An Interview with Debra Zimmerman

by Katy Gray

Katy Gray, a PhD candidate in Rutgers University’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department, spoke with Debra Zimmerman in December 2014 about Zimmerman’s work with Women Make Movies. Often distributors are an invisible or overlooked part of the chain linking filmmakers with educators, so we at Films for the Feminist Classroom are delighted to share this conversation, which offers valuable insight into the role of distribution in ensuring educators have access to a wide range of quality films.

Debra Zimmerman has been the Executive Director of Women Make Movies (WMM), a non-profit NY-based film organization that supports women filmmakers, since 1983. During her tenure it has grown into the largest distributor of films by and about women in the world. WMM’s internationally recognized Production Assistance Program has helped hundreds of women get their films made. Films from WMM programs have been nominated or won Academy Awards for the last eight years.

She is in great demand around the world as a speaker on independent film distribution, marketing and financing as well as on women's film. She has moderated panels and given master classes at the Sundance Film Festival, MIPDOC, and Reel Screen as well as film festivals in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. Zimmerman has been closely affiliated with the International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) as the co-host of the Talk of the Day and as a tutor for their Summer Film Academy. She has been on the juries of festivals around the world including the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the Cartagena Film Festival (FICCI), and the Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival, among others. In addition, she has mentored filmmakers at the Ex-Oriente Film Workshop in Vienna, the Sheffield DocuFest, and for many years at the National Alliance of Latino Independent Producers’ (NALIP) Academy. She sits on the Board of Directors of Cinema Tropical, a resource for Latino independent filmmakers and on the Advisory Board of the Center for Social Media at American University. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the New York Women in Film and Television’s Loreen Arbus Changemaker Award and Hot Doc’s 2013 Doc Mogul Award, given to those who "over the course of his or her career has made an essential contribution to the creative vitality of the documentary industry, both in his or her country or abroad."  Zimmerman was recently appointed the Laurie Chair in Women's Studies at Douglass Residential College at Rutgers University and is teaching there in 2014-15.


Katy Gray: I was hoping we could begin with you telling me a little about how you began working at Women Make Movies (WMM). I know there’s a great deal of lore around this.

Debra Zimmerman: [laughter] Wow, lore. Okay, well the lore is probably true. So the story is that I was a women’s studies minor at SUNY New Paltz and my women’s studies teacher told me to go to a conference, a womyn’s weekend. And I always laugh because it was women with a “Y”: W-O-M-Y-N. It was a pretty fantastic weekend of women doing all kinds of things in the arts and I went to a screening in a barn of a WMM film. It was the first time that I actually was in an audience with only women, watching a film that was really relevant to me, a documentary. When I saw the women who founded WMM speak about it I thought, “wow, if I could do that with my life I’d be really happy.” And then I came to New York and rode my bicycle for three months on the street—the office was actually here in Chelsea back then—before I had the courage to knock on the door and say, “I want to be an intern here.” I started as an intern in 1979, I think. And that’s how I got involved.

Gray: It’s so fascinating and such a lovely story. I was talking to a friend of mine earlier and said, it’s sort of like the story we’d all love to tell about working in independent cinema of any kind. I was wondering if you could also tell me a little bit about the life cycle of the organization and how it’s perhaps had to transform through various political changes.

Zimmerman: The organization started in 1972 because Sheila Paige and Ariel Dougherty wanted to teach women how to make films, and it really started as a workshop. I was looking for material for a Rutgers talk that I gave a couple of weeks ago and I found a flyer that said “Come, women, waitresses, wives, muchachas, come learn to make movies,” and that was really the idea: to put cameras into the hands of women who didn't have the skills to make films, didn’t know how to make films. For the first six years or so, that’s really what the organization did: run workshops to train women to make films. It was a collective of women who started making films together, and the first film that WMM made that put the organization on the map was called Healthcaring: From Our End of the Speculum (dir. Denise Bostrom and Jane Warrenbrand, 1976). Though there were credits—director and producer—it was a collective accomplishment.

