A Q&A With Judith Helfand of Chicken & Egg Pictures on Supporting ‘Vessel,’ ‘After Tiller,’ and More

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Q & A Media

A Q&A With Judith Helfand of Chicken & Egg Pictures on Supporting ‘Vessel,’ ‘After Tiller,’ and More

Cybel Martin

Chicken & Egg Pictures is the only nonprofit in the United States focused exclusively on funding and promoting women documentary filmmakers. The group's REEL Reproductive Justice has supported films including After Tiller, No Más Bebés Por Vida, Infanity, Vessel, and Young Lakota.

Chicken & Egg Pictures is the only nonprofit in the United States focused exclusively on funding and promoting women documentary filmmakers.

Hatched in 2005 by award-winning filmmakers Julie Parker-Benello, Wendy Ettinger, and Judith Helfand, the organization has provided over $3.3 million in grants and over 5,000 hours of mentorship to filmmakers. In 2012, Chicken & Egg Pictures created the REEL Reproductive Justice initiative to support films with unique perspectives on reproductive rights. Those films include A Quiet Inquisition, After Tiller, No Más Bebés Por Vida, Trapped, Infanity, Beautiful Sin, Vessel, and Young Lakota.

Earlier this month, Rewire chatted with Judith Helfand, creative director and co-founder of Chicken & Egg Pictures, via email about its dedication to female documentary filmmakers and about the origins of its REEL Reproductive Justice program.

Rewire: Why have you chosen to focus exclusively on funding and supporting women documentary filmmakers?

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Judith Helfand: Documentaries offer people the chance to get inside a place, a time, an issue, a deeply entrenched problem or a totally bizarre once-in-a-lifetime phenomena, through the passion, complexity, drama, and generosity of someone who is living it, in their own words and in their own dialect. At the same time, documentary filmmaking is an art form and it’s based on choices, and the director and her team, are selecting what parts of reality they want to focus on.

Why women? Because it matters who is making the films that we rely on to entertain, provoke, document, and translate the world in which we live. It matters who is behind the camera and driving the inquiry. By supporting women directors, we are supporting the world we want to see.

In many ways, the film industry is very much still a boys club. And while we’re seeing much more attention, studies, and statistics about the status of women in both the documentary world and the narrative feature world, we think, and have thought for ten years, that there must be spaces that solely focus on women to ensure that women get the financing, leverage, creative support, and extra lift-off power to complete their work and get it out there. Chicken & Egg Pictures provides that safe space to push through the numerous challenges that almost every film and every director face, regardless of gender.

Rewire: Since its creation, have you seen an influx in the number of women-directed documentaries being released? And what about women-directed projects receiving awards?

JH: There have always been documentaries directed by women. This is the part of the industry where women have been able to “get in there and get out there,” much more so than in the narrative or studio world. In many ways the barriers of entry into documentary filmmaking have been lower, thanks to smaller hand-held mobile cameras, the digital revolution, and the very nature of a small crew going out and shooting life as it is happening. Women have been able to assert themselves in the doc world, unlike in the narrative or studio world. But, of course, not all women; it’s still a luxury afforded to few who get to follow their gut hunches and develop that gut hunch into a story and a viable film. This is definitely where class, race, privilege, and access come into play. That is one of the real reasons we started Chicken & Egg Pictures.

But back to your question: Given all those factors, and given our work and the work of many of our colleagues, are there more women getting their work out there? Yes! There are. Are they receiving awards? Yes, they are. Are there women go-to names when you think of, or more to the point, when the general public thinks of documentaries and box offices? No. Very few, too few. Those opportunities for public exposure still go primarily to men.

There are a few films made by women right now that are getting major “release deals” and are out there in theaters. The one on everyone’s mind right now is the amazing Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, for which she has a serious shot at getting an Oscar at the end of February. In fact, right now in New York City there are multiple movie theaters showcasing documentaries made by women. I hope their theatrical runs are extended, because there is still a big disparity in the number of women whose compelling, award-winning, beguiling nonfiction films are given the resources and support of a big distributor, who will put forth the print and advertising money needed to promote a film and get major press and awards that lead to future job opportunities, and the ability to maintain real sustainable careers.

