I was in Montreal a couple of years ago and, as is the case with me and film festivals, I’d gone back to my hotel room very late.

Shortly after I’d gone to sleep, the phone rang. Some woman with a shrill voice (or so it seemed to my throbbing head at the time) was asking me if I’d gotten her press kit. For some reason I didn’t hang up, and proceeded to have my first conversation with Gayle Ferraro. I don’t remember what she said, but even though the subject matter of her movie made my skin crawl, she convinced me to attend her screening. I’m glad she did. Not only was I impressed with the film (Anonymously Yours) and the story surrounding it, I was equally impressed with the filmmaker herself.

Many documentarians shy away from the kind of challenging subject matter that intrigues Gayle Ferraro. She’s the kind of moviemaker who tackles important topics regardless of the fact that she knows they’ll present a series of logistical nightmares that will test her resolve, her skill, and in some cases, her life. I still can’t figure out if she’s more intrigued by challenging subject matter or the challenge of capturing it on film, but I suppose to a lifelong rebel like her it’s a little of both. What I know for sure is that this driven, 40-something wisp of a woman thrives on accomplishing the seemingly impossible. She thrives on proving something to herself, much in the way a mountaineer thrives on bagging a particular peak. Except that would be kids’ stuff to Ferraro. Talk about needing to challenge oneself… the internal dialogue might have gone something like this:

Challenge #1: “I dare you to shoot your first feature film in… Bangladesh. And while you’re at it, make it about a complex economic situation. Oh, and be sure you can’t understand many of the subjects when they speak.” Done. (Sixteen Decisions came out in 2000 to much critical praise, screened at film festivals around the country, had its broadcast premiere on PBS and was sold to the Sundance Channel for release in 2004).

Challenge #2: “I dare you to disguise yourself as an obnoxious tourist, and sneak cameras and a small crew into Myamar (Burma), to shoot an exposé of the ‘illegal’ sex trade. While you’re at it, interview women who don’t speak English about the most emotionally raw subjects in the human experience, hide the finished tapes in your belongings and then smuggle them out past armed soldiers.” Done. (Anonymously Yours has played at prestigious festivals around the world, also to wide critical praise, also has an upcoming 2004 premiere on the Sundance Channel, and is playing at selected theaters nationally.)

Challenge #3: “I dare you to fly to the ancient city of Veranasi, India, where electricity is as scarce as hen’s teeth, and take a 16mm film crew to one of the most sacred places on earth to shoot death vigils and cremations where even still cameras are frowned upon. Oh, and make sure you get some good shots of politically incorrect things like dead bodies floating down the horribly fouled holy river close to where thousands of believers take their daily baths.” Done. Ganges: River to Heaven is now edited and making the festival rounds and media coverage.

Ferraro makes films which are serious, deep, and accomplished, if not always pleasant to watch. What they are, always, is fascinating. With a gentle but unflinching eye, she acts as silent tour guide on intimate journeys to the world’s most enigmatic cultures, where her mission is to shed light on the darkest of human mysteries.

Poverty, sex, and death. These were Ferraro’s first three subjects. So far, at least, she has left it to other moviemakers to document our ballplayers, our sports heroes, our “reality” culture. She’s too busy documenting our souls.

When she’s not overseas filming, Gayle Ferraro operates a gym in the Boston area. I spoke with her for this piece on November 30 at her small but very comfortable home in North Cambridge.

Gayle Ferraro directs Ganges: River to Heaven in Veranasi, India.

Tim Rhys, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Let’s start with your genesis as a filmmaker. I know you have a BA in Fine Arts from UMass and a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard— but this [filmmaking] isn’t what you wanted to do when you went to college, is it?

