It's much more than a web series or documentary as well. By inviting everyone to join in the conversation, Westphal is expanding the way we view documentaries by adding an interactive element. Just as the film is about these three punk rock parents, it's about all of us. It's about the state of the worldwide scene, and it gives voice to anyone who wants to take part - just as it gave voice to the original moms.
We connected with Westphal to find out more about the inspiration behind All's Well and Fair, and how she's utilizing new technology to explore the ideas of conversation, scenes and DIY.
RC: Tell us a little bit about your background.
LW: I’m originally from Hamburg, Germany, but have been living mostly in the US since the 1990s; first in Florida and since 1999 in New York. To make things more complicated, I’ve been splitting my time between Berlin and Brooklyn during the last two years.
I’ve been making films and videos since my Florida days – mostly documentaries, music videos and web series.
Honestly, I was probably always a bit more goth than punk. But that all mingled well in St. Pauli, Hamburg.
RC: What was the initial inspiration behind the 1996 documentary?
LW: The inspiration was the song with which Margaret, Rachel and Tina won the local “F*** the Government” song contest in Gainesville, Florida, in late ‘95. They didn’t have a regular band but only formed Dioxin Dolly to write that song “Frogfly Buzzing” for the event. Unfortunately, I was in Germany when the actual contest took place. So when I first heard about it, I thought immediately that the song should be preserved. It expressed so much of what these punk moms, who had all been single and on welfare at some point, represented. Despite all of the hardship they dealt with, they faced it with a great sense of humor, with intelligence and with well-focused outrage. 1996 was the year of the welfare reform – and they just didn’t fit that welfare mom cliché that was pushed in the media back than.
I had been quite fascinated how these women were trying to create great and conscious lives for their children and themselves. In a way they were turning their back on the American Dream. Or had they been denied that dream from the get-go? I wanted to explore, capture, preserve and amplify what they had to say and how they were living. So I decided to film a whole documentary in which I asked them to explore the topics mentioned in the song.
RC: And I have to say that the Dioxin Dolly song “Frogfly Buzzing” that the original doc captured is a good one, a sort of Florida's take on Riot Grrrl, full of the apprehension that was heavy then - a perfect portrait of the fears and concerns of the time - and it's obviously been recorded. Do you or any of the girls have any intention of releasing it?
LW:I love that song. It has so much sass and outrage – and we hear that so rarely from not just a woman’s perspective but a mother’s perspective! It’s not up to me if this song gets released. But I’m certainly pushing for it. Apparently the DAT still exists but would have to be dusted off.
There are a lot of great songs in the film: all performed by bands from Gainesville or other personal connections. All the voices you hear are female – although there are some awesome men playing other instruments. I have the fantasy of someone putting out a soundtrack – either just as a digital download or an actual CD. “Frogfly Buzzing” would definitely have to be on it.
RC: At the time, you were an expat witnessing a scene not only in a new city, but in a new country. As a fellow expat - I'm an American transplant to the Netherlands - I have to ask how that experience was for you. You were seeing this scene not only as a recent entry to it, but as a recent entry from another country. What was that like?
LW: Being an expat or even just visiting another country for a longer time is such a gift. You get a different perspective of where you are, but also where you came from and who you are. I had pretty much run off from Germany after high school because there it was expected that I would pursue an academic career. Wanting to make films was not something you took seriously in 1990s Germany. Coming to the creative punk music and art scene of Gainesville was like arriving on the opposite planet. It seemed that people just lived the way they wanted to, everyone seemed to be creative and somewhat more relaxed. It seemed that in Germany people always ask: but why would you want to do that? While in Gainesville people just said: yeah, let’s do it. However it then turned out that people in Gainesville often don’t show up or only much later. It’s a bit like island time.
Also was a great sense of community – especially among the young mothers.
But the scene wasn’t just different from people in Germany – it was obviously different from the American mainstream society, which I had gotten to know a little as an exchange student in Orlando. Back home people were giving me a hard time about wanting to return to America, which was considered conservative, capitalistic and ignorant. There’s a truth to that – however it’s easy to be questioning the government or be environmentally conscious in Germany because we’re raised like that. People in America who don’t pledge allegiance to the flag or don’t want to eat burgers have had to overcome much more within themselves and in their social environment.
RC: At what point did you decide that it was time to come back for round two, that it was time to take the initial interviews and follow them up?
LW: It was just before the ten years were up. I was in the middle of making a documentary about child abuse called All God’s Children with my partner Scott Solary. It was a tough experience and part of me longed to rediscover the lighthearted filmmaking of 1996 with these fun women - before film school, before moving to NYC, before knowing about festivals, distribution and rejection… before being in my 30s. I was curious if those women had also become weighed down by expectations and growing up – or if they had remained the same.
