Feminist documentarians with their own production company

by Samantha Mercado

It’s no secret that the film industry, in particular, documentary making, is heavily dominated by men. When the credits roll after your favorite documentary, more often than not a man’s name will follow under the title of “filmmaker” or “producer.” That is not the case for Sylvia Frances Films, the production company started by documentarians Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle. Both women met in a graduate film program. “We both had an interest in making films about women and women’s experiences,” Kate told BUST. While the film industry is heavily male dominated, Joanna and Kate said they lucked out in having a plethora of female mentors and working with mainly female filmmakers after graduate school.

Before teaming up, the two made their mark in the documentary world with shorter films, still based around women. Joanna Sokolowski produced and directed the short film Still Time in 2012 about a woman’s life after serving 20 years in prison. She also co-produced the HBO film Very-Semi Serious about New Yorker cartoonists that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Kate Trumbull-Lavalle was an associate producer and assistant editor for the 2015 film No Mas Bebes, which detailed the horrific coercive sterilizations on hundreds of Latina women at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Kate also directed her own short film in 2012 called Abaayo/Sister, which followed the friendship and strife of two Somali girls.

Joanna Sokolowski headshotJoanna Sokolowski, Photo via Sylvia Frances Films

Seeing how filmmaking in itself is hard work, especially documentary filmmaking, the two decided to team up and work on their first feature film together, Ovarian Psychos. The film followed an all-women Latina bicycle brigade in East L.A. and chronicled the bonds between mothers and daughters and who were taking back the streets of East L.A. “Joanna and I both fell in love with the work they were doing and the way they were doing it with the bicycles,” Kate said. During the filming of the documentary both Joanna and Kate were pregnant with their daughters which only made the connections between the mothers and daughters in the film even more potent, the two said. “The film is about mother-daughter relationships and the family that you build and the family that you inherit- going through that experience myself and becoming a parent is a very transformative experience,” Kate explained.

“There’s so much of our production company that is such a family affair,” Joanna said, noting that the two women also work with their husbands. The duo’s new production company, Sylvia Frances Films, is named after both Joanna and Kate’s mothers. “It’s an ode to powerful women,” Joanna said, adding that the sisterly bond between herself and Kate lends their work and production company to a family style business.

Kate Trumbull LaValle headshotKate Trumbull-LaValle, Photo via Sylvia Frances Films

Documentary making is long and time-consuming work, which was nothing new to the filmmakers — Ovarian Psychos took five years in total to film and produce. “I have two kids now — I didn’t have any kids when I started this film, Joanna has one kid,” Kate explains, revealing that although the work was long and hard, much of it was done on their own terms. “We were able to juggle and fit the needs of the independent filmmaker,” Kate said, explaining that her and Joanna’s pregnancies were three months apart so during the months that each were giving birth they would swap the workload between the two. Kate explained that since Ovarian Psychos was the pair’s first film they didn’t get worn out by the long process, “We were really fresh and excited.”

When it comes to looking toward the future in terms of filmmaking and promoting female and minority narratives, the two said they think representation and the uplifting of minority and female voices are key. “I’m a feminist, unapologetically a feminist. So I think even if I make films that aren’t gender specific, I’ll always make them through the lens of feminism,” Kate said. For now the two are working on a brand new documentary series and documentary feature which they are currently keeping a secret — although they spilled that one will be about the experiences of mothers during birth.

Top photo via Sylvia Frances Films

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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