“The Typist” | Interview with Kristine Stolakis
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Long before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (1993-2011) was conceived, there were even more damaging policies in place regarding LGBTQ members of the United States military. Otto Bremerman was tasked with typing up dishonorable discharges for sailors in the Navy accused of homosexuality during the Korean War. Throughout his service, Bremerman was aware of his own vulnerability as a gay sailor forced to conceal his sexual identity in order to serve a country that shunned people like him. Filmmaker Kristine Stolakis (Stanford University) discovered an interview Bremerman gave in 1994, preserved thanks to San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society. Using a combination of dramatizations and archival footage, Stolakis was able to bring Bremerman’s fascinating story to life in the short documentary The Typist.
What drew you to Otto Bremerman’s story?
Originally, I planned to make a film about my uncle whom I was extremely close to growing up. He was transgender – I say “was” because he passed away just under two years ago – and he experienced a tremendous amount of transphobia and homophobia growing up in the 1950s and 1960s which he internalized. He suffered from debilitating depression which manifested itself into a number of other problems. In short, he had a very hard life.
However, as I started digging into how I might tell the story, I remembered how recent his death was. He passed unexpectedly right before I started my M.F.A. I wasn’t emotionally detached enough to think through how to translate his life to a film. So, I started obsessively reading oral histories of other people who grew up in a similar time, still holding onto the idea that I could make a film that brings to life someone’s forgotten history. When I read about Otto’s life in San Francisco’s GLTBQ Historical Society’s archives, I knew I had found the material I wanted to translate into film.
What challenges did you face in recreating the interview and integrating it with the audio?
Honestly, mixing the audio with the reenactments was part of the fun. I knew I wanted the audio of Otto’s first-person story, which really is an incredible story, front and center. Thus, I did a lot of work to think through how I wanted to approach the reenactments before ever picking up a camera. I wanted them to speak to the themes of the film – reconstructing history, memory, what it feels like to figure oneself out from piecing together all the bits and bobs of our life. I watched a lot of films with various approaches to reenactments which was helpful to get my mind going. I’m a young filmmaker, so I’m not sure if I totally nailed it. But I’m happy with how it turned out overall.
In terms of more technical problems, it was tough to figure out where to place the one part of the film where the actor who plays Otto is totally in sync with the audio. I didn’t want it to feel cheesy, but I wanted to let the audience know how the film was going to work. I’m aware it might be a bit weird for some audiences. I ended up putting it at the very front at the suggestion of one of my professors to create “my film’s magic” as he put it.
In the dramatization you use primarily body movement and close-ups, never really showing much of your actors’ faces. What was the thinking behind this creative decision?
There were a few reasons behind that choice. Again, I wanted the individual shots of the reenactments to feel stitched together to reflect what the film is all about, which is Otto’s journey of piecing together who he really is despite growing up in a world that continually told him he was wrong. The film doesn’t include Otto’s life after the navy which, as he tells it, is a pretty happy story of living in San Francisco as an openly gay man. He had the same partner for decades until his death, he was a landlord that intentionally rented to HIV positive tenants who had trouble finding housing, he apparently was quite active in the drag world. Point being, I really focus on the moment of his life when he said you know what, I’m gay and that’s not going to change.
I also wanted to avoid reenactments that made you obsess over how “accurate” I got. I like thinking that everyone has a bit of a personalized idea of what Otto looks like because I never show you all of Otto’s face. He gets to be a bit of what you imagine him to be. For me, that always makes the audio feel more personal.
Interspersed with the dramatized moments, you used historic footage, music and sounds. What challenges did you face finding and integrating these archival elements with the footage you shot?
I imagined that texture from the very beginning of deciding to tell Otto’s story. And interestingly, the sequences with archival film were by far what I found easiest to edit. It was just really creatively freeing, because I got to have a lot of fun with metaphors. Otto is talking about his childhood in the midwest – what’s something that evokes the feeling of the midwest in the 1950s? – and so forth. So it was really about using the archival to evoke what I viewed as Otto’s mood when he recounted his memories. In my own experience, images and sounds really can transport me back in time. I recently found a roll of film I shot on one of those disposable film cameras from the early 2000s of all my middle school buddies, and something about the texture of those prints just brought me back in time.
The hardest part was to make sure my “metaphoric editing” was translating to others. I showed the film a number of times to my cohort in graduate school and to a number of friends, and their feedback about what worked and what was confusing was so helpful. Feedback is always so, so helpful.
In editing, how did you decide which shots to use for different parts of the interview? What were you trying to convey with these choices?
The sequences with the reenactment of Otto’s interview were meant to be “come back to center” moments where you could take a break from the archival sequences which are fun but full of a lot of imagery. I knew viewers would need breaks. The archival sequences were all about mood. Where was Otto in his journey?
Who inspires you as a documentarian?
My family and friends are huge influences. They are full of love and kindness, and they are great listeners. A lot of the specific shape of my documentary impulse certainly comes from them. In terms of artists and filmmakers, some of my influences include Anna Deveare Smith, James Marsh, Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker, Gurinder Chadra and Ava DuVernay to name a few.
Are you working on anything now?
Yes! I am working on a short documentary about a group of Mormon feminists fighting for female ordination in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It’s a fascinating story. It will be released in the winter of 2015.
Kristine Stolakis is a San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker dedicated to creative, complex, and character-driven storytelling. Her films have played internationally, most recently at Hot Docs International and Cleveland International Film Festivals. Her work has also been featured in news outlets including Mother Jones and NPR affiliate KALW in San Francisco. She is an M.F.A. candidate in documentary film and video at Stanford University, and holds a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from New York University. She is also the recipient of Stanford University’s Spice Grant and the Southern Environmental Law Center‘s Media Fellowship. She proudly hails from central New York and North Carolina.
Follow her on twitter @kstolak
Visit her website www.kristinestolakis.com