Among the most accomplished and eloquent of recent documentary films, Jennifer Dworkin’s Love and Diane (2002) portrays a beleaguered Brooklyn family’s struggle to overcome a history of poverty, drug addiction, neglect, and separation, in the face of powerful forces both within and without. Dworkin focuses on the relationship between materfamilias Diane and her daughter Love (herself a new mother), two strong-willed, articulate women, whose bond is strong but fraught with conflict. Love and her siblings spent a large portion of their childhood, while Diane succumbed to drug addiction, in foster homes and institutions, an experience which has left a legacy of anger, resentment, and depression. Love and Diane is at once an exploration of the deep and lasting emotional scars resulting from the sundering of a family, and an indictment of a society that makes it nearly impossible for someone like Diane to put such a past behind her, that stigmatises and stereotypes rather than rehabilitates. Thanks in great part to her own personal involvement with Love and Diane, Dworkin documents their lives with a degree of intimacy few such films can match, allowing it to become not just an expose of social injustice, but a penetrating look at the sorts of tensions and problems that exist in every family. At the same time, she never loses sight of the societal, institutional, and bureaucratic forces acting on their lives, often in obstructive, even destructive ways – the film is a portrait of what many underprivileged Americans experience as a quicksand-society, in which the harder you struggle and strive, the more powerfully you’re sucked under. Love and Diane is that rarest of films, a documentary as eloquent and expressive as it is socially and politically perceptive.
– J. R.
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Jared Rapfogel: So I just wanted to start by asking about your own history – do you have a background in either social services or filmmaking?
Jennifer Dworkin: No, I don’t. Not at all. My background is in academic philosophy. I have a masters and most of a PhD in philosophy of psychology. And I basically gave up my PhD to finish this film.
JR: So how did the project come about?
JD: I was doing volunteer work in a couple of different homeless shelters in NY, and I started a program for children where we would take photographs and we’d have photographers come in and critique them. And I got pretty close to some of the kids, and in particular this one family of three children, who were Diane’s nieces and nephew. And those three children basically had no parents, and so I ended up just sort of introducing them to a lot of my friends, having them over for the weekend, and eventually sending them all to summer camp every year. And then some friends of mind adopted one of the kids. And I started making a film about them. And then Selina moved in with Diane and Love. And I realised that this was a much more interesting situation. I was enormously drawn into the story and what was going on. This was before Love was pregnant, about a year before. So the filming period was about five years. What you actually see is just over three years.
JR: Can you describe the process by which your conception of the film changed? Did you meet Love and Diane and immediately have this vision of the finished film?
JD: My first conception was that it would be about four different families living in this homeless shelter, and then I realised that was completely out of my grasp and I narrowed down just to this one family. Then when I met Love and Diane, I wanted to include them, so I started thinking, I’ll make it about Love and her cousins. And I shot quite a bit of that material. But as time went on I started to try to focus on what I felt was essential. And part of what led me eventually to cut out the cousins was the enormous degree to which their lives had been influenced by my intervention. There was no way to make that film without it being about me, and I really didn’t want to do that. And also, the first time I sat down to talk to Love was kind of a revelation for me. She’d always been very quiet, I’d never had an extended conversation with her. And she seemed quite shy.
JR: That doesn’t come across!
JD: No it doesn’t. So I turned on the camera and I started talking to her about her cousins. And I realised that she has just a unique voice, just a really interesting way of expressing herself. She’s enormously articulate and thoughtful. I was just very fascinated.
JR: What were your first impressions of Diane?
JD: Diane was friendly from the beginning. She was incredibly welcoming. She’d heard about me just as I’d heard about her, so I wasn’t a stranger. But it was a terrible period in her life, because her son had basically just killed himself – it was a matter of a week when I first came on the scene. But she was very open to the idea of making a film and very interested in the idea.
JR: But were they enthusiastic about it from the beginning? How did you broach the topic, first of all, and what was their reaction?
JD: Well, I had already been making this film about their cousins. So what I asked them at first was to participate in this film, and they were fine with that. I wouldn’t say they were enormously enthusiastic about it, but I think they thought it was amusing enough. You know, they’re all big talkers, and they all like to express themselves, and they all have a lot to say. So I think it gave them an opportunity to talk about what their lives have been like. And all of them seemed interested in doing that. As Diane said in the Q&A [at the New York Film Festival], they didn’t realise at that point that I’d be following them around for years, and nor did I. And family enthusiasm for that sort of went up and down.
