"Rather than devaluing our female experience and saying, ‘well, I was just a mother for twenty years,’ we should be celebrating it, and we should be changing the dialog in the workplace."
Pamela Tanner Boll, Director and Producer of the Forthcoming Documentary: Who Does She Think She Is?
By Astri Von Arbin Ahlander and Yelizavetta Kofman | The Lattice Group
The first time that we sat down with Pamela Tanner Boll, Co-Executive Producer of the Academy Award winning documentary Born Into Brothels, was in a taxi between her office and the SoHo Grand Hotel, back in November, 2007. Despite her brutal schedule—directing and producing a documentary in New York City while juggling her life as a wife and mother of three in Winchester, Massachusetts—Boll agreed to meet with us to offer some advice about a project that was still in a nebulous stage: The Lattice Group. Even during a five-minute cab ride, this sinewy and poised tour de force of a woman was able to infuse our young minds with the kind of wisdom one only expects to hear from hermits on hilltops. Boll had what we needed: the right mix of enthusiasm, intelligence and what Gen Y’ers like ourselves lack most of all: experience.
Out of college, Boll worked at a literary agency, then on Wall Street for three years, where she “did quite well, but was bored to tears.” Boll also spent time as a teaching fellow at Harvard and at a records storage company in Boston. Throughout it all, she worked as an artist—painting, writing, and now filmmaking. Boll Co-Executive Produced Born into Brothels (2004), Executive Produced In A Dream (2007), and is currently Executive Producing and Producing several other films, including Connected: a Declaration of Interdependence, directed by Tiffany Shlain, and Global Moms, directed by Justine Shapiro.
Surprisingly, however, the experience Boll cites as most instrumental to her career is nowhere to be found on her resume. “Honestly, I could not have made this movie if I didn’t have the twenty years of executive skills from running a household with three incredibly active boys,” she said in reference to her new film, Who Does She Think She Is?, a feature-length documentary about women who are artists as well as mothers, and the challenges that this tenuous balance entails. Our second meeting with Boll takes place on a warm spring night, five months after that rainy cab-ride in New York City. This time around, we are here to talk about Who Does She Think She Is?, and the important messages it conveys.
“As a mother, I felt like a second-class citizen.”
“What made me a good mother—attention to detail, solving disputes—is ultimately what made me a good filmmaker. I don’t think I would have been as persistent, as caring, as careful with each of my subjects, getting them to open up, if I had not had the experience of being a very present and very listening mother. Rather than devaluing our female experience and saying, ‘well, I was just a mother for twenty years,’ we should be celebrating it, and we should be changing the dialog in the workplace. I think that a lot women come back into the workplace and they want to get by, so they sort of dismiss their work as mothers and so everyone else does too.”
Even Boll dismissed it.
“The reason I made this film is because I never felt like, after I had kids, I ever had a ‘career.’ I didn’t feel as though I could really claim to be an artist because after all, I was working part-time. My main focus was being the mother of kids when my husband was literally out of the country or out of town at least two or three nights a week. As a mother, I felt like a second-class citizen. Even when I had my boys, people would ask: ‘what do you do?’ And I would say, ‘I am mainly at home with the kids.’ And they would say, ‘Oh, really? Well, what else do you do?’ It is a horrible situation. And the fact is that the work I was doing with my kids, which was invisible to the rest of the world, made it hard for me to give my artwork and my writing the priority that it deserved.”
The perpetual conundrum. It’s been decades since women entered the workplace en masse, and they keep coming down in droves, but still not much seems to have changed regarding the infamous “double-duty” allotted women, and the guilt that comes with it.
“I always felt like I was in the wrong place. When I was at home with the little ones, there was always so much cooking and cleaning and taking care of them, I was worn out and I didn’t have a lot of energy to do create work. And then I would go off and do the creative work and I would feel, ‘I am leaving the kids to a babysitter and I am not there for their dinner—what kind of a parent am I?’ So, I always felt like I was in the wrong place. I wasted a lot of energy feeling guilty.”
Who Does She Think She Is? deals with the guilt, but also with the joys and achievements, of several women struggling with the balancing act of being moms and artists. And being respected for the work that they do.
What made you decide to make this film?
“A friend of mine told me about this woman who had three boys who were the same ages as my boys. She was also an artist. And she was living on nothing! I was really having a hard time basically dividing my time between taking care of my boys the way I thought they needed to be taken care of and also doing my artwork, and here she had no help at all! In 2003, I went to New Mexico, saw her, saw her work and just knew that I wanted to tell her story. So, she was my inspiration. I was just in awe of her spirit and of her work and of her ability to integrate those aspects of her life. And, slowly, I began to think that I wanted to document it, and tackle this question: how do we as women do the work that we are called to do, and in some cases, work that we have wanted to do our whole lives, and at the same time not short-change the people that we love?”
“Bringing the diversity of the arts and having women who are all not in
the New York art scene is a real strength of the film”
From this starting point, Boll found several more women: everything from a married mother of five in Ohio to a woman in her sixties who, after her divorce, picked-up and created a world of her own in Hawaii. “I would say bringing the diversity of the arts and having women who are all not in the New York art scene is a real strength of the film. To have women who come from different disciplines and different geographical locations and different economic situations. To show that you can be a suburban mom of five and still have fifteen shows a year,” Boll says.
Filming began in 2005, but between then and the time the film wrapped, one of the women Boll followed had gone through a divorce. “I had no idea when I first met performing artist Angela Williams that she was headed in that direction. We met her in June of 2005. In September she told us, ‘I don’t know. Thing just got harder.’ And, later that year, they got divorced.”
