Rebecca Cammisa is a two-time-Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award–winning filmmaker. Her first feature film, Sister Helen, won the 2002 Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Directing Award. Cammisa won a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for her next film, Atomic Homefront, which received a 2016 MacArthur Foundation Film Grant.
Carlos Valladares is a writer, critic, programmer, journalist, and video essayist from South Central Los Angeles, California. He studied film at Stanford University and began his PhD in History of Art and Film & Media Studies at Yale University in fall 2019. He has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Film Comment, and the Criterion Collection. Photo: Jerry Schatzberg
To tell stories of fictional characters, with scripts and actors slipping into personae, is one thing. To inhabit the day-to-days of people who have no persona to hide behind, who act “themselves,” is quite another. Rebecca Cammisa has spent more than twenty years quietly making films in the latter camp. Her films have burrowed into extraordinary areas of US life: a tough-as-nails nun who runs a South Bronx home for recovering addicts (Sister Helen, 2000); Central American migrant children riding on train roofs toward a notion of freedom (Which Way Home, 2009); a burgeoning Hollywood superstar who gives up the glamour life of being the screen love interest of Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, and Warren Beatty in order to love God (God Is the Bigger Elvis, 2011); and St. Louis moms banding together to confront the US government on the illegal dumping of radioactive waste in their neighborhoods (Atomic Homefront, 2017). In each film, Cammisa subtly questions the mores that uphold America’s conventional view of itself as the land of the free, home of the brave. To whom are we accountable when society abandons its poor, its poisoned, its wretched, its undocumented, its lovelorn? Cammisa was nominated for an Oscar for both God Is the Bigger Elvis and Which Way Home (the latter of which won an Emmy), but these laurels, deserved as they are, figure small in her approach to her practice. What is apparent from her documentaries is the depths she’s willing to go to see a person as they are. —CV
Carlos ValladaresWhere did your obsession with films begin?
Rebecca CammisaWell, I come from a film-junkie family [laughs]. In our house there was always a film on the television. When I visited my Aunt Marian, we’d stay up until three, four, or five in the morning watching films. I remember as a child—I think I was probably seven or eight—a film came on one night that suddenly transfixed me. The film was The Panic in Needle Park , by Jerry Schatzberg. That film just got me and I thought, Wow, I want to make films like that. Later, right before my first film premiered, I was down in SoHo and went into a gallery. Hanging on the wall was the famous 1965 contact sheet of Bob Dylan in the studio where he was recording Highway 61 Revisited. I was looking at it and I said out loud, “Oh wait, isn’t this Jerry Schatzberg’s work?” And a gallery assistant came over to me and said, “Well, Mr. Schatzberg is here in the gallery. Would you like to meet him?” I said, “Are you kidding me?”
CVOh my God [laughs].
RCAnd he was so gracious. I said, “Mr. Schatzberg, I first wanted to be a film director at age eight when I saw your film. Strangely enough, my film is premiering at Lincoln Center. Would you come?” And he did. I thought that was a strange coincidence, yet a blessing from the creative universe saying, “Yeah, it’s the right career for you.”
CVAnd your first film was Sister Helen, right?
RCYes, Sister Helen. I codirected it with Rob Fruchtman.
CVWhen you were a child, did you distinguish between a fiction film and a documentary film?
RCNot really. Remember, back in those days, when films were on television, documentaries were basically nature documentaries or historical documentaries. Most of the time the movies were fiction. But take The Panic in Needle Park as an example. Yes, it has a script; yes, it’s fiction; yes, actors are portraying characters. But this was the early 1970s, so the film had a gritty realism, an authenticity of the street. Whether it was a documentary or fiction, it still had this quality that attracted me.
CVWhen did the inclination to make films start to realize itself concretely in you?
RCWhen I went to art school and got a photography degree. I went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and many of the faculty members in the photography department came from the tradition of New York street photography, documentary, social-issue photography. After graduating college, I acted in a play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and I used sheer emotion and tried to put that energy into the character—but I didn’t have a technique. After that experience I realized I needed to study, so I researched and read about different acting techniques, and it was Sanford Meisner’s approach that most attracted me. So I attended the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, and was lucky enough to have Meisner as a teacher. Attending the Playhouse was so important to my future work, but after I left it and began auditioning, I realized I didn’t necessarily want to be on the stage, in a darkened space, being an actor—I’d rather be out in the world trying to tell stories about what’s going on. That’s when I started the switch to documentary filmmaking.
CVFascinating; I didn’t know about your acting background at all. But I would imagine that these techniques came in handy when you eventually started directing documentaries and dealing with your subjects.
