| February 2012
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By Heather World
Filmmaker Debra Chasnoff (right) and wife and artist Nancy Otto are inundated by DVDs in the months leading up to the Academy Awards. Photo by Pamela Gerard
Debra Chasnoff watches dozens and dozens of films each year. She vets films for distribution through her filmmakers co-op. She watches documentaries produced by her nonprofit education organization. She occasionally visits a movie theater. And as Feb. 26 approaches, she is hitting play on dozens of films she will judge for the Academy Awards.
“I happily do this,” says the Noe Valley documentarian. She herself won an Academy Award in 1992, for her eye-opening documentary Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons, and Our Environment, the second film she’d ever made.
“It was a remarkable thing,” says Chasnoff, 54, who attended the awards ceremony that year with the older of her two sons. The event clarified what her life’s profession would be, she says. “That night of the Academy Award, I decided I would be a filmmaker.”
Chasnoff, who has lived with her wife and children on Elizabeth Street since 2004, went on to create eight more documentaries—for a total of 10. Her most recent is Celebrating the Life of Del Martin (2011), about the legacy of gay rights activist and Noe Valley resident Del Martin (1921-2008). Many of her films are available online or through the San Francisco Public Library.
Much of Chasnoff’s work has been done through GroundSpark, a nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire social justice through film.
In particular, she has created several films for GroundSpark’s Respect for All Project, including It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School (1996 and 2007) and Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up (2009).
Respect for All is more than a catalog of films addressing gender identity and youth. It’s a set of curriculum guides and workshops for teachers and community members.
“It’s related to my experience as a mother and wanting to make the world a better place for my kids and everybody’s kids,” Chasnoff says.
Though less lofty, her next goal is to make the world a more interesting place for her younger son, by taking him to this year’s Oscars for his 18th birthday. As with other Academy members, her chances will be determined by a lottery.
Getting There—‘I Like to Watch’
By the time Hollywood rolls out the red carpet at the end of the month, Chasnoff will have watched at least 60 films, mostly documentaries.
Nominations are developed within each branch of the Academy—the documentary branch, in her case. To qualify for the first round of vetting, a film must have had at least a one-week theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles, Chasnoff says.
Though she isn’t sure how many of her fellow documentarian Academy members volunteer to review the films, she does know that in July they receive a box of 15 short-length and 15 feature-length documentaries.
Then begins the long watch, which will result in a score for each film.
Chasnoff’s wife, Nancy Otto, says she likes to watch along with Chasnoff, but lacks her spouse’s endurance.
“A lot of them I fall asleep in,” says Otto, a sculptor. The pair discuss the films, but that’s where her participation ends, Otto says.
“I in no way judge them,” she says. “[Debra] has her own process on that.”
The Academy has no guidelines on what makes a good film; the ratings process is completely subjective, Chasnoff says.
“You’re looking for a well-made film that tells a compelling story that needs to be told,” she says.
She keeps her eyes open for documentaries that might be appropriate for New Day Films, a filmmaker-run distribution company that provides material to educators. Chasnoff, who joined New Day in 1997, is currently the chair of the company’s steering committee.
And the Nominee Is…
Shortly after she submits scores for her first round of films, Chasnoff receives a box with another 15 films in each length, these being the documentaries that earned the highest scores from all the documentary reviewers.
“One or two of the ones that were in my first group made it to the cut,” she says.
By Jan. 13, she had turned in her scores for those films, too.
Finally, Chasnoff and every other Academy member get yet another box of films to rate, this time to vote in all categories for all nominated films, including Best Picture.
Has Chasnoff picked one yet?
“My Best Picture favorite is one that didn’t get nominated: Pariah,” she says. Pariah is the semiautobiographical film by Dee Rees about a Brooklyn teenager forced to defend her sexual identity.
Far from Hollywood
In between hours of watching and hours of work, Chasnoff and Otto take to the streets of Noe Valley.
“Nancy and I call it ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,’” Chasnoff says, referring to the gentle world created by Fred Rogers on the PBS show bearing his name. “We like that you can walk down the street and often see people you know.”
The neighborhood’s walkability is what appeals to Otto, too.
“It feels very easy to get around,” she says. “I feel like I’m constantly out and in the neighborhood.”
Five Great Docs
Asked to choose a few documentaries that had inspired her filmmaking, Debra Chasnoff came up with a list of five blockbusters:
Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977)
Harlan County, USA (1976)
The Panama Deception (1992)
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
In the Best Interests of the Children (1977)
Most are available through the San Francisco Public Library.