Williams’ divorce highlights the most glaring point of the film: women have to fight to the teeth to be respected for the desire to pursue artistic careers beyond their roles as mothers, often even with their own families. The expectation that the responsibilities of the home are the woman’s duty still very much prevails in the United States. Being a worker, and in the case of this film, an artist, is expected to come second. At the same time, men face pressure to be the primary breadwinners, and it is still not socially acceptable for men to be equally present in the domestic sphere. Recognizing that this compartmentalization is a bandit in the attempt to achieve balance, we wonder why the men in the women’s lives are mostly absent from the film, appearing only as fleeting phantoms.
“Almost anyone who is married with kids will tell you the same thing. You don’t expect it, you don’t anticipate it, you don’t prepare for it, but you really should.”
Boll admits that the virtual invisibility of the men in Who Does She Think She Is? is one of the film’s weaknesses: “If I would do it over, I would make the men talk more. About this whole issue. But it’s not like men are the bad people, and I don’t think my film conveys that. It’s that we are all up against the need to make a living. What happens in a marriage—not always, but often—is that you get two people who are very well-educated, very smart, very committed to having an equal partnership, but what happens when you have children is, somehow that the more traditional roles seem to creep up on you. My husband, if I had hammered him about it when we were younger, would have said ‘I don’t have a choice. You’re not making, you know, 80,000 dollars a year.’ And that made me feel even guiltier. Almost anyone who is married with kids will tell you the same thing. You don’t expect it, you don’t anticipate it, you don’t prepare for it, but you really should.”
One important fact that the film discusses is that women are generally not taken as seriously as men in the art world. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is that art created by women tends to be pigeonholed into a “female” category, whether the work deals with traditional “women’s issues” or not. “We still have shows that are segregated over there in the ‘feminist’ arena. Like, ‘Let’s have a show about women’s experience and we’ll put all the women over there,’ rather than thinking of the art that women bring as just a part of human experience,” Boll says. “I would rather see more integration of women’s work into the main stream.”
Let’s be honest: how many of you don’t get a knee-jerk reaction as soon as you hear the words “feminist” or “women’s issues?”
And the truth is, no matter how ridiculous it may sound, people are fundamentally less interested in female stories, unless they are about women as victims or if they’re in love. Let’s be honest: how many of you don’t get a knee-jerk reaction as soon as you hear the words “feminist” or “women’s issues?” We’re actually surprised you’ve read this far.
“In the general population in our country, it is men’s stories that capture our interest. I read something recently that in the film world you have four categories: young, old, male, female. All of those categories will watch a man’s story. But only half of those categories will watch a movie where a woman is at the center of the story. It is the way it is,” Boll says wistfully.
The general disinterest in female stories is, Boll believes, a large contributing factor to why Who Does She Think She Is? is having such a difficult time making into the festival circuit, especially when compared with her previous film, Born Into Brothels, which won twenty-seven festivals worldwide, as well as snagged the coveted Oscar. “I think the fact is that our film’s reception, or its lack of reception in the film world, is due to the very issue that the film is exploring. The disinterest in women’s experience.”
What do you want people to walk away with from this film?
“I would say that, the work of caring for the next generation, we consider it very important but we actually don’t do anything to make it easy for families- in this country at least. We don’t have any childcare policies that work for working parents. There is no daycare. There are very few allowances. There is no parental leave. It is incredible to be out in the world talking with people about these issues that really affect all of us. I hope that it will raise a consciousness that these are issues that have not gone away, that we haven’t really solved. And that they still need to be looked at and discussed and hopefully someone will come up with some policy changes that we can really use.
“I would like people to walk away with the idea that the work of a mother is awesome: it is awesomely huge, it is awesomely important, it is awesomely valuable. Without it we would all die. And these women who do it, do it with very little expectation of recognition. Certainly they don’t expect to be paid. And if we don’t help women, or families really, so that women are not the only ones doing this, we will not hear what those experiences are. Women are too tired. To do the caring for the kids, caring for the house, caring for their paying job and to do the art.
“And think about it: If we had a world where there were no images, no music, no transformation of our space through sculpture, what would our world be like? It would be pretty empty. And yet, we don’t really value the arts in that we only pay a certain very small segment of the artist population to the degree to which it needs to be paid. So I hope that this movie gets people thinking about that as well.”
The importance of art for society is often difficult to articulate without getting impossibly esoteric, but Boll conveys it simply and convincingly. She made a movie about artists, “Because they are visionaries. Because they tell you how to live.”
Where are the men in this insupportable equation?
Boll herself is a visionary. Her film acts as a beautiful, compelling and ultimately powerful voice to young generations, telling them that it is time to reassess what we consider valuable. But there is still an elephant in the room that Boll and her film do not address: where are the men in this insupportable equation? We recognize that earning a living is necessary, and often difficult. But why is it that Boll is saddled with guilt when she leaves her children to pursue creative work and her husband can leave for days on end for business and feel nothing but a sadness over missing out—never guilt? Because society attributes the responsibility of caregiving to women. And women in turn reinforce this role, thereby putting themselves in the corner.
And so, perhaps the most valuable lesson Who Does She Think She Is? can give to younger generations is that it is time to also re-assess how we delegate responsibility. Let’s stop talking about motherhood and begin talking about parenthood. Just as the general disinterest in female stories prevents Who Does She Think She Is? from success on the festival circuit, so does the pigeonholing of caregiving into female experience ensure that the guilt and double-duty will continue to be a women’s alone. Not until caregiving is brought into the sphere of male experience will society truly begin to care.
To learn more about the film, visit the website.
Photos by C. Lewis Studio
This interview was originally published by The Lattice Group.
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