Ursula Macfarlane is a UK-based filmmaker whose candid documentaries have gained multiple wins and nominations for the BAFTA, Grierson and Royal Television Society Awards—including One Deadly Weekend in America, a feature documentary tracking gun violence over one July weekend; Captive, for Netflix, Charlie Hebdo: Three Days That Shook Paris; and Breaking Up With The Joneses, a feature documentary about a couple going through a divorce.
Macfarlane’s latest is a documentary that rewinds the clock on the #MeToo movement’s viral explosion—exposing the institutions and individuals who enabled Harvey Weinstein’s career of sexual misconduct, and mapping its impact on women’s lives.
Untouchable: The Inside Story of the Harvey Weinstein Scandal, now streaming on Hulu, weaves the harrowing stories of Weinstein’s victims into a larger narrative about corruption, misogyny and the women who toppled one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Macfarlane talked to Ms. about what it took to tell this urgent story—and what she learned as a filmmaker and a feminist in the process.
Where does Untouchable begin? Where does the process of making this film start, and how did it take shape from there?
As soon as the Weinstein expose appeared in the New York Times and New Yorker, it ignited a conversation between me and my friends. Not a single one of us hadn’t experienced a #MeToo encounter, some more traumatic than others. So the story felt very personal to me, and as the avalanche of accusations continued, it felt to me that this was a story of our times that had to be documented. So when producer Simon Chinn—Searching For Sugar Man, Man On Wire–called me to ask if I would collaborate with him on a feature documentary, I immediately said yes. How could I not?
It felt like such a privilege to be able to tell the story, which was still in its infancy, the ending not yet written. Was it a watershed marking huge cultural change? A reckoning? What was the extent of the collateral damage wrought on women by these allegations? How did he get away with it for so long? And what was the culture of complicity that allowed him to hide in plain sight for so many decades?
We wanted to make a timeless, universal film, widely viewed even by people who don’t know or particularly care who Harvey Weinstein is, but who care deeply about the prevalence of abuse in our culture. So we decided to put the accusations of abuse in the context of a man’s rise to power, his fatal flaw and his spectacular fall—almost like a Greek tragedy.
In the end, this is a film about the abuse of power, a story as old as time, abuse which reverberates through all cultures, industries and communities.
After the high-profile accusations against Weinstein came to light, the firestorm that followed was chased by a widespread call for an inclusive fight—for a culture that values all survivors, and that refuses to privilege famous or notable survivors over other victims.
This documentary was lauded for giving equitable screen time to some of Weinstein’s most prominent accusers, as well as some of the lesser-known women who have come forward. Why did that decision matter for you as a filmmaker, and what other intentions did you bring to this process as a storyteller?
It was very important to us to tell a wide of stories which demonstrated Weinstein’s modus operandi amongst both the famous and the unknown. We were thrilled when Rosanna Arquette and Paz De La Huerta agreed to take part, but we treated their interviews and stories in exactly the same way as the other women’s. That is to say, spending time before the interviews to gain their trust, and giving them plenty of time to recount their experiences. We wove the stories together in such a way that, I hope, the audience doesn’t really notice who’s telling the story—it’s the content of the story that matters. Clearly, all the women have subtly different experiences throughout the decades, but a pattern emerges which binds them all together.
The accusations against Weinstein, and the sheer volume of how many there were, cracked something open—not just in Hollywood, but across sectors and around the world. The #MeToo movement’s viral explosion that followed the New York Times exposé on Weinstein has launched a renewed fight against rape culture. What did examining the “conspiracy” of Harvey Weinstein show you about what it will take for us to win that fight?
I feel that rape and sexual violence is so embedded in our culture that it will take much more than the expose of a Weinstein to begin the process of stamping it out. We know that the percentage of convictions for rape and sexual assault is very low. The complicity of the Hollywood community, which allowed Weinstein to act with impunity, is echoed throughout our culture: look at the Catholic Church, sports and many other industries. So until we can start to call out and dismantle complicity, predators will continue to stalk their victims. Speaking out is the first step, but it will take a long time.