JR: At the beginning was it more interview based?
JD: When I first started making this documentary, I really didn’t know how to make a documentary. I had never really watched any documentaries, so it was an incredible act of hubris on my part. So I started out making them in an extremely pedestrian fashion, where I would just ask people questions. But then I started watching documentaries, and I realised that I hated that style. And I started to think about how I wanted to do this and whether I could make scenes that really lived on the screen and weren’t in need of constant interpretation. So by the time I started with Love and Diane I had more of a grasp of what I wanted to do. But I did introduce them to the filmmaking process by doing interviews. I did one sit-down interview with Love and Diane together that covered quite a lot of ground, and that we ended up using snippets of in the final film. The opening sequence with the windshield wipers – what Love is saying comes from actually the very first interview I ever did with them.
I really wanted to have the film informed by some sense of what was going on in people’s minds, and how they were perceiving what they were doing. I think, particularly if you’re making a film like this about people who tend to be very objectified, if you only display their behaviour, it didn’t do what I wanted it to do. So that’s why the film is sort of in this back and forth [between objectivity and subjectivity].
JR: So how often did you film them, and did that change over time?
JD: It changed a lot. There was no particular plan. For a long time there was no money. I filmed when I had the money. Towards the end, when I moved back to NY for the last couple years of production, I talked to members of the family almost every day. I didn’t go out and film every day. But I developed a very finely tuned sense of when I should be there, when things were likely to happen. And then for certain events I was always there – for court dates, when they were moving, there were some obvious things to cover – anything that was going on with Donyaeh [Love's son]. And then some things took me years to get access to, some of the social services, the courts, particularly anything to do with the foster care agency. It was a struggle. They’re very suspicious of child welfare agencies.
JR: Can you characterise your instinct for when to film? Would you talk to them and get the feeling that something was going on, or did you just have an instinct, “Today, I must go”?
JD: Sometimes I had an instinct. You know there are a lot of different characters and personalities involved, and a lot of times they were talking more to me than they were to each other, which was a difficult thing to maintain. It was sometimes sort of like juggling with a great many balls, because I wanted to be on good terms with everybody even when they weren’t on good terms with each other. But because for the most part a lot of people talked to me and told me what they were thinking, I could sort of tell what particular issues were going to be a problem. Sometimes it was just pure luck, I was there when something was happening. And of course there’s a lot of footage I have where nothing in particular is happening. But you know, a lot of the time when nothing was happening I didn’t necessarily turn the camera on. But, you know, I missed some huge things, and the biggest thing I missed was Donyaeh’s removal, and the fight that preceded it. That was a huge gap.
JR: Yeah, although it’s an interesting gap – I think in some cases it’s better to have something occur off-screen, just like in a lot of drama – it looms larger that way.
JD: Right. I wouldn’t have been able to film the actual removal, because the child welfare people would never have allowed it, and the police were there. I could only have filmed peripheral elements of it.
JR: How often were you in that situation, where something was going on, and you were dying to film it, but you weren’t allowed?
JD: That almost never happened. There were things I knew in advance that I would like to film that I couldn’t get access to. And there are a lot of elements of the story that sort of branched out in different directions that I did film and then didn’t use. There was once a five-hour version of this film. We thought it was going to be a series for a while. But I much more wanted it to be a single film. And a lot of this kind of film is made in the cutting room. The fact that it looks like we were there for all these big moments – and we were in some ways – but we had no idea what was going on when I wasn’t there. And a lot of time I was there but I wasn’t filming, I was just hanging out.
JR: How much of the time that you were there were you filming? You wouldn’t walk in the door with the camera on.
JD: No. The only time I ever did that, and you see the shot, was the day after Donyaeh was taken when Love walks up the stairs and she says, “They took my baby”. I already knew that, which was why the camera was already on. But mostly it would be quite a long period of socialising and hanging out. And sometimes I really wouldn’t film anything. You know, sometimes I was completely unprepared. The scene where Diane and Love are talking on the bed – the very grainy looking scene. I was completely unprepared for that. But there was a camera in the house, an old Hi-8 camera. And I actually had to plug it into the wall because there were no batteries, so I was basically tucked into this corner for three hours, because for three hours this conversation went on.