That said, if there was ever a time when women filmmakers could harness all of their entrepreneurial prowess, know-how, chutzpah, politics, and out-of-the-box thinking, and via digital technology and the Internet (via crowd-funding, self promotion, and self-distribution sites like Tugg, Gather, Seed & Spark) to get the word out, get their work out there, build an audience base, raise money, raise hell, raise their profile, and sell their work independently, this is the time. We don’t have to wait for the big distributor to discover us and launch us. We can turn theaters and opening weekends into what my friend Sandi Dubowski likes to call “Town Hall meetings,” and link art to activism and strategic audiences and box office. It’s a remarkable moment, and you still need time, money, strategy, a team, and a way to sustain that momentum. Which means there will be people who can’t afford to follow their dreams, their gut hunches, and develop their voice so that the industry can “see them.”

Rewire: Unlike other organizations, you offer more than just financial support. Why do you think it’s necessary to offer mentorship and cultivate a social activism strategy for your filmmakers?

JH: Money matched with mentorship that is linked to the needs of filmmakers is much more productive than money alone. We believe that every group mentorship or workshop we offer is a chance to build community, to inspire peer-to-peer skill sharing, and create a constructive, safe place for women to experiment, question, say what they know and don’t know, and ask for help. The latter sounds simple, but it’s radical. It’s counter-intuitive to tell a funder, who is granting you money and supporting you because you are following your gut hunches and your talent and your know-how to make this film, that for this moment you “don’t know.” But there is a thing called creative process. Which includes fear and being really smart and getting really stuck. We are working in an industry that is moving so fast and changing digital formats, cameras, distribution, and streaming platforms so fast that it can all change while you’re making the same movie. It is both exciting and totally overwhelming.

We have built a mentorship program not only around the real-time challenges filmmakers are facing from development through to release, but also we link the program to the standard industry calendar and the kinds of deadlines filmmakers are facing. This ensures that the guidance and creative “hands with” support we give, along with the expert mentors we bring in, are as relevant and timely as possible. Ninety percent of our mentorship is focused on the art and craft of storytelling, which is as much about what you see on the screen as it is about what the film can inspire the audience to feel, think, and act.

In the case of REEL Reproductive Justice, the purpose of the cohort was two-fold: 1) to forge a community of filmmakers, reproductive justice leaders, and donor-activists committed to both the issues and the collective power of these films; and 2) to develop a shared strategy that maximizes the individual and collective distribution and engagement opportunities of the films in the cohort.

Rewire: Tell us more about REEL Engagement and REEL Reproductive Justice. Did any event in particular spark the need for their creation?

JH: REEL Engagement started a number of years ago. It developed out of our collaboration with Working Films and the Fledgling Fund. The original concept was to bring together groups of filmmakers who were all exploring the same issue, from very different story-driven, character-driven perspectives, and from very different parts of the world. We held these gatherings around climate change, a new energy economy, food justice and insecurity, education, and girls empowerment. Working Films also did a powerful retreat just focused on films about aging. These residencies proved to be very compelling, for the filmmakers and to the non-governmental organizations and funders the filmmakers ultimately got to present to and brainstorm with.

The long-term focus of REEL Engagement was on how more than one movie, 360 degrees of storytelling—that is, multiple perspectives on a singular subject—could help move the dial on a seemingly entrenched issue. What could happen if one film, and all the opportunities that came along with its release and distribution, built on the next and the next. These were the questions we were exploring. And these were the ideas we were trying to test out: movements need movies, change takes time, and movements need more than one movie on a single issue. There is no such thing as a single cinematic bullet.

Around the same time, democracy started to be dismantled here in the United States at the state level, issue by issue, state by state. Working Films responded by mobilizing around the Moral Monday movement and creating the Moral Movies series, utilizing films from all the different REEL Engagement collections. Reproductive justice continued to be attacked, in one state after another. We watched what was happening and how the reproductive rights movement was responding to TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws, clinic closings, and the insidious threats to Roe v. Wade. Women nonfiction directors also began responding the only way they knew howby making films. It was a zeitgeist moment. We heard about After Tiller, Young Lakota, A Quiet Inquisition, Vessel, and The Bill (now Infanity)—each one in a different phase of production, or near completion within a year or so of each other.

We started to see a definite spike in films about the issue, and then we started to look even deeper into what stories were being told, which were not, and what stories were needed. And then we thought, what if we funded a cohort? And that is when we decided to launch REEL Reproductive Justice.

So you could say that the most recent iteration of the “war on women,” which began in earnest in 2010 and has focused almost exclusively on women’s access to reproductive health care, served as impetus for the cohort’s creation and our work together.