RCThe repetition exercise techniques taught at the Neighborhood Playhouse were a really great foundation for being a documentary filmmaker. In documentary, when filming a scene of people talking to each other, one question becomes, When do you move the camera from person to person? You listen to their dialogue, take in their reactions, keep one eye on the person off-camera and then pan back to that person. After experiencing hundreds of repetition exercises, I intuitively knew when to hold camera on Sister Helen . . . listen . . . then I could feel her dialogue coming, I knew, “Okay, it’s time to pan to the other person.” And then internally I’d think, “Uh oh, their behavior is going to elicit this reaction from her,” so I’d pan the camera back to her.
The Meisner approach to acting involves repetition exercises to get to the truth of a moment. You’re acting truthfully in an imaginary circumstance. It sharpens your focus. Whether you’re an actor trying to portray a character or you’re in a real-world situation with people, you’re still observing behavior, and what people say isn’t exactly what they mean. So it’s about a search for a truth. The Playhouse training also enabled me to detect false behavior, whether or not the people I was filming were being honest.
What was amazing about Sister Helen Travis, the subject of my first film, was that she was a true Meisnerian actress [laughs]. She’d sit in that chair and watch the behavior of those around her. Remember the scene where she’s interviewing a prospective resident of her shelter while eating meatballs?
RCFor example, she’d say [to a potential resident], “Did you do a drug today?” They’d reply, “No, I didn’t.” She would then say, “No, you didn’t? You didn’t do a drug today?” “No, I didn’t.” “Okay, so you didn’t do a drug today?” And every time she’d needle them more and more, repeating what they were saying back to them. I remember feeling like I was back at the Neighborhood Playhouse—it was exactly like watching an actress use the repetition exercise instinctively to get to the truth. There was that direct connection between throwing a person’s words back to them and getting them to tell the truth.
CVI was rewatching Sister Helen last night. You get a sense of the entire scope of a lived life within only about eighty minutes; it’s remarkable. How did you first approach her for the project?
RCMy film career started when the digital revolution happened. I grew up on film, and the visual lusciousness of what film gives can’t really be achieved in HD/digital video. On some level it was extremely helpful that I didn’t have to worry about the film and processing costs. So instead of budgeting and saying, We only have three days here, we only have one day there, I was able to immerse myself in Sister Helen’s world and keep shooting. I lived with her in that house for about a year and a half, on and off—slept on that couch, the couch where the guys would come in for the interview. Every night, I’d beat the cushions to get the roaches out of it, stick a sheet over it, and sleep there, and I’d have the camera ready, the microphone ready, battery charged and tape in the camera—and be ready to roll no matter what time of day or night it was, whatever happened.
I met Sister Helen Travis through my mother. My mother was a nun from 1949 through 1959, but then left the convent. The reason I met Sister Helen was that a nun invited my mother to attend the opening of a women’s shelter in Alphabet City. At the time, the Lower East Side was dicey and I didn’t want my mother going down there by herself. So I accompanied her and Sister Helen was present. We sat at Sister Helen’s end of the table and she told us of her work with drug- and alcohol-addicted men in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx. So my mother had a religious connection, but on the flip side, my father was an alcoholic and I had a painful childhood because of that. In retrospect, I find it interesting that these two subjects, religion and alcoholism, ended up being the major themes of my first film. And at the time I was making the film, I wasn’t conscious of this.
CVYeah, it’s part of the unconscious.
RCAs a filmmaker, the question becomes, Who are you? What are you trying to communicate? What’s your place in the world? What’s your creative voice? Sister Helen was one of those unsung people—she had her bad side as well as her good side, but she was someone I thought the world should know about.
CVThat’s fascinating to hear, Rebecca, because here we have a spiritual and thematic connection to your later film God Is the Bigger Elvis. You could view this film and Sister Helen as a diptych around religious sisters, nuns, what it means to work in the service of some believed-in higher power beyond the mortal, beyond the individual.
RCSister Helen aired on HBO and the executive producer, champion of my career and champion of that film, was Sheila Nevins. Sheila commissioned me to make God Is the Bigger Elvis. When she brought me in, I’d finished Which Way Home and she said “I have a project for you,” and I thought, “Oh, it’s going to be an exciting adventure.” And then she said “Nuns” and I went, “What!? But I’ve done my nun film.” But then Sheila told me the story of the former actress Dolores Hart, who entered the Abbey of Regina Laudis in 1963. I was quite resistant to the idea and Sheila’s response was “What are you afraid of? Just go to Connecticut and meet her.” Well, that got to me and I went up to visit Mother Prioress Dolores Hart.
