Bentonville FF: Linda Goldstein Knowlton on WE ARE THE RADICAL MONARCHS – Betsy Bozdech interviews

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An experienced, Emmy-nominated director (The World According to Sesame Street, Somewhere Between) and producer (Whale Rider, The Shipping News), Linda Goldstein Knowlton attended the 5th annual Bentonville Film Festival this year for her latest documentary, We Are the Radical Monarchs. The uplifting, fist-pumping story of a new kind of scouting troop for young girls, the film underlines the importance of inclusion, representation, and activism in today’s world.

Betsy Bozdech: Tell me a little bit about the film.

Linda Goldstein Knowlton: So, the film is about the Radical Monarchs, which is an alternative girl troop in Oakland, California, and it’s for girls of color, ages 8 to 13, and they earn badges based on issues of social justice.

BB: How did you end up working on the project?

LGK: They got a whole bunch of unexpected press early on. I read an article online, and the headline had something with “girl troop” and “radical.” I can’t remember the exact headline, but that caught my attention because you don’t often see the words “radical” and “girl troop” in the same sentence. So I was like, “what is this?” And this group was started by two queer women of color who really wanted to center on girls of color’s experience. And not just have a diversity day and to really dig in deep to issues of social justice. And they created a curriculum for this whole younger set of girls. I just was like, “I’m in, what can I do, I need to make this movie!”

BB: Are you from the Bay Area?

LGK: No, I’m originally from Chicago, but I live in LA.

BB: What was the process like? How long did you spend with them?

LGK: I always think, going into my films, that it’s going to be “a year in the life,” you know, and this is this new organization — what happens in the year of them getting their footing? But this one took a very distinct turn. I was diagnosed with breast cancer a month after we started shooting. So my usual process of embedding and spending so much time with specific characters, we kind of couldn’t do that.

BB: I’m almost a year out from diagnosis myself.

LGK: Are you? Oh, how are you doing?

BB: Stage 1B. I’m good. It’s gone. Cured. Pathologically gone.

LGK: High five! Me, too. Yes, I was diagnosed in 2015 and had a double mastectomy. And now I’m all clean. I only have to go back every six months now, instead of every four months.

BB: Excellent.

LGK: So it was a whole, you know, five months of chemo and four surgeries, and it just was a different kind of filmmaking process.

BB: You did the film the whole time?

LGK: I did. One of the things that I absolutely love about filmmaking is that it’s a collaborative art, and I work with an incredible team. And my producing partner and editor, Katie Flint, happened to move to the Bay Area right as we were starting this. And she just stepped in and stepped up and did all the stepping. And that was a powerful experience. We’ve worked on several films together, but just feeling the village around me was really special. Also, I had started two films at the same time, and when I got diagnosed, I dropped the other one. I kept on the Radical Monarchs because I just felt like this is such an empowering story. And it was a great example for my daughter, who just turned 14 a couple of days ago. For her to see that I’m going to be okay, I’m working, and where I’m putting my energy and effort — that it’s into this story and to these women and these girls and that we can, all of us, no matter how old we are, make a difference and change our communities and change the world. So it was a real gift to me, actually, to be working on this film at this time. We filmed for three and a half years. And, not that anyone wants cancer, but this process did afford me to step back to spend more time and really look at “what does it take to start a movement?” Because that’s what happened. Anayvette and Marilyn really started this group thinking it’s just going to be 12 girls in Oakland. And they were tapped on the shoulder to start a movement. And what we really follow in the film is them striving and them stepping up to meet the needs and the struggles and the triumphs and all of that. So that was really an exciting way of looking at the prism of social activism and these women and girls.

BB: What are your goals for the film?

LGK: I want every single person to watch it, of course! I really do hope that everyone gets a chance to see it, because it’s a rare hopeful documentary. What I’ve heard from audiences, from 10-year-old boys to 80-year-old women to everybody in between, is you are never too young or too old or too anything to make a difference. Everybody can take a step — or 27 steps — and do something to change, to learn and grow for themselves, to change their community, to change their greater community, to change their country. So I hope that it really empowers people.

BB: Is there a distribution plan yet?

LGK: We are talking to people, but we do not have distribution now.

BB: Well, I’m cheerleading. I’m going to show it to my 9-year-old, but I think all 9-year-olds — especially ones who are Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts traditionally — I would love for them to see it.

LGK: We premiered at South by Southwest, and there was a woman in the audience at our second screening, maybe she was a troop leader, and she said, “My daughter’s in the Girl Scouts, and I would really love to bring her troop members.” And they did that. We had a whole bunch of Girl Scouts. And they asked great questions. And it’s no shade on the Girl Scouts. It’s not, in any way, it’s just that Anayvette, who started it, wanted to create something specific and different. I loved having those girls there. It was great.

BB: My daughter is in a great troop of very socially conscious girls — Bay Area, you know? Plugged-in parents. They’d really appreciate it.

LGK: They are starting four new troops any minute. Oakland, San Francisco, Richmond, and Berkeley.

BB: That’s great. So, switching gears a little bit, what do you think are the most difficult hurdles for female filmmakers to overcome?

