Interview with filmmaker Roberta Cantow

Roberta Cantow is a longtime filmmaker with a body of work that includes: Accordions Rising (2015); Not a Still Life (2013); Bloodtime Moontime Dreamtime: Women Bringing Forth Change (a Trilogy) and Clotheslines, 1982, Emmy Award winning 30-minute documentary. We have conducted an interview with her.

How did you develop this style of filmmaking? How did you make your films personal and also poetic? What do you incorporate into your films/scripts?

The first film that I "fell in love with" was Fellini's La Strada, different in so many ways than any film I had seen before. Even though it is considered to be in the category of 'neo-realist,' it is intensely poetic visually, even in terms of the characters who take on mythic proportions. I found that I was drawn to European cinema in general, the anti-thesis of Hollywood at the time. So the development of my "poetic" style was the product of all that interested me at the time including travel, a year in Paris (a city I characterize as poetic) and all my other interests as well (art, theatre, music). It is never just one thing. I Iike it when images stand in for thoughts or ideas or when landscapes evoke moods that have no other way of being expressed. What I think I incorporate into my films is my own way of seeing. Getting to the point of being able to trust that is always a long time in the making. - As for the reference to "personal," some of my films are personal in the sense that they probe and render intimate responses from viewers, rather than being personally about me. Clotheslines is the most lyrical and poetic of all the films.

Which is your favorite character in 'Clotheslines', the Emmy Award-winning documentary?

We come to know the characters in 'Clotheslines' via the tapestry of women's voices that make up the soundtrack, along with music and sound effect. These voices are the essential storytelling element. The images of the women themselves are never connected (visually) to the voices but through the repetition of the various voices, with mounting intensity, we come to know the different women. One, in particular, was very expressive and the things that she says, she says emphatically, with a rhythm and intonation in her voice that is unmistakable. Some of her spoken (totally unscripted lines) include: "I hated laundry with a passion you cannot imagine. It was the bone in my throat. Everyday there was a new pile. And it was the worst part of married life. Period." Another example near the end of the film, " It was so many years ago, and you know, I could still weep over it." She is my favorite character.

What inspires you to make the Trilogy film, "Bloodtime Moontime Dreamtime: Women Bringing Forth Change"?

When I came to California from New York City, in addition to experiencing culture shock, I was introduced to some new ideas that intrigued me. They now all fall into the rubric of the "sacred feminine." The actual genesis of the trilogy was learning about "the blood mysteries" and the idea that girls should be celebrated when they enter puberty, that menstruation is not a shameful thing. It is even considered to be an opportunity for spiritual development and insight. Over time, I found myself intrigued with the entire landscape of thinking involving women, the women's spirituality movement feminism, eco-feminism, the Goddess Movement and the notion of the Triple Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone. The trilogy explores all these as it examines the taboo in our culture about menstruation and the mixed messages we receive in media about blood. (to love it or hate it).

How long did you take to make 'Accordions Rising'? What is the most challenging aspect of making this film?

From the time I started shooting until completion, it took a total of 6 years (although I was also completing another film during this time period). This film was especially challenging to make for many reasons: I was not extremely knowledgeable about music in general or accordions in particular; I knew that I would need to get permissions and licenses and need to become familiar with fair use doctrines in documentary. In addition, the participants were spread out across the country which meant a lot of travel, and I made the entire film without a film crew. In short, everything about making the film was challenging including everything I continued to learn about the subject even after the film was done. The premise of the film was that the accordion is way more than the negative impression many people have about it. I worked to emphasize all that was new, exciting and different in the way that musicians and composers were making music with the instrument. I could not have predicted that the "accordion world" would be the primary audience and that many of them, not all, would want to see more of what was familiar to them: polkas, traditional ethnic music, accordion orchestras, classical accordion, etc, all of which were excluded from Accordions Rising. Although many in the accordion world have appreciated the film, my sights are set on widening the net. Those who are less familiar find the film to be a great big surprise.

Why did you choose the premise in the film?

The premise in Accordions Rising, in general, is that people believe that the accordion has fallen out of favor. A mere mention of the word, "accordion" often causes folks to roll their eyes because they consider it corny and old fashioned or the instrument of yesteryear. When I discovered that they were wrong, I intended to set the record straight.

Who/what is the focus? Why did you make it?

I was drawn to all the ways that the accordion is thriving in the culture whether in theatrical performance, performance art, or music. Accordions Rising depicts musicians who are creating off the beaten path: those interested in new music, experimental music, the visual of an illuminated accordion accompanied by a soprano and operatic voice; rock/pop bands with a harder edge, an edgy songwriter, etc. I made the film to say that there is so much more to the instrument than what people think and that the instrument is much more versatile than what is commonly known. At one point I referred to the film as demonstrating how "accordions R us." I meant to say that the many styles of playing and types of music that it is possible to play on the instrument reflect all of the diversity that is the current landscape of the U.S.

What would you like to say about your film, Not a Still Life?

The main thing I would like to say is that there are people who "get it," understand my intention and can integrate, appreciate and accept the fact the character depicted, (again, a documentary) is complex, with many shades of gray, not all good or all bad. In that sense, he and his story reflect the complexity of human identity. While it is a character study, it is also a probing portrait. It refers to gay social history at the same time that it is one man's story of love and loss. The subject is ebullient and entertaining but also frustrated with his circumstances and deeply sad for the loss of his partner to AIDS. He is in a predicament, but in one way or another, aren't we all? For Purchase and Streaming Options

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