Publication: PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Date: Jan 23, 2002 Page: D01
Section: FEATURES MAGAZINE
VICKI VALERIO / Inquirer Staff Photographer
Outside their editing studio are Janet Goldwater (left) and Barbara Attie, whose work
has been seen at film festivals and on public TV.
Honors for 2 who capture life on film
By Eils Lotozo INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
It was a gloriously sunny morning, and documentary filmmakers Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater were holed up in a dim South Broad Street editing studio staring at row of video monitors.
Flickering on those screens was the footage that will become their sixth documentary, Maggie Growls, about Gray Panthers cofounder Maggie Kuhn.
With their longtime film editor Kathleen Soulliere, they watched the same short clip over and over to see how many seconds they could shave off.
"This is about as interesting as watching paint dry," Attie said about the process of painstakingly paring down countless hours of interviews and archival film clips into the precise 56-minute, 40-second length required for public television broadcast.
As Bala Cynwyd-based Attie & Goldwater Productions, the partners have been at it for a decade, since a mutual friend introduced Goldwater - a graphic designer, photographer and abortion-rights activist with an idea for a documentary - to Attie, a mother of three attending Temple University's graduate film program.
"Little did she know how little I knew about film," said Attie, 53, red-headed and quick to laugh.
Goldwater's idea became Motherless, which told the stories of four people who, as children, lost their mothers to complications from illegal abortions. Two more abortion issue films followed, including I, Witness, about community tensions in Pensacola, Fla., where two doctors and an escort were murdered in front of an abortion clinic.
The filmmakers will be honored in town tonight for those films by the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League at its annual celebration of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.
Their growing body of work is no small achievement. Funding for documentaries is scarce and distribution opportunities are limited, yet Attie and Goldwater, who didn't take up filmmaking until they were in their 40s and who made their first films while raising children, have consistently managed to get their pictures made and seen.
"It's very difficult to make documentaries," said Gretjen Clausing, program director for Film at the Prince, run by the Prince Music Theater in Center City. "But they continue to find really interesting projects and ways to raise money. And they get the films out there."
Besides screenings at many film festivals, the pair, who have a passion for telling women's stories, have had their films broadcast on public television. Landowska: Uncommon Visionary, their documentary about pioneering harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, was shown nationally on PBS, and overseas.
Maggie Growls, which they began working on in 1998, received one of the highly coveted grants from the Independent Television Service, an arm of PBS that funds documentaries.
"I think this could be a breakthrough project for them," said Eugene Martin, a Philadelphia feature filmmaker whose Diary of a City Priest received ITS funding. Six of the 16 documentaries in this month's Sundance Film Festival were ITS projects, he pointed out.
Maggie Growls is a creative leap for the duo. Along with interviews with figures such as Ralph Nader and Studs Terkel, and clips of Kuhn chatting it up with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, they're illustrating their subject's colorful life with animation segments created by artist Paul Fierlinger. Kuhn, who lived in Philadelphia and died in 1995, began championing the rights of the elderly in 1970.
"It's definitely a little bit scary," said Goldwater, 50, dark-haired and serious. "But it was a chance to push ourselves."
Thanks to the ITS grant, "this is the first time we haven't still been raising money while we're editing," said Attie, who estimated that most of their films cost under $200,000. "Toward the end of making Landowska, I was raising money in $25 increments."
They've also been able to hire someone to research getting the rights for the archival footage they hope to use. It all feels practically luxurious compared with their early days. "To make Motherless, we borrowed a camera from Temple that was at the low end of acceptable," recalled Attie, who has a daughter who is a lawyer, another daughter who is a pediatrician, and a son in advertising. "I still shudder at how badly some of those interviews are shot."
During the making of Motherless, Attie's husband was killed by drunk driver while bicycling on West River Drive. The tragedy could have been the end of the fledgling partnership, but Attie kept going on the film.
"It was wonderful for me to have something to focus on," Attie said. That film, so much about loss, is imbued, she thinks, with her own grief.
Over the years, the filmmakers have evolved a method of working together. "Barbara is a perfectionist," said Goldwater, who has one daughter in college and another in high school, and lives in the Art Museum area with her physician husband. "I like to make big leaps. . . . We need her perfectionism and my rashness."
Attie also has a major talent for persuasion, which comes in handy when they are trying to wheedle the use of archival film clips. "She can convince anyone of anything," Goldwater said.
While the two divide up duties, budgets go to Attie, more of the writing to Goldwater. But when it comes to conducting filmed interviews they work in tandem.
"We really rely on the other to notice the things the other doesn't," said Attie, who lives in Bala Cynwyd with her partner, Remy Heymsfeld, a retired pharmaceutical company executive.
It's a method that has puzzled some crew members. "They are used to being on shoots and someone being the boss," said Goldwater, "but we don't define that."
Not that their relationship is without tension. Attie has strayed from the partnership to make other works, including the documentary Daring to Resist, about three Jewish teens who fought the Nazis. Attie, who makes her living as a filmmaker, needs the money the outside projects bring in.
Goldwater has kept her day job, doing writing and design for Temple's Law School. "I've experienced some jealousy over that," said Goldwater of Attie's work without her. "We've had to recommit over the years that we are going to stay together, because the projects are so long-term. We're thinking years in advance."
They're already seeking funding for their next documentary, The Red Rose Girls, about a trio of women artists who in 1900 established an unorthodox household in Villanova.
"Our visions are never that far apart," Attie.
Eils Lotozo's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.