At this time WMM was a membership-based organization that provided its members access to equipment. In the early 1970s it was very expensive to rent or buy 16-millimeter equipment; this equipment was in the tens of thousands of dollars, so it was very important that WMM provided access. In order to get access you had to really work a certain number of hours a month on various projects. It was a real collective. And then the organization received significant funding for six paid staff positions from the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA), which was an employment program under the Carter administration. Soon after that, I came in as an intern. I actually went from being an intern to getting one of those positions, which was as associate producer of a documentary on battered women, Why Women Stay (dir. Jacqueline Shortell-McSweeney and Debra Zimmerman, 1980).

Very soon after that we lost a lot of our funding for various reasons, one of which was Reagan’s coming into power and saying that women have accomplished everything they need to accomplish, so they don’t need to be a part of the special art access program that we were getting funding from. A group of us decided to see if we could actually keep the doors open by volunteering. Myself and a woman named Lydia Pilcher, who is now a very successful producer—we worked, as somebody reminded me just yesterday who was on the board at that time, for $50 a week. We deferred $25 a week, so we were basically getting $25 a week to come in and keep the distribution service open, because even though we had no money and no staff, people were still asking for the films we were distributing. We had started distributing Healthcaring because nobody else wanted to distribute it, and then women started coming to us and asking if we would distribute their films, and that’s how the distribution service was born.

Gray: I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the ways in which WMM has collaborated with academic institutions and what kind of visions you have for the future of WMM in terms of collaborating.

Zimmerman: WMM wouldn’t exist without academia. Or my vision of WMM, let’s say, wouldn’t exist without academia. We were able to rebuild the organization based on distribution and to maintain our autonomy because of the income we get from educational institutions. Our distribution income is something like 65-70 percent of our income, and, of that, 80 percent is from universities and colleges. So it’s really enormous. Because it represents our largest market means that we—and I’m speaking in business terms, of course—we need to be collaborators. But, having the input of women who are teaching either women’s studies or film studies has always been essential, as well. And many of the filmmakers we work with teach in universities. So there’s this constant dialogue back and forth. We’ve also always had a number of academics on our board. And, in fact, when I was beginning to rebuild, or to build, the WMM collection, feminist film theory was incredibly important in academia and it was also really important in terms of the production of feminist film. I created a collection called “New Directions” which really embraced experiments in feminist filmmaking après Laura Mulvey’s article on visual pleasure.1 So very soon after 1983 and my coming to the organization, we were very much enveloped in collaborating with academics. We did a conference in 1986 called “Viewpoints,” which was with women photographers and video- and filmmakers, and we did it at Hunter College. And, for a project called Punta de Vista: Latina we worked with academics to create a collection of film by Latinas and did a study guide for that collection.  It’s so integral to our organization that, again, I can’t quite imagine WMM without a robust feminist academia.

Gray: It’s really fascinating to hear you talk about this symbiosis, in that the development of feminist education is directly linked to the work that WMM has done and, likewise, the use of that content in feminist classrooms has been intrinsic to the growth and sustainment of WMM. I’m wondering if you have suggestions for strengthening links between filmmakers and educators, or if you see fissures between filmmakers and educators. As you say, many educators are filmmakers, so I wonder if you could comment on this?

Zimmerman: When you were speaking, I was thinking about some reading for a course that I’m going to be teaching [at Rutgers] and I read that Ella Shohat had been quoted as saying in one of her articles that academia was exposed to the perspectives of women from the third world through films from WMM. And I also heard this from academics in the audience when I was at the “Visible Evidence” conference at NYU. There was actually a panel about feminist film that focused a great deal on WMM.  I was incredibly proud because I feel like we have had this great impact on the resources and the tools that are needed to teach what I consider to be a truly multicultural and representative vision of feminism and global feminism.

I’m always thinking about all kinds of ways that we can further our collaborations. I was actually speaking with someone at Rutgers about the idea of doing a summer institute for teachers who want to use more media in their classroom, and we’re thinking about applying to the National Endowment for the Humanities for that. One of our board members, Patricia White, who teaches at Swarthmore College, has been having her students do analyses of our films and they’re posted on the web. In fact, we’re going to be launching a new website soon, and we’re going to have what I’ve always wanted, which is a whole section of the website devoted to curriculum, to articles, and to discussion about feminist film.