JR: And that’s one of the most powerful scenes in the whole movie.
JD: So that was just luck. I left a camera there so Love and Diane could try to use it to do some filming of their own.
JR: That’s a good tip for documentary filmmakers – leave cameras wherever you might be in the future. Leave them stashed under the toilet or something.
It seems, in the film, that they’re extremely comfortable with your presence and with the camera, but how much time did that take? I’m assuming that that couldn’t have been true at the beginning.
JD: Well, I don’t know, because I was spending a lot of time there. I really hit it off with Diane. She was never the slightest bit uptight in front of the camera. I think that if we hadn’t gotten along and she hadn’t known who I was to some degree, it might’ve been harder. And with some of Diane’s kids it was harder. Not Love, because Love’s desire to express herself and tell her story was pretty intense. But some of the other children, you know there were certain moments when they were just really embarrassed by the whole thing. They never wanted me to shoot them when they were outside or on the subway, or anywhere they thought people might really look at them or laugh at them. So it took me a while to persuade them that it was not gonna make them look really foolish.
JR: Is that part of the reason that the focus is on Love and Diane, was that decided upon in the editing room?
JD: That was part of the reason. We had a lot of great material with Willie [Love's brother], and we really cut that out in the editing room. Terise and Maureen [Love's sisters], it was partly self-consciousness, yes. But it was also a decision from the very beginning, because what there was between Love and Diane was so intense, and the issues that were coming up in Love’s life were so compelling – she was always a central figure.
JR: Did you have people signing releases, or was it oral consent?
JD: No, I had releases. I did a release every year. Particularly with the main characters. Because I wanted to keep a discussion going, about what this was and what we were doing, and what it might mean in terms of their lives when it came out. And you know, Love takes a very big step in this film of revealing her HIV status. And that’s something that I always worried might have real repercussions, not obviously from being in the New York Film Festival, but from being on television. Because there are still people out there who are very prejudiced. So I felt that we needed to keep that discussion going, and at least once a year discuss what that might mean. I even did some research on whether there had ever been any hate crimes based on that kind of revelation. But apparently there hadn’t been.
JR: For the period of filming we see, the family seems so comfortable, but there’s still this difference between feeling comfortable around you and getting along with you, and feeling comfortable having these highly emotional interactions before the camera.
JD: Yeah, it’s astounding and it was astounding to me too. It’s hard for me to explain. At the public screening [at the New York Film Festival] Diane joined me for the Q&A. And Love made a spontaneous statement from the box, just stood up and said, “Excuse me”. So, they have their own extraordinary charisma and openness, that’s inherent to them and not so much to what I did or how I did it. So I have no secret to this. It was partly that I met people who were very willing to participate in it.
JR: Frederick Wiseman has said very much the same thing – “I don’t know why people let this happen, it doesn’t make sense to me, but in my experience it happens”. But he’s also said that when he does feel that people are acting for the camera he just turns it off.
JD: Yes, so do I. There was only one person in the film who I have a lot of footage with and I felt more and more that it wasn’t genuine – and that’s Love’s boyfriend Courtney. I have a lot, and I felt that he was different in front of the camera. And, he wouldn’t do an interview – he kept avoiding it and avoiding it and avoiding it. I felt that I had never really managed to get through to him what I was doing, why I was doing it, it just didn’t really feel right with him.
JR: At what point did you decide to begin the film with Donyaeh’s birth?
JD: That was in the cutting room. We had versions that started earlier… You know, with something like this, where there’s so much footage and so many divergent stories, it’s always a question of narrowing it, narrowing it, narrowing it, and trying to find the shape, and the arc. We had some wonderful scenes before that, scenes that I really loved.
JR: Can you describe any of these scenes?
JD: There were just some wonderful moments when Love was pregnant, some wonderful interactions with her mother. The funniest scene that we ever shot by far was from that period – when Love goes shopping with her cousin, they go on the train to go shopping for the baby, and they have an extended conversation about what to call the baby, and it’s just hilarious, the names they come up with. There’s this thing in the African-American community about naming your child something completely unique, that no one’s ever been named before – that’s the goal. And then they go and they try to buy the baby clothes, and Love has no idea what this is going to do to her life. And the sheer romance of the tiny little clothes, and the giddy excitement of it all.
