Remembering Debra Chasnoff
By Tom White
Debra Chasnoff passed away earlier this month at age 60, of metastatic breast cancer. Although I didn't know Chas (as everyone called her) personally, I certainly knew of her groundbreaking social issue work that she distributed through New Day Films, the exemplary docmakers co-op of which she was a brilliant guiding light. And she was a force in the Bay Area documentary community, and above all, a trailblazer in LGBTQ storytelling. While earning a 1992 Academy Award for Deadly Deception helped to catalyze her career, Chas was most committed to getting her work out there—through both New Day and through her nonprofit GroundSpark—and changing minds as well as lives. And she did it with a potent mashup of verve, resolve and grace. In the film she was working on up to the end, she documented her own experience with her illness—but with the intention of offering not an elegy or a requiem, but more of a primer for living a full and rich life despite a jolting diagnosis. According to the GroundSpark website, a collective of filmmakers—Nancy Otto, Lidia Szajko, Joan Lefkowitz, Kate Stilley and Carrie Lozano—will finish what Chas started.
We reached out to her contemporaries to share their reflections on this impactful and inspirational filmmaker.
The last time I saw Chas was in January of this year, when she came to a meeting of the Steering Committee of New Day Films, the distribution co-op we are both members of. We were strategizing about how to make New Day work better and sustain itself. She must have been quite ill by that time, but you wouldn't have known it. She was, as always, bursting with sharp analysis about what the problems were and full of strategic vision about what we could achieve and how.
Documentary filmmaking is always bound up with the idea of social change, but Chas had a standout ability to understand both the nitty gritty and the big picture of exactly how films can connect with political action. Her film Deadly Deception won an Oscar, but perhaps more importantly, it was an essential component of an effective national campaign to get General Electric to divest from the nuclear weapons industry. Chas spent the last two decades making films that changed how thousands of children think about sexual orientation, gender identity and other differences. They were designed not to win big film awards but to change the culture, and she positioned them where they could be most strategic and effective.
For those of us in New Day, Chas' passing leaves a hole that will not be filled. She wasn't just a member of the organization. She, side by side with many of us, created it and recreated it. New Day brings together documentary filmmakers who win big awards and those whose work resonates more quietly, holding us together in a non-competitive space that sustains us as we engage in that effort that Chas cared about so deeply: making films about the need for change, and helping make that change happen in the world.
The first time I met Chas, I had recently finished USC film school and joined New Day Films. There she was: a thoughtful and assured leader, an LGBT activist making huge impact with her work, and an Oscar-winning documentarian who had built a body of work and was making a living with it. She was powerful, and I was star-struck. As a young, gay documentary filmmaker, I was intimidated by her charisma and inspired to have the career that she had.
In the years since, I have worked for her, debated her, been mentored by her, and gotten drunk with her. I no longer put her on a pedestal. Instead, she had become a friend and colleague who is kind and generous, whose uncompromising passion for life and work always motivated me to do better.
I am saddened by her passing, but the outpouring support for Chas is heartwarming to see. I will remember and celebrate how fierce she remained even in the last months of her life—still going to see films at the Castro Theater, still taking part in discussions about New Day Films' future, still engaged and passionate. It's the way that I want to live my own life.
—S. Leo Chiang
Chas was a force of nature—her smarts, passion and commitment to justice permeated everything she did and drove her life's work as a filmmaker. I became fast friends and co-conspirators with Chas in 1981 when we were both living in Boston during the radical feminist movement and other activism of the day. I was always inspired by Chas' fearlessness and her drive to take a public stand on the things she believed in. In those heady days of activism and organizing, Chas was into radio and journalism and truly understood the power of media as a driving agent of social change, which is what fueled her work as a documentary filmmaker in the decades after.