A specific realization that convinced me I had to revisit was the fact that in 1996 Rachel had fantasized that once she got over the addiction to the neurosis of living in the city she wanted to have a house like The Little House on the Prairie. It seemed like such a joke in little Gainesville. But over the course of the following 10 years she moved to NYC and eventually ended up back in Gainesville with a suspenders-wearing carpenter husband who built her a wooden house right next to Paynes Prairie. There’s something so beautiful in dreams coming true you didn’t even realize were such specific dreams.
RC: Had you had much contact with the women over the course of those 10 years?
LW: Yes, especially with Rachel. We lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn for a few years and remained close. Even though I left in 1996, Gainesville and the people there continue to be very special to me and I visit every other year or so. Filming again in 2006 strengthened those bonds, of course.
RC: Was there anything you discovered in how their perspectives or lives had changed that really took you by surprised - or perhaps what hadn't changed?
LW: One very specific thing that changed surprised me. Unfortunately I was asked not to include it in the film. In retrospect however, I think that it’s one of those really fascinating details that are universal at the same time as they are personal. Margaret, who in 1996 is a very outspoken vegetarian, today is a meat eater. It was a personal choice based on her even more health-conscious lifestyle today. But it symbolizes how we follow certain ideals in our youth that we later find out aren’t as important as other values, like our health. Also I find it fascinating how many people were vegetarians in their 20s who aren’t anymore today.
Something that I shouldn’t be surprised about but that I didn’t know for sure was how mostly content and happy the women are and how great their kids turned out to be. Because I’m not a parent and I pursue some wild ambitions in “the big city”, it’s fascinating to see how these women, who didn’t seem particularly ambitious back in 1996 have ended up with their own homes, with college or professional degrees and with very happy families. In some ways you could say that they ended up living the American Dream after all. And you can’t help but reflect on your own choices and compare the different lifestyles.
RC: What about Gainesville of 2006 versus the Gainesville of 1996?
LW: There are those developments that happened everywhere in America: Starbucks moved in, the punk bar turned into a Thai restaurant, kids stopped playing in bands and went to DJ’d events instead… but there’s some beauty in revisiting again years after that. By the time we screened the film, the Starbucks had been torn down, the punk bar is back in the hands of the tattooed crowd serving healthy food and playing pool and Margaret’s daughter and Rachel’s son play music. Doing a project like this makes you realize how cyclical life is.
RC: An amazing thing about the stories of these women is that they're not at all out of the ordinary. I mean, you have three white punk girls who came of age in the punk scene, had kids and grew up (and it seems like in that order), and just kept going. It's a story you can find anywhere, but to grab onto and allow the story to be told - when it's a story that all of us grew up in the scene shared in some sense - that's the amazing part. What is it about a filmmaker's brain that just says, "yes, there is the story that needs to be told," where others wouldn't catch it?
LW: It must be the part of the brain that doesn’t care about fame or money. It’s something I really still struggle defining and putting into words myself. I just follow my own interest in the story of the mostly regular, just slightly off-center person. We hear so many stories about the hero under pressure and about the tragic victim that has to overcome the odds. Those stories sell. And filmmakers know that. Even documentaries are often actually cast with the most dramatic character and outcome in mind.
Probably everyone has an interesting story, there’s something valuable and fascinating about how any human thinks and acts. I’m intrigued by the people with their everyday struggle that are not represented in the media, whose voices are not being heard. I want to learn from these people and I want to share that knowledge with others so I can make them think about their own lives. I don’t think the people in my films are flawless; they’re real, they’re complex, they’re us. And maybe that’s where I suddenly see a story that should be told, one that can inspire, provoke and bring an audience to talk and take action to make something better in this world.
It’s probably soon going to become a cliché, or already is, but the idea of the 99% really resonates with me in my work. That’s who we are and that’s who is in my films.
And I’ve been very lucky that a few years ago the jury of the Jerome Foundation also saw something valuable in this story and supported me with a grant. That seems rare because most organizations want to support stories of more extreme or exotic struggles and triumphs.
RC: I know the full-length documentary has seen some release already, but what made you decide to launch it as a web series as well?
LW: There really hasn’t been much of a release outside of this transmedia web series. The film screened in Gainesville and New York and then went straight online. Honestly, this was a bold and scary step because it pretty much eliminates any other forms of distribution.
But by the time I had finished editing the film, I realized I didn’t have a traditional documentary with a hero who was introduced in the 1st act, struggles through the 2nd act and wins in the 3rd act. What I had were a bunch of conversations between women and their younger selves and directed at the audience. So the usual arms of distribution were probably not going to be interested in it anyway.
A reason why I returned to record the women in 2006 was to liberate myself from all these big expectations and just have fun making a film again. Then the expectations caught up with me again and instead of editing this film in 3 weeks like in 1996, it took me several years. In the meantime I had started a fairly successful web series called “In A Berlin Minute” that finally was lighthearted and immediate and allowed me to share my work with a global audience that would directly engage with my work – all without having to ask for permission. It was amazing.
