It’s not fair, but the shelf life of a documentary often depends more on its subject than its quality. And for certain works in progress, the window may be quite small and the pressure on the filmmaker pretty intense. All the while Geralyn Pezanoski worked on Mine, her debut doc about the separation and occasional reunion of pets and owners in post-Katrina New Orleans, the 2005 hurricane was receding into the distance. “A lot of people told me, ‘If you don’t get this out in two years, you won’t have an audience,’” she recalls. Sound reasoning, except it was blown out of the water from the moment the doc premiered last spring at South by Southwest, where it went on to collar the Audience Award. As Film Movement takes the film across the country this month , with the Roxie serving as the local venue beginning Friday, January 8, ahead of its February broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens, Pezanoski has a theory about the timeliness of Mine. “It transcends Katrina or any disaster, because it’s about how we are in the world,” she explains.
A native of Wisconsin, Pezanoksi moved to San Francisco after finishing college in the early ‘90s. A freelance video producer since 2001 for commercial clients such as Gap, Palm and Sun Microsystems, Pezanoski’s resume also includes several public service announcements (PSAs). When Katrina hit, she grabbed a camera and hopped a plane to New Orleans to join in the daunting effort to rescue animals left behind, mostly by folks without the means and ability to take them with. (The authorities in charge of evacuation often couldn’t accommodate pets, adding to the residents’ distress level.)
Pezanoksi also called her contacts in the San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York production communities, enlisting a rotation of DPs who enthusiastically contributed their time. “I tried to raise money, I fronted money, and the Humane Society of Louisiana agreed to pay some expenses in exchange for PSAs,” Pezanoski says. “For me, it’s always been a driving factor in the documentary to give back. I feel really guilty taking expense money.”
After several weeks of filming everything in sight, she returned to the Bay Area and cut a batch of fundraising spots for the Humane Society. As the months passed, however, and residents returned to the Crescent City to rebuild their lives, Pezanoski’s attention remained focused there. It had something to do with a houseguest she had acquired.
“Before I left New Orleans, I decided I would foster a dog, a pointer mix I called Nola,” she recounts during a recent phone conversation. “She was skin and bones when I met her, and she refused to leave my side for more than a couple of seconds. It didn’t take long for either of us to bond.” Six months later, Pezanoksi received a letter saying the owners hadn’t come forward, and she could adopt Nola. She did, but that didn’t close the book on New Orleans.
“I started hearing about custody battles,” Pezanoski recalls. “What would I do if Nola’s original family came forward? There was no system in place. People were self-appointed as judges.”
As Pezanoski moved forward with a full-blown, feature-length documentary, she opted not to be a character in her film. The next call was almost as easy. “I wondered if I had to have narration, and I found the best way to tell it was through people’s stories. The less I inserted myself into it, the better it was. There are all these issues”–race, class–"and the less I tried to say about those things, the more poignant it became for me.”
Pezanoski does an exceptional job in Mine of not merely capturing custody battles, but involving us on a pretty emotional level in the process and the outcome. The ups and downs and twists and turns in each story carry the film from a narrative standpoint, but its success and impact hinges on the deft way it taps into the viewer’s preconceived notices and, yes, prejudices.
“I think I just wanted people to see each other,” Pezanoski muses. “What stuck out for me in watching these stories unfold was that people who weren’t communicating, or were communicating through attorneys, it allowed them to not consider each other. I wanted to create the space in the film where people could hear each other and see each other.”
The filmmaker confides that she took the time-honored path of maxing out