Gayle Ferraro (GF): Yes, it is, actually. It took me a while to get here, but… as a child I was in theater stock, and my dad wanted me to become an actress. After a number of years that seemed pretty boring. The parts I was able to get were either The Queen, or Winnie the Pooh… I just thought I’d much rather be the person with power—the director or producer. And I knew that by age 10 or 11. I also knew I was much more intrigued by true stories than made-up stories. Even though made-up stories are good, and entertaining, the true stuff that I have to unravel myself and decipher my own feelings about it, were far more valuable to me. Valuable in that they made me grow. I’m a more complete person from it.

MM: You never started out trying to write? Plays, fiction?

GF: Never. My grandfather was Italian and had connections to… the sort of things everybody seems mesmerized by on HBO these days. So I thought I didn’t need to go there. I lived with Tony Soprano on one hand, and then an hour later we’d see my mom’s mom, who was like the Queen of England. Put those two together… and I had a lot of work to do as a kid!

MM: It’s a little schizophrenic, isn’t it. That’s me, too. My mother’s side is Italian; my dad’s came over on the Mayflower.

GF: Get out! That must be why we connect so well. It’s like okay, which one are we today?

MM: (laughs) So… eventually you decided not to take the acting or filmmaking track in school.

GF: Well, in junior high and then in high school I kept with the theater a little bit, but I was just mostly busy sleeping
around and doing drugs. (laughs)

MM: Well, that was the era, I guess, right?

GF: Yeah, it was the thing to do! And it seemed like I’d learn a lot more from that than from these teachers who were boring the shit out of me. Oh, god, I can just see this interview now… Oh, please don’t print this!

MM: You know that tape recorder’s running.

GF: Alright, okay, I know. So, everyone was supposed to be experimenting with the sex and drug deal. And then I went to college and got pregnant right away. Immediately. And then it felt like I was really doing what I was supposed to be doing—having a kid. I was doing it on my own, but… And then I got derailed for four or five years. I was actually hospitalized for a while.

MM: You were going to school at this time?

GF: I was. I was going to UMass Boston, pursuing an art degree. I was studying filmmaking through the fine arts program, trying to write my own major. I knew that there were some deeper stories I wanted to tell. My life had already been a kaleidoscope. A total kaleidoscope, from my earliest days to living on the streets of New York City for a while. And there was no real outlet. And then I got very interested in politics. I was totally into Central America, and what Reagan was doing in El Salvador and Guatemala, Nicaragua. So I started going down there, and I went down every year for about six years. Spent time with the Sandanistas. I was shooting footage for some charities that they could use when they were trying to raise money for a school they ran.

MM: Still footage?

GF: I first started shooting Super8, actually. I edited it, shot video, tried to figure out what a goddamn story was. So I go down there and it’s like, there’s this parallel [in my own life]… which is theme to all my films now. And I’ve never articulated this before. But this parallel was poignant. Reagan thinks we have to oppress and bomb these people… and I didn’t understand it. Something didn’t feel right about the reasoning, and I wanted to learn what it was. On some level I think it felt like my parents wanted me to be somebody other than who I really am. And when I got there it’s this unbelievable poverty, unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard of or really thought existed. All these people wanted was to be able to feed their kids and send them to school. And we’re doing everything we know how to stop them! I didn’t get it. Just because they wanted to do it their way. So we kept installing leaders who were all about our interests, that would kill their people because they couldn’t have easy access to land to grow whatever they wanted. You know? It was this nutty thing.

MM: So tell me more about how this paralleled your own life. Your parents were very conservative, I take it.

GF: Well, my parents wanted to control my life and have it appear to be something which wasn’t really me. It had no relationship to who I am or what I feel. So I felt very disoriented because society and my parents were all telling me one thing and I was feeling a very different way. That was very tough on me. So I get through undergrad and I’m working at WGBH in Boston as a researcher, and I have an internship at the NBC affiliate. But even WGBH was a disappointment because the person I was working with—she already knew what she wanted to tell. My stuff never, ever made it.

MM: You needed to go on your own.