Then, while at the Abbey of Regina Laudis [in Bethlehem, Connecticut], I thought, “Oh my God, this is an incredible community.” All of the other sisters and mothers were incredible in their own right. Mother Dolores Hart, the main subject of the film, had made such a countercultural decision—I mean, most of us don’t get a million-dollar studio contract and get to choose whether we want to costar in a film with either Brando or Beatty [laughs]. But she did, at the age of twenty-three, and she turned it all down because of a conviction, a calling. That right there is about as countercultural as you get in our capitalist, egocentric, success-driven society.
The reason Dolores Hart left Hollywood was an important question the film answers. There’s this temporal quality to acting of being very fleeting yet very intense, right? Film keeps these fleeting moments alive for decades.
CVAnd film can momentarily capture the hardness and truth of physical experience.
RCYou’re spending months on a film, you’re with crew, you’re with other actors—you’re creating a temporary family, right? And then the film wraps and everything breaks up and evaporates. Now you’re on your own again and you go back to your life and to whatever new roles you get offered. I talked to Mother Dolores about that. And you know, having a family and having it break up every couple of months, after you’re done with the film—that’s jarring, right? I think she really craved the consistency of community. Being a Hollywood star did not provide the same stability that the Abbey of Regina Laudis offered her. I think her calling to God and being part of a stable community were most important to her. That’s obvious because fifty-nine years later, Mother Dolores is still there.
I asked Mother Dolores about working with Elvis Presley, and what she thought went wrong for him, and she said that there was no one there to really protect him. That was her statement about Hollywood and about that career path: unless you have a stable family or community or someone there to protect you, you’re open to being exploited. At some point the stardom, the money, and the promise of the next film no longer sustained her. I found that compelling because it goes against all the things that this American culture tells us are important. Mother Dolores chose something much deeper.
As a filmmaker, the question becomes, Who are you? What are you trying to communicate? What’s your place in the world? What’s your creative voice?Rebecca Cammisa
CVShe also walked away from romance, from love of the earthlier kind, you could say—from her husband. I find that one of the most moving moments of the film, and it’s a film full of moving moments, is when we hear his testimony at being dumbstruck that all of his love for her leaves within the ten or thirty seconds after she tells him “I’m going to God, I’ve chosen God over you.” It makes you question, What is love, then? Is its highest form in an individual person or is it in some kind of larger ideal? And is that achievable?
I also love how your film juxtaposes Hart’s story, which is the main story, with those of other nuns in the convent and the antimaterialistic elements that brought them there. There’s that one sister, I think her name is Sister John Mary, who talks about how she’d done everything she possibly could in today’s society: when someone tells you to be happy, you get a corporate job, and maybe you go into finance. So she climbed the ladder, got as top as you can get, and then realized she didn’t find anything there.
RCBefore Sister John Mary joined the abbey, her life was quite posh. She lived in England, she was a high-powered career woman, she enjoyed a highly publicized romance with a future prime minister, she was (and still is) quite beautiful. Yet whatever experiences she had, they weren’t fulfilling. Sister John Mary struggled with addiction, but her spiritual search eventually led her to the abbey.
At the time of filming, Mother Dolores’s role was that of prioress. One of her roles was as advisor to younger sisters and mothers in her community. I was quite excited when we were granted permission to film a scene of Mother Dolores helping a nun who was struggling with her role in cloistered life. I feel they were very brave to do so because people think cloistered nuns live a relaxed, quiet life. But no. It’s hard to live in a community. And when you’re having a tough time, or you’re having second thoughts about why you’re there in the first place, to whom do you go for help? Seeing Mother Prioress Dolores Hart in this act was integral to seeing what she left Hollywood for and how she helps to sustain others.
CVHow do you see your films engaging in political discourse? Are you out to be an activist through your films, or do you see yourself as more just the observant artist? Is this ultimately a false binary?
RCI’m not interested in politics for politics’ sake. I’m interested in getting to a truth that needs to be reckoned with, and, if necessary, placing my film in front of politicians who have the power to impact injustices. There’s an essay that I always keep in mind, Albert Camus’s “Create Dangerously” . Do you know it?
CVYes. I love that essay.
RCCamus was part of the generation that was directly impacted by World War I and World War II. So his view on art was that it was a “cry for freedom and responsibility.” I really take this essay to heart and, in making films, I strive for transformative results, not just a basic means of entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong with pure entertainment!