You’re an accomplished documentary filmmaker, and you’ve watched the reverberations that storytelling can have unfold. What impact do you hope this film has—on viewers, on the culture-at-large, for survivors—now that it’s widely available?
My hope is that everyone watching this film is inspired to speak out—either about their own trauma, or on behalf of other survivors. Speaking out, being listened to and most importantly, being believed, is the first step to outing predators and making them pariahs. I know that people watching the film are very moved, if not devastated, by the testimonies, and I hope that will act as a call to arms.
Watch it, be shocked, but also be inspired by their courage. And adopt their bravery into our own lives.
For you personally, what was the impact of making Untouchable? Was there a shift for you—as a filmmaker, as a feminist—that came from directing the doc?
I was humbled every time I sat in that chair and interviewed a new survivor. To be honest, I and other crew members were often brought to tears, hearing about what the women had suffered. One of the press reviews in the UK described the film as “quietly furious,” and I think that’s a good appraisal. I’m not a particularly loud person, and my films convey their ideas and emotions in a subtle way, but this has taught me the power of personally speaking out, loud and clear.
It’s been 50 years this June since three days of rioting outside of New York City’s Stonewall Inn launched the modern LGBTQ rights movement—and 35 since documentary director Greta Schiller uncovered the histories of queer and trans Americans in the decades prior.
“When we set out to make this film,” Schiller has said, “I had no inkling of the meaning it would have around the world.” Indeed, she likely couldn’t have predicted what would come next: funding and support from PBS, which meant broadcasting the film nationwide into the living rooms of everyday Americans, and even an Emmy award. But Schiller’s acclaim has only grown in the years since Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community came out.
After co-founding production company Jezebel Productions, Schiller produced a slate of notable documentaries, including the Teddy Award-winning The Man Who Drove With Mandela and Paris Was a Woman, which was broadcast around the world. She was awarded the City College of New York Townsend Harris Medal for Outstanding Contributions to her Field and a Rachel Carson Fellowship, was the first person to receive a UK/US Fulbright Arts Fellowship in Film and is currently producing a new documentary series as part of her Global Fulbright Award.
First Run Features is now re-releasing Before Stonewall—narrated by author Rita Mae Brown and featuring interviews with activists including Audre Lorde and Barbara Gittings—to mark the current historic moment. But the personal and profound stories of LGBT Americans that populate Schiller’s Emmy award-winning film remain timeless, and so does its urgent reminder of the personal and political battles facing the LGBTQ community.
In advance of the film’s theatrical re-release in New York City on June 21 and Los Angeles on June 28, Schiller opened up to Ms. about what happened before Before Stonewall—and what lessons she has carried with her since.
I always begin with an inception story. Tell us how this movie came to be—why did you decide to make it, and what did it take to make it happen?
The project began when Robert Rosenberg, who became the co-director, approached me with the idea to make a film based on the unpublished work of historian John D’Emilio—which chronicled the early, pre-Stonewall, homophile movement. Early funding came from the New York Council on the Humanities and the NY State Council on the Arts.
It became clear pretty quickly that I needed to expand the original concept to trace the formation of the mostly hidden lesbian and gay subculture across the country, not just the few homophile organizations. I decided to tell this story chronologically, decade by decade—from the turn of the century when homosexuality began to be seen as a distinctive identity, rather than simply a sex act, up to the Stonewall Riots, when marginalized gay and lesbian youth fought back against police raids and the modern LGBT movement was born.
But as the lives of homosexuals pre-Stonewall had been so marginalized, we had a big problem: How could we tell this tale in a visual and engaging way? Even when gay life spilled onto the streets of Greenwich Village—over 5 nights, hundreds of people protested—the news media gave very little coverage to the riots, and there was almost no visual documentation of gay life before then.
Rosenberg, Research Director Andrea Weiss and I were on the project from its inception. Executive Producer John Scagliotti was brought on by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; he was a condition of our funding. Yet they did not give full funding, and in order to match their award, we all worked organizing benefits across the country.