It’s also been fantastic to be at Rutgers University as the Laurie Chair [at the Institute for Women’s Leadership] this academic year and to be around people who are teaching women’s studies. At WMM we look all over the world for great films for people to use, and now I’m one of those people who is using the films. Seeing it from the other side just gives me so many ideas about how we can collaborate, but also about why media is so critically important. Because media has expanded exponentially in terms of its impact on people’s lives, students now are looking at things; they’re not reading as much. There’s so many visual stimuli around them and there’s so much opportunity for them to be able to see all kinds of moving images, so the fact that WMM is all about those moving images just makes it much, much more central, actually, to almost all studies. It was like this little light bulb went off: “oh my God, media is finally critical.”  For so long film was seen as entertainment, as an accessory, as an addition to the text. But it is the text now. Being a critical viewer of media is critical. So if you’re going to be teaching you’re going to have to be using media, and feminist media needs to be a part of that media.

Gray: I love the way that you put that, and you actually touched on a number of things that I’m really interested in hearing your take on. The development of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon instant video, Hulu, etc. and concurrently the shift in classes moving online, either partially or entirely are affecting viewing practices and access to moving images in general. Agatha Beins gave me some interesting statistics for Texas Woman’s University—about 40 percent of student credit hours each semester are taken through classes that are at least 50 percent online, which is remarkable. I’m wondering if those changes have coincided with shifts in your distribution practices or what you search for in acquiring media.

Zimmerman: [laughter] I’m laughing because, well, let me say that I realized a long time ago that WMM can’t really be on the cutting edge of technology because we’re too small and we can’t take the risks that big companies can take. I remember way back when CD-ROMs first came out and one of our sister organizations invested a lot of money in creating a CD-ROM collection, which of course was obsolete within a year and a half.  We’ve gone through, as an organization, something like 8 format shifts: from 16 mm, to 1 inch reel-to-reel, to VHS to ¾ inch, then from ¾ inch to Betacam and then to DVD, and now HD Cam and digital technologies. We’ve had to adjust, modify, and invest a lot of money in new formats consistently over the years. But, again, it’s too risky for us to be ahead of the curve regarding technology.

I feel like content-wise we’re always ahead of the curve because our filmmakers are ahead of the curve, because they’re working on films that have not reached the mainstream media yet. I’m thinking in particular of a film called The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo (dir. Lisa F. Jackson, 2007), which was the first film to explore how women were being used as a weapon of war. Another film is Warrior Marks (dir. Pratibha Parmar, 1993) which looked at FGM. And, I’ll just stop here because I want to get back to the technology.

So content-wise we are ahead of the curve; with technology we’re not, and right now we’re at a moment where we really need to catch up because—and it’s very challenging—because there are all these new ways to access media and it’s important that there be feminist media in those platforms like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon.

But, the reality is, like with the music industry, there is no model yet to really return income back to the artists through that kind of access, and we have been holding the fort, basically, trying to maintain the kind of educational distribution that we do which is low volume, high cost because when universities buy a copy of our film it is used by hundreds or thousands of students. But, the technology is breathing down on all of us and we need—and other distributors need—to figure out a way to be able to return money to filmmakers, for us to be able to exist as an organization, and to be able to provide our films digitally. We do sell digital licenses to universities and we are working on a digital platform with some other distributors, but we don’t have all the answers yet. So our films —with the exception of some films on iTunes—aren’t available on Netflix and Hulu because the entire financial structure of the organization and our ability to return royalties to filmmakers would be really compromised.

Gray: This makes me think about the idea that anyone can be a filmmaker because the technology, the tools for doing so, are so ubiquitous. They’re also readily available and relatively cheaper than ever before. This is the same kind of argument that I recall hearing in film studies classes about the advent of video, which suddenly made it possible for people like Cheryl Dunye to make films. I’m interested in the correlation between new technology becoming available and the new opportunities it provides, but it’s also really important to hear about the challenges.

