The lady behind The Ladies

by Team Intern

I not only had the cool opportunity to attend the Babelgum Online Film Festival Awards where Brooklyn’s own Christina Voros won the Spike Lee Award for her documentary short The Ladies, I also got an awesome chance to have a Q and A session with her. She discusses her start in film, how hard it is to become an established female filmmaker, and the film’s two stars and sisters, Vali and Mimi (pictured below).

mimi vali 1Q: I understand you’re from Brooklyn; did you always live there?

A: No, though I’m not leaving anytime soon! I’m a New York transplant, via Boston, Budapest and Nantucket. I live in Bed-Stuy now and it’s absolutely home.

Q: Where did your desire for filmmaking start?

A: My background was in theatre (and bartending). I was applying to theatre grad programs and a friend mentioned that I should look at film school. Which I thought was crazy at the time; always figured you had to actually know how to do something already before you could get into grad school for it. But I’ve always been a storyteller at heart, and had been a painter and writer my entire life, so I applied to film school with a writing sample and my artist’s portfolio. I never imagined I’d ever get in.

When I did it came as a total shock and changed the direction of my life completely. I feel so lucky to be working in film, specifically in documentaries where you get to travel into worlds you’ve never known and get to know people so intimately, so quickly. It’s a perpetual education and every day is different from the next. It’s a pretty amazing way to spend your life.

Q: How did it start? Where did you go to film school?

A: I was given a fellowship to go to NYU and it was the greatest gift. The program does a remarkable job of assembling a wildly diverse group of voices in each year, so you end up learning as much about style and craft from each other as you do from the faculty. Oddly it was cinematography, a skill I knew nothing about when I started, that really captured my heart. It was an organic progression that evolved out of personal collaborations; so much of filmmaking is based on personal relationships and shared ideas. I never set out to become a filmmaker, I was just lucky enough to be surrounded by really talented people whose company I enjoyed and we’ve sort of carried each other along.

Q: I attended the Babelgum Online Film Festival Awards a couple of months ago where you were awarded the Spike Lee Award in the Documentary Category for The Ladies. How did that feel?

mimi vali 3A: Crazy really. It was my first documentary. It’s such a small, intimate film. It still amazes me that it resonates so strongly with people. The characters are family, and its hard to know sometimes if things are interesting to you as a filmmaker because of what you already know about your characters, or if that truth actually comes through the screen to strangers watching it with no preconceptions or background information. Vali and Mimi are exceptionally brave and creative women; they are remarkable role models and its really a beautiful coincidence that I chose them as the subject of my first film as their support was integral to my choosing to pursue an artists life, first as an actor and painter, and now as a director and cinematographer. But winning Babelgum was pretty amazing; Vali and Mimi were hysterical about it actually; they were like ‘Spike Lee knows who we are! He’s seen our kitchen!’

Q: In your speech, you gave props to women filmmakers out there. Are there any in particular that have inspired you?

A: Well there are the ones that have inspired me from afar: Ellen Kuras is an icon, naturally, and Maryse Alberti is always astonishing to me, her career is simply breathtaking. Then those I have come to know as friends: Carol Dysinger, who I was lucky enough to have as a mentor at NYU, is one of the most intrepid and generous minds I know, apart from being just generally fearless (she’s spent the last 4 years off and on shooting a doc by herself embedded with the US army in Afghanistan.)

I think it’s easy to forget how hard it was to establish yourself as a female filmmaker even less than a generation ago. There are more of us now, for sure, working as directors and cinematographers, but we’re still a minority. Just look down the list of names on the ASC roster and count how many are women. But I don’t feel held back being a woman in this field, and it’s because of women like Carol and Maryse and Ellen whose work has started to change that landscape.

Q: I loved The Ladies and the relationship Mimi and Vali have. What inspired you to do a film on them?

mimi vali 2A: Well when I moved to NY to go to film school I couldn’t afford rent in the city, and Vali and Mimi had a couch. It was meant to be a temporary arrangement. They are my grandmother’s sisters and have always been the relatives I’ve been closest to, but sleeping in anyone’s living room for too long can be a trial. As dressmakers and 90 year old women neither of them had much use for the notion of privacy. Mimi used to throw the shower curtain open while I was taking a shower in the morning to tell me that it was raining out an I should bring an umbrella. I was starting to go a little stir crazy.

When tasked to shoot a 10-minute doc for school I’d been researching several other subjects but my heart wasn’t in them. I would come home at night and listen to Vali and Mimi tell stories and then a light just went off. Oddly, once I started shooting, the things that they would do that made living with them maddening were suddenly things that I wanted to get on camera. It brought us even closer together and solidified a friendship that moved beyond our relationship as family. They really are my two best friends.

Q: Is that you as a young girl, dancing in the living room with Mimi in the background at the end of the film?

A: Yes that is me. Mimi made me that tutu!

Christina Voros is currently working on two full-length feature documentary projects: ‘Garden in Transit,’ now in post-production, follows the story of Ed and Bernie Massey, brothers and public artists who, along with 20,000 NYC kids, created a massive public art project displayed on the roofs of over 5,000 NYC taxis last year. ‘Jogini: Sex or Culture,’ which Voros is fundraising to go back to India to complete shooting, is the story of Grace Nirmala, a teacher in Andhra Pradesh, India who’s made it her life’s work to bring an end to a 2,000 year old tradition of ritualized prostitution. –Regina

info/images of Vali and Mimi courtesy of babelgum, addt’l info: wikipedia

ps: Thanks, Christina, and congrats!

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