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Brandon Tells Her Story: Back in the (New) Day of Social Issue Films

By Nat Segaloff

From Liane Brandon's 'Anything You Want To Be.' Photo: Liane Brandon, 1971

"What was so unusual for the Women's Movement and filmmakers like myself," says Liane Brandon, recalling a period when both were just starting out, "was that the lives of ordinary women had not been the subject of documentary films. When I asked distributors why, I was told, 'Who cares?'"

But Brandon did care. A founding member of New Day Films, the New York-based collective of social-issue media makers and distributors, she made her first important film about sex-role stereotyping, Sometimes I Wonder Who I Am, in 1970, and followed it with Anything You Want to Be (1971), Betty Tells Her Story (1972) and Once Upon a Choice (1980), among other later social-issue films.

The Boston-based Brandon is modest about her achievements, but it's safe to say that by tracing her career one can see a capsule history of the modern independent social issue documentary in general and women's issues in particular. It began in the late 1960s and early '70s with the burgeoning availability of portable 16mm sync sound. But what gave it seasoning was its subject matter.

"Before then, documentaries were generally about exotic cultures, travelogues or major events like war and natural disasters," Brandon cites. "Ordinary people rarely saw themselves or their lives reflected. The change meant that the individual was, first, filmable and, second, suitable subject matter."

Like many of her early New Day partners, Brandon learned her craft not in film school but in the streets.

"Most of the filmmakers I knew who were active in the Boston area in the '60s came out of other disciplines," she recalls. "They came from the anti-war movement, or had backgrounds in law, history or sociology."

For Brandon, the impetus began in the classroom—as a teacher.

"I was always interested in social issues, in civil rights and anti-war issues," she recalls. "But I had been earning a living by teaching skiing and doing stunt work, and having dropped out of college four or five times, I wasn't on a very straight career trajectory. I found, while visiting friends in Boston, that Boston was hiring substitutes to teach in their inner-city schools which, at that time, were segregated. They had a lot of difficulty attracting teachers; in fact, for long-term subs, they would waive the requirements of a master's degree in education. So there I was, having barely acquired an undergraduate degree, being hired as a long-term sub in a school in the Roxbury section of Boston."

It was the era that author/educator Jonathan Kozol would portray so alarmingly in Death at an Early Age (1967), and while teaching there—"finding an outlet for my social conscience"—Brandon learned that film could offer help.

"The kids seemed uninterested in anything the school had to offer," she says. "So I asked, 'What are you interested in?' and they said, 'Movies.' I said, 'What do you want to do?' and they said, 'Make a movie.' It was my first real awareness that film was a way to reach them in a way that traditional methods did not."

When she got her master's degree and was teaching junior high school in the working class town of Quincy, Massachusetts, she found that her new students continued to relate to film more than to textbooks. This time she was able to act on their plea to "make a movie." She borrowed the football team's triple-turret Bell & Howell 16mm camera and, with her students, made Gum, about a girl who gets caught chewing in class.

"The effect on the kids, who were not bound for college, was dramatic," she continues. "They suddenly began to write, because they had to write the script; and they had to do the math, because we had to ask the principal to put up the money; and they had to figure out how much film we needed and how much time we had to spend. Their attendance and school work improved."

But America in the late '60s was beginning to turn its attention from gum to guns. The Vietnam War was invading America 's wider consciousness and Brandon, by then teaching at North Quincy High School, had a personal stake.

"As soon as my students graduated from high school they were getting drafted," she says. "I was there long enough to see my students coming back very changed—or not coming back at all."

Her activism led her to the Boston Newsreel, which was affiliated with the national Newsreel, a network of filmmakers whose work served to counter the mainstream media's support for the war and to explore issues of race and class. Despite those ideals, the Left had a blind spot.

"The one thing I was very aware of was that, with few exceptions, women were not directing the Newsreel films. This concerned me, particularly since I was teaching in a high school and seeing how rigidly the young women students were being socialized. My consciousness was quickly heightened."

Joining Bread & Roses, one of the earliest women's collectives, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led her to make Sometimes I Wonder Who I Am, which was not only a consciousness-raising short subject in its own right but was designed to counteract press ignorance.

"We were not bra-burners," Brandon says, referring to a single incident of street theater that became the media's emblem of the Women's Movement. "What women were really doing was examining opportunities and demanding equal rights. We didn't consider ourselves to be as radical as the media portrayed us. I remember around 1972 that a news show called me up looking for women to be on a panel but they didn't want me because I seemed too normal!"

Sometimes I Wonder Who I Am was inspired by a young mother in Bread & Roses who questioned what she was doing with her life. "She said, 'When I got married I couldn't get a job because they thought I was going to have a baby, and now that I have a baby they don't want to hire me because I have one. What was my education for? My husband wonders why I'm unhappy.' It's a portrait of a woman standing in front of the sink washing dishes and feeding her baby. You can feel the claustrophobia. My collective raised the money for that film; it also was one of the early films in New Day."

