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Human Rights Watch Ff 2017 Women Directors: Meet Katia Maguire and April Hayes — “Home Truth”

“Home Truth”

Katia Maguire is a director and producer of documentary films. She recently produced two projects for PBS, a film about the lives of three witnesses to the Us-Mexico “war on drugs,” and a series about Latino high school students and the graduation rate.

April Hayes is a New York-based documentary filmmaker who has worked on short and longform documentaries about environmentalist nuns, the legacy of racial terror in America, and biographical documentaries about Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, and Annie Liebovitz. “Home Truth” is her first feature film as a director.

“Home Truth” will premiere at the 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 11.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

Km&Ah: “Home Truth” is the story of Jessica Gonzales Lenahan, a mother of four from Colorado, who in 1999 experiences every parent’s worst nightmare when her three young daughters are killed after being abducted by their father in violation of a domestic violence restraining order.

Devastated, Jessica files a lawsuit against the police, claiming they did not adequately enforce her restraining order despite her repeated calls for help that night. Determined to make sure her daughters did not die in vain, Jessica pursues her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and an international human rights tribunal, seeking to strengthen legal rights for domestic violence victims. Meanwhile, her relationship with her one-surviving child, her son Jessie, suffers, as he struggles with the tragedy in his own way.

Filmed over the course of nine years, “Home Truth” chronicles one family’s pursuit of justice, shedding light on how our society responds to domestic violence and how the trauma from domestic violence tragedies can linger throughout generations.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

Km&Ah: We met while working at PBS as associate producers. We quickly bonded over our shared affection for feminism, Agnès Varda, and stories of complex, strong women.

As soon as we met Jessica and heard her story, we saw that there was so much more below the surface than the typical sensationalistic media portrayals of domestic violence tragedies that most of us are accustomed to seeing on the TV, and that the documentary form would allow us to take the time to deeply explore these issues.

The night we met Jessica, at a speaking event, we witnessed her share raw honesty and vulnerability, showing the depths of her grief but also displaying a lot of resilience, humor, and irreverence. Yes, the story of her historic legal battle is important, but we are always drawn to films that explore the very human and intimate side of larger issues.

We sensed that Jessica, through her willingness to share her story so boldly, would bring out nuances in the subjects of trauma and violence against women that an audience doesn’t typically have the opportunity to see.

We were amazed by her ability to share her experience over and over again in the face of her trauma, and by the groundbreaking ways that she has fought for justice for herself and others.

We had both studied and been interested in women’s issues and human rights, but had never heard of domestic violence being referred to as a human rights issue in America.

Given the fact that domestic violence continues to be an epidemic in our country, we felt that exploring some of these questions in a film — through the experience of one family bravely sharing their story — could be a way to widen the public conversation on domestic violence in the United States.

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

Km&Ah: We want people to understand the full extent of Jessica’s commitment to her advocacy work. She believed in her case so deeply that she sacrificed everything she had in order to pursue it. As she says, she put her “dirty laundry” out there for everyone to see in the hope that other families would not suffer her loss.

Her strength and courage in telling her story — day in and day out, on good days and bad days — is a testament to the power of survivor’s stories, and the change that can come about if we listen and engage.

We also want people to put Jessica’s case in the context of what is going on today. The film ends in 2015, on a high note in terms of the federal government’s response to violence against women. But the last year and a half has shown us that, despite progress, the national agenda can drastically change, and that ending violence against women is something that we should prioritize here in the U.S., not just something we defend abroad and condemn other countries for neglecting.

We’re concerned about the proposed federal budget, which includes drastic cuts to programs that protect and serve women and children affected by domestic violence, and we think that making your voice heard about the importance of these issues is crucial right now in order to preserve these valuable and life-saving programs.

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

Km&Ah: Funding. We were extremely grateful for the funding we ultimately received, but for many years we juggled many different jobs in order to continue self-funding the film.

We recognize there are scarce resources, but building a sustainable career in the documentary field has proven to be an endless challenge.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

Km&Ah: We received major funding from Latino Public Broadcasting, and the Independent Television Service (Itvs), through their open call and Diversity Development Fund, as well as the New York State Council on the Arts, the Independent Documentary Association’s Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund, and The Fledgling Fund.

We were incredibly grateful for the contributions through our successful Kickstarter campaign. We also both worked full-time jobs for most of the time we’ve been making the film, and used that income to self-fund the film in the years before we received institutional funding.

W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival?

Km&Ah: We met Jessica’s attorney, Caroline Bettinger-López, at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in 2008, and that is how we started making the film. So we feel like we have really come full circle, and we can’t imagine a better home for the film.

The Hrwff has always been our favorite festival to attend. The films are not only socially conscious — they are also compelling and bold works of documentary art. We feel really honored to be included in the company of such great filmmakers, past and present, who have presented their work at the festival over the years.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

Km&Ah: Best advice: “Trust your instincts.” Too often women are second-guessed and passed over. It was really important to us to preserve the integrity of our filmmaking process, and the film that we wanted to make, at every step of the way.

We try not to focus on bad advice, but we will say we were determined to stick to our vision. Throughout the process of telling this story and getting it out into the world, we received feedback that the film needed to be more uplifting or that we needed to present Jessica as a more simplistic, heroic version of herself.

Jessica is most certainly a heroine, but based on many conversations with her, we felt strongly that we needed to truthfully represent her complexity as a woman and a trauma survivor, and not try to tie up all of the nuance and difficulties of her experience into a tidy bow, in order to let other survivors know that they are not alone in their struggles.

We also ignored every suggestion to give up on the film. We were deeply committed to telling Jessica’s story, and felt it was our responsibility to finish the film once we started it.

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

Km&Ah: Keep focusing on directing: there need to be more women directors. Women are natural directors, and yet it’s much harder for women to find directing opportunities. Sadly, not many of us are handed opportunities — we need to create them for ourselves. Seek out other women who are willing to support you. Be good to those who work with and for you, and work with those who share these values.

We were lucky enough to have many mentors and a wonderful community of peers along the way who provided invaluable guidance and encouragement, and we were blessed to have the opportunity to work with incredible filmmaking partners — our editor and writer Rebecca Laks, our associate producer Laura Pilloni, and our composer West Dylan Thordson.

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

Km&Ah: Well if we had to choose only one, we’d choose Agnès Varda’s “The Gleaners and I.” Varda is an unapologetic filmmaker whose commitment to her process creates documentary work that is inventive, wholly unique, lyrical, and empathetic.

This is just one of her many films that we love, and that has inspired us through the making of “Home Truth.” We also love the work of Laura Poitras, Julie Dash, Tracy Droz Tragos, Natalia Almada, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, Kim Longinotto, Su Friedrich, and countless others.

W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.

Km&Ah: We definitely have hope. We have seen so many incredible women filmmakers in the last few years break barriers, like Ava DuVernay, Jill Soloway, Patty Jenkins, and our friends Gillian Robespierre and Anna Rose Holmer. And we are constantly energized and inspired by the brilliant young women we work with who are coming up behind us.

We still live in a culture, however — and the current election proves this — where certain types of behavior are rewarded, and we often see women get short shrift when it comes to funding, directing, and creative leadership opportunities.

We are glad that there’s attention being cast on issues of gender and also racial bias in the industry, and hope to do our part to keep pushing these changes forward.

Human Rights Watch Ff 2017 Women Directors: Meet Katia Maguire and April Hayes — “Home Truth” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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