Filmmaker Cassie Hay’s documentary The Liberators tells the story of investigators who tracked valuable artifacts stolen from Germany at the end of World War II to a small town in Texas – the filmmaker’s home town. #DirectedbyWomen had a chance to talk with Cassie this week as her film prepares to screen at Portland Film Festival.
DBW: Cassie, I’m so glad your documentary The Liberators is screening at Portland Film Festival during this year’s #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party! The film unravels a complex story of theft in the aftermath of World War II and takes viewers on an unexpected journey to a town in Texas. That’s where you’re from, isn’t it? Can you tell us a little bit about the film and how you got involved in telling the story?
CH: That’s right. I am from Denison, Texas where a large part of this story takes place, so that’s how I stumbled onto the story initially. Denison is a pretty small town, so when something of this magnitude happens – people remember it! Basically the spine of the story is this: an enormously valuable German treasure disappeared at the end of World War II and nearly fifty years later, a New York Times reporter and German investigator tracked it down to a tiny Texas town. How it got there is just part of the story.
I’ve always loved telling stories, whether through writing or filmmaking, and about twelve years ago, some friends of my parent’s originally told me about the “Nazi gold” that was found in town. What a hook! From there, I started researching and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became because it opened up so many questions: about ownership, about the value of art, about the legacy of war, and even about how we tell stories.
DBW: Documentary storytelling presents a lot of challenges. How did you prepare? Were there aspects of this project that caught you by surprise?
CH: I’ve been working in the film and television business for the past 14 years and before that I went to film school at NYU, but this was my first time directing a feature. I’d also studied creative non-fiction writing, so documentary filmmaking was a nice melding of my interests. Before we started filming, I had a basic story in mind, but one thing about documentary is that, more than narrative, the story really is discovered in the editing room. I had a lot of ideas about the film, and our story had a natural narrative arc which we stayed true to, but once the editor and I actually sat down with the interviews, hours and hours of them, we had to surrender to the film. Some things you think are brilliant in the planning phase you find to be dead weight, and something you thought banal ends up being fantastic. For instance, the thief was an orchid fanatic. He even has an orchid named after him. I loved Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, and even spent a weekend at an orchid show in Galveston, but ultimately that storyline didn’t fit into the movie. Maybe the five hour director’s cut?
We were editing right up until the deadline for submitting our film to the first festival, and it’s still getting tweaked here and there. Ultimately, we are pretty happy with where we ended up, but editing is a slog. My editor Cary Lin is quite wonderful and patient. I’ll just say, there were many dark nights of the soul.
DBW: Have you screened the film in your hometown? What’s been the reaction there? Is it different from the way audiences in other places have responded?
CH: I did screen the film in my hometown. There were cheers when Main Street came on the screen, which was fun. I think people largely enjoyed the film, though I definitely received my share of criticism too. It’s a sensitive subject and we were trying to let all different sides speak so of course some feathers were ruffled. Audiences have reacted in wildly different ways and that’s actually a great thing because we set out to make a film that encouraged the audience to reach their own conclusions about these characters.
DBW: The mystery of the missing/stolen art is not entirely resolved by the end of the film. Do you ever contemplate a sequel?
CH: Ha! I won’t spoil the ending, but I’ll just say if there was a way to make a sequel, that would thrill me.
DBW: Are you working on any new projects? What’s calling for your creative attention?
CH: Right now I’m working on a narrative screenplay that I’m pretty excited about.
DBW: As we step into the month long #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party, can you suggest a few films by women directors that film lovers might find inspiring, challenging, or delightful? Perhaps ones they might not have seen or heard about yet?
CH: I’m a huge fan of Barbara Kopple and got to see her do a panel at SXSW this year. “Harlan County USA” is one of my favorite documentaries hands down (just heartbreaking and wonderful and groundbreaking)…I saw her latest film “Miss Sharon Jones!” this year and loved it. It made me want to get up and dance.
I also love Jane Campion. “The Piano” is a classic but “Bright Star” was surprising and beautifully shot. Oh yeah, and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” is on my frequent viewing list. So many great women directors! Ava DuVernay? I don’t think I breathed the entire way through “Selma.” Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty,” because of course women can shoot action too, and it’s just a great film…okay, I’m going to stop.
DBW: Thanks for taking time to share about your work. So glad we’ve connected. Keep us posted as you move forward.
The Liberators at Portland Film Festival 2016
Thursday September 1, 2016 2:30pm – 4:30pm
Laurelhurst Theater 2735 E Burnside St, Portland OR 97214