Politics certainly impacted the subject of my next film, Atomic Homefront, about legacy radioactive waste poisoning communities in St. Louis, Missouri.
CVYes, I’d love to hear more about that one.
RCIn Missouri, you have Kansas City and St. Louis, which are Democratic cities, right? And then the rest of the state is Republican. I remember talking to someone [while making the film] about the political divide in North St. Louis County and I said, “Well, who do you think radiation kills first, Republicans or Democrats? Let’s just agree that it will harm all of us, and let all of us find a way to get this situation handled. Because for decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations have come and gone and have not done enough to remediate the radioactive waste in people’s backyards.
In 2017, when Atomic Homefront premiered at the AFI Docs Film Festival in Washington DC, we were fortunate in that HBO provided a prebroadcast DVD copy to the Environmental Protection Agency. Soon after, the EPA finally announced they would move forward on cleaning up North St. Louis County. Impacting political decisions about making people’s lives better is as close to politics as I’d like to get.
CVWhich Way Home also reflects the fact that whatever administration is in power, whether it’s the Bush administration or the Obama administration, there will still be Central American migrants trying to get into the United States who have a stronger desire, a stronger sense of what it means, to be a citizen than a lot of people born within US borders who exist with this unconsidered privilege. Your films aren’t abstract in that sense: they root themselves within specific people and specific stories, and they let you make your own conclusions.
RCWhat is immigration like now? Bush Jr. didn’t get it done. Obama didn’t get it done. Trump didn’t get it done. Biden hasn’t gotten it done. We’re dealing with decades and decades and decades of incompetence and a lack of political will in solving our country’s immigration problems. But who benefits from this eternal, punitive system? Clearly the reason is that people and/or corporations are making tons of money on the immigrant prison/detention industrial complex.
During 2002 and 2003, television pundits were spreading anti-immigrant discourse, and I thought some American broadcast outlets were unprofessional and were allowing opinion to overshadow real reporting. That angered me enough to make me think a film should be made to simply remind people why many immigrants were risking their lives to come to the United States in the first place. I thought if I focused on children, then “Gee, there’d be an urgency to get something done to make it safer for them.” That’s the main reason I made Which Way Home in the first place.
At the time, it was extremely hard to get anyone to fund a film about unaccompanied child migrants because the migration issue wasn’t “sexy.” The Sundance Documentary Fund came in to support it first, and then, once again, Sheila Nevins and Sara Bernstein, of HBO Documentaries, came in to develop it. My luck really changed for the better when Lianne Halfon, Russell Smith, and John Malkovich, of Mr. Mudd Productions, came on to produce. The final piece that fell into place was that I received a 2006 Fulbright Fellowship in Filmmaking. I was then able to move to Mexico and begin production.
CVHave you seen the documentary-film landscape change over your career, in terms of technology, in terms of content, in terms of what gets funded, in terms of streaming?
RCIt’s a whole different world. I mean, it’s not even the same business anymore. I’m still trying to find ways to continue to do the films that I want to do. There’s a lot more competition, and there are a lot more filmmakers all going for the same funding, but what’s exciting is there are more voices. Because of the availability of less-expensive technology and social media platforms, people are really able to get out there and tell stories that they wouldn’t have been able to in the past.
CVDo you have a guess about what future generations may say about this era through your and others’ films?
RCThe United States is a different country from when I began directing films. I starting filming Sister Helen in 1998, which was pre-9/11 America. The political greed and cynicism that have gone on for decades have now spiraled the United States downward. The constant attacks on truth, denying people their vote, the lack of appetite for facing our country’s darker histories, and the continuous erosion of rights of privacy have clearly led to fights to restore rights that were previously secured.
Many Americans don’t trust politicians to such a degree that in 2016, voters took a chance on electing a low-level real estate thug as president. When I turn the channel to American broadcast news, I find it has become slanted and, at times, superficial and hyperbolic. So the role of the documentary filmmaker has become integral to providing balance and in-depth reporting on issues and events that the mainstream news media mostly ignore.
Therefore, I continue to move forward with stories that I think are important yet are underreported. Like fellow documentarians, I have to fight like hell to get my films made, and sometimes the miracle of manifestation actually occurs! That’s the fuel that keeps me going.
Three of Rebecca’s films—Which Way Home, God Is the Bigger Elvis, and Atomic Homefront—are streaming on HBO Max. Sister Helen is streaming on Roku, Tubi, Pluto TV, and Fandor. All four are available for rental on Apple TV and Amazon Prime.