JR: The process of editing is pretty amazing to me – this sense of working with this footage and just slowly creating a shape. It’s like clay, chipping away and shaping.
JD: My editor always had the idea that there is the perfect film in there somewhere, and that you’re revealing it. And editing is a very intellectual process, compared to the production, which is all about the sort of brute facts of the world. And it’s very intense, and it’s good to have somebody really strong to butt heads against.
JR: How long did the editing process take?
JD: Well, an extremely long time. We were editing for a year and a half. But we actually had to take six months off in the middle of that – I had to go back and fund-raise, which was a feature of the entire process – constant, constant fundraising efforts going on.
JR: Was there a primary funder?
JD: ITVS provided the first funding – that was my first grant. And it was really a large one – it was fantastic. I mean, the film would definitely not have been made without that.
JR: I assume this was a very collaborative relationship between you and the editor – can you characterise that relationship?
JD: Well, I did a very, very thorough process of selecting an editor. I got this huge, mega-list of every editor anyone recommended in the New York area. And I called all of them, like 50 editors, 60 editors. Then I made a short list, and on the short list I watched people’s films. And Mona Davis, who’s the woman who cut my film, had cut two films for David Van Taylor. One of them is a really wonderful film, called Dream Deceivers (1992). A very strange film, but I liked it a lot. So I decided that she was really the person I wanted. So I called her and she just said no, which was just awful! (laughs). But then gradually I persuaded her, and she was a terrific choice. She’s very, very tough-minded, she’s very committed. What I wanted was someone with whom it could be a really complete collaboration, where we would both just bounce ideas off each other and sort of work our way towards some degree of consensus. So the most important thing was to share a sensibility – what is interesting, what we were interested in the world. She’s very interested in people’s emotional lives, which I could tell from her film. So even when she’s cutting verite that’s about social issues, she’s still very focused on the individual, and the quirkiness of what’s going on in people’s minds. And you know, I never wanted this film to be an advocacy film. Which it easily could’ve been. Or a film about the legal process or the social services. I really wanted it to be a film that tries to immerse you in a way of life that you’re not that familiar with.
JR: Which is the best kind of advocacy. So were you often butting heads with her?
JD: Oh yes. It certainly wasn’t sweetness and light in the cutting room. I even threw something at her once, which I’ve never done! (laughs) Mona has very strong beliefs, but she also has these sort of mantras that she would repeat over and over again. So eventually I just wrote them down on cards and said, “Here, just hold it up” (laughs) You know eventually she could just say, “Okay, number 1” But yeah, both of us had to really justify ourselves to the other. And that made it very constructive. And it worked, because there was always consensus; we made our way to agreement. When something worked, we could both see it. When it didn’t, even if we’d been screaming and yelling about how we wanted it, we could both see that too. So we both knew when to back down.
JR: As far as the acting for the camera, and becoming comfortable with the camera – there are always these people who you encounter for a day, people who don’t have a chance to become comfortable with the camera. Was that often an issue?
JD: We had people who were there for short periods of time – the social worker who came for one meeting. It was not an issue for her at all. People seem to be very concerned, before you start shooting, about what their hair looks like. It seems to be a universal obsession, people start fiddling with their hair. But once it starts, really I don’t think we encountered anyone who seemed particularly nervous or put out by being filmed. Maybe it was a function of the fact that there was always something that they were there to do. Lauren Shapiro [Love's lawyer] was very, very open to the process, and very trusting, from the beginning. She had no idea what this film was going to be, or what it was going to say about the legal system. So she was every bit as willing to take the risk as Diane.
JR: So what were your interactions with her like? Did you give her your conception of the film and what you were trying to do?
JD: No, no, I told her that I wanted to follow this process, and she thought that was a good idea. At one point she told me she really believes in opening these things out and letting people see how it works. So that was just good luck for me, that she was interested.
JR: Another thing that’s always interesting to me is there’s always this question of how much the process is influencing what’s going on – but for me, a documentary, if it’s made by someone with honesty and sincerity, it’s sort of a no-lose situation. There’s this scene in Wiseman’s Law and Order (1969): the film follows the cops in Kansas City, and for the most part the cops are on pretty good behaviour, but there’s one dramatic scene in which the cops bust in on these prostitutes, and one cop puts a vicious choke-hold on this half-naked, completely defenceless woman; he’s restraining her, but in this very brutal way. It’s a controversial scene, but it’s especially interesting, because not only is he doing it, he feels no need to hide it.
