Documentarian Jacqueline Gares made FREE CeCe! as “a call to action for a cultural shift.” The film, which screens at Portland Film Festival on September 4, explores the story of the international campaign that arose to free Chrishaun Reed “CeCe” McDonald, a trans woman of color, from a men’s prison and awaken consciousness around the intersection of gender identity, race, and the prison system. #DirectedbyWomen spoke with Jac Gares this week to explore what went into making this film and the impact it is having.
DBW: What’s at the heart of your documentary FREE CeCe?
JG: What has always been central to the film for me is the understanding of CeCe McDonald’s story. CeCe unapologetically has valued her own life, fought (to the death) for her life, and survived prison. Many of us can count our blessings that we have not experienced the same violent circumstances that CeCe faced on June 5, 2011, but I am asking viewers to place themselves in her position that night. I believe it is difficult and uncomfortable, but necessary for understanding human rights and why we need to treat each other with respect and human dignity within civil society. I think FREE CeCe! is so necessary in this election year. We’ve seen so much hatred, disrespect and disregard for human life. It is my hope that FREE CeCe! inspires people by seeing CeCe fighting for their life during a brutal attack, and afterwards.
DBW: When in the course of CeCe’s story did you begin work on the documentary? What triggered your choice to make the film?
JG: I learned about CeCe’s story after she was arrested in June 2011. Immediately I read that she was black, identified as trans, and had been a victim of a fight outside of a bar, was pursued by one of her attackers, and defended herself with scissors she had in her purse. She had stabbed a white man with a swastika tattoo. These facts were tragic and I was amazed she had survived.
At the time I was working as a show runner for an LBGT show on public television called: IN THE LIFE, so I was always reading news stories about LGBT people across the country. A year later, I met with Laverne Cox and we developed a treatment for a segment on CeCe McDonald for the show. That segment never happened since IN THE LIFE went off the air in 2012. What triggered me to make FREE CeCe! was when I saw Laverne Cox speaking about CeCe McDonald at the 2013 GLAAD Media Awards in LA. I had one of those “Ah-Ha” moments. I actually said out loud, “Why isn’t anyone telling this story…Why aren’t you?!”
It was like a floodgate – all the research and pre-production Laverne and I had done came back to me in that moment and I called her to say I wanted to make FREE CeCe! as a feature-length documentary, but I needed her guidance as an Executive Producer. She agreed and we quickly got back to work where we had left off.
DBW: Can you share about how you chose to shape the film and particularly how you chose to illustrate and provide clarity about events on the night of the deadly altercation? How did that process unfold?
JG: The editing process took a turn when I finally got all the Freedom of Information Act materials from the Minneapolis Police Department. We had begun our edit in late April 2015 and we did not get all the FOIA materials until September 2015. I had to lay everything out, similar to the storyboard process, and what you see detectives doing on cop shows. There was an index card stage, then we switched to clip art.
My editor Erik Satre and I went through a process of blocking action from every person who was there or saw something that night. This was so important to us as there never was a trial. I tried to get the detectives involved with the case to speak to us, but they declined. We did get to speak with the County Attorney, Michael O. Freeman. Once I spoke to Freeman so much of the framework fell into place. I then had questions for CeCe, why did she write a letter to the Star Tribune stating she did not stab Schmitz? What was she feeling during her interrogation interviews, what was happening when the stabbing occurred?
So the early illustrations were clip art, much like storyboards and they allowed us to construct much of the first act of the film.
DBW: What impact has the film been having on audiences? Who have you been sharing it with so far? What’s the response been like?
JG: So far we had our world premiere at LA Film Festival and that was incredible. The film played to a packed house and there was a standing ovation. We then went to BlackStar Film Festival and we received the Audience Award, which was a humbling experience. The response has been so deep. I think what has surprised me the most was how this film resonates not only with younger people but with elders. At BlackStar Film Festival I had so many older folks thank me for making this film, and telling me how much it meant to them. I was deeply moved, and it really surprised me.
DBW: Where are your creative energies directed these days? Do you have any new projects you’re working on or dreaming into being?
JG: I am in pre-production on a project about prison abolition. Making FREE CeCe! really changed me, and it changed me for the better. I am motivated by the challenge of getting audiences to think about dismantling the prison industrial complex.
DBW: What insights can you share about gender identity/fluidity with film lovers as they step into the month long #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party – an event dedicated to building a deep culture of appreciation and inclusivity within the global film community – and beyond? Are there any directors you’d particularly love to see celebrated during the global party?
JG: I’d like for people to not get hung up on language when they think of gender identity and language. I find that way they are open to actually being inclusive. It is about listening to one another and meeting people where they are as human beings. If they are watching a film and a character is showing or discussing their gender identity, just listen. That was the constant reminder that I had daily as I made FREE CeCe! I had to listen to my subjects and learn about gender identity, and what it meant to each individual. If you listen, then you can grow into understanding.
Honestly, one of my favorite films that I have on my phone and watch all the time is Cloud Atlas. I love it for the way it actively takes on gender fluidity between the actors and the characters. I would start my #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party with CLOUD ATLAS directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski. For me, it is like a masterclass on gender fluidity complete with Tom Hanks AND Halle Berry, now that is inclusive! It is my “go to” movie when I get saddened by some terrible thing the news reports that Donald Trump said or did. Picture me with my ears plugged saying: “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” CLOUD ATLAS is on THE WIZARD OF OZ level for me.
Next up for the worldwide viewing party, I would want to include all of the work of Ava DuVernay. I think she is brilliant. I cannot wait for A WRINKLE IN TIME with her vision. She gives me hope. I also love Dee Rees. PARIAH is so bold and smart, and the BESSIE biopic she did is great. Again she is someone who fills me with hope. Liz Garbus and Lucy Walker are also my favorite women making documentaries today. I also love the work of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. JESUS CAMP just fascinated me and DETROPIA is one of my all time favorites. I look forward to NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU.
DBW: Thanks so much for taking time to share about your work. Have a wonderful time sharing the film with audiences during Portland Film Festival and onward from there.
FREE CeCe! at Portland Film Festival 2016
Sunday September 4, 2016 12:00pm – 1:45pm
Laurelhurst Theater 2735 E Burnside St, Portland OR 97214