As this was the first GLBT history feature film, we had tremendous support from the burgeoning gay and lesbian community. By drawing attention to the project, these events also helped us locate potential interviewees. Andrea organized research teams to find people who may be willing to share their personal scrapbooks. This was the first time anyone saw their personal artifacts as history. It was difficult to convince many of them that their photos, home movies and love letters were in fact worthy of being considered historical. Today, in our age of instant celebrity, people think even their pets are worthy of such.
I was inspired by UNION MAIDS, a film by Julia Reichart and Jim Klein—the first filmmakers who used oral history as history in film. The weaving of personal eyewitness testimony into the historical narrative provided a way for me to begin thinking about how to approach my task. At her retrospective screening last week at MOMA, I saw one parallel I had not seen on first viewing, and that was that communists were also closeted. Even union leaders kept their party membership secret from the public, despite the fact that their entire lives—work, love, family, play—all revolved around party membership.
We were what would now be called “artisanal” or “boutique”—most of us were doing our jobs for the first time. The sound woman J.T. Tagaki’s first sound job was interviewing Allen Ginsberg! I would film the stills on a 16mm camera while at people’s homes. I drove to Virginia with a sound recordist and had Rita Mae Brown read the narration in her living room. We carried 16mm prints to festivals to save on shipping.
It reminds me of this comment of yours—it struck me. “I was a young woman director in the early 1980’s, setting out to tell the ‘History 101’ version of a people systematically ignored and erased from the historical record,” you said. “Perhaps if I had been older, I would not have taken on the task with such naïve zeal.”
But this film ended up having an outsized impact: being the first movie on LGBTQ lives shown on public television, and winning awards for how it shaped our cultural narratives and understandings around gay life.How did that zeal shape your process, and what did it teach you as a filmmaker? What from this process have you carried into your other work?
Today I spend a fair amount of time mentoring young filmmakers. Not all of them are women or gay, but they are talented and marginalized by the media landscape. I had no real mentors; there were literally five or six women and maybe two lesbians who had made feature documentaries. Emile d’Antonio looked at some edits and gave me valuable feedback. Filmmaker Artie Bressan was super supportive, and film historian and activist Vito Russo was a good friend and invaluable guide to GLBT representations in cinema.
I grew up at a time when we actually believed we may make a revolution in this country: when women would be equal to men; when workers were paid a living wage; where health care would be universal. My friends were gay, straight, black and white, and I believe this is what gave me that zeal. My co-producers gave feedback, but Andrea Weiss was the most crucial support and critic, and she can be seriously critical in the most demanding way. When I faced obstacles from within the production team itself, she helped me maintain my zeal.
Trusting myself, the importance of holding close my vision for a film’s narrative, listening to collaborators while being confident in my directing, was a process I learned on the making of my first feature documentary. I also learned that when a film is successful, then those who had doubts and drifted from supporting my efforts come back with a roar to stake their claim—so I learned to take much stronger legal protections. When we began this process of making the film, I thought lawyers were only for when problems arise; now I know they can prevent problems down the road.
It was also a time of collectivism, so some people were given roles beyond their capacity, while others were not given the credit they deserved. My sister Tina Schiller was our San Francisco Production Manager—she organized a benefit screening of an Andy Warhol film, Edie, at the legendary Castro Cinema, and has been amazingly supportive throughout my life and career. Today, I choose my collaborators with much greater care! Making an independent film can be either a dysfunctional family unit or functional one. Coming from a dysfunctional family, I had no idea back then that there was another way. After much work on healing that original family, and having good relationships with my extended families, and being married for 35 years—legally married for one—and raising a daughter and making 15-plus films, I can look back and see that it is a sort of miracle that we pulled the film off at all!
As a director, the film gave me enormous confidence to bring stories hidden from history into the cultural zeitgeist in a way that respected my subjects. To be trusted by African American women, some of them lesbians, was and is a great honor. To collaborate in a deep, productive way with researchers, producers, writers—all of this I learned and grew better at over the years.
