Jacqueline Gares Talks Life in Film, Laverne Cox & FREE CeCe

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In June of 2012, African-American trans woman, CeCe McDonald, was sentenced to 41 months in prison for the stabbing and killing of a man who viciously attacked her and friends as they walked to a local grocery store. The attack was racially motivated as well as powered by transphobia, leading filmmaker and activist, Jacqueline Gares, and Orange Is the New Black’s, Laverne Cox, to tell McDonald’s powerful account of not only that night, but the overarching issues of, “trans-misogyny and the epidemic of violence surrounding trans women of color.” Last week, we talked with Jacqueline Gares about the upcoming documentary, the motivation behind it, and the journey that has led her to tell these powerful, personal and moving human stories.

Well first, before we start, your film partner, Laverne Cox, made the TIME magazine cover, how awesome is that… especially with the documentary coming up, how does that feel for you?

It’s phenomenal. It’s beyond words. She actually emailed me . . . she said that she had something that was going to announce. So, I found out the night before. I found out Wednesday night that she was going to be on the cover of TIME magazine. And I just cried with joy because I couldn’t think of a more deserving person to get such recognition. Laverne is exactly the person that people should be listening to right now. Her message of love and acceptance goes beyond gender identity, color, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. To say she’s a force of nature is even an understatement. She’s grace to me. Working with her is a true collaboration. I mean, she is the perfect collaborator. We feel like we’re on a journey together making this film. I have learned so much and it has just been such a respectful, loving collaboration– not only me and Laverne, but with CeCe McDonald. . . So, I appreciate that TIME recognizes this and I almost feel like…and this is going to sound kind of funny but, Laverne elevates TIME by being on its cover.

So, you have a rather impressive resume, years of contributing to amazing TV shows like In The Life and documentaries including your own, Unraveled, how did you get on this path? Why did you become a filmmaker?

There was a time in my life after I graduated from college, I decided to move to New York and do theatrical production work. I started working with Lincoln Center as an assistant stage manager and just that exposure to working in theater awakened something in me.

I always had cameras as a kid. I had Super 8 cameras [she shows us her camera collection]. I was really into film, film itself, for films sake. There was a time when I wanted to be maybe an assistant camera person because I would get so excited loading film into an arriflex camera… the way film smells when you edit it. I learned how to edit. So, film was always a huge, huge medium that excited me and I loved watching film. I was a huge film geek. But when I did the work in theater something else was awakened and it was this notion of performativity and in a really exponential way my mind was opened up because of that time at Lincoln Center. I got to work alongside or be a part of rehearsals with, no joke, Toni Morrison, Max Roach and Bill T. Jones. . . and that was only one of the things. I also got to hang out with Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars – it was like a crash course in experimental theater. . . so having that exposure to theater really just [showed me] that there are bigger stories and creative ways to express them and it gave me a true appreciation for not only the written word, but performing. . .

I got to really appreciate the power of the personal voice and that’s when I said to myself, I want to tell human stories.

And now you’ve joined forces with CeCe McDonald and Laverne Cox for FREE CeCe. How did this collaboration start?

I really wanted to do something specific with Laverne because she is a powerhouse and this was way before Orange Is the New Black. I saw Laverne as this amazing, positive, gracious woman and powerful and so we had her come in and pitch us a story. What would you want produced on In The Life, on public television? What’s the story that you want to get out there? And she said “FREE CeCe.” So, for a year and a half we developed this pitch and we had just pulled the trigger on it by signing a contract with Laverne and we were about to set up shooting dates and then, In The Life ended. So I had to call her and tell her “we can’t do it.” She was very positive because it’s Laverne. She was like, “don’t worry honey we’ll do it.”

Images from FREE CeCe

Images from FREE CeCe

All this to say, I was really focused on making this project with Laverne and it took a little time because I started doing another project . . .  so, I kind of put it on the back burner. And I was watching Laverne speak at the GLAAD Media Awards in March 2013 and she talked about CeCe and it really hit me. Why hasn’t anybody done anything? Why haven’t you done anything to further the story. So, I kind of took it on and started talking with Laverne about how we would make this documentary.

I’ll never forget, I went to meet her. And I knew Orange Is the New Black was going to be a big deal because as I was going to the tea shop to meet her, a bus goes by with a giant decal of the entire Orange Is the New Black cast and Laverne’s 30 feet tall and I was like, wow, this is going to be huge. I’m about to talk to Laverne about this project and I know it’s going to be amazing.

And where did you all start?

