The only sound is the humming of the air conditioner in the window. Filmmaker Nevie Owens is editing raw footage on her 30-inch Mac in her office on South Congress Avenue. Clips from the Austin American-Statesman and moviemaking paraphernalia cover the wall to her right. She glances up at a framed painting bearing the name “Mr. Owens” in the many bright colors of children’s handwriting. The painting was put together for her brother Glynn, a beloved history teacher for five years at Kealing Middle School in Austin. One of her staunchest allies, Glynn died suddenly at the age of 29 in April 2003. It took a tremendous toll on her and was a catalyst for her coming out to her family three months later. “I was so mad and angry,” Owens said. “I didn’t understand why this amazing person was taken–why am I still here? I’m a stupid filmmaker.” Whether consciously or not, her brother’s death drove home a point: life is too short not to be living it to the fullest.
Glynn had contracted an aggressive form of spinal meningitis that went straight to his brain. He died within six days of getting sick. It took Owens about five years to get over what she called the “survivor’s guilt,” and she still thinks of him daily. Growing up in McAllen, Owens and her brother frequently played outside together, reenacting movies such as the 1980s war film Red Dawn and riding their bikes around town. A self-confessed tomboy at that age, Owens idolized her big brother, who was three years her senior, and said, “We were each other’s biggest fans.”
Owens, who was raised in the Episcopal Church and attended Bible school growing up, recalled small indications throughout her life that her sexuality didn’t fit the prevailing norm. However, she didn’t express them initially. Not long before her brother died, she had ended a long-term relationship with a man. After Glynn’s death, she fell into a deep depression. Owens’ coming-out process, so soon after her brother’s death, was hard for her mother because it was not the life she envisioned for her daughter. In her mother’s eyes, at least initially, there went her last chance for grandchildren.
“I was so upset with him dying and me coming out at the same time because I knew that he would be my advocate and be on my side,” Owens said, adding that her mother’s feelings have changed dramatically in the intervening years. “I knew he would look at my mother and be like, wrap your head around it right now.”
Growing up three blocks from her grandparents, Owens often spent the night at their house. Her grandparents came to every soccer game and basketball game, and they all went to the beach together. She would stay up at night fishing with her grandfather or he’d help her with homework. She’d perch her- self on a stool in the kitchen and roll out biscuit dough with her grandmother. Having been together for 71 years, Jack and “Mums” are 91 and 92 now. Years later, Owens described the experience of coming out to her grandparents–whose trust and love mean so much to her–as one of the most difficult, fearful moments in her life. Sitting in the living room, with her grand- parents and her mother at her side, Owens was crying as she blurted out, “I’m gay.” Her grandmother said that “sometimes we are just built a little differently,” and her grandfather reaffirmed his love for her.
“I don’t know if I would have done it when I did if my brother had not died when he did,” she said, adding that she was the only grandchild they had left.
Owens–whose parents divorced when she was 16–characterized her mother, Nevie, (her nickname is Cissy and they call her “Cissy Sunshine”) as one of the strongest people she knows. As an adolescent, she tested her more than once. Her mother, flawlessly put together, blonde and petite, always looked as though she’d stepped off the set of Leave It To Beaver. Owens had a cut-and-grow doll when she was five, so one day she took the scissors and cut her own hair. “From that moment, I looked at her and said I don’t want any more bows, ribbons or clips in my hair. To buck the system, and say I didn’t want long hair anymore, that was a minor test. She didn’t fight me on it.”
Growing up listening to her grandparents’ stories about their childhood, their courtship and their longtime love for each other helped fuel Owens’ own knack for storytelling and her pursuit of filmmaking. She wrote her first script in fifth grade and loves the pleasure that people derive from a good story. “I love making people laugh, which is funny because a lot of the stories I’ve worked on aren’t the most funny,” she said.
Owens spends many of her days in silence for hours on end, editing footage, but she is fundamentally a people person. She loves crafting stories, and her ability to actively listen and cap- ture the crux of difficult, heart-wrenching circumstances is what ultimately fuels her success as a filmmaker.
A mutual friend introduced Owens to Rochelle “Ro” Poulson, who was the first person Owens knew with breast cancer. Even now, almost two years after she met Poulson, she seems floored by the fact that Poulson would allow herself to be filmed as they dealt with such intimate, life-and-death circumstances. “I don’t know what com- pelled me to say, ‘I want to follow you,’” said Owens. “I think it’s what both of us needed. She knew I’d be coming around and she had to get up and go to her appointments.”
Poulson was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer on September 16, 2009, and Owens began filming ten days later. Looking back, she said she’s embarrassed by her lack of education about cancer and about her own body. Poulson didn’t know much about breast cancer, either, so they were discovering things together for the first time. For example, not everyone knows that there are five types of breast cancer. “It’s ‘edutain- ment’–I want it to be entertaining, but you’re definitely learning something,” Owens said, adding that at times the experience took an emotional toll on her.
For her part, Poulson said that Owens taught her about capturing the essence of someone’s experience; also, knowing Owens would be there kept her distracted, at times, from the awful side effects of her cancer treatments. “I trusted her from the get go,” said Poulson. “She was respectful and insightful.”
Owens went into the operating room with Poulson to film two surgeries. For the first, she was amazed at how well she handled it, staying focused on her work and watching it through the lens. The second surgery, a double mastectomy, was a longer procedure and there was a moment where Owens pulled away from looking through the lens. “I was looking at Ro and they have her strapped to a table, totally exposed, and they’re about to remove her breasts,” she said, emotional about it even now. “I started to think too much about it. Sitting down and viewing it all in the editing room was harder. My emotional moments came in the editing room.” She edited a year’s worth of footage, beginning last October and finishing up in May of this year.
