Ashley Maynor Interview

Ashley Maynor Interview

Ashley Maynor is a filmmaker and teacher.  Her films include; Men, In Uniform that she Produced and Directed and she was the Associate Producer on Quick Feet, Soft Hands.  She recently completed For Memories Sake a film I like a lot.  She and I spoke awhile back.

KB: What’s your background in film/video?

AM: I only began studying film during my last few years of college. Up until that point, literature, anthropology, and foreign languages had been my primary areas of interest, and I had already been accepted into PhD programs in Comparative Literature for after graduation.

My first courses in filmmaking were taken during my senior year of college, and that summer, I traveled to Kotla, Poland, to attend the London Documentary Filmmakers’ Group (DFG) “Total Immersion Course in Documentary Filmmaking.”  At that point, I did not know that six months later I would quit my PhD program in Comparative Literature in order to make films!

Set against the backdrop of this small Polish village, the DFG gave me a crash course in documentary in little more than a week, during which time I learned some basics of camera operating and editing and shot a short film. Knowing a smattering of Polish from a six-month study abroad as a undergrad, I used my language skills to meet the local volunteer fire brigade, who became the subject of a short documentary called Men, In Uniform.

On the final evening of my stay in Poland, my video screened before an audience composed of many people from the village, including my firemen. The firefighters were touched to see their story being told even if, in their humility, they still could not see the value in it. What they couldn’t seem to understand was that I didn’t want to make a documentary about heroes. Instead, I wanted to celebrate their ordinariness, the simplicity of their way of life, and, on a more universal scale, their humanity.

I came home changed. Filming the life of a small village and telling the stories of its inhabitants, I acknowledged that the responsibility of saving something beautiful, once assumed, yields incredible satisfaction. Rather than foster an eagerness to begin my Ph.D. study, my Polish encounter spurred questions about my decision to pursue a life in academia focused on research. Unlike scholarly publications I might contribute to the field of Comparative Literature to be read by my colleagues and those in similar fields, my films would be intended for a much larger and less exclusive audience.

Despite my doubts, I still went to graduate school. But less than one semester into my program, I began filling out an application to Temple University’s Film and Media Arts Program. Men, In Uniform constituted my creative portfolio…

I graduated from Temple’s MFA program in May 2008.

KB: Tell me about For Memories Sake, how did that film come about?

AM: Starting in December of 2005, I began the process of preserving the Super-8 and 8mm home movies shot by my grandmother, Angela Singer. What began as the simple task of transferring old film to video turned into a much larger discovery.  In addition to the hundred-plus hours of home movies I found she had shot over time, I discovered that Angela has taken at least a dozen photos a day for the last thirty years, amounting to an archive of more than 150,000 still images.

As a child, I always saw her snapping pictures, but I never thought what she was doing was unique in any way, much less an act of artistic creation. She was considered a “homemaker” by everyone I knew. It was only after I began making films of my own and as I began to preserve her work that I discovered my grandmother’s impressive archive of footage and images and her secret identity as an artist.

In the film, I explore the impact of my grandmother’s picture-making on my work as a filmmaker. It is, in many respects,  a reflection upon privilege—that of having my work (in some settings) called “art” while hers is referred to as merely “hobby” or pastime.

Using what I consider an essay-film form, I tried to make a film that would reveal, in spite of our generational differences, our common attempt to overcome tragedy through documenting life. The film is also a celebration of amateur moving images–these beautiful relics of our recent past.

Lastly, I believe For Memories’ Sake is a modest antidote to the mostly non-existent media representations of rural Southerners, particularly Southern women.  Though my grandmother’s photography habit is unique, the loss and tragedy in her life, as well as her drive to transcend and transform these events through art, hits upon universal themes that I believe touch us all.

KB: There are some intense moments in this film involving your Grandfather, what has been your family’s reaction to the movie?

