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Uncle Barb's

I was told I had an over abundance of original sin.

-Susan Sarandon-


Interview: Heather MacDonald

Russian Street Corners and Other Stories
A Visit with Filmmaker Heather Lyn MacDonald

Last summer, gay friends and neighbors in southern Sullivan County got together for a progressive dinner that traveled from house to house. Appetizers were at the home of filmmaker Heather Lyn MacDonald. When Heather first moved to the area in 1993 such a dinner party wasn’t possible, but the gay population in Sullivan County is growing and coming out. When asked about her reasons for settling in the area, Heather answered with an artist’s primary sensibility, “I needed space.” Later, however, and with much more enthusiasm, she added “I love the river valley and the creeks. I love Callicoon and dear Hortonville. I love eating at Matthews and sitting on my porch over the creek. I love my grass, my perennial garden, my trees, my neighbors.”

The road to Sullivan County included stops in Lincoln Nebraska, Minneapolis, Toronto, Vancouver and New York City. For many years, Heather shot still photographs while pursuing an acting career. She is a member of Equity, SAG and AFTRA. As anyone who has worked in the theatre arts knows, it is a demanding career, so when Heather decided to become a documentary filmmaker, a friend teased “now there’s a more stable profession.”

The work of this documentary filmmaker is evidence of talent and time well spent. In 1995, a year after moving to Hortonville, Heather’s film Ballot Measure 9 received both the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as accolades from Los Angeles to Edinburgh. This documentary chronicles a malicious campaign in Oregon to prevent and revoke anti-discrimination laws which include protection based on sexual orientation. The film is still used by activists and educators to raise consciousness about the health of our democracy, and as a model for creating broad based civil rights campaigns. Ballot Measure 9 is as relevant today as it was eleven years ago.

“You can’t really plan a documentary, although you have to make it real to receive funding,” Heather told me. “You have to discover the storylines and the characters that will bring it to life, and then it is a process of elimination through editing.” In the case of a film like Ballot Measure 9, there were several storylines to follow. The ferocity of the attack on gays in Oregon could have been a film all on its own. In addition, while they were filming, there were initiatives taking place in other states, such as Amendment 2 in Colorado. Heather’s choice to have Ballet Measure 9 primarily focus on what worked in Oregon to defeat the hate legislation was an editorial decision that made this an effective and award winning film.

In the early years, she took film courses at the New School, NYU and the Global Village. A collaborative student film, Nuclear Navyport NYC was her first project. She followed this with a solo project, the short film, I AM, which was chosen for inclusion in a presentation of American Documentary films that toured the USSR in 1990. While on that tour, Heather crossed 8 time zones and met many people who were literally starving during the turbulent times of Perestroika. This inspired her film Kitchen Talk USSR about the families she met there.

Documentary films in the USSR at this time were experimental and subversive, yet the intelligentsia still considered “being gay” something to cure. Being gay (or in the vernacular of that time and place, “blue”) in the USSR was actually illegal, so when Heather set out to meet gays she had to get creative. Heather and another out American filmmaker had been interviewed by a Russian journalist and the subsequent article about the gay American filmmakers was quite controversial. Heather decided to ask her journalist friends to help her to meet gays by creating a phone tree, but even that felt too risky for the Russians. So how did she meet gays in the Soviet Union? “I wrote “Gay American journalist wants to talk about GAY life in Kiev” in Russian on the back of my business card and passed them out on the street.” Her gaydar must have been working, because 6 men and 3 women appeared in her film that was shown on PBS, Kiev Blue.

The advent of new, less expensive digital equipment to make movies has opened the doors for aspiring filmmakers. When I asked Heather about these opportunities, she told me the story of how just before she was going to Russia new, lighter equipment was introduced that allowed a slight woman like herself to travel with a broadcast quality camera. So, of course, the availability of technology is the first step in making a film, but she advised that it takes much more. “It takes more than ideas, a filmmaker needs to acquire technical knowledge. Don’t waste your subject’s time and goodwill if you can’t produce a quality film.” In describing her own use of digital equipment, Heather laughed and said, “the best thing about it is that I can edit at home in my pajamas.”

Heather Lyn MacDonald’s latest accomplishment is the soulful documentary Been Rich All My Life. When asked why she chose to make this film, Heather answered, “because I love old people and I love tap dance.” That compassion shows in the film. In 1985, five former showgirls along with their friend and manager formed the Silver Belles. The five dancers met in the 1930s while on stage in Harlem’s show palaces. They performed with the likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and a young Ella Fitzgerald at the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater. Now octogenarians and older, they have revived a form of rhythm tap defined by the likes of Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson. In BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE, The Silver Belles’ past and present is interwoven in graceful storytelling. The audience gets to know each of the Belles and, if my viewing experience is any barometer, fall in love repeatedly. The joie de vivre embodied in these women infuses the film with the most life affirming frames ever put to celluloid.

“Cleo (Cleo Hayes) joked that I had to finish this film before she died. The health and age considerations were an added pressure to complete it.” BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE sold out at the True/False Documentary Film Festival in Columbia, MO, as well as at Dance on Camera at Lincoln Center this past January. So, not only did Heather grant Cleo’s wish, BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE played to a packed house at the Apollo Theatre on March 26th of this year with the stars of the evening on hand for the shim sham shimmy. The Silver Belles are Cleo Hayes, Elaine Ellis, Fay Ray and Marion Coles, with manager Geri Kennedy, and in spirit, Bertye Lou Wood.

The affection between the Silver Belles and Heather Lyn MacDonald is evident. During our interview Heather worried about Elaine’s (Elaine Ellis) health and in some of the scenes on camera, you can hear the affection in their interactions. We are lucky that a newspaper article caught Heather’s eye and led her to make this film. When you see it, you will realize how lucky we are to have a neighbor like Heather, who appreciates the good life of Hortonville and who can produce, shoot and edit documentaries of the highest caliber even while in her jammies.

InsideOut in the Hudson Valley, 2006