In addition to the overarching emotional moments and the friendships that developed, witnessing the caring group of (mostly) lesbian friends who rallied around Poulson to support her fight against breast cancer was powerful for Owens. Their reaction drove home a larger point about the bonds of commu- nity–and how shared historical adversity can lead to a strong networked support system for a member of the LGBT community going through difficult circumstances. “Ro did as well as she did because of the people she surrounded herself with. You’re circling the wagons and going through adversity all the time, as a gay or lesbian person. In this case, it’s like, okay, here’s one more thing. There’s just something different about it. Community is a big part of it.”
Poulson concurred. “My community is a chosen family. I am not surprised at all the way they rallied around me,” she said. “They taught me so much! We all learn how to help each other better every time we have to go through something like cancer.”
Although Owens said she didn’t feel destined to be a filmmaker and initially flirted with social work as a career, there were a few hints along the way. In her senior year of high school at St. Stephen’s, she recalled a Literature and Movies class that focused on film theory and really broke down movies that way. She majored in philosophy at the University of Denver but ended up taking all film courses her final year. She also remembered her mother’s best friend taking her to see Cold Comfort Farm at the Village (now the Alamo Village), which blew her away. It wasn’t a big Hollywood production, but a great, strong story. “For the first time I was like, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ ”
Owens’ filmmaking career also brought love into her life. On her first day of shooting Cancerpants in September of 2009, Poulson was doing the Austin Silicon Lab Marathon Relay and Annie Stennes was doing the run as well. Owens was safely perched under a tent in the withering heat, and Stennes was looking for a shady spot to relax before she ran the last two legs of the relay.
“I would not have met her had I not been shooting day one of Cancerpants,” said Owens. Not long after, Poulson’s friends held a big fundraiser for her called “Boobapalooza.”
Stennes also struck up a friendship with Poulson, whom she described as being very comfortable having her life filmed and also extremely courageous in her determination to fight breast cancer. “Rochelle welcomed me as her friend with her arms and heart wide open. Her honesty and positive attitude changed the way that cancer looked to me,” said Stennes. “Looking at that question, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’, it becomes clear to me in the case of Rochelle. Bad things happen to good people so that the good people can help us see the good in the bad things.”
Stennes, who grew up in north-western Minnesota and moved to Austin in 2005, eventually looked Owens up on Facebook. Although Owens said she wasn’t sure that initial meeting at East Side Show Room was in fact a date, it quickly became one because it was going so well. Stennes recounted how touched she was to learn about Owens’ grandparents and the bond of more than 70 years they share. “It’s hard nowadays to really believe that that sort of love exists,” she said, adding that her own parents have been happily married for 37 years. “Having models like that in life is important to me, and it’s also important for my partner to have in hers.” After dinner, they went to The Mohawk to catch a live music show.
Stennes, a preschool teacher at a South Austin child development center, has been teaching since May of last year. The couple’s ability to communicate and talk through any problems is what separates their connection from any of Ow- ens’ prior relationships. The strength of that communication brings trust, honesty, respect and everything else that comes with it.
Their charming Travis Heights home is where they reconnect as a couple. It’s also where they spend time with their two dogs, Abby, a mutt, and Maizey. Their four chickens– which provide them with “the best eggs ever,” according to Owens–are named after older women important in each of their lives.
“I’m a very friendly filmmaker,” said Owens. “I love having conversations with people and having them be in their ele- ment, working up to those harder questions and uncomfort- able moments. I got moments with [Poulson] that no one else would have gotten. I’m super respectful, too. I talk a lot but I also know when to shut up.”
Even so, it’s that very loquacious, friendly nature that endears her to local LGBT-friendly or -owned business, many of which have supported her fundraising and awareness efforts with Cancerpants. They include Shirley at W3LL People and Nathan and Scot at Live Oak Pharmacy. “They’ve followed their hearts and want to give back,” she added. “I just think they get it. They’re all about overall wellness and good living.”
Even though Owens was only supposed to move back to Austin for two years, it’s been 11 at this point. She and Stennes both want to start a family in the coming year. “As my mom says, I’m not getting any younger,” Owens added with a smirk. She called her girlfriend a “professional” with children because of her job as a preschool teacher.
Her ponytailed, Howard Zinn-studying brother loved teaching so much, and he was so valued in the community, that all of his students showed up to the memorial service. After his death, a memorial scholarship was set up in his name, and Owens makes a yearly trip to meet with her mother and the students who are recipients. The two were never able to work on a project together, although they wanted to. He advised the Students Against War group and they wanted to document this group of students. “He encouraged them to go to rallies and express themselves and they lis- tened to him.”
Still, Owens has another, more physical, reminder of him that she takes with her everywhere. She and Glynn often joked about who had the better initials. His were G.O. and hers are N.O. “I was having a hard time moving forward, so I tattooed the word “GO” on my arm in 2008. I needed the constant reminder of get up off your ass and do something. It’s a constant reminder of Glynn,” Owens said. “He’s not here, so take advantage of what you have and go. As soon as I tattooed that on my body, I really let go and things started to turn around.”
This talkative, enthusiastic filmmaker has come a long way from that scared, freshly out-of-the-closet young woman sitting on the couch telling her grandparents the truth. In turn, her family has responded in ways she never could have imagined. The couple regularly has dinner with Jack and Mums on Sundays. Her grandfather fell and broke his hip last year, while her grandmother has severe dementia, which some- times causes her to not recognize Owens as her granddaughter. On a recent visit, Mums said, “I feel like I’ve been a really good grandmother.” Owens agreed with her. “Then she said, ‘I think I’ll be a really good great-grandmother,’ and she looked at Annie and I and winked. So, she does realize it.”