AM: This part of the film your referring to is from a videotape labeled “Wrath.” I think this moment is difficult for most audiences to watch. For my family, however, my grandfather’s struggles with alcoholism were no secret, and many of them had experienced in person the kind of moments the video reveals to the audience. So, I think their reaction was far less dramatic than most outsiders might assume.

When I discovered this home video, I felt it should be part of the film. Many people film birthday parties and family get-togethers, but few people keep the cameras rolling during the most painful moments of their lives. It was this video that convinced me more than ever that what my grandmother was doing was extraordinary and it was only with her permission that it was included in the final film. In fact, we spent several visits looking at different edits of the footage until we found one she felt most comfortable with, and my family, much to my relief, has been supportive of my decision to include that footage in the film.

KB: What was the toughest part about making it?

AM: Some challenges I encountered making this personal documentary were (a) worrying about what my family will think/do when they saw it and (b) convincing folks that this isn’t your typical personal documentary. Most people have certain (low? melodramatic?) expectations for a personal documentary whose main focus is a post-menopausal relative. I aimed to defy those expectations and to avoid making a self-indulgent or “therapy” movie that would have little to say to general audiences.

Another particular challenge for this film was organizing content. I was working with 79 reels of home movies, 150 hours of VHS-C tapes, over 150,000 photographs and the 20+ hours of new video I filmed myself. It took three years to carve the 30-minute film out of this massive archive.

KB: You are on the festival circuit right now, how is that going?  Any advice to others about film festivals?

AM: The festival scene is tough for short filmmakers, who often get short shrift when compared to features. For Memories’ Sake in particular, is a long short (nearly a half-hour) so it’s been challenge to get it programmed when folks can program 15 two-minute shorts instead. It seems to me that festivals are really looking for short-shorts, despite the fact they accept shorts up to 40 minutes.

Despite this challenge, For Memories’ Sake has had great screenings, including ones at Nashville Film Festival, Maryland Film Festival, and, later this month, Indianapolis International Film Festival. I’ve received letters from folks who saw the film at fests in Dallas or Tulsa…and it’s amazing how films find a life of their own through word-of-mouth.

I would encourage others who are embarking on the festival adventure to focus on quality festivals that value filmmakers work and offer something in return for screening their work. (Isn’t a little unfair to pay a submission fee only to then have them use your film for profit without paying you or giving you a ticket sale share?) I also encourage filmmakers to seek out alternate ways to find their audience. Consider microcinemas, university screening series, community organizations, churches, you name it! After all, festivals only reach a limited kind of audience…

KB: What’s next for you?

AM: We’ve got some great festivals and screenings lined up for the rest of 2010, including a screening in Cork, Ireland.

During March of 2011, my filmmaking partner Paul Harrill and I will be on the “Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers.” We’ll be screening For Memories’ Sake along with two films Paul directed at a number of venues across the Southeast.

After that, more movie-making!

KB: Is there a film that was a huge influence on you?  What is it about this film that influenced you?

AM: I am inspired and (I hope) influenced by a number of great filmmakers, among them Agnes Varda, Alan Berliner, and Ross McElwee. Some especially influential films from these directors are Varda’s The Gleaners and I , Berliner’s Nobody’s Business, and McElwee’s Time Indefinite.

These films changed my life. I had never seen anything like them. Not only were these films unlike any documentaries I had ever seen (my canon had, until that point, consisted mostly of  a collection of Nature episodes on PBS or agit-prop style docs about social issues), but they were drawing upon their own lives, and, in Varda’s case, travels and experiences, to tell stories and pose questions in an essay of sound and image. These films thrilled and inspired me and left me with haunting thoughts, images, and, most significantly, questions about what I had seen and what it all meant.

KB: Where can I buy copies of your films?

AM: The film will go on sale later this year at www.selfreliantfilm.com/dvd

Right now, we’re selling institutional copies. So, if you can’t wait, ask your local public library or university to purchase a copy you can check out! Home-use/personal use copies will go on sale in late 2010.