REEL Reproductive Justice evolved into a cohort of eight independent documentaries, each one following a different compelling story about women, health-care providers, doctors-turned-whistleblowers, civil rights lawyers, policymakers, and activists who are living, working, and fighting to maintain and deliver reproductive rights and access to care for all.

Traveling from the busiest maternity ward on the planet, in the Philippines, to the last abortion clinics in Alabama and Mississippi, to an “abortion boat” working in waters off the coast of Portugal and Morocco, these eight films explore reproductive justice through eight very different character-driven stories.

Rewire: How does Chicken & Egg define reproductive justice?

JH: We borrow our definition from the forthcoming REEL Reproductive Justice discussion guide, which was compiled and written by Film Sprout, that will travel with the films, as they are used in the field, with community organizations and a forthcoming medical tour, and live online on the website that will house the cohort of films.

The movement for reproductive justice calls for a world in which individuals have full control over their own reproductive decisions. Broadening the conversation about reproductive rights and access away from a narrow focus on abortion, the reproductive justice movement argues that all people must have full autonomy over whether to have children, how to conceive and birth those children, and how to parent their children once they are born. Further, the movement works toward a culture in which all women have access to reproductive healthcare that is safe, legal, accessible and affordable.

The reproductive justice movement began in the 1990s, led by women of color and indigenous women seeking to expand the focus of the reproductive rights movement in the United States beyond the issue of abortion access. The movement’s leaders linked their work to health, sexuality and human rights, acknowledging that reproductive decisions—and a woman’s right to control her own reproduction—are not made in isolation from broader issues.

Today, the reproductive justice movement seeks to address the concerns of marginalized communities by exposing and combating the inequalities—social, political and economic—that suppress individuals’ abilities to fully and freely control their reproductive decisions. In this way, the movement seeks to connect with all social justice movements that work toward human rights and self-determination and the basic rights like health care, economic justice and education”  all the factors that are linked to not only having a child, but being able to bring up that child in a just, safe, and equitable world.”

Rewire: What were your criteria in choosing the first eight films? And do you plan on funding more films focused on reproductive justice?

JH: Great storytelling, compelling characters, specific stories with edges, details, and nuance that an audience can relate to, be utterly surprised by, and even challenged by. We were looking for characters that complicate the standard pro-choice or “pro-life” stance. We were not looking for surveys of the movement, past or present. We were looking for films that build on the others, each one an independent story about a time, place, moment, character, or set of intersecting characters. We were looking for films that could serve as a rallying cry, a harbinger of things to come if reproductive rights are denied, Roe v. Wade overturned, and abortion actually made illegal and unsafe. We were looking for films that helped us understand and see the patterns and strategies of the right, here in the United States and globally, because they are connected. We were looking for characters that offered audience access to the complex set of emotions, ethics, and real threats a provider juggles on a daily basis, after they have gotten past the anti-choice protesters and into their clinic, often flying over many states to get there.

We wanted to explore reproductive justice through the eyes and hearts of women filmmakers of color. We wanted to see the intersection and relationship between the local and global, and we wanted to feel confident that when, and if the films were all viewed together, they were stronger, more resonant, more complicated, actually even more nuanced, and more compelling than any one film could be on its own—even if that film was extraordinary. I really think it takes this village of films to start to understand the vast impact the conservative right, anti-choice movement has had on the lives of women and the people they love.

At this moment, we are focused on helping to launch and support this group of eight films.

Rewire: Last year, Julie Parker-Benello told Indiewire that Chicken & Egg works to ensure there’s a “diversity of storytellers—socio-economically, racially, internationally, filmmakers of color, filmmakers from different sexual orientations.” How well is Chicken & Egg accomplishing that?

JH: It’s an organizational priority for us to support women filmmakers from underrepresented communities. I can say with confidence that Chicken & Egg has, and we are continuing to build this commitment into our programming, funding, Open Call process, and field-building (which includes support of film festivals, organizations, and projects that literally build the documentary field or inspire social change).

That said, as much progress as we have made, we as an organization, and the documentary field in general, has to intentionally fund, support, and create the equitable, interesting, and dynamic worldthat is alive and complex in all its diversity—in which we want to live.

