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  WINDY CITY TIMES

MOVIES Out filmmaker Yvonne Welbon on Ruth Ellis' legacy
by Steven Chaitman
2013-03-13

This article shared 4233 times since Wed Mar 13, 2013
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About 14 years ago, filmmaker Yvonne Welbon introduced the world to an LGBT matriarch, 100-year-old Ruth Ellis. Welbon's documentary, Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100 won 10 Best Documentary awards at lesbian and gay film festivals and also the 2001 GLAAD Media Award for Best Documentary.

Living with Pride will screen for free at as part of the Cinema Q III Series at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., in the Claudia Cassidy Theater on Wed., March 20, at 6:30 p.m. Ellis was a Black lesbian who came out in 1915 and became an activist for opening her Detroit home to queer youth as well as hosting African-Americans migrating from the South.

Welbon, also a Black lesbian film historian, reflected on her film, Ellis and the legacy of both in an interview with Windy City Times. She also discussed her current project devoted to chronicling past and supporting future films from Black lesbian filmmakers.

Windy City Times: It's been nearly 15 years since Ruth Ellis @ 100. How has that film and that experience continued to be important?

Yvonne Welbon: It's probably one of the most important films I've made in my career. It is amazing that it is very evergreen and that it remains one of the only films of its kind. There are more films now on older LGBT folks or older LGBT communities, but at the time I made it there were very few.

WCT: How does the film continue to resonate with audiences?

YW: The way the film was used here in the States, when it first premiered, was intergenerationally. One of the things that was done was a lot of the youth groups were brought together with senior LGBT groups. Panels were put together, workshops were put together to bring people together and share their stories, for the older folks to pass on their wisdom and share with the younger community, which was really one of the things Ruth wanted the film to do, and it continues to be used that way.

WCT: There are so many more LGBT role models now than ever. What makes Ruth in particular relevant today and into the future?

YW: The thing that will always make her story relevant is she really was 100 years old. She lived through 100 years of American history. That's a very rare thing. The fact that she's Black, a woman, a lesbian just really adds a lot of depth and dimension to that story. It will probably always resonate with people because it's a particular view of America—a very unique view of America that we will never have again. There is no other story of a Black lesbian who lived from 1899 to 2000. It's a truly unique story.

WCT: What can LGBTs learn from her experience as an out and proud lesbian?

YW: For a young person to see the film, or anyone under 100, it's really inspirational because you get to see that you're not the only one, you're not alone. Here's somebody who lived over 100 years ago who had similar experiences with coming out, similar experiences trying to understand who she was in the world as a gay person, similar experiences just growing up in a family and being gay.

WCT: Your Sisters in Cinema project is now 10 years old. How is that evolving?

YW: One of the things that was created from that project was a huge archive of African-American women film work. So one of the projects I'm working on is an archive project related to all the materials that have been collected over a 20-year period at this point. Also, I'm working on an offshoot of that project called Sisters in the Life, which focuses on Black lesbian work. The first "out" film from a Black lesbian filmmaker was from 1986 and it was shown at the Outfest film festival in L.A. in 1987 and that kind of marks the moment where we have out Black lesbian filmmaking, so we're about 25-26 years at this point. The project I'm working on now looks at that first quarter century of out Black lesbian filmmaking.

WCT: Do you feel you've taken on this responsibility to make sure there's a history of films from African-American women and Black lesbians and also a future?

YW: Yes, that's exactly who I am. When I went to film school in 1991, I only knew of one Black woman filmmaker and that experience propelled me forward into trying to find what I call my sisters in cinema. I didn't want my experience to be anybody else's experience. I have worked on making sure there are materials you can use to teach about Black women film history and that people know the names of more than one person like I did when I started school. What's really nice about the Sisters in the Life project is it's really compact, it's a way to get at history now, it's only 25 years, it's manageable. That's the project I am trying to get to win the Tribeca Affinity Award.

WCT: What are today's most significant challenges and barriers for Black women filmmakers?

YW: The biggest challenge is really being a woman—it's not so much being Black. That was an interesting thing I learned working on my dissertation is that a lot of the issue is around being female, and not so much around race.

Actually, being lesbian really helps. If you look at feature films made by Black women, over a third of them were produced by Black lesbians. Part of the reason why is that the LGBT community is super-supportive, it's an incredible infrastructure. There's this rich festival circuit—all of this support in place for us. The industry is really incredibly sexist. Women are 51 percent of the population, but we are 6-7 percent of the filmmakers.


This article shared 4233 times since Wed Mar 13, 2013
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