to report rape crimes, was very compelling. Her relationship with her mother, and her mother’s role in her ability to heal, was something else I wanted to explore.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

CP: Filming survivors of rape required their trust. We worked vigilantly to protect the emotional lives of our subjects, but the production demands of a tight schedule and spartan budget constraints made that a difficult balance. Making sure that the filming wasn’t putting added pressure on Linor was a big challenge. Her work with other survivors brought up a lot of trauma for her. Ultimately, the hardest challenge was funding. We had seed money and the promise of more, which never materialized. We begged, borrowed, cajoled friends and family for funds, and spent hundreds of hours writing grant applications. We still have a lot of debt. But along the way angels became our EP’s. They came through when we needed them most: Lati Grobman, Geralyn Dreyfous, Regina Kulik Scully, Orna Raiz, Irv Bauman. Without them there would be no film.

WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?

CP: Any advice I have comes from making very independent documentaries. My kitchen table was my work space. The most important is a good support system. People around you who you can call on. Whether it’s a network of professional friends who can help when you need something the most, or a partner or a friend who can help with child care or fill in when you can’t leave a location or the editing room to make it to whatever your other life is demanding of you. You need the right people by your side. Also, just trusting your instincts, but that’s a given since you would never become a director unless you had a kick-ass belief that what you have to say counts.

WaH: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

CP: I wonder if the things that are the hardest make it look the easiest. When my producing partner and the film’s editor Inbal Lessner and I would finally be happy with a scene or a transition, the kind that gives an unexpected window into the story come from sleepless, unpaid, bleary-eyed all-nighters, tears of fatigue and sacrifice at the Avid. We never had the funds for an AP, assistant editor, or a production office. We spent money we didn’t have on great DP’s so that our audiences could be transported by the epic journey that Linor takes to help others at the cost of her own well being. But those expenses meant more salary deferments and more terror about being able pay back our equity investors who had the courage to come on board early. I guess I’m saying that if you manage to make something graceful and resonant, it might look a lot easier than it was.

WaH: Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

CP: We’re all on the edge of a cliff getting ready to jump, as we’re asked to let go of established models and trust the new ones. But there are companies like TUGG that can really help the film get out there, and online/on demand distribution streams that are going to be the best chance for an audience. We were able to use outreach grants from the Fledgling Fund and the Artemis Rising Foundation to hire Caitlin Boyle of Filmsprout as a consultant to set up an educational screening series on high school and college campuses, where our film will be able to make a real impact.

WaH: Name your favorite women directed film and why.

CP: My biggest inspiration is Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA, which awakened me to documentary’s ability to let you deeply identify with subjects like the Kentucky coal miners and their families. And it’s always made me think, would I have had the courage to keep documenting once the gun thugs turned their semi-automatic carbines on her and the crew and came after them? That’s what it took to make such a great film and in doing so, with her powerful storytelling skill, paved the way for so many of us.

Watch the trailer for Brave Miss World

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