Five out of the eight films that are part of the REEL Reproductive Justice cohort are directed or co-directed by women of color. We look for diversity across all backgrounds, and seek out filmmakers from a broad spectrum of experiences, including class, geography, race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation. We also look for filmmakers who don’t necessarily fit into the traditional check boxes of diversity. For example, we look for and are supporting filmmakers who are working single mothers or are working with some kind of physical challenge. We are evolving new ways of reaching underrepresented storytellers and new strategies for supporting them with funding, mentorship, creative time, “space,” and opportunities for collaboration. And, as hard as we have worked on this, we can and have to work harder.

Rewire: When coaching your group of filmmakers, did you/do you offer guidance on filming in hostile environments? Or screening their film in hostile environments?

JH: The women filmmakers we support, especially the REEL Reproductive Justice filmmakers, are very brave. They are not fearless; I would say they are compassionate, mindful, and keenly aware of the threats with which their subjects live on a daily and nightly basis, especially the reproductive health providers. But following their subjects as they walk through a gauntlet of protesters, open hate mail, pick up threats on their answering machines, and put on bulletproof vests, seems to make the filmmakers all the more determined to tell these stories. None of them has said that they feel like they themselves were or are in danger; rather the very act of documenting their subjects under fire, provides them (their subjects, and by extension the filmmakers) with extra security.

After Tiller comes to mind when speaking about security and safety issues. The film, which focuses on the only four later abortion providers that are practicing in the United States, in the wake of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. At the screening, both the festival and the local FBI made sure that there was serious security for each one of the doctors, the filmmakers, and the audience. They set up security screenings and bag checks at each theater—complete with metal protectors. There was also similar security a few weeks later, when the film screened at True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri.

For our filmmakers who are dealing with particularly sensitive or potentially dangerous topics, we do try and provide guidance and additional support where we can. Last year, we held a half-day workshop called “Your Subjects at Risk.” We followed this workshop with a panel at the doc film festival DOC-NYC, featuring filmmakers who have had to grapple with these issues, from on-the-ground research and outreach, to strategic stylistic decisions and sensitivity at their film’s launch.

Rewire: What’s next for the REEL Reproductive Justice cohort?

JH: In the spring of 2015, Chicken & Egg Pictures is launching the REEL Reproductive Justice medical school tour, with thanks to research and support from Film Sprout and Sara Keiner at Film Presence, who is hard at work coordinating the first leg and launch of the tour. The tour, which we’re hoping will include Q&As following screenings of the films, will start at medical schools in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Austin, Houston, Dallas, and Salt Lake City.

After talking with reproductive justice activists and advocates, medical students, abortion providers, and the filmmakers who made these films, it became clear to all of us at Chicken & Egg that a critical audience for REEL Reproductive Justice was medical students, their professors, and the community of activists who live where these future doctors are studying. The health of our nation is inextricably linked to medical students and residents receiving comprehensive training in family planning and abortion services, as part of the full spectrum of health care they will provide their patients.

Most of today’s providers got their medical school training during a period of time when abortion was illegal in the United States. Many of the doctors were inspired to become providers because they were seeing the impact of that law on the lives and in the deaths of women who were seeing out illegal “back-alley” abortions that had gone wrong. Many of the providers working todayand this is reflected in some of the films, especially After Tiller—can’t even think about retiring, because they don’t see who will replace them.

This is why we are focusing on medical schools, and when possible we hope to bring law students, nursing students, and maybe even seminary students into the mix.

The initial cities we’re targeting are based on in-depth conversations with representatives from Medical Students for Choice, and the following criteria:

  • states where legislation threatens access;
  • medical schools with active Medical Students for Choice chapters that are struggling to make comprehensive reproductive health and family planning a core part of their med school training;
  • cities where films from the cohort have played at theaters or in festivals, where press was generated, and where there is a high interest from medical students and community partners.

As part of this effort, we are developing a specific microsite for reproductive justice on the Chicken & Egg Pictures website, which will feature all participating films—and their respective trailer, synopsis, filmmaker bios, and related links, including any details about the pilot tour of medical schools. Film Sprout is also creating a discussion guide to accompany the tour, with a dedicated section on each film and conversation prompts that will encourage the use of all the films.

Achieving impact is the overarching goal for this initiative. We will monitor how medical students are using the films and these events to galvanize interest and commitment from within their own ranks to organize around making comprehensive reproductive health and family planning a core part of their medical school training.

Equally important, we hope these test screenings will become a forum for inspiring dialogue between medical students and local affinity communities, including law students, nursing students, local providers, and reproductive justice activists.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.