We were immediately excited to get it done, to get into the prison. We had already had access because of In The Life and Laverne had made many calls. They knew the show and we had already made the initial contacts, so I kind of took up the mantle because even though we were co-producing, Laverne was very busy with Orange Is the New Black and I had to kind of get the nuts and bolts of production in place. So, I called Laverne and I said, listen, we got a date for a shoot and it was the week of Thanksgiving, in the prison, for our first interview. And that was literally the first time that we were going to get to work together.

So, that interview that you see in the trailer is so real because I met Laverne at the airport and she was so cute. . . not that Laverne can ever be dressed down, [laughs] I mean, she was wearing a flannel shirt like Beyonce, and she’s like, “I knew you were going to want to do something,” [laughs] and I’m like yes, I want to get your thoughts right now because we’re about to do what we’ve been talking about – talk to CeCe McDonald you know, and how are you feeling. So, I rolled the camera right there in the airport and it was going on so much that we almost missed the plane . . . we were so engrossed [laughs].

I remember when I first heard about CeCe’s story. And it’s just truly heartbreaking what she had to go through, the violence, racism, the transphobia. What’s the importance of this film for the LGBT community?

Well, in many ways, as we’ve been doing interviews, Laverne and I, just talking about this work . . . this whole notion of a tipping point, another milestone in the LGBT struggle for rights, it’s the T moment. It is time for people to really understand that trans lives matter. All of us, our community first and foremost. We know what it’s like to struggle. We know what it’s like to have perpetrators target us because of who we are. So, I would really like to put the community to the task and examine their own transphobia.

Exactly, and this film can generate that support and provide that understanding for people in our LGBT community and straight allies as well.

And just love and acceptance. One of the best things that I’ve seen this year in my filming was the Islan Nettles Rally that I filmed for the documentary. . . when I arrived, it was literally at the police headquarters in downtown Manhattan right on the police plaza. And the first row of people that were there holding signs, mixed in with many trans activists, but very prominently, was a vanguard of gay activists that I had seen from Act Up years ago. And to have them integrated and so prominently on the front line of that rally meant so much to me. That’s what I want to see in our community. I want to see all of us pulling together saying trans lives matter… not one more. And that’s what I hope this film can really get people to come together on. I realize it’s an issue for all of us.

People have to realize we’re all together. Even in the days of Sylvia Rivera, this was a fight. There was a division. Sylvia wasn’t even allowed to speak at the rally in 1973. They booed her off the stage and she was just trying to get people to come together and say “gay power!”

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Images from FREE CeCe

What is gay power? Well, gay power is when we apply it to the least of us, to those living in the margins, to those of us who are incarcerated – people like Jane Doe in Connecticut, being held without any mental health service, without any therapy, any peer counseling. It’s just terrible to see when a system is designed like the prison industrial complex to work as well as it does [laughs] and we do not have human beings who are willing to come together and stand up for what they know is something that is an injustice. We have to shine a light on that. We have to look at that. We have to examine why that is. And I think that most people, if they hear about something or they’re educated to it, they agree, yes, this is wrong. We need to come together, we need to make a stand. That’s what’s pretty wonderful about our community is our perseverance to get the message to everyone in our community, but also everyone in the world and in the mainstream. Obviously, Laverne does that with grace. So, we’ll see. We’ll see what we can achieve with this film. The process of making this film has just been incredible. But even things like that Jane Doe case, the fact that that still happens. There’s always going to be something that our community is going to have to be vigilant and be able to come together and react to.

And finally, what do you want L Style G Style readers to know about you ?

Wow [laughs]. Well, I mean, the first thing: I want people to understand that I’m taking this story incredibly serious and it’s a responsibilty and it’s also a privilege to be working on this with Laverne and also, CeCe McDonald. I guess I just want people to understand that making a film is a process. It takes time, it takes money. I think that this community has been incredibly supportive of the film. I would ask them to keep being supportive of us as we continue to make it by going to the website and just showing all kinds of support whether it’s donating to the film, or sharing information about the film. Whether it’s sending us questions, or concerns or keeping us engaged with the community. We feel very strongly about this work and it’s very… it’s something that I live everyday. I’m making this film and it’s literally been a part of my life since last October when I decided to fully engage and take this on. I just want people to know how seriously and how passionately I feel about this message and that we’re trying to confront this issue of violence and understand why trans women of color are seen as the least valuable of our hierarchy of human beings on this planet. What kind of world do we want to live in? I want to live in a world where we’re all loved and no one’s disposable.

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