But it was Brandon 's Anything You Want To Be, Julia Reichert and Jim Klein's Growing Up Female and Amalie Rothschild's It Happens To Us that formed New Day's first collection and became its bellwether.

"We could watch the Women's Movement expand across the country by the bookings," she recalls proudly. "First the films were used on the East and West Coasts, and maybe Ann Arbor. And then all of a sudden we'd see requests for our films in the South and Midwest. When we sold our first film in Oklahoma, we celebrated!"

Ironically, as this was happening, mainstream distributors continued to tell filmmakers like Brandon that there was no market for such films or that the Women's Movement wouldn't last more than a year. "Yet Betty Tells Her Story is still in active distribution 30 years later," Brandon adds wryly.

The film that firmly established her, however, was Anything You Want to Be. The short uses humor and irony as a girl is assured that she can pursue any career she wants while being directed toward only those opportunities that are stereotypically offered to women.

"I made it so people could use it in consciousness-raising groups and to lay out the issues facing young women in a humorous and non-threatening way," she explains. "Clearly the film found its audience. I had to get a new mailbox to hold all the requests I received, and I couldn't send prints out fast enough to satisfy the demand."

When Anything won the Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival in 1972, it not only added to the wider discussion of women's issues, it brought Brandon to the University of Massachusetts/Amherst as a professor. And therein began a whole new adventure: tenure.

"They still talk about my tenure battle as being memorable," she now says with a smile, but it wasn't funny at the time. When she interviewed for a teaching position in 1973, she and the college agreed that making films would constitute the "publication" so vital to obtaining tenure.

"When I came up for tenure, though, a few faculty members grumbled that my films weren't 'academic' enough," she continues. "But most outrageous was a letter from one of my esteemed colleagues stating, 'and, furthermore, she is a feminist and I don't think we need any of her type here'."

The ensuing public and academic outcry alerted the university to the level of sexism at work. In 1983, Brandon was granted tenure and became professor in the School of Education and adjunct professor in the Communications Department. She followed Anything You Want to Be with Betty Tells Her Story, Not So Young Now as Then (1974), Once Upon a Choice and How to Prevent a Nuclear War (1987). In 1993 she became the director of UMass Educational TV, where she, her staff and her student crews researched, created and produced 12 series that were aired throughout Massachusetts, with one series, Fine Print, currently in national distribution.

Of equal importance is the fact that Brandon is as passionate today about social change as 35 years ago when she discovered film as a means of effecting it. She is currently finishing one new project, about homophobia in high schools, and thinking about the next.

"I'm not sure exactly what it will be," Brandon muses, "but I'm certainly not at a loss for subject matter! As someone once said, 'If you aren't outraged, you aren't paying attention'."


When not producing TV documentaries for The Learning Channel or HBO, Nat Segaloff writes on film history. His monographs on writers-directors Paul Mazursky and John Milius appear in Backstory 4, from University of California Press.


'Anything You Want to Be' —Except a Rights Infringer

In 1973, when Liane Brandon learned that the Extension Media Center (EMC) of the University of California was distributing a film that sounded like her award-winning 1971 movie Anything You Want to Be, she was both enraged and vexed. It seems that when she had refused to sell the center a print for its rental library (which would have undercut the business of New Day Films, the New York-based collective of social media makers and distributors, of which she was a founding member), it simply obtained its own version. The presence of Anything They Want to Be in the marketplace compelled Brandon to take action. With the mantra "you can't copyright a title" a tenet of copyright law, however, what could she do?

"But I was ticked!" she says. "I had won a Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival, my film was widely distributed, and I did not want anyone trading on my work."

Fellow Boston filmmaker Frederick Wiseman referred her to attorney Blair Perry of the prestigious law firm of Hale & Dorr, who agreed to represent her pro bono. The astute Perry realized that the best way to go after the culprits was not copyright law but the Lanham Act, which protects goods in trade.

"If my film had not been so established in the marketplace it might have weakened my case," Brandon explains. "But it was very well known, and we knew that the Extension Media Center was aware of it."

In 1977 U.S. District Court Judge Andrew A. Caffrey ( Brandon v. The Regents of the University of California, Civ. A. No. 76-580-C) ordered the EMC not only to pay Brandon financial restitution, damages and legal fees, but to destroy the negative and all copies of the clone.

In a bizarre sequel, that same year AT&T brazenly released a film with the exact title Anything You Want to Be. Again Brandon and Perry brought suit, this time using their own case as precedent.

"The phone company had just been cited by the federal government for sex discrimination in hiring and promotion," Brandon says, "and I certainly didn't want my film being connected with them!" The case was settled out of court and Brandon now has a "Certificate of Destruction" on her editing room wall attesting to the demise of AT&T's competing version.

-Nat Segaloff