filmmaker Dempsey Rice
interview by Douglas Eby
"Anything creative is a risk."
Dempsey Rice is speaking in particular of making her film "Daughter of Suicide" (shown on HBO) about the experience of her mother's clinical depression and ultimate suicide.
"I think anytime you start making a personal documentary, on such a painful subject in particular, you risk hurting the people that are closest to you," she says. "You risk making people in your family extremely uncomfortable; you risk damaging your relationships. That's the biggest risk.
"And you also risk exposing too much of yourself. You might feel at the end like you went too far."
Rice feels the level of creativity you can use in a documentary depends on the kind of project. "My film was a very personal story, so I could do whatever I wanted to represent that story, visually and with sound," she notes.
"I'm not interested in making a documentary that I can't explore creatively. Some people make just factual-based films. It doesn't interest me to do that."
Rice has a Masters in Visual Anthropology, and studied photography and anthropology as an undergrad.
"Making the film wasn't necessarily a positive process," she admits. "It wasn't negative, but it was very difficult, and it wasn't always constructive for me in terms of dealing with my mom's death, because it was so painful, and I was reliving a lot of awful things that had happened in my life and in her life.
"It wasn't until I finished the film [in 1999] that I started realizing that her death, although it still brings me a lot of pain, has been incorporated into my life a lot better and a lot more. I feel I finally have a relationship with my mother and a friendship, that I never had when she was alive.
"I was a teenager when she died, and had really broken away from her, and making this film has helped me to connect with her. It sounds odd, because she's dead, and now I have a relationship with her, but it's true. This is the first time in my life I feel I have some sort of an adult understanding of who she was."
Rice says she had a need "to speak honestly and openly and tell my family story, and to be able to tell that story in order to be honest about depression and suicide. And by telling my story, hopefully, encouraging other people to tell their stories and experiences with similar topics.
"Suicide is one of the last taboos in our culture, and I needed to break down the walls so that people will start talking about it. It can become part of a larger effort to educate and organize, and ultimately to have people learn about the warning signs of depression and suicidal ideation, and have the numbers of suicides decrease."
She agrees women have a hard time becoming filmmakers: "It's a 'boys club.' There are a lot of technical aspects, and men tend to get more involved in the technical stuff, and people always look to men to have the technical answers over women.
"It's a hard process to get involved in filmmaking. I think there are probably more female documentary filmmakers than narrative or feature ones. Perhaps documentary is seen as a little 'softer' than feature filmmaking. You're telling these true stories about people.
"I just wonder if women have an easier time getting into documentaries because they get an idea, and it's a much smaller scale. You can start spending your own money and prove yourself that way, whereas with feature films that's a lot harder to do."
But it's still "a hard road," she finds. "Most of the documentary filmmakers that are household names are men. Ken and Rick Burns are probably the biggest. Barbara Kopple is to some extent fairly well-known, but not as much as the Burns. I do think it's easier for men to break in.
"When you look at the process, you realize it is harder for women and there are fewer women doing it. But there are even fewer Black, or Latin documentary filmmakers. It's indicative of society as a whole that white men tend to be the dominant group. I don't think that's a good thing, but it's there."
Filmmaking, Rice notes, "is always a risk, for a lot of different reasons. Anything creative is a risk, just because you're putting yourself out there, and people judge what you do." But she feels her acclaimed film has been worth those risks.
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