And suddenly all those things came together: The film works perfectly in short episodes based on the topics of the song; there are no gatekeepers to keep me from sharing the film immediately with a global audience, including stay-at-home single moms in small towns; last but not least the audience can participate directly and become part of the conversation by answering the questions and by responding to the women and each other. The last part is what makes this a transmedia documentary because all participants become part of creating this evolving story through different digital means.
Of course, there’s an obvious catch with giving away the film for free like that. But if enough people are watching or purchasing the DVD version, I hope I can recoup the costs and maybe lay the groundwork for funding of the next project.
Lately I’ve been trying to think more like a fine artist who is driven by the need to create even if it can’t be sold, instead of the filmmaker who is always supposed to have a plan of how to sell the product before even making it.
I think of this film as my Xerox-copied fanzine, my band’s cassette tape or my graffiti on the wall. It’s from me to you, made by hand. And I hope you’ll love it, use it and share it with your friends.
RC: A big part of this production is your multimedia component, allowing others to join the conversation online. How's the response been?
LW: The response has been very positive. Although I’m still hoping for a lot more engagement - especially more video responses. But another beautiful thing about this online release is that the videos are always there for you to watch. So some people might not watch until all of the episodes are released and when certain documentary websites will host the entire film. Others may just stumble upon one episode four years from now who knows where. Because you really don’t have to watch the entire film, most episodes can stand on their own. It’s really different to have episodes of the film on all these different social networks being released at different times. People can embed episodes anywhere they like and responses might be happening in places that I’ll never know about. It’s thrilling to think that these conversations can be taking place anywhere at any time.
RC: I think that opening up the conversation in the way you have is a perfect example of utilizing the technology of the Internet to expand the idea of a scene into something much larger, yet still intimate. Do you think this is true - the idea that the Internet can truly make the punk scene a worldwide community that's still close-knit like the old punk scenes (in Gainesville for instance) or does it have the opposite effect - making it too easy in a way that eliminates the cohesion and DIY ethics of individual scenes?
LW: That’s really great what you’re saying. Yes, I totally agree with the first part. This is the new age of DIY. Anybody with an Internet connection can participate and actively become engaged, become a responder and a creator. I think the intimacy comes from us sharing directly out of a space that seems private. The kids of Rachel, Tina and Margaret already grew up with sharing their inner most thoughts on MySpace and then Facebook with the whole world. It’s global yet intimate because we open ourselves up more these days - from our computer at home or in front of our friend’s phone camera. We’re live at protests in Egypt and in Liberty Square. We can directly talk back to an article online.
Does it make it too easy and are there too many people creating noise and possibly drowning out the voices of others? Yes, in a way. But it’s also a beautifully democratic way of sharing media and opinions. The people will watch, read and hear what they want and what their peers tell them about. Crowd-sourcing is a powerful thing.
And I believe the individual sub scenes still exist anyway – on a local level or tied through specific interests.
The biggest ethical issue is with anonymity online. It’s shocking how mean and disgusting people can be when they can remain anonymous. The racism, sexism and sheer hatefulness is disturbing. It’ll be interesting how Google+ will change that game by requiring people to be real and identifiable – this will directly effect how people comment on YouTube.
RC: What does the DIY of today mean to you as opposed to the DIY of 1996?
LW: I guess to me personally it’s surprisingly the same. And I didn’t expect I would still be so DIY. But I think I’ve really found my way back to it and embraced it. The only true difference is that through technology I can reach more people.
But in a way I think DIY in general isn’t such an exclusive term anymore for only a certain group of creative and cultural activists. Because of technological changes and the Internet, so many more people now in 2012 make their own media and share what they want to share, even if it’s only via a Twitter feed. So it’s may be not as politically charged anymore or as radical of an idea or movement.
RC: What's next for you as filmmaker?
LW: I’ll continue to make my weekly 1-minute moving postcards “In A Brooklyn Minute” or “In A Berlin Minute”, depending on where I am. The next larger project is raising funds and editing the documentary “Five Sisters”. And then I want to combine elements of “All’s Well and Fair” and “Five Sisters” in a fiction film that I’ve written already.
RC: Will there be a part three? Perhaps in 2016? That's not too far off.
LW: I sincerely hope so. In 2016 the oldest kids would be about the age the mothers were in 1996 – it would create a beautiful circle. But of course, it’ll be up to the families if they want to participate again.
RC: Anything else you'd like to add?
LW: Thank you for asking these really interesting questions. They gave me a lot of things to think about. Now knowing that you’re an expat punk rock dad, I really hope I’ll get to see or read some of your responses to the episodes…
All's Well and Fair is online now. Watch it and join the conversation here.