I have maintained friendships and in many cases professional relationships with virtually everyone who helped bring Before Stonewall to fruition. My lifelong creative partnership with Andrea began on Before Stonewall. I learned from Before Stonewall that a film has many filmmakers, but one Director, except in very exceptional cases. I co-directed The International Sweethearts of Rhythm with Andrea, but after that we each developed projects as Director, producing one another’s films through our production company. I believe we are the longest-running women’s film production company, at least in the U.S.
My sense of irony, use of music, intimate interview style, writing those who had been written out back into the historical narrative, looking at newsreels and other dominant media through a different lens, reading the subtext, drawing out a narrative that gives a fresh look at history— from the South African liberation struggle to women artists in Paris between the world wars to many other films set in other eras and cultures—this all grew from my first feature documentary. Today I am finishing a film about humans and our relationship to the earth, about ecological restoration—and even in this film, respecting the people, animals, landscapes, wanting to tell their story, comes from the same place.
What do you hope comes of the film’s re-release?
My goals are the same: to bring the story of the making of the LGBT community from a scattered, closeted people into full members of society and do it in a way that engages everyone. Gay, straight, young, old—I hope that everyone enjoys the film.
Even though the LGBTQ movement itself has evolved so much in the last 50 years, and especially since many of the moments in history you touch on that go even further back, so much in this film still resonates—the schisms within the LGBTQ community, for one, and the challenges people at the intersections face in making themselves heard—and we’re still setting records straight, even about Stonewall. What lessons from our history do you think are most critical to remember in this current moment?
One of the most important lessons is to embrace diversity.
I would like to note that we did not really want bi people in the movement back then—we considered them to be confused! Trans rights were not a political issue yet. I fought with my co-producers about opening the film with drag queens, which they saw as too controversial.
I have always adored a good drag butch or queen; the early homophile movements tried to silence drag queens. Butch women, working class lesbians and gay men and people of color were largely absent from pre-Stonewall organizations. One of our regrets is that when researcher Andrea met Marsha P. Johnson at her home in New Jersey, we did not then interview her.
What fights ahead do you feel are most pivotal?
I anticipate fights around the right to adopt or to marry—these are victories that can be reversed. Violence and homelessness, sexual abuse and suicide among GLBT youth are great concerns. A far-right religious group, Project Blitz, has begun a campaign to discriminate under the auspices of religious freedom—they want to pass bills banning government entities from penalizing people or businesses who’ve donated to or are affiliated with a religious organization, even if those groups are known to have discriminatory practices, and they have already made inroads in the Texas legislature, but for the first time an LGBT caucus exists in the Texas legislature and they have fought to keep and expand protections. Voting really matters, who sits in government matters. The bans on trans people in the military and elsewhere is the easiest and first attack.
History is not linear. While societal attitudes have shifted enormously, there will always be homophobia, and we need to stay vigilant. So much depends on where you live, if the family you grew up in accepts you, if you can get a job. Social service agencies need to provide services for the marginal members of our community.
I’m fascinated, as a queer woman myself, with the urgency and importance we have toward and reverence we owe our elders—and the relationships we have to them. So often, we don’t know who they are. Too often, we never have the chance to witness them. This film introduces us to them. How do you think LGBTQ activists and allies today can best honor them?
I think respect for seniors is a problem everywhere. Cross-generational interaction is nearly non-existent. People push past older people on sidewalks, trains, buses—and many of them are no doubt members of the GLBT community. SAGE hosts intergenerational dinners and events designed to encourage more exchange of ideas and perspectives.
It is very hard for a young person to imagine anything outside of their own experience as valuable, impossible to imagine that simply loving someone of the same sex until the 1970’s was a brave act, punishable under the law of the land in counties ways. I hope seeing my film will help with this, at least a little.
Diane Paulus has led a storied life in the arts with a distinctly feminist twist: In 2012, she became the third-ever woman to win a Tony award for Best Direction of a Musical for her gender-swapped production of Pippin; in 2015, she worked with the first-ever all-female creative team behind a musical to bring Waitress to life on stage.
Her latest project, however, is far less fictional—and much more movement-oriented.