JD: But that was always a source of concern for me to some degree. Because on one level you want people to forget about the camera, but on another level you don’t – you don’t want them to forget too much, because that starts to seem like you might be taking advantage of them. If they really, really forget about the camera, then they’re not protecting their own boundaries, and they’re not protecting what will become their public persona. That was one of my concerns with Courtney – he told me things on camera that he really shouldn’t have, definitely shouldn’t have. And that was immediately a red light.
JR: You had to protect him if he wasn’t going to do it for himself.
JD: Yes. A certain amount of that does go on in the cutting room; you do make those decisions for people. But I think part of consent is that people are also able to make them for themselves.
JR: One of the most powerful scenes, I thought, is when she’s interviewing for the job training program, and they ask her these painfully personal questions, and not in a sensitive way.
JD: I don’t think that they realised…and you know, I didn’t care, in that case – I felt that they were welcome to hang themselves. So obviously I felt no need to protect those two. The question that always gets to me the most is when he says, “And so what do you think is the purpose of beginning the program?” And she says, “To help people get off public assistance” “And what do you think are the reasons that that hasn’t happened?”
JR: You talked about having decided in part not to follow the cousins, the nephews, because of your role in their lives. What role did you play in Love and Diane’s lives?
JD: My role in the other cousins’ lives was so explicitly changing their lives that they were no longer representative of the prospects of people in their initial situation. They had just moved into very different worlds. Which could’ve been an interesting film in itself, but couldn’t combine with Love and Diane into an interesting film. But at the same time, I really did not make an effort to be objective with Love and Diane, to be uninvolved, or not to give advice. And I know that some filmmakers really try to keep a degree of distance, and I didn’t. I never thought that was important for this kind of filmmaking. For some films, yes. In my film, I think, the film benefits enormously from my having a very close relationship with Love and Diane. And I wasn’t able to help them very much anyway. There was so much going on, and so much of it was out of everybody’s control. There wasn’t a lot I could do. I certainly would tell them what I thought when they asked me, and sometimes when they didn’t ask me. But I interacted with them in the same way that I would have I think if I was there a lot and wasn’t making a film.
The financial situation I did make very clear at the beginning, and we discussed frequently that nobody was going to be paid. In the end, when the film was over, I actually won a prize at Le Carnet, and I shared it with the family. I bought everybody computers – they’re all hooked up to the Internet. I just never felt that it would help [to be detached]. I mean, there is always an element of detachment. It’s part of the fact that I was a stranger and outsider, and I was coming from a very, very different world. And so I think that always provided an element of distance or detachment. But I was always trying to bridge that, and to understand more and more what their experience was like.
JR: I don’t see any need for the filmmaker to make these things explicit. If somebody in the audience doesn’t realise that you’re there filming and this is making a difference and you’re interacting with them and this may not be exactly what happens to a family that doesn’t have someone like you around – that should be obvious. It shouldn’t have to be posted on the front of the film.
JD: Yeah, I mean, it is a film. I think it’s easy to underestimate people’s media savvy, or their intelligence.
JR: As far as what’s going on in their lives in the film, it seems to me that one of the things that comes across most strongly is this fact that the social services seem like, if anything, more of an obstacle to them getting their lives together, and keeping the family together, than a help. Does that seem accurate?
JD: Yes and no. There’s a sort of paradoxical element to all of this, because there’s the different generations, and the way that the social workers were in the past and the way they are now. All of Diane’s children had these terrible, traumatic experiences in foster care and group homes, whereas Donyaeh had basically an idyllic time in foster care. I think there are things the social workers did that helped the family. And there are things they did that were a disaster. I felt that most of the people in the social services were individually well-meaning. But there’s no doubt that the confluence of all their efforts was largely negative. And amazingly bureaucratic and rule-ridden, but not sensible in any way. The rules and regulations were so incredibly complicated that most of the social workers didn’t even understand them. So there was this constant sense that, maybe this is possible, but no, this rule would make that impossible. There was a massive amount of confusion. And there was very little attention paid to the psychological condition of the children. They were very much shopped around like property, according to these various rules and these various mandates. What’s been happening in the past in social services enormously influences what happens in the next few months. If there’s a death in a home where a child has not been removed, then for the next few months after that everybody is removed. And then gradually it goes back to, well maybe we should keep trying to reunite them, and then there’s another death… So it’s very reactive. And I think it needs to be radically reformed, and there really has to be a new way of deciding. And it needs to be based on what research has shown about the damage that’s done to children. In Love’s case it’s very clear. But for all of the children – there’s a period of time in their life where you need to have some kind of stable bonding. Kids develop all of these incredible problems as a result. And then they’re in the system forever, because then the system tries to deal with their problems, and puts them in therapy, and mandates this and mandates that, endlessly. And then they have children.
