Greetings, film fanciers and fanatics. March is finally here and this year it brings not one but two incredible film festivals to our fair city: qFLIX Philadelphia, our beloved LGBT film festival, and The Women’s Film Festival of Philadelphia. And since both festivals are playing the exact same weekend, in the spirit of our City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, organizers have collaborated on many of the films being presented. I in turn decided to share this column and interview directors from both festivals.
Raydra Hall is a Southern gal with a heart of gold. Her film, like many of those being shown throughout the festival, sheds light on everyday people who have changed the world through perseverance and pain.
PGN: Your film “Small Town Rage: Fighting Back in the Deep South” is about a small chapter of ACT UP in Shreveport, La., that took on a big issue. What made you want to make this film?
RH: My co-producer and director David Hylan and I have been friends for a long time; we work together at the Deaf Action Center. We do a lot of webcasts for interpreters so we have some experience with video but we wanted to learn more so we took a documentary-film course at a community college. We had to pitch a video idea and David had the idea of doing something on the Shreveport ACT UP history. It was local and we had access to some of the people involved, but by the time the class was over we only had one interview in the can! But we had several lined up and more suggestions kept coming. [Laughs] It kind of spiraled out of control! We realized that we had to do the story, to see it through to completion even though it took us four years. Not completing it and [not] telling the story was not an option. It was too powerful.
PGN: Tell me about it.
RH: The local chapter was started by three gay men, activists who wanted to do something about the AIDS epidemic. Here in the Deep South, below the Bible Belt, the treatment is terrible. There were right-wing conservatives all around, even in health care, who were refusing service to people with AIDS; it was just horrible. The guys decided, We need to do something about this. They started an ACT UP chapter and began protesting and getting in people’s faces and that got them into the newspapers where they basically shamed the medical community and other people into doing what was right.
PGN: What were the two most egregious incidents you came across?
RH: One of the three guys, Bobby, had AIDS. He’s still alive and we interviewed his parents. His dad was a Baptist preacher, so they were very religious and a big part of the church. Bobby’s mother called their preacher one night because her husband was having an emotional breakdown, upset because he was afraid they were going to lose their son. The preacher told them there was nothing he could do because Bobby was going to hell. They were refused comfort from the religious community they’d been with their whole lives. We also interviewed a registered nurse who spoke about how some of the nurses would treat the patients. There was one who would just open the door and shove the food tray across the floor from outside because she “didn’t want to get it,” and another who would just throw the clean sheets into the rooms of AIDS patients and tell them to change their own beds. One of the founders, Joe DeSantos, had just lost his grandmother. His sister tells the story that in his sorrow he went out drinking and got picked up by the police. When they took him to jail, he told them, “I just want to let you know that I’m HIV-positive and I have AIDS.” When they put him in the cell, one of the policeman urinated on him.
PGN: What was the hardest part?
RH: The whole thing was very emotional. It was a challenge getting some people to do the interviews — some didn’t want to relive the pain — but we got them to trust us. But boy, did we shed some tears during the process. It was heartbreaking.
PGN: What surprised you during your research?
RH: [Laughs] All of it! I was in high school in East Texas during that time and I had no idea any of this was going on. I was in my own little bubble. This whole process has been a learning period for me. And it’s surprising how many people who lived here don’t know the history. I was one of them. It’s another reason I was so glad we did it. But the most shocking part was how the medical community treated patients with such fear and disregard and flat-out humiliated people.
PGN: Aanother Southerner was involved. How did you get Lance Bass to narrate?
RH: We got lucky; we have an LGBT film festival here and David hires the talent for it. He had Lance’s contact info and sent him an email with the trailer and asked him if he’d consider doing the narration. Within a few days we got a yes! He’s from a small town in Mississippi so I guess it hit home. So we flew to L.A. to do the recording and he was the nicest guy ever. Super-sweet and professional.
PGN: One of the things the films addresses is how the impact that ACT UP had on the town still resonates to this day.
RH: Yeah, it’s actually a very big deal. With this being a local story, we premiered it here last September and had three sold-out shows. There were a lot of people who remembered that time or knew people who died, some of them who were in the film, and it was very emotional.
PGN: How many people do you think were affected by HIV/AIDS in Shreveport? I’m not sure how big a town it is.
RH: I don’t know the numbers, but I think it was in the hundreds. We’re a town of about 200,000, going up to a half-million if you count the surrounding area.
PGN: There’s also a fun connection to our city in a way.
RH: Yes, we have a place called The Philadelphia Center. A lot of ACT UP chapters fizzled out as the medications became available and things got a little better socially but our chapter grew and turned into the center. Everyone who was in the chapter ended up working there. It’s the only AIDS resource we have in North Louisiana. That’s it. It’s a good thing that came out of a tough situation.
PGN: You work at the Deaf Action Center. Do you know sign language?
RH: No, just enough to let me halfway listen to a conversation. It’s hard! I’ve taken four classes and I still can’t get it.
PGN: Who’s your favorite author?
RH: Oscar Wilde, so much so that I named my child after him.
PGN: So you truly have a wilde child! If you were on “Survivor,” what would be the one item you took with you?
RH: My knitting needles. I could use them as a tool, as a weapon; they’d be very handy!
PGN: I saw a picture of you at a protest march wearing … was that your pussy hat?
RH: Yes, it was! I made it myself. I love knitting, to the extent that I have a “Live to Knit, Knit to Live” tattoo.
PGN: What was a favorite project?
RH: One year I knitted Christmas presents for all the girls at work and one of them played pool so I made her a knitted nine-ball set.
PGN: Are you coming here for qFLIX?
RH: Yes. From our Philadelphia Center to Center City Philadelphia!
I just watched “The Jungle Book,” about the fearless Mowgli who was raised as a wolf cub. This profile is about another Wolfe, Aniya Wolfe — a young one, who at 15, is also fearless and ready to take on the world. Wolfe has owned her own photography business and has now decided to branch out into film. At 14, she shot her first short film, which is screening as part of TWFF, and she just wrapped shooting on her first feature film. Oh, and on her one day off last week she learned how to ski.
PGN: OK, you little phenom, what was your first paying gig?
AW: Ha! The first thing I was ever paid for was a maternity shoot last April. I don’t know how good I was but it was cool. I used a black backdrop and Photoshopped different backgrounds. I also did pictures after the baby was born so I got to do the before and after!
PGN: Tell me about your company.
AW: It’s called BeautyScene Photography and I started it to support my filmmaking projects. I do portraits, events, you name it. Filmmaking is expensive and I wanted to be considerate of my parents’ money, so I opened the business and all the money from photos goes straight back into films.
PGN: You started acting at 8. What was that like?
AW: I always dreamed of becoming an actress. I loved Hannah Montana; she had the best of both worlds. But I didn’t start acting professionally until I was 12. One day when I was 13, I was on set at NYU, now one of my top picks for school, and the kids were so happy and energetic. I’d never seen that before because on most sets, it was usually older guys who didn’t seem too happy about what they were doing. They were bossy and not much fun to work with, but the NYU students were a diverse group with a lot of enthusiasm. They let me get behind the camera and I was hooked.
PGN: What were some signs that you were an ambitious child?
AW: I’m an adrenalin junkie. I just got back from skiing for the first time and it was great. I was a daredevil at amusement parks. I never wanted to wear the seatbelt. I just love a good thrill. When it came to writing, I find the same passion. In fifth grade I was one of only three kids chosen to do a speech in front of everyone. I always want to push myself to try things.
PGN: Your parents are very involved in and supportive of what you do. What traits do you think you got from them?
AW: From my mother I think I got my creativity, street smarts and wit. She’s very witty when it comes to jokes. I think I got my confidence and my thirst for doing things from my father.
PGN: Tell me about your film that’s playing in the Women’s Film Festival.
AW: “Skin” is about three teenagers. They’re all going through issues that are common to a lot of youth, things that when I first wrote this at 13 weren’t really being spoken about: gender identity, sexual abuse, drug abuse. It’s about the decisions they make, not always good ones. It was a risk because I haven’t gone through any of those issues myself and didn’t want to offend anyone by assuming, so I did a lot of reaching out and asking for stories and advice. After I did the short film, we garnered a lot of coverage from local news stations, radio stations … it was a real blessing. The community wanted to see more, and I did too! We were able to raise $9,000 for a feature version, which I’m working on currently.
PGN: How did it affect you to realize what some of your peers were going through?
AW: Well, my parents are both survivors of sexual abuse and they broke it down for me. They were willing to share what happened to them and it hurt to know what they went through when they were my age. It affected me dearly and I wanted to do something about it. I also had some friends in seventh grade who were struggling with their sexuality and gender identity and I wanted to help them too. We’re so easily influenced by TV and films that I wanted to tell their stories. And I was shocked. Not by their personal journey but by people’s reactions, by the fact that other people could be so cruel.
PGN: It sounds like your parents are pretty special people.
AW: Oh yes, and they’ve been through a lot. My mother was molested at a young age and my father was also raped and molested and put in the foster-care system. His parents were both drug-addicted. They’ve both started organizations to help people who have been through similar situations, to use their unfortunate circumstances to help other people.
PGN: That’s fantastic. OK, now for some random questions: Any phobias?
AW: No, I love to be thrilled so I run into my fears. Sometimes I get a little nervous before speaking but I try to use that energy for motivation.
PGN: What was the first film you ever saw in a theater?
AW: Probably “Finding Nemo.” To this day, it’s my favorite film and I love “Finding Dory” too. My mom said she used to just play it over and over and I’d be content for hours.
PGN: Stupid human tricks?
AW: I can bend my fingers and crack all my knuckles. Sorry, I can’t wiggle my ears or anything. I’m not that cool.
PGN: You’re plenty cool. What does it mean to you to present your film at TWFF?
AW: I was just telling someone on my ski trip as we were going up on the lift how excited I am about the festival, to have the chance to be around so many female filmmakers. In the beginning, I was a little unmotivated and I realized it was because on all the sets I’d been on, whenever I saw a woman she was usually a PA [production assistant] or in hair and make-up or wardrobe. They were never in a position of authority like director or cinematographer and I started to think, Wow. Is this even a thing? Are there gender restrictions? Should I even bother? But then I did some research and found some role models to look up to. I’m really excited to be surrounded by women who have directed and created films. I can’t wait to network and hopefully find some mentors! So what does it mean to me to be in this festival? A whole lot. I’m 15 and I don’t know when I’ll come into womanhood — I guess 18, I’m not sure — but I think it’s an honor to be called a woman. So to be a part of The Women’s Film Festival at 15 is an honor. I consider it a privilege. I can’t wait until opening night!