This season, Paulus directed “Gloria: A Life,” bringing the story of one of the modern women’s movement’s most famous faces to the Daryl Roth Theatre and issuing a nightly call-to-arms in the process. Each performance follows Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem, played by Christine Lahti, as she walks, quite literally, through her own life; along the way, it provides a pathway to understanding and empowerment for viewers rooted in a corrected version of feminist history that is more diverse and inclusive than any most of us have seen before.
The play’s unusual format—there is no intermission, and the second act is an open conversation between the cast, crew and audience about the issues that matter most to them—is distinctly Gloria. But the engaging performances that fill the black-box theater have Paulus’ name all over them.
Paulus spoke to Ms. about what drew her to the project—and how it challenged and changed her.
I always start with an inception story: You have had a legendary directing career. How did you become a part of this particular play—and, by extension, Gloria’s story? What drew you to this project?
Daryl Roth, our producer, reached out to me about this project initially—and it was a no-brainer for me to get involved. I’m drawn to projects that I know will expand my mind and my soul. The chance to immerse myself in this project and deepen my understanding of Gloria’s life and work has been completely life-altering.
This is such a rich and uniquely interactive theater experience. How did this play upend the typical model of directing for theater? How did you begin to approach the task of telling Gloria’s story and calling the audience to arms in the process?
The whole point of telling Gloria’s story in Act I is to transform the audience and get them to a place where they are ready to share their own stories in Act II. We created an installation in the set design that was all about the audience sitting in an actual circle, so the physical space evokes the Act II talking circle. The audience is always present—there is no fourth wall; they are included and directly involved in the theatrical event.
What was it like watching this play come to life?
One of the most thrilling aspects of watching this play come to life was to experience the meaning this story had for our cast and creative team. The artists that collaborated on this play ranged vastly in age—from our youngest directing assistant, a recent high school graduate, to women in their fifities and sixties, all the way up to Gloria herself at 84. Throughout the process, everyone shared stories of their own lives, and in this way we learned about the history of the women’s movement up to the present moment through our own personal histories.
Watching Act II come to life has been similarly inspiring, hearing the audience share their own experiences about what resonated in the play for them. There have been so many emotional and galvanizing moments.
For so many, the play is a trip down memory lane. And for younger generations, it is an informative lesson of where we came from and what our mothers and grandmothers have been through.
This isn’t your first feminist feat, on stage or on screen. Such a major part of this play is the notion, I think, that Gloria’s story is, in some ways, part of our own stories—and that we have stories just as wild and wonderful to share with the world, and which we must begin to tell to one another. How do you think the feminist movement shaped your own life, and your work?
I went to an all-girls school growing up: The Brearley School in New York City. There was never any question that we could be whoever we wanted to be and say whatever we wanted to say. In high school, I marched for the ERA and I lobbied for Planned Parenthood in Albany. I actually wanted to go into politics—my goal was to become the mayor of New York. In the end, theater became the way for me to channel that impulse to bring people together and make change.
Now, having done this project, I have an even deeper understanding of how everything that I have been able to do in my life is thanks to the efforts of the women’s movement.
I am so grateful to have had the chance to see this play—I attended the night Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a Ms. Contributor, led the act two talking circle. It’s such an immersive and inspiring event. I’m so curious about the vision that guided everyone toward the shape it ultimately took. What impact were you hoping each performance would have on the audience? What impact has it had which made you most proud so far?
In the play, Gloria says “every social justice movement has started with people sitting in a circle—like this. We called it consciousness raising… It’s all about sharing what’s wrong and what to do about it.” I am most proud of the simple fact that we’ve created a space for people to sit in a circle and to recognize that their own stories have value. I know that audience members leave the theater newly energized and inspired to create their own talking circles.
Yes, absolutely. As the run winds down to a close this spring, I am confident a league of driven and bold women will emerge in its wake. Now, just for fun: If you could invite any five feminists—from contemporary times or ancient history, or anywhere in between—to see this play and then join you afterward for a talking circle, who would you save a seat for?
I would definitely want to include the figures in our play—Dorothy Pittman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller.