“It’s unreal,” Joyce Chopra says, reflecting on the fact that she’ll be turning 80 in October, and that her first film—and daughter Sarah Cole, who is born in it—will be 45 this year.
“It’s unreal,” she repeats, “because we’re still ourselves.”
Chopra’s 1971 documentary Joyce at 34 will screen at the Metrograph this weekend in its original 16mm format. The 27-minute self-portrait is an award winning work of Second Wave feminist filmmaking that was among the first autobiographical documentaries ever made. Its public-television broadcast, shortly after the documentary landmark An American Family, was itself a milestone for featuring one of television’s first—if not first-ever—non-academic, non-medical live births.
Joyce at 34 examines the ways in which her pregnancy and the subsequent birth of her child affect her career as a professional filmmaker. Chopra, who had worked with the Cambridge-based documentary pioneers D.A. Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock, shot in the era’s distinct cinéma vérité style, in collaboration with Claudia Weill (who would later go on to direct the 1978 film Girlfriends). The film incorporates home movies and other indelible moments and images that have stayed with me since the time I first watched the film as a student many years ago.
Metrograph will screen Joyce at 34 on Sunday, May 15 alongside shorts from New York’s Youth Film Distribution Center; the film has been recently preserved by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Film archivist Elena Rossi-Snook will introduce the films. I spoke by telephone to Chopra, who now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, about filmmaking, privilege, and the “difficult, troubling, unsolvable problem” that still burdens women 45 years later.
I thought I would begin by asking you where the idea to film yourself came from. How did you picture the film as a self-portrait?
I didn’t. The idea was suggested when I was about eight months pregnant by a friend who was a sociologist teaching at Harvard. I don’t know why she was interested in this, but she said, “Oh you should document the question: Would your relationship with your mother change when you become a mother?” And I said, “Oh please, Bobbie, that is the most narcissistic idea.” You can’t make a film about yourself because I’d never seen anything like it. And I thought about it a bit and I thought, “Well, it is a good idea.” So I enlisted the help of a young woman who was then a senior at Radcliffe, Claudia Weill. Claudia borrowed a camera from her then-boyfriend and we proceeded to make the movie. I didn’t really know what we’d be doing, other than we’ll start with filming the birth of the baby and then see how it goes. Then it evolved much more [into] how to be a working mother.
It’s such an intimate portrait. I was doing a little research, and I think this was one of the first of its kind.
It is, as far as I know. There is no definitive answer. I think it may be the first, but who knows. First of all, there is a large world outside of the US. I don’t know what they were doing in other countries. But it certainly ranks there.
You grappled with the question of how having a baby would affect your career. How did you ultimately decide that you wanted to have a baby?
I was doing another film that was fooling around with half-fiction, half-real. It was suggested by a short story by Thomas Mann about a professor in the 20s in Germany, and it’s called Disorder and Early Sorrow. I got my niece, who was then about three years old, to come up to where we were in Cambridge and play the daughter to this real professor. Watching my niece I just fell in love with her and suddenly was seized with a great desire to have a baby. I’d never babysat in my life. Also I’d been recently married to Tom [Cole, a playwright and screenwriter] and was in love. And so that’s what happened.
In the film you talk about your work with Claudia, and you say that working with her meant you didn’t have to worry about being taken seriously as a filmmaker.
If only [laughs]. I thought, yes, from now on it’s all going to be easy. But I didn’t stay with documentary films for all that long. I started doing fiction film and in that world, yes, there are very few women.
How did you become interested in film?
Well, I thought I wanted to be an actress, and in fact I went to acting school in New York when I graduated. But I was fortunate and got to spend one of those junior years abroad and I fell in with a bunch of drunk Swedish painters who seemed ancient to me; they were probably in their mid-20s. They used to go to the Paris Cinémathèque and they showed films every night, and for a month they’ll do just Russian directors or whatever, but it was the first time I saw film as not just going to the movies.
How was the film received when it first came out? Were you nervous about putting yourself on film?
I don’t really know when and how, but somewhere along the way Claudia and I got the support of WNET in New York. We got $10,000, which handsomely paid for the film, and then it was broadcast on PBS. The film was well received. I was very pleased.
What did your family and friends think of it?
Oh, my mother was thrilled with it. My parents were very proud of it. It was the first time there was a live birth on television as far as I know.
That’s an incredible moment.
I got over being shy about it. I became a character in my own movie so I didn’t particularly feel, “Oh that’s me up there.”
How long was the shoot? How old was Sarah by the end of the film?
We waited until she could walk. We thought that would be a nice ending, and she didn’t walk until she was 14 months, which is pretty late. She spoke before she walked. I tease her about that. And her first word, truly, was “book.” So that’s why she’s a professor, you see.
Did you shoot in different periods?
On and off over the year. I would dream up what might be good for the movie. The film is truly true documentary, but it’s shaped partly by a sense of narrative storytelling. What would be good in this movie? What would show this aspect of life? My favorite scene is the scene with my mother and her schoolteacher friends.
Did you organize that?
My mother was retired and I knew that every few months (I don’t now exactly how often) the retired teachers would get together and have a lunch and gab. And I asked my mother if she thought it would be okay, and so she asked the hostess for the day, and they were happy to do it. Claudia and I arrived with our camera and I asked that one question—how did you handle working and mothering—and there was an explosion. They had had lunch together for, what, 30 years and never talked about it? We’re talking early 1970s. In fact, after we turned off our camera they talked for another hour about it. They couldn’t stop.
The topic is still so relevant today.
It’s still news. It’s amazing. It’s 44 years ago.
We’re having the same conversations.
Oh, we’re definitely still having the same conversations. Absolutely.
Do you think things have changed?
I don’t know. You tell me, you’re the young one.
I know. I’m turning 31 this year. I’ve been married almost three years. We want to have a child soon but we don’t know exactly when. It seems like there’s never a good time.
It’s never a good time.
It’s never a good time, and I embarked on this new writing thing pretty recently, and I want to get this career going before I have a child. So it’s definitely something I think about. I talk about it with my husband, with my friends.
It’s very hard. Even though I declare in the movie that I’m never going to have another child, I did want to have another child. There was always a project coming up. Or Tom had to go off to write such and such, so there was, quote, never a good time. And then there was definitely never a good time [laughs]. I also realized that I was fortunate. I was able to take Sarah with me to a lot of things. I joke about her being a reader but it made it easier to bring her along because she’d get occupied. I’d take her to meetings and she’d sit in the corner and either draw or read a book and people thought, “Oh isn’t that sweet?”
There was only one really harsh review and I remember it well. It was by a woman named [B.] Ruby Rich in the Village Voice and she said, “Joyce is very privileged. Her husband takes care of the baby, but for working-class women”—it was very wonderful, radical, very fiery—“she can’t represent women.” And I never said I did, but I was fortunate. I had a husband who could arrange his schedule. But for most women, nah.
Do you want to talk about your husband and his role in the film and how you two balanced taking care of the baby? It’s lovely to hear him speak in the film and so funny and sweet to see him feeding Sarah as he works with his writing partner.
He loved doing it. The guy was visiting. He was also a film director. They didn’t stage the scene but they were very conscious of what would, quote, make a good scene. The way this guy teased Tom and Sarah—he’s a dramatist. But that was really going on. She was fussy and didn’t want to eat. I think Tom refers to it in the film—we quarreled about who should go shopping and when. We quarreled all the time about it.
People are still having those conversations. There’s been a discussion recently about women and the amount of extra emotional labor that they’re responsible for. Women not only worry about work and kids but they’re expected to keep track of things like birthdays, things that men may not ever consider.
True. In each family it will be different what those things are, but I would say that I was the one that was aware of if there was going to be food in the refrigerator. We might quarrel about who was going to do the shopping but basically I produce it, if you know what I mean. But I was lucky in that Tom tried his best.
You could afford babysitters if you have a baby, most likely. I worked out other ways of doing it. We had a house in Cambridge for years that was large, and there were so many graduate students available that, in return for room and board, would put in childcare time. I had somebody every afternoon from 3-7 pm when Sarah came home from school. But these are privileged lives. I could have a house. I’m aware of it. Anyway, I thought that [Village Voice] review was very wonderful. It was so mean [laughs].
In the film you work with Claudia, but I also noticed that your main crew people were also women. Was that a deliberate choice?
I think it probably just happened.
Do you have the conversations you had with your mother with Sarah? What advice would you give her?
She doesn’t have children. She’s not married now. I don’t think she’s ever going to have children. She’s going to be 45 [tomorrow].
How do you feel about that?
It’s unreal. I’m going to be 80 in October. That’s unreal because we’re still ourselves. I’m still making movies best I can. But I don’t know how to relate to [the fact] that my daughter is 45 because I don’t think much about it. She’s still the same person to me.
How long was the editing process?
Well over a year because I was cutting as we shot. I probably finished editing not long after the last part of the film was shot. It was literally the last part with Sarah walking out in the park. In the very last scene, I’m sitting outdoors with a friend watching kids, then Sarah suddenly starts taking her first steps. That felt like it was a completion of the first cycle: birth, walking, on and on.
What is the last word you say in the film? You say having a second child would be—I replayed it several times but I couldn’t quite catch it.
[laughs] We ran out of film, that’s what happened there. I say, “But if I have another baby, it’s curtains.” But I said it with a Brooklyn accent: “Coytans. It’s coytans.” It would be the end. I don’t think I would have been able to work the way I did with a second kid. We didn’t have the money. We made money but not very much. We were just freelance artists. The choices you make.
What advice would you give women today who want to be filmmakers? Or to women who find themselves at a similar crossroads, whether or not to have a kid?
I’m going to pass on that. Because every case is so different. What financial means do you have? Mostly I say don’t do it. It’s so hard to be a freelance filmmaker, but if you’re determined, go and do it. I think every case varies completely. So I’m going to pass on that question. You give them advice. You’re at that age. You do it.
I don’t know either. My husband’s family is nearby in New Jersey, so if we needed childcare they’d be able to help. My parents are in Los Angeles. Growing up my mom had to drop me off at my grandmother’s house. She had to take an hour from work, pick me up from school, take me to my grandmother’s house, or else we had to go to babysitters. It was tough for her.
My mother was a schoolteacher but she had her mother nearby. I used to go to my grandmother’s house after school. Same thing. My mother had no help. My father helped by drying the dishes, but that was another time. That was a completely other time. Oh, well, but people are still muddling through.
When you made the film was it just to share your story, or did you hope it would accomplish something?
I think I wanted to make my first movie, honestly. I had worked with [Richard] Leacock and [D.A.] Pennebaker, and to be honest, I just thought this was going to be good and original [laughs]. I knew it, as I was making it, that it had a real life to it. I don’t know that I set out to change the dialogue—I’m being honest—about being a parent. That’s what it became part of. This is the hot issue that never goes away. But I didn’t set out, like my sociologist friend wanted me to, focus on my relationship with my mother or, in her words, [explore] how your relationship with your husband would change when you have a child. That wasn’t my purpose. I said, “Oh this is a good idea.”
That’s wonderful to hear that you knew in your mind that this was something that could be good. To have that vision.
I thought people would relate to it. I knew that. It was such a difficult, troubling, unsolvable problem. And I love making movies and I still do.
What are you working on these days?
I’ve now been collaborating with a group in New York called BYkids. It was on PBS just last month. I’ve been mentoring kids in other parts of the world helping them make movies about their own lives on big issues. I’ve just been in Nicaragua. This came about because somebody suggested it. Nicaragua has been very heavily hit by climate change, so their coffee crops are being destroyed by a fungus, and coffee production is now down by more than 50%, and the farmers are starving. So I went down and found a family with a young girl and helped her learn to make a movie about this. I’m editing right now. I’ve gone back to documentary because that’s what I can still do. But I love making fiction films. I have to say that was my real aim to start with, and I wandered into documentary because it was the first place someone would let me hang around.
Would you say it was difficult for women to enter the fiction film world back then?
Yes. Unheard of practically. I’m a member of the director’s guild, and every year they do the statistics of how many women [are making films]. I think it’s still at about 5%. Very little has changed.
What do you think they can do to change things? What is your take on that?
Read about it. I’ve been on more panels, been at more meetings… There are many more women directing in episodic television now, still a minority, but at least they’re doing that. I’ll tell you—when I was making the film, I had a conversation with my father and I was very excited about how women are gonna do this and that—and he looked at me and he said, “Joyce, men will never give up their power.” [laughs] But that’s it. I don’t know how they’re going to because it’s money; whoever controls the money. There used to be a big festival called the American Film Festival for documentaries, and when Joyce at 34 won first prize in whatever category, there was an article in Variety that said that for the first time women have won half of the prizes at this festival. But that’s because it’s so inexpensive to make documentaries. And that was right.