GF: That’s exactly what happened. It was like ‘I can’t take this.’ I needed to be on my own. I started working for my parents at their business (a gym) and continued to take off summers and go to Central America. After five years of doing that I realized that I wanted to open my own gym. And so I got a place in Cambridge, and within two years I was successful. This was happening in the mid-’90s, right at the same time that AVID, offline editing and digital cameras became good enough quality to broadcast and be blown up to the screen.

MM: So you threw yourself into filmmaking when the technology became more available.

GF: Precisely. I instantly jumped on it. Suddenly I realized I could buy a great digital camera for four grand and an edit system for 30 and I could start making films. Just like that.

MM: So… you were looking for a story. How did Sixteen Decisions come about?

GF: That was kind of interesting. I’ve always been interested to know how women are portrayed. I’d really like to know what the story is with women in other countries, particularly in developing countries. I’d really like to understand what their status is. Because I think that some of those issues give us insight into what holds us back as women in this country, as well. So I was mentioning this to a friend and she had just read that the Vanderbilt University Distinguished Alumni Award was going to Muhammad Yunus, who had started making these little loans of $20 and $60 to the poorest women in Bangladesh. And now 10 million women have gotten those loans and it’s changing that country. I was extremely impressed, and within a month I was there, meeting with them. And they took me all around, asked me what I wanted and I made my own decisions.

Death is big business in Veranasi. On an average day, more than 200 bodies are transported on litters to cremation centers—the “Burning Ghats.”

MM: I’m curious as to what point the story has to gel before you throw yourself into it. Do you go totally on gut from—

GF:—Day one. Okay, this is how it works. In all three cases with my films someone said something and I’ve been like really? Wow! I mean, real news to me.

MM: Something sparks your interest.

GF: Yeah. But in such a way that it… sets a tone in me on a deeper level, and suddenly I’m consumed with it. It’s almost that I try to talk myself out of it and then I realize it’s precisely what I want to work on, come hell or high water. You can talk to Laurie Gilbert, my DP from my last film. We’re shooting film in India, he’s trying to figure out stock ratios and which camera and which lenses and this goes on for a month. And we couldn’t even get insurance. And I’m just telling you about minor things. But I don’t care what it’s gonna take. I just take it a day at a time. It’s just so plain to me that I’m doing that project—there’s no other choice.

MM: You don’t pick easy subjects.

GF: I don’t, no. But a lot of the other stuff would bore me. There has to be some deep personal meaning that you have to find. You have to tap into that. Otherwise you can’t pull this off. And it’s very nice that I get to be so centered on stuff that is working for me. The prostitution one just hit me on a whole level of what a human being’s life is worth.

MM: Your first film was on that subject, too.

GF: You’re right, you’re right about that.

MM: So there is a thread of a theme to all your work.

GF: That’s it. What’s the value of your life?

MM: You never felt the pressure that you should be at a certain point in your career by a certain age?

GF: Nothing like that. My god, I never had any peers. And after I recovered from the nervous breakdown and the whole New York scene I felt like I got a second chance at life. And I appreciated it deeply. Because I felt like my whole childhood was missing in action. It was acting—they wanted me to be an actress, and everything was an act, for me. So my films are all about, on a deeper level, what are things worth to you. What do you want for your life. And if these poor Bangladeshi women can make it, what’s your excuse?

MM: So each interview you do, each project you make, you say helps you grow. Is it almost a process of self-analysis as you go from one project to another, learning about yourself as you learn about the world? I’m interested in what the connection is.

GF: Well, it’s much more complicated. I know what you’re saying. There’s four main stages. I’ve never put it this way before. There’s the pre-production, where it’s sort of like me realizing that I’m doing it—I let the gym know, let my parents know, talk about it with my therapist.

MM: That’s when it becomes real.

GF: That’s when it becomes real. That’s phase one. Some people call that pre-production. That’s me sort of signing off to the rest of the world. That’s me giving notice. Everybody knows—color her gone.