Chas eventually lured me into her world of filmmaking, radically changing the course of my life and work. After her exhilarating Academy Award win, we embarked on creating the Respect for All Project, taking on some of the deepest taboos and prejudices about the LGBT community and offering resources for diversity education. It was quite a ride, starting with the release of It's Elementary in 1996; along with the accolades and positive impact, we found ourselves dealing with massive right-wing opposition—threats, hate mail and boycotts of the film airing on PBS. Throughout, Chas remained poised, strategic and disarming as she went up against the threats and the many nut-jobs we had to debate. Fortunately, there was a lot of humor that kept us going, and we always had the kids in our films to remind us of the truth we were preaching. We quoted them regularly, especially our favorites from third graders: "What's the big whoop?!" and "So duh, you're gay!" These are still mainstays in my vernacular and will forever be connected to Chas. It feels like a very unbelievable, sad and big whoop that Chas is gone, but there's no doubt that her work and impact on our world will live on.
—Helen S. Cohen
I'm not quite sure what led Chas to me in 2003, but when she called and told me about her Respect for All Project, I knew she was the kind of filmmaker I admire and love to collaborate with. The first film we worked on together was Let's Get Real. I loved how she was focusing on kids and how their views of themselves and others are shaped. She had such a great feel for how to reach them in a meaningful way to develop their sense of self-worth, community and respect for diversity. She was a dedicated pioneer with a comprehensive vision for how to achieve her goals: cohesive outreach programs for developing inclusive, bias-free schools and communities. Not too ambitious…
Over the next few years, I worked with her on other films in the series: Still Elementary, Straightlaced and One Wedding and a Revolution. I was really honored to be part of this important work. Chas always had a clear purpose and ability to put together and lead a great team to actualize her vision. She was a strong director (not to mention Academy Award winner!), but she was super collaborative and a respectful team player. She had the chops to not only develop, fund and make her films, but to create a successful nonprofit media organization, Groundspark, to follow through on the community engagement the films would inspire.
It's been incredible to be able to see the long-term effects of her important work, as it continues to be relevant and well received. She has left a beautiful legacy and the world is a kinder place for many because of her.
I was intimidated by Chas when we first met in New Day Films. After befriending her and worming my way into her heart as one of many mentees who admired her and looked to her for incisive guidance, I was only slightly less intimidated by her prowess. Chas was, and is, a powerful force—in my life and work and in our filmmaking community. Every time we had an in-depth conversation about our projects and work pursuits, she would ask the most insightful questions and—as I'm sure her many audience members felt when experiencing this insight through her films and activism—I went away from those conversations changed and inspired. She was encouraging, witty and assured, someone with a magic air you hope will rub off on you so that you can summon it in more challenging times. She lived with a unique combination of resolved calm and spirited gusto, thoughtful observation and commanding leadership. I'm grateful for her legacy and the model she set for all of us fledgling independent documentary filmmakers.
I met Chas 20 years ago when she brought her 1996 film, It's Elementary, into New Day Films, the social justice film distribution co-op I had joined the previous year. She was a pioneer from the start, establishing New Day as a place where LGBTQ filmmakers could be out without reservation, and within a few short years, as others followed her lead, New Day became a leader in LGBTQ-themed films. Chas assumed a leadership role, constantly advocating for ways to strengthen both our business model and our inclusive and democratic culture—often a tricky balancing act. She brought eight of her own films into the co-op over the years—all socially and politically impactful. Her films combined power, intelligence, humanity and compassion, and she consistently got to the heart of social issues, whether corporate malfeasance, homophobia or how America needs to embrace everyone with respect and dignity.
You couldn't help be attracted to and inspired by Chas, who exuded strength of character, sense of purpose and warmth all at once. She was down-to-earth and accessible to everyone, generous with time and expertise, and helped countless, less-experienced filmmakers find their own voices. Over the years, as I allowed myself to stop being in awe of her, she became a close friend and confidant, over matters political, personal and health-related. I learned so much from her about how to move through life; how to combine the personal with the political; the power of living your ideals; and humility, character and courage. I will miss her more than I can express.
Although I didn't know Chas well, I can tell you what it was like to share that momentous evening with her and the family and colleagues that each of us brought to the Academy Awards that night in 1992.
On Oscar night we met outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I can say with certainty that we Northern California documentary filmmakers felt more out of place than practically anyone else. Our group was in a limo for the first time in our lives, and Chas and her group were in a car. Both of our groups were definitely on unfamiliar ground.
As our cars wound through the procession to the entrance, we passed a good-sized group protesting the film Basic Instinct, which was opening soon, and The Silence of the Lambs, which would win Best Picture that night. Both films were being protested for their portrayals of gay and transexual people. In our limo we rolled down the windows and cheered the protesters, but in Chas' car, they stopped, got out and joined the protesters.
The documentary nominees were seated close to one another. When the category was announced, Spike Lee and John Singleton were our presenters. The Documentary Feature was announced first [Editor’s Note: Allie Light and Irving Saraf's In the Shadow of the Stars received the Academy Award.]. After our time on the stage we were rushed backstage to an elevator to take us to the press rooms. As we were in the elevator, we heard on the speaker Chas giving her acceptance speech, and that's how we knew that she, too, had won. We were jumping up and down and hugging one another because we had won, Chas had won, and she was giving an amazing political speech and thanking her partner, Kim—which was a kind of "coming out" to 1.5 billion people.
The only other time that we spent with Chas was about ten years ago, when the three of us were invited to show our winning films at a theater in LA for something the Academy was doing.
I wish I had known Chas better. She was a workaholic and so were we. We both made many more films. The Oscars gave Chas, Irving and me greater visibility, allowing for extensive and long-running careers. That award is such a validation of one's work. As important was that the three of us were part of the fabric of the Northern California documentary community—a strong and vital group of people who share equipment, skills, knowledge and, of all things, footage. We are a large and generous family that Chas was a part of, and her loss is enormous.
Editor's Note: Allie Light originally shared her reflections with Edward Guthmann for a piece he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. Due to space restrictions, Guthmann was not able to include Light's thoughts; we thank him for passing them on to us, and we thank Light for letting us use them.
The first time I met Chas was at a festival screening of It's Elementary in 1999 in San Francisco. I was still a closet filmmaker, and in awe. After the screening I nervously said, "Hello....You are awesome...Wow..." or something bumbly like that. She smiled and I could feel the solid ground on which she stood.
Chas' loved ones, our filmmaking community and our world have lost a warm, thoughtful, dedicated spirit. The legacy of her filmmaking is a force to be reckoned with in each and every classroom it has touched. I am grateful for Chas’ clarity of purpose and generosity in bringing her leadership to nurturing, growing and guiding our New Day community over so many years. With Chas in the room, I always felt more secure that our spirit-filled discussions and wrangling with new ideas would stay rooted in a thoughtful, productive surge forward.
May her force be with us all.
1995. Like other budding, social-issue documentary filmmakers, I was interested in meeting and learning from Debra Chasnoff and her producing partner, Helen Cohen, founders of Women's Educational Media (now Groundspark). I responded to a call for interns to help support the outreach of the groundbreaking It's Elementary, which was in production. I remember walking into their offices for the first time: Editor Shirley Thompson was furiously cutting the film in one corner; several interns were huddled in another, quietly researching potential outreach partners. Chas and Helen were both on the phone non-stop. It was kinetic; you could feel social change brewing behind those brick walls and without having seen a frame of the film, I knew something big and pioneering was happening. It was also an important queer space: LGBT advocates and media-makers and their allies were forming common cause in those offices in the Mission District. Seven years later, I finished my own queer film and, thanks to founder Jim Klein, joined New Day Films, where Chas led the organization’s steering committee. It's not often that one can actually befriend and work closely with one's role model. Chas, like many of the stalwarts of New Day, took precious time to mentor many younger filmmakers, helping them strategize their films and their own potential for leadership. Not having been much of a joiner growing up, I pushed myself to serve, in large part, to try and follow the example Chas laid for us. While chair of New Day, any time a problem surfaced or a crisis needed untangling, I carried a simple mantra: what would Chas do? And so often, I'd have to call and ask her directly. She always took time to help think things through; her commitment to this visionary band of filmmakers and the dissemination of work that could change the world was fierce. It's hard to fathom New Day, and this world, without her.
Chas, my wonderful friend—visionary filmmaker, activist, and mentor—lived her illness like the rest of her life: full of curiosity, openness, courage and humor. Shortly after she received her diagnosis of stage four metastatic breast cancer out of the blue, she decided to make a film (characteristic) and use herself (uncharacteristic) as the vehicle to explore what it is like to receive a very serious diagnosis, and navigate all the complex choices—medical and personal— that people with cancer and their loved ones must suddenly absorb and decide.
This was a completely different kind of film than any she had made before: No research, development, writing or fundraising—just a big dive, right into it. She enlisted several filmmaker friends and her family, and began documenting all aspects of her experience with her ad hoc, volunteer film crew. UCSF, where she was being treated, gave her a rare release to film all her appointments and treatments.
Central to Chas and her wife Nancy's approach to dealing with cancer was an insistence that no one put a timeframe to her life expectancy. She was committed to living fully in the face of an unknown prognosis, and did it with gusto. Her family lived this ethos with her so beautifully, that it moved many of her doctors and healers, and offered the rest of us a breathtaking example, often on camera.
Nearly two-and-a-half years later, Chas remained fully dedicated to making her film—one that could help inform how people with cancer, their families, caregivers, healers and medical practitioners approach life-changing diagnoses. Her collaborators are committed to continuing her mission and completing the film.
Our community has lost a radiant, shining star. She will be remembered and deeply missed.
Grieving my friend and colleague Debra Chasnoff, I look back to 1995, the year I spent editing It's Elementary with Chas and Helen S. Cohen and working with the amazing team at Women's Educational Media (now Groundspark). At the time I considered myself a political person, but I had never thought of myself as an activist. Editing It's Elementary with Chas and Helen revolutionized the way I thought about work. Collaborating so closely with Chas and watching her mind at work, strategically choosing this soundbite over that one, helped me realize the power of film to change lives and transform society. I became hooked on editing films that would do just that. I will never forget the countless gay people who, with tears in their eyes, told me how It's Elementary helped them reunite with a family member from whom they had been estranged since coming out. Chas held a mission in her heart to make the world safer and more open, not just for LGBT people, but for everyone. With her warmth, humor, passion, and intellect, Chas inspired me to work harder and think bigger in order to spread more love in the world through the films I edit. I am so grateful to have known you, Debra Chasnoff. And I will never forget you.
I was director of photography on four of Chas' feature documentaries—Deadly Deception, Let's Get Real, That's a Family and It's Elementary. She was amazingly collaborative. As a cameraperson, I always like to have a little bit of free rein. So it was a nice combination of her knowing exactly what she wanted and being able to communicate that really clearly, and then allowing me to interpret and move my body and the camera how I wanted.
We co-directed and co-produced and I shot That's a Family. And in that situation I was doing a lot of pre-interviewing of the families—finding them, writing questions.She was on another project and totally trusted me in that capacity. And then as the filming began, she was off that project and became the interviewer and ultimately did the post-production on it.
The kinds of projects she was working on were close to my heart and close to her heart, so there was a certain passion she brought to the work that she did. And because a lot of the work included kids and families, that always was compelling for me; I just luxuriate in the company of children.
Chas had a really good sense of humor. She could see the absurdity of life and laugh at it. In documentary filmmaking you're often in situations where things change on the dime and people are resistant or whatever. And she was always very graceful, incredibly diplomatic. She knew how to say what needed to be said, to fix the problem.
—Fawn Yacker [as told to Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle]
Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.