JR: That seems like the central theme of the film – that once these very early mistakes are made, and you engage with the social services, it spirals out of control. And with Diane in particular, it seems like these mistakes in her past are something that she can’t possibly put behind her.
JD: They never go away. And they’re visited on the next generation. They call it “being in the system”, and that really says a lot – you’re in the system, and it’s really hard to get out of the system. Diane is pretty trusting – she has a tendency to believe that these people are well meaning and that they will help. The kids are much more cynical, and Trenise I think has the most developed political view about how to deal with the system. Which you heard a little bit of, in that scene when she’s trying to persuade Love to kiss their ass.
JR: Right, which at that point in the movie especially are really words of wisdom. It’s terrible – you can’t blame Love for not being able to swallow that. But it’s the truth.
JD: Love’s reaction when they take her child is anger – it would be anyone’s reaction. But immediately she’s blamed for it, and they decide she has a problem with anger. And they start trying to get her to a psychiatrist, and when she says no, they start yelling at her, and she throws the can opener at them. And of course that immediately becomes a huge problem. One of the things that Love has to learn over the course of the film is how to kiss ass. And she does, she does learn.
JR: Yeah, although the toll is pretty clear too.
JD: Yeah, they call it being compliant. And yet at the same time there’s all of this obsession with self-esteem and therapy. And I think that’s quite interesting – I hadn’t realised before the role that therapy plays in the legal system, the way everything is just sort of passed on to be sorted out in therapy.
JR: With the individual social service people you came into contact with, did you feel a real connection to any of them? Did any of them seem really frustrated by the system themselves, and trying to rebel against that, even if it’s in vain?
JD: There was one social worker in particular who really tried to help Love, to get a special kind of housing program. And she went way out of her way to try to do it. But unfortunately she broke the law, and she was fired. She tried to get somebody to falsify some information that would make Love eligible. And she really cared. But the bureaucracy is so deadening, and there was no real way to do it. It is such a Catch-22. In order to get this program, your T-cell count has to be below a certain amount – by the time it is, you’re basically too ill to get your child back. It’s all so self-defeating, all these rules and regulations make it almost impossible. And if you don’t have someone like Lauren Shapiro shepherding your case… You know, the average time it takes someone to get their child back, I think, is five years. So the fact that it only took Love a year and a half is a testament to Lauren’s skill with the system.
JR: What an indictment – to get anything done, you literally have to break the law.
JD: Yeah. So there were people, but they don’t last long. If you do get too passionate about your clients, you’re not going to last long in this job. It’s really deadening and horrifying. There were people I met in the shelter system who I really admired, who really were not only trying to help but succeeding in helping. But the whole issue of children being removed and returned is the most emotionally gruelling thing.
JR: Right. Ms. Diaz [Donyaeh's foster mother] becomes the other major character in the film, and her story is so heartbreaking. Did you leave material concerning her on the cutting room floor?
JD: Yes, I did. In terms of her talking more explicitly about her feelings. Largely because I felt her feelings more than came through with what we had. I think that’s pretty clear. And the fact that she stopped being a foster mother I think said volumes about how frustrating it was for her. She is not somebody who could turn on and off her emotions for children.
JR: I think one of the strengths of the movie is that it comes across loud and clear how badly the system needs reform and how much it throws in their way – but it also makes it amply clear that it’s not an easy thing to remedy. And in particular I think that one of the strongest scenes is when Love is describing to Shapiro what happened during the fight, and she explains what her sister said to her. I thought it was interesting dramatically as far as where it came in the film, because it comes quite a while after you learn about the fight in the first place. After the fight, you can’t help but have this feeling that Donyaeh is not very safe in this family, and this is not someplace that’s suitable for a child. But then there’s this dramatic moment where you hear what her sister said to her, and you realise that it’s just as hard to blame Love for going ballistic. So it seems like an impossible situation in a way.
