Filmmaking | Interviews

Growing Up

1 Dec , 2004  

Written by Erin Trahan | Posted by:

Filmmaker Lorna Lowe Streeter reflects on how 'Shelter' her first documentary came to be and how asking and answering tough questions about a fractured mother-daughter relationship helped her transition into adulthood.

Two years ago Lorna Lowe Streeter premiered "Shelter," a raw, personal exploration of her family and its relationships. Shot between 1998 and 2002, "Shelter" follows Streeter as she searches for her biological mother, confronts conflicts within her adoptive family, especially her adoptive mother, and ultimately, asks and answers her own questions of identity and adulthood. "Shelter" garnered several festival runs and other notes of distinction, including "Best New Discovery" by the Boston Society of Film Critics in 2002. She has accompanied "Shelter" to individual screenings over the last two years and introduced the film at its theatrical release at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in 2003. "Shelter" screens again on Tuesday, December 7, as part of Women in Film & Video/New England’s "Chicks Make Flicks" series at MIT.

Erin Trahan: Is "Shelter" the film you set out to make? Or did it evolve as you were making it?

Lorna Lowe Streeter: I made "Shelter" mostly for myself. When I finished it I thought, "If just one person sees it I’ll be happy." Of course I felt differently after I submitted the film to a festival and it was rejected — so much for altruism! But I made it because I needed to understand certain things about myself and my family.

At first I wanted to tell a story about my two families — about how my great aunts were once members of a South End church founded by my biological great-grandfather. It turned out my aunts knew my birth family, but never knew I was the connection. They had all passed away by the time I found my biological family. Once I started filming, I started thinking more and more about my mothers and the story that was emerging. It got scary. Did I want to make this film? I realized that it was the story I needed to tell. It was the story that was really calling me, not the safe one.

Originally I thought about writing a book, then I wrote a screenplay — a dramatic piece. But I was living in LA and I thought "Oh my God!" it could end up being a really bad Lifetime Original Movie. So I thought about making it myself. I really felt like documentary would be the most powerful tool. You weren’t going to get who my parents were just hearing their words or by actors playing them. Seeing them as themselves on film was the only way.

ET: In addition to interviewing your mom and birth mom, you film yourself in "Shelter." Would you say it is more biography or autobiography?

Streeter: At times I refer to it as a bio-documentary. In some ways it is an autobiography but not a complete one. I am more multidimensional than this aspect of my life. At first, I was not really in the film — I felt more comfortable off-camera. But while making the film I thought that it was important for me to understand what I was asking my family to do, so I had to expose myself in the same way.

One criticism has been, "You just talk about your mothers. What about the men? What about your relationship with your brother, with your fathers?" If I had told that whole story you would be bored to tears. It would be 12 hours long. You’d hate it and you’d hate me. When we think about our self worth, who we are, whether or not we are loved, the litmus test of who were are as people, the first person we think about is our mother.

ET: I’d say that "Shelter" cracks open the assumptions about the mother-daughter bond that women think they’re supposed to have. How have those assumptions motivated you and how have they held you back?

Streeter: It motivated me in that I felt: I can’t be the only person who feels this way. I was so desperate to make sense of my own reality; I wanted to shed light on the illusion of mothers being up on a pedestal. You can’t touch them up there. You can’t talk about them, or criticize them, or you’re bad. We shortchange ourselves by having this point of view. Our silence perpetuates sickness, "What if I say something about my mother and she doesn’t love me anymore?" or "What if I am cut off from my family?" so we don’t say anything and swallow what needs to be said to change these patterns. But if you stand up to the lion you can stand up to anyone else in the world. What held me back was that I still had the real sense that this is a taboo subject and I don’t think I went as far as I should have. I did not ask my mother some of the really hard questions that I think would’ve taken the film even further.

ET: So, if someone else had made "Shelter" (about you and your family) how would it have been different?

Streeter: I think they would have made different choices. I made so many choices based on my knowledge of the characters. There’s a balance between making good TV and saying, "I want to be careful here, these are people I love and want to protect." When I watch it I see where I am protecting my brother, where I know what question will set my mother off to a point of no return. I deliberately didn’t ask certain questions.

ET: Did you ever ask those questions?

Streeter: Oh yeah, there were many conversations between my parents and me before and after the film. I felt like I got better answers after they had a chance to see it. But I didn’t make the film to change them; I made it to change me. There is a saying about continuing to go to the well when the well is dry. If I made the film to change them I would have missed my own healing; the point was for me to accept them for who they are and understand I had the power to make my own choices. If I expected them to change, I would have been setting myself up for an emotional fall.

ET: One big change has been the birth of your daughter Sophie. Has being a filmmaker influenced what you want most for your daughter?

Streeter: At every screening at least one person asks me if I have kids. My answer before Sophie was that I wanted to make "Shelter" before I had children and while my parents were alive. I became tired of hearing people say "I do [this or that] because of my mother." Part of this film was about choice: I can either hide behind this legacy excuse, or I can be honest and say that when these things happened to me, I did not feel good. I cannot have my mother’s mother’s mother leading my family, and just be a passenger. In a lot of ways, I grew up through the film. Having a daughter is amazing; I’m so completely in love with her that it is very difficult to understand the choices my mothers made.

ET: Your next project investigates men who batter. What was this project’s genesis? How’s it going?

Streeter: "Romeo" looks at domestic violence through the eyes of a man who works with batterers. I’ve been following a batterer’s counselor for the last year. He’s a father of four in his early 30s, trying to reconcile his own messages about relationships with women and masculinity. His mother believes it’s ok for women to be hit under certain circumstances and he’s trying to save his sister from an abusive relationship.

I think the domestic violence movement is really changing and while women have really paved the way, there are certain questions we need men to answer. I’d like to get men into a dialogue about the solutions for domestic violence. So I’m relying on men as resources on how to make a film to appeal to other men.

ET: What is your dream collaboration? Any filmmakers you wish you could work with?

Streeter: I would love to work with Lars von Trier. I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration for "Romeo" from "Dancer in the Dark." I also have dream mentors, like Albert Maysles. He and his brother became popular documentary filmmakers in the 1970s and 80s and their style is really about telling the personal story, they are very sensitive about it. And Barbara Kopple’s "Harlan County USA" — I like the truth-telling that comes through in her films.

I’m working on a screenplay now — a story about the people caught in the child welfare system. I want to continue to make films that help people talk about difficult things.

ET: You are screening "Shelter" as part of the "Chicks Make Flicks" series for Women in Film & Video/New England. In what ways do you hope to inspire or relate to other women filmmakers?

Streeter: Hopefully other women will continue to tell stories that may be hard to tell. Women often come up to me and say, "I’d love to make films but it seems so hard." I want them to know that film is accessible; it is not this thing that’s done someplace else by somebody else. By showing the film and showing up at the screenings to discuss process, I hope that other women will think film is accessible and possible.

ET: If you were interviewing a filmmaker, what question would you ask her?

Streeter: So, where did you get funding?

You, too, can ask questions of filmmakers by attending Women in Film & Video/New England’s "Chicks Make Flicks" series. Lorna Lowe Streeter is the next featured filmmaker. Come see her and "Shelter" on Tuesday, December 7th, at 7 pm at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The Stata Center, 32 Vassar Street, Cambridge, MA, in Screening Room 32-124.