Zimmerman: It’s hard because, again, it goes back to this notion of content versus delivery system. I think that in some ways WMM is needed more than ever because we are a brand and we are a trusted advisor in terms of content. You’ve got hundreds of films out there now. There weren’t hundreds or thousands of films previously. Because there is so much content out there, it’s really important for people to be able to know what they are going to get when they see a film in the WMM catalogue. And, by the way, the cost of making films has not really gone down. That’s the other irony: budgets have continued to increase, in fact exponentially. Right now, I would say, the standard cost of an hour documentary is somewhere between $250,000–300,000 and that’s not high end. There are many, many million-dollar and multi-million-dollar documentaries out there. Although the technology has made it possible for everybody to make a film, that’s just being able to shoot and being able to edit. That’s not what really goes into making a film. What goes into making a film is art, and craft, and skill, and concept, and access, and time—a lot of time—to make really great films.

Gray: I’m interested in learning about some of the practices that support your theoretical/practical views. Are there practices that you see relying on both application-oriented notions of filmmaking and also on broader theoretical concerns about women, sex, or sexuality?

Zimmerman: That is a really tough question. I think that, first of all, there was a much stronger relationship between the early writers of feminist film theory and the practitioners of feminist film. I think Sally Potter was absolutely key at that time, and Laura Mulvey herself made films. And there was all of this experimentation with how to create this new kind of visual pleasure. And how film, in fact, codified the male gaze, to put it very simply. I don’t think that women filmmakers today are as concerned with that, are really working on it, although as I speak I know there’s at least one, if not two, documentaries being made right now that are specifically about the female gaze.

But I also think that’s different than films utilizing theory, you know. I think—and this might be a function of less money for the arts here in the United States—it might be a function of the attention paid to technology. Or maybe it’s just the time that we’re living in. There’s more focus on the million-dollar documentary than on experimenting with the form of cinema and the way that it codifies gender. I’m not sure why, but I don’t see those films, and it’s very sad to me. I really love experimental film, and I really love films that challenge us by their form, that challenge us to see and to be critical viewers of film because of the way that the film is constructed, rather than because of the content. And I don’t see very many films that do that.

Gray: It’s interesting to hear, and not surprising, that there’s this emphasis on a kind of glossy, expensive, strongly continuity-based narrative approach to documentary, versus a desire to see and to put more funds behind experimental practices. I don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking lately about why it’s even necessary that when we go to the movies we should expect that something be finished, which I guess makes sense. From a practical, commercial standpoint that seems like a ridiculous notion—

Zimmerman: Your question brings up a number of different things, related to what we’ve been talking about. Number one is that you asked about the way that film is being used, which is very different now that it’s no longer a 16-mm projector or a film that’s being popped into a videotape deck. In 16 mm you couldn’t fast forward. Then with VHS it was possible. Now with DVD, it’s harder. But many of us have the technology to be able to just pull a clip or look at whatever section of the film we want. The other thing is the really interesting development in television in terms of narrativity. When I go to the movies now it seems like I’m watching a short story as opposed to a novel, because a novel is many different chapters, and a novel spans time, but a short story is usually within a short period of time. You go to the movies and even if it spans time you’re only spending an hour and a half or two hours with these characters, and they can only develop so much within that period of time. But when you watch television, or you watch a series, and you binge watch a series—which is the way that we’re all viewing media and consuming media these days—there is a tremendous opportunity for development. So that combination of temporality and narrativity I think has really changed the way that we consume media and the way that we view media.

Gray: This is the subject of what I hope will be my dissertation—binge watching and changing viewing practices. I’m fascinated by the way that audiences create new temporalities that are unexpected or impossible to anticipate by those producing the film or the show, simply by rearranging content, either by skipping over some content or by flat out creating some sort of fan video on YouTube.

Zimmerman: I’d like to go back to something [we were talking about earlier]. I was thinking more about this notion of viewing, and one of the challenges we’re facing now is the fact that the people who use our films in universities really would like us to have a subscription model, meaning that the university would pay a certain fee and have access to our entire collection. This is understandable in the digital age, but the problem is, how do we return money to our filmmakers? I can’t imagine how much we would need to charge for that subscription so that the filmmakers would actually [make money].

Gray: I would love to end with another question: I’m interested in hearing some of your thoughts about the use of film in the classroom. WMM supports films that address various cultural elisions and silences, as well as violence, oppression, inequality, trauma. I’m thinking of recent calls for trigger warnings related to certain kinds of visual content that could trigger past experiences of trauma. This is something that I have experienced requests for in my own classroom and a practice that I refuse to subscribe to because coming from a film studies background the method is that you watch everything, so it’s hard for me to understand.

Zimmerman: I’m sorry, but anyone can turn on the TV and see so much more traumatic violence than anything that’s in any film that’s made by a woman about violence. That’s ridiculous, ridiculous. I can talk about a particular film and a particular experience that I had with a film called The Day I Will Never Forget by Kim Longinotto (2002), which is about Female Genital Mutilation. And the film is profiling a very young girl who was genitally mutilated and asks Kim to come to her house and listen to her read a poem to her mother in which she basically is asking her mother to not mutilate her sister. Kim was also encouraged by girls and by nurses in Kenya to film a circumcision. And people were very upset that that was in the film. I was at a screening where people walked out saying they had to throw up. A woman came up to me, furious, saying, “how dare you.” I’ve listened to Kim speak about this a number of times, and she felt that it was her responsibility as a filmmaker to keep the circumcision in the film because that is what the women who experienced it wanted her to do. By the way, this is the most extreme example that I can think of.

For many, many years, we were looking for a film on sex trafficking, even though we couldn’t find one that was up to the standards—up to the feminist standards—that we wanted, that had the perspective of women who were able to speak on camera in a safe way, that they weren’t doubly exploited by a film being made about them. We saw many, many films. It wasn’t until we saw this film called The Price of Sex (dir. Mimi  Chakarova, 2011) that we actually acquired a film about sex trafficking, and we got calls all the time asking if we have a film about sex trafficking. Mimi Chakarova, who made The Price of Sex, is Bulgarian, and the film starts out when she goes to her home country and finds out that so many of the girls are missing and gone, because they’ve been trafficked. It takes a very sensitive filmmaker, or filmmakers speaking of their own experiences or experiences close to them, to be able to make the kinds of films that show us the truth we need to see in a way that doesn’t offend or re-exploit. I think about films on sex trafficking which actually make me cringe, because I don’t want to see the women re-exploited by the camera. I don’t want to see shots from the legs moving up the body. I don’t want to pity the women so much that I can’t respect them. Those are the things that I’m concerned about.

Gray: The experience that you’re citing with this particular screening makes me wonder if you’ve experienced other issues with censorship or efforts to censor certain screenings.

DZ: Of course. Of course. Which one do you want? First of all, in 1985 I went to the UN Conference on Women in Nairobi, and the American Embassy wouldn’t let us show Healthcaring: From Our End of the Speculum because they said it would offend African women to look at vaginas. Women Make Movies as an organization was censored—or an attempt was made to censor us—by a member of the House of Representatives from Michigan who called us a lesbian pornographer because we distributed lesbian films. We actually lost our NEA funding for five years because of that. That was in the late 1990s. The right wing was trying to shut down the NEA. This was after the culture wars around Robert Mapplethorpe, and they were still trying to shut down the NEA and they decided to use us as a target because we supported lesbian filmmakers. That’s another example.

KG: That’s a very fascinating note on which to end. Thank you.

1 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6–18.

After graduating from Smith College, Katy Gray worked for Orchard Films, a non-fiction production company in New York, doing research for historical documentaries. She later joined the staff of NewFest, a New York LGBT film festival, where she was the Festival Assistant and Outreach Coordinator. After completing her master’s degree in film studies at Columbia University, Katy worked as a research assistant and project manager for Columbia University's Women Film Pioneers Project, a global initiative historicizing the lives of women working in silent-era film industries. Katy’s current research investigates the affective dimensions of cinema and new media spectatorship, sensations of intimacy between users and material digital devices, negative affect, and feminist pedagogy.