JD: It’s very hard to make those decisions, whether he should come home, whether he shouldn’t. I don’t think he was unsafe in the sense that anyone would’ve hurt him, ever. They couldn’t have been more loving with the baby. Love may not have been very good with getting the budget together – she really wasn’t getting the milk and stuff. But somebody always managed to get it. No one ever laid a hand on the baby. But, his mother has this enormous problem with anger, and was living with all of the teenage siblings, in a very volatile atmosphere.
JR: Did the family’s attitude change over time? You mentioned at the press screening that it didn’t seem like they believed this would be a real movie.
JD: I think that’s right. I kept trying to tell them it was, but I think they were humouring me. There were a lot of jokes – we always teased each other, and there were a lot of jokes about my not knowing what I was doing, and it being my first film. I hadn’t realised how much concern there was in the family that I was really making a dud, until it was all over and they saw it, and then everybody had the same reaction, which was, “Wow, it’s very competent”. And they noticed things – I thought they’d just be focused on their own appearance and their emotions, but they told me it was well edited, they liked particular images – they took a very outside film connoisseur approach to it.
JR: What were their reactions to seeing their lives on-screen?
JD: I tried to push them a bit to talk about it. I think the bottom line was that everyone felt that it was fair, that it was fair to their memories of that time, and fair to everybody’s position – that it wasn’t distorted. Love said that she was surprised at how angry she had been. And I could see when she saw it the second time that she was looking at herself with some concern. So I think that that was actually a very interesting revelation for her, to see that. And all of the kids told me that they felt more admiration for their mother, seeing the full story of her life laid out like that. They realised what a difficult journey she had been on, from her childhood to today.
JR: Was the end point of the film very clear?
JD: The end point was very difficult to figure out. Once Diane started doing the second program, it was fairly clear that graduation would be a good point for her. Much less clear was where we should leave Love. And then the other people in the film. I mean, my general principle was that I wanted to leave each of them in a place where I felt reasonably secure that they’d remain for a while, so it wasn’t just a momentary resting place, but some sort of a plateau. And that’s remained true with Diane – she’s still working, she’s done rather well. There were some rocky moments, but basically it’s gone very well. With Love it was very, very hard to figure out. And some of the ambiguity you see in the final scene really reflects, I think, the ambiguity that Love feels about where she is now. She said that the film shows her mother really overcoming and triumphing. She knows that that’s not necessarily the case with her. She does come a long way, but she clearly still has a long way to go. She isn’t satisfied with where she is.
Many people thought we should stop the film with Diane’s graduation, and just end it there. But that really didn’t work for me. The last scene gives Love a moment where she really expresses, I think, some of the most profound things that she says in the film about her own experience of life, and about the way in which she’s continually pulled back into the past, and that self-destruction has become her own form of personal expression.
JR: It achieves a nice balance – I thought it was interesting to end with a more or less happy occasion, but it’s very powerful seeing her not-so-enthusiastic reaction to it. What is happening with Love now?
JD: Love has another child now – he’s healthy. But she’s still with Courtney, she’s still basically where she was. She hasn’t gone back to school. Things are pretty much the same. What she has done, actually, in the last two months, that I think represents a real breakthrough for her, is that Donyaeh started kindergarten this year. And Love has, and always has had, just an enormous problem with consistently complying with something she’s supposed to do, in terms of being in a certain place at a certain time, every day. But she’s done this perfectly, she gets Donyaeh to school every day. And that’s a huge thing. She couldn’t do that for herself, but the fact that she can do it for a child, I think is very hopeful. Everyone in the family was quite worried about whether that would really happen. She’s very committed to Donyaeh not having a life like hers, as she says in that last scene. And she’s really willing to push herself, beyond what she would push herself for her own needs, she’s willing to do it for her son.
JR: Has your relationship with them changed, did it change dramatically once the filming was over?
JD: No, it remained exactly the same. I decided this a long time ago, that I would remain as much friends with them as I could, and that it would be a commitment, an ongoing commitment; and friendship, which it really is. And Donyaeh – Love asked me if I wanted to be his godmother. So he now spends quite a bit of time with me – at least one weekend a month, at my house. We have a very close relationship.