Phase two is when I actually get in the field. And it’s always harder than I thought it was gonna be. There’s always some surprise and I know I’m going down with it. I don’t care. What the hell, I’m gonna get what I can get. And Ganges scared me the worst because it was just so hard. Every time there’s a moment when I get there and I’m two or three days into it and things are tougher than I ever could’ve imagined and I just have to really go deep inside myself to pull it together and make it work. Phase two you’re with your crew, you’re just trying to get your footage and you’re trying to live there and experiencing something to add to the footage. Your interpretation of it.

Phase three comes when we go to edit. Editing is, for me, an all-consuming process. I live it with the editor. I had (New York-based editor) Keiko Deguchi on my last two films, and I’ve never seen anyone work like her. She just never comes up for air. She works as hard as I do, and that’s huge. I’d say this phase is the most consuming.

MM: I’m surprised that you categorize it as more consuming than production.

GF: Yes. More. Production is consuming on a different level. You’re there and you’re living. Edit mode is where you make a movie. You’ve only got these things to do it with. Every frame matters. I mean, we’re sweatin’ frames. Sometimes I didn’t get what I needed. Doesn’t matter if I asked for it or didn’t ask for it, whatever. The movie’s not gonna be any better than what we can pull off right here.

Phase four, the movie’s done and the rejection or acceptance starts and it takes on this whole other life. I’m finding out people’s reactions and I start reflecting on all of it and start understanding the broader context of why I was interested. And it’s like, who accepts it? Who rejects it? My god, that tells me stuff. Who goes to see it? What do they ask me? What are they afraid of asking me? All of those things. So there are these four learning phases. And right now I’m pretty screwed up because I’m in phase four of two films. With Anonymous I’m deep in it, and Ganges, just getting started with it. And I still get requests for Sixteen. And people are asking me “what’s your next one?” Don’t ask!

MM: You’re still getting requests for Sixteen Decisions? Documentaries really have a lifespan of their own, don’t they?

GF: —Oh my god, yes. Because look, with Sixteen Decisions, for instance. That’s not gonna go out of style. I mean, this is a model for people in the US. Why not lend money to poor women? We could pull so many women and their kids in the US out of poverty. It’s just such a basic problem, poverty. And Southeast Asia isn’t getting rid of prostitution any time soon.

Zuzu told her heartbreaking story in Anonymously Yours.

MM: I still think, and we talked about this the first time we met, that it’s unfortunate that you can’t take what learn and parlay that into something active and constructive. I mean, you can’t fix the world

GF: —I can’t.

MM: So it’s your job to shine a flashlight; it’s somebody else’s job to

GF: —I do try to connect with the right people. Like with the Boston International Film Festival—because of that, Women in Public Policy got involved and they sent out e-mails, and someone from the BBC picked up on the e-mail and BBC did their thing—and now the State Department is involved. The State Department on Trafficking just ordered a bunch of copies of it to use in their training. And the U.N. even wants to use the film for their discussions on human rights and trafficking.

MM: As a moviemaker, how do you trust yourself that you’re getting it right? In the editing, you have this overwhelming amount of material you’ve gathered. You have hours and days and weeks of material to go through. How do you have confidence in your vision that you’ve established for this project, out of all the other possible visions? Do you ever second guess yourself?

GF: No. Never.

MM: What gives you that confidence as a moviemaker?

GF: I would say it starts from day one, knowing that it’s my project, it’s got my name on it and I’m going there.

MM: What do you do at first with your editor? Do you watch it together? Do you dump a truckload of film on her?

GF: First we digitize it. Then, yeah, I dump the whole thing on her. But I first have it transcribed, with a translator. I go over every tape because I need to know everything that was said, in any language. And that’s a huge amount of work.

MM: Ever think of doing one in English?

GF: Keiko would love it!

MM: Okay, so tell me a little about the self- distribution aspect. I actually want to do a whole other article with you on self-distribution in a later issue, but let’s just touch on it today. You’re done with the film, it’s edited, you’re pretty happy with it, you’re sending it out to festivals as any other filmmaker would do. But you go one step further and you’ve got it booked at movie theaters. That’s huge.

