BY AMY KAUFMAN
Times Staff Writer
There was something in the way Nadia Williams would move her 92-year-old hands when she spoke of her son that seemed weighty: how she worried paper between her thumbs when someone mentioned his disappearance, or flung her palms up in joy with the recollection of his childhood.
Esther Robinson had been paying particular attention to her grandmother Nadia’s hands for weeks, instructing the cinematographer shooting her documentary, “A Walk Into the Sea,” to zoom in on the slightest motion that might further indicate something about its subject — Esther’s uncle and Nadia’s son, Danny Williams.
“There’s an emotionality to the way somebody moves that’s about love,” Robinson said.
Robinson was caught in an affair of passion herself in 2002, desperately trying to debunk the mystery of her uncle by filming a documentary about the man who made her family go mum. Robinson always knew her Uncle Danny had some connection to Andy Warhol — she’d caught his pictures falling out of the creases in her family’s hidden books about the famed icon. But her kin refused to speak of Williams and his disappearance in 1966, only a year after he’d dropped out of Harvard and moved to Manhattan’s Warhol Factory, where he made films and became Andy’s boyfriend.
“I’d ask what happened to him and they’d look at the ground and say, ‘He drowned,’” she said of her family’s evasive responses.
In fact, Uncle Danny had returned to his family’s Massachusetts home in July 1966 following the Velvet Underground/Exploding Plastic Inevitable light show, which he had designed. Addicted to amphetamines, he brought with him only a wooden box containing personal items and a drug-filled shaving kit. After one evening’s family meal, Williams hopped into Nadia’s car and was never seen again.
Nearly four decades later, Robinson first watched one of her uncle’s films, mere days after she’d decided to film her grandmother’s hands, and was astonished.
“It was probably one of the most intense visual moments of my life,” she said, remembering watching the way Williams had filmed Edie Sedgwick’s hands in his own movie, which had only just been uncovered during the documentary shoot. “We both shared this idiosyncratic attention to detail. I knew nothing about him, but at that moment I felt I knew something about his heart.”
Robinson spent the next four years understanding her uncle’s vision. But as she neared the completion of the film and was itching to share Williams’ story with the world, Robinson found herself with a major problem: She had exhausted the donations from family members and private investors. She was broke. So she began sending off pages of grant proposals to any organization willing to sponsor a firsttime filmmaker — of which there were few.
Among those that responded with grants that enabled her to finish the film was an organization that will be gathering at the Beverly Hilton on Thursday night to celebrate people just like Robinson: Women in Film, which is holding its annual Crystal+Lucy Awards. Robinson was granted $5,000 from Women in Film, which stresses the positive image of women on screen while simultaneously pushing to increase employment and equal opportunities for women in the entertainment industry.
One-fifth of the money came from the organization’s Gretchen Bender Fund, a memorial trust created by Bender, a former Women in Film member. The rest came from its Film Finishing Fund, a program that originated in 1985 to allow films by or about women to be finished. Fund chairwoman Susan Baerwald and other judges sifted through 125 submissions in the last year, rough-cut films that came from 21 states and six countries. The competition, which is open to anyone, also involves a lengthy application detailing the filmmaker’s intention for the project. A handful of winners is selected each year, depending on the quality of the submission pool. This year, 10 winners received cash awards ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.
For Robinson, the money was enough to pay for both an editor and sound mixer, ultimately allowing her to finish “A Walk Into the Sea” in time for the deadlines of a handful of independent film festivals. “A lot of people almost get there and then need help in postproduction,” said Baerwald, a former TV network executive who is also a trustee of the Women in Film Foundation. “These are small grants that are not underwriting films but give that last push.” “Their funding is a part of a framework of support that’s really crucial,” Robinson said. “It just shows how that small amount of money can leverage a large amount of return.” And Robinson certainly got a good return, winning the Teddy Award for best documentary at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival and, most recently, the New York Loves Film Award at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival.
She acknowledges that many female filmmakers aren’t so lucky. “Funding goes to boy stories,” she said with a sigh. “Women aren’t necessarily trained to make things at all costs, including human costs. I think men are socialized slightly differently.” “I think everything started out as a boys’ club,” Baerwald said. “Men seem to have their poker and golf games, but women were not always in the position to help people. [WIF] gives them that exposure and networking.”
Indeed, only 15% of allIndeed, only 15% of all directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2006 were women, according to Martha Lauzen, a San Diego State University professor who conducts annual studies of women’s employment in the film and television industries.
The 2006 study indicated that the prevalence of women in the film industry has essentially remained at a standstill since 1999. Additionally, Lauzen noted, women were “most likely to work on documentaries and romantic comedies” and “least likely to work on science fiction and horror features.” Women in Film President Jane Fleming remains optimistic that the times are changing, albeit slowly.
“In 1973, there were very few businesswomen in the executive suite, and now there are women at the highest levels of TV and film,” Fleming said. “I can only hope that 30 years from now we’ll be looking at similar good news in the writing, directing and camera world.”