LGK: I can tell you because I’ve worked both in scripted and unscripted, in documentary, there are many more opportunities to cobble together money in certain ways. The barrier to entry is much lower in terms of budget. So I actually feel much more freedom, which is one of the reasons I went into documentary. But right now I’m producing a scripted feature for a first-time filmmaker. And the barrier to entry is just crazy. You know, the fact that she didn’t have a reel, and we had to shoot stuff. I don’t want to sound complainy and whiny, but here’s the reality — there are male writers who get the opportunity to direct their first film, without the bells and whistles and proving and proving and proving. And there’s a certain point where, yes, everybody has to bring something to the table, but the gate to open is really, really different for women, and I’m over it.

BB: Do you see any positive changes, in a sort of post-#MeToo way, or just because of festivals like this move awareness like this?

LGK: I feel like this is a moment in the momentum. We have not reached the apex. You can see by the studies that have come out by the Writer’s Guild and everybody else, that we have not really moved the needle. I think it’s going to take some time. And I just really don’t want it to be, you know, a burst bubble. But I actually feel confident. I think that the doors are open, and we’re not going back. And there are more and more mechanisms in place, like Time’s Up and how they’re working within the industry and what Stacy Smith is doing at Annenberg. With her incredible work and Sundance and then Reframe. So I feel like there are real structures that have been put in place, which is fantastic. And now we just need people to hire women. It’s really simple. People say, “oh, there’s a pipeline problem.” There is no pipeline problem. You look at the number of women that have graduated from film school, there is no pipeline problem. And when people do these shadowing programs, they need to have real concrete ends. So, like what Ryan Murphy is doing, they will hire somebody that goes to the shadowing program. And that needs to happen on every level, with every network, with every studio. The real solution is just hire women. It’s just real simple.

BB: Are there female characters that you particularly look at as positive role models for young women?

LGK: I would say it has been really awesome in the last couple of years to have Wonder Woman. In that opening scene, I just cried. I just cried. You know, a superhero — obvious, powerful, and all of that. But you can’t brush it aside, because we’ve never seen that before. We’ve never seen an all-female powerful scene like that. It was huge. And Captain Marvel. In that moment where she looks back at her life and stands up and stands up and stands up from all of those things that had knocked her down. Of course, I cried! And the fight scene after that’s to “I’m Just a Girl”? I started crying! This isn’t the part where I’m supposed to cry, but it was very exciting to me. And I will say, we screened “We Are the Radical Monarchs” at the San Francisco Film Festival just a few weeks ago. And, a 65-year-old white man stood up and said this is the best superhero movie of the year. So I say the Radical Monarchs!

BB: I don’t disagree.

LGK: And I produced Whale Rider, so I always want everyone to see that.

BB: Who are your favorite female filmmakers besides yourself?

LGK: Number one — Niki Caro, who directed Whale RiderMulan right now, and I cannot wait to see that. So definitely her. Debra Granik is just a master. Marielle Heller. I love her use of music. Julie Dash. There’s so many!

BB: Do you feel that female directors approach projects differently than male directors do?

LGK: I do. Absolutely female directors approach things differently. I feel like, as women, we come in with our lived experience as women, but also we have observation and empathy for how men and boys live, too, because of either our children or our parents. There’s some part of being a woman that we bring. We see all sides, and I don’t know that that happens with men. There are some men that do and that are fantastic. So it’s not an either or. But I think that there’s an unconscious bias that women have, that we bring in different points of view. And I will say, I’m a Game of Thrones fan, and this latest episode [The Last of the Starks] — written by men, directed by a man — these women that they have built up over the series to be strong and smart and strategic and all of that, they reduced them all to stereotypes. And I’m like, get some women on your staff!

BB: There was a lot of backlash, particularly to Sansa’s statement about how what happened with Littlefinger and Ramsay made her who she was. Everybody was like, “wait, what?”

LGK: My jaw was on the floor. I was like, you just undercut this whole character. It was awful.

BB: Jessica Chastain tweeted very vocally about it. “Rape is not a tool for character development.”

LGK: I saw that. Right on. So that’s a very stark — no pun intended, sorry — example of what men bring to the table.

BB: There are many times, not just for female/male voices, when you just wonder, “did they have anybody who wasn’t, like, these five white male executives read this movie?” Show Dogs is one that comes to mind from last year. If they’d showed it to a single parent, they would have avoided that whole controversy.

LGK: Right! It just feels like, you know, it’s 2019. I know we say this every year. “It’s 2017. It’s 2018.” Really?

BB: Do you read female film critics?

LGK: Here’s the thing. I only read reviews after I watch a film. Then I gravitate towards female writers. But I want to see the movie first.

BB: Any difference that you’ve noticed between male critics and female critics and their perspectives in general?

LGK: I feel like female critics are much more open to nuances of character. And I feel that there very often is a better understanding and a better ability to unpack female characters, whether they’re drawn well or not, or to look at a big picture in terms of societal complexities. There’s so much more nuance. So thank you as a critic for doing that!

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Betsy Bozdech

Betsy Bozdech is the Executive Editor of Common Sense, for which she also reviews films. Her film reviews and commentaries also appear on Reel.com and Hollywood.com.