GF: Yeah, it’s good. I’ve got it sold to Sundance, too. I’ve even made some international sales.

MM: A lot of moviemakers reading this are going to turn green because it’s one thing to make the movie, it’s another to edit the way you want it and then get it on the big screen.

GF: Yeah, it’s brutal. But it just comes from the fact that I did the work, I thought it was good enough, I thought it mattered enough and I wasn’t ready to let go. And I’m a really good marketing person.

MM: Did you just start calling theaters?

GF: Yeah. I did.

MM: Okay. Tune in next issue. How did the Sundance Channel happen?

GF: Yes. Cynthia Kane, who does all the documentary programming, thought my two films would make a great night. She said we should have a Gayle Ferraro double feature. They signed a contract saying they would screen it up to 40 times, and they apologized for that. I’m happy! In 18 months. I’m very happy about that. And they paid me well.

MM: What did they pay you?

GF: For Sixteen Decisions, which is not a premiere (it already had PBS), $10K, and for Anonymous, $23K. So I get a check for $33K.

MM: Nice.

GF: It’s good. It gets it out there, which is great. And meanwhile I’m getting it out there through the independent theaters. I’m
learning a lot.

MM: How do you see your career going? Do you see yourself going from project to project as you have been?

GF: You’re asking me the one big thing I keep asking myself right now. All I can say is, whatever I do next is going to be a big challenge. It would be sort of boring if I didn’t. I hope to have something else going by the spring.

MM: Think about North America.

GF: It’s nothing I can dictate. I do know I like to explore what I’m afraid of. Poverty, death, all those things. The thing
I find most interesting right now is the way the world does or does not work. It’s amazing to me, and I hope the next project takes me someplace else meaningful.

A Bangladeshi mother in 16 Decisions.

MM: I’m sure it will.

GF: I hope so. You know what? I do want to do a fun film next! But I gotta tell you. Moviemaking is not enough for me. It takes your creative soul, and if you don’t have some other things that you care about…

MM: You’re saying because it’s so all-encompassing?

GF: Creatively, moviemaking depletes everything. It’ll take me six months to recover.

MM: How old are you?

GF: I always said, at 27 I knew it was never gettin’ any better, so I stopped sayin’!

MM: Because I think it’s inspirational that someone a little bit older can get into moviemaking and be successful.

GF: Oh, Christ yeah. I had to hit 40 before I could do anything! I don’t really mind you asking, but people start thinking about you in a certain way. They do! I never want to know anyone’s age! People automatically close the door! If you’re not like 27 and able to be thought of as a genius kid or early 30s with three projects under your belt, you’ve “missed it.” And that is such bullshit! Because once you hit 35 it’s all a wash if you ask me. I just never go there. I’m much more about mental spaces.

MM: So you’re not even in your prime yet, as a moviemaker, are you?

GF: God, I hope not. I hope to do a lot of films, maybe 10 or 15 or 20… at my own pace, in my own way, and over a long span of time. How do you feel about it? Say you could do as many films as you wanted to? They’re such goddamn hard work.

MM: They’re so hard. I guess I just want to make something that I’m really proud of. You look back at the careers of great artists and you say if Sam Peckinpah had done nothing other than The Wild Bunch, or Woody Allen had done nothing other than Manhattan, or Martin Scorsese had done nothing other than Raging Bull… artistically speaking they could’ve died happy. Certain filmmakers, certain films… seminal moments in artistic careers. I haven’t gotten there, and maybe you haven’t gotten there yet. But we will! That’s the drug.

GF: I tell you what, though—and I’m happy about this—look back at the progression of my three films… I’m gettin’ kinda good!

MM: You are getting good!

GF: And that’s exciting. Because I can actually see it. And next time out I hope it’s going to be that much more.

MM: It will be. You know how to harness that energy and direct it, so to speak. That’s what it takes. Thanks, Gayle. MM

For more information on Gayle Ferraro’s films and screening schedules, go to: www.aerial-productions.com