Excerpts from 
Times Picayune, New Orleans, October 2006
by Will Coviello

Capturing a raw image and telling a story aren't necessarily the same thing. Living in New Orleans in the past year [post-Katrina]has provided ample fodder to explore that notion. The city has been a sort of living documentary for just over a year, endlessly captured and characterized. 

Among the events deferred by Hurricane Katrina last year were the New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF) and the premiere of Julie Gustafson's Desire, a film honored (among other awards) as the best documentary submitted to the competitive division. She spent years creating her own portrait of young women in New Orleans, faced not with the cataclysm of a moment or a storm, but with negotiating the flow of daily events and the life-changing choices of being on the verge of teen sex versus teen motherhood. 

Desire will be presented at the 2006 festival this week (Oct. 12-19), but it has been part of the New Orleans Film Festival's recovery as well. While the festival has not skipped a beat in its artistic vision, and has one of its most impressive slates of programming in years, the storm took away its means. Deprived of the needed revenue from ticket sales from last year, screenings of Desire, including at the American Film Institute festival in Los Angeles, helped support the organization. Not at all relevant to the storm, Desire is a fitting bridge from pre- to post-Katrina New Orleans.
Desire was obviously shot and edited before Katrina. In fact, Gustafson began the project in 1992, moved to New Orleans from New York City shortly afterwards to devote herself to it, and spent more than a decade working on it. All told, she edited 700 hours of film down to 84 minutes to tell the stories of five young women who grew up in New Orleans' Desire housing project, in Belle Chasse and Uptown. Those women shot much of the 700 hours themselves, as each one created her own series of short films about choices involving sex, relationships, what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a mother. With the girls each starting the project in their mid- to late teens, Gustafson set out not just to pursue certain subjects, but to let whatever happened in their lives tell the story. 

In the vein that every portrait is a self-portrait, the film Desire has an infectious and intrusive interest in the making of films. At a basic journalistic level, it reminds the viewer that this is real life and she's not leaving anything off camera. Gustafson allows views of her camera and recording equipment in her films to remind viewers of some of the conventions of journalism. She's not against appearing on film if necessary. But this film goes a step further, and it was an unintended consequence. 

A native of Boston, Gustafson became part of New York City's downtown video camera revolution in the early 1970s. The first video cameras were put on the market in the late 1960s, and that spawned a generation of filmmakers, who created art and documentaries and opened the first video theater. Over 20 years, she became a proficient filmmaker and produced many small budget films, often turning to the subject of women and family life. In the early 1990s, she heard about the Desire housing project from a professor at UNO and became interested in the neighborhood and residents who lived on streets named Piety and Abundance.  She spent two years meeting women in Desire. But they resisted the notion of her filming their teenage daughters. What would Gustafson do for the girls besides use them, they asked. 

Gustafson responded with the offer that she would teach them skills, like how to write a script, use a camera and edit film. She would pay them and she would give them artistic control. The mothers had doubts about how the girls would be portrayed, and an early group discussion of the matter is in the documentary, but they agreed. 

The film lays all of its cards on the table as we first meet Cassandra, a 15-year-old set on graduating from Carver Junior/Senior High School and entering the military. Then we meet the other girls. Tiffanie from Belle Chasse who is just out of high school and a married young mother. Peggy and Tracy are students at Newman, and their early scenes are of them discussing whether they are interested in having or talking about sex. The film eventually returns to Desire, where we meet Kimeca, who already has a child. 

All of the women make films about themselves over the course of five years of interaction with Gustafson. She assigned each a mentor to help teach them not just how to make video but to craft stories and messages. 

"I don't think people have a voice if they don't have control -- if they don't know how to write or to edit," she says. "The girls directed all their pieces. I gave them someone to talk with about what  they wanted their films to say and to help them accomplish that technically." 

The film is extraordinarily compelling in part because of the patience Gustafson had in getting to know the girls over so many years, but also because of the integrity of her approach.  Some of the film's most rewarding moments come with the fear that what is being said is going to derail the project. A first meeting between all of the women is gripping when Kimeca and Cassandra object to the term "disadvantaged neighborhood," and suddenly it's not clear whether dialogue is going to be possible unless someone is willing to be vulnerable. And even so, trust takes time. 

Ultimately the women make very candid and revealing videos that chronicle how their lives take expected and unexpected courses. Cassandra gets pregnant. Tiffanie gets divorced. Tracy decides not to go to college. Gustafson gets the raw materials for an amazing film. While most of the footage comes from between 1995 and 2000, she spent more than three years after that editing it into the story that Desire tells. 

"The way documentaries work best -- I believe stories are important; the emotions people bring are very important," she says. "They work not when people go out into the streets [to protest] but when people change the way they look at things." 

Even after 15 years of work, the life of this film is just beginning for Gustafson. Getting it seen and getting it used are the true purposes of a documentary, she says. 





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The Teenage Videomakers & Their Stories

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Film, Book, & Website Recommendations

Video Empowerment

Taking Action

THE ENTIRE DOCUMENTARY: © 2007 Julie Gustafson

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