I spoke with Dawn Valadez, Co-director with Kristy Guevara-Flanagan of the film Going on 13, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival. Going on 13 explores the lives of four girls over the course of four years as they become teenagers. Click here to learn more about Going on 13 and to view clips of the movie.
JB: How long a process was it to identify which girls you planned to focus on?
DV: We decided first to find the schools and classrooms that were supportive of the concept behind the film and would allow us in with cameras. Then we just hung out and got to know the students of the two classrooms we were in. Right away, certain girls stood out to us, but it was probably four months before we could confirm with their families (and the girls themselves) that they wanted to be in a film where they were followed for four years!
JB: Now that some time has passed, how do the girls react to seeing themselves? Do any one of them have an interest in filmmaking?
DV: We had originally decided to give the girls cameras so they could document their lives to include in the final film. In general, the girls were not interested in this (with a few exceptions that appear in the final film). However, they were interested in the process. For one year, we worked with the girls in an after-school club and developed unique projects with each of them. These short films were presented in a gallery installation project called, Four Girls, Four Corners, Four Rooms. Pictures from this installation can be seen on our Web site. The films covered a range of topics and styles from stop motion animation on girls and bullying to documentary journalist style on middle schoolers and the war in Iraq. The films and installation were a great way to celebrate the girls and their commitment to the film and project.
When we were finishing the editing, we invited the girls to watch the film with us but without their families. At first, all of the girls expressed a bit of anxiety and some embarrassment about the content and their lives. With a few exceptions however, the girls appreciated the film overall and were okay with us moving forward. The girls were a bit concerned about their parents watching the film. Isha and Esme were concerned they’d get in trouble, again, for things they said and did (had boyfriends, went on the Internet, etc ...). Again overall, the parents were very happy with the film and the portrayal of their daughters and their lives. The self-reflection involved was profound. The discussions we had with the girls and their families now that they had some distance from the time period was interesting. They recognized the struggles they had and the need to continue communicating with each other.
I do not believe any of the girls want to be filmmakers. They realize how much work it is! Isha wants to perform on stage and Ariana has taken public speaking classes at the local community college. I believe they all realize the importance of clear communication. Perhaps that is a result of the film. They are all excited about participating in the film festivals and talking about the experience of making the film.
JB: Other than the financial (an issue for most doc makers), what was your greatest challenge in making this film?
DV: The biggest challenge was in the editing process. We had hundreds of hours of footage! It was important to us that the story be told from the girls’ point of view, so that rules out a narrator. How could we focus on the details of four different lives in one film, without losing the narrative thread each time we switched characters? There were a million different variations and even though we knew the scenes we wanted to include, whittling that down and finding the right order was a difficult and time-consuming process.
Another huge challenge was staying true to the documentary form while at the same time holding true to our social justice, ethical, and moral responsibilities. The girls and their families faced many struggles and the school system was often difficult to deal with. There were times when Kristy had to hold me back from wanting to intervene on a minor incident so that we could get the shot. We had many discussions about when we absolutely had to step in and help out and when we needed to be “filmmakers.” The balance between the two was delicate. I think that Kristy and I were a great balance to each other. We ultimately were true to our feminist/womanist beliefs that the personal is political and that we are all connected, and thus accountable to each other—that no story is truly “objective.” We worked hard at being true to our vision and creating a story that was girl-centered, from their point of view.
JB: What’s your next project? Do you and Kristy plan to collaborate again?
DV: Kristy and I have many ideas for projects that are both collaborative with each other and projects on our own or with other filmmakers. Kristy has been working on a four-part experimental project with Laura Purdy and I have started to co-produce Corey Ohama’s (our editor) next film. We have a few ideas that we’d like to work on together and we’d like our film company, Vaquera Films, to be home to our collaborative work. I doubt that we’ll do something that has as long of a production schedule again! We have been encouraged to film the girls as they become adults (Going on 21?) and my son has really been pressuring me to do something about boys! Sons of Feminist Moms (Son of a Witch? I’m kinda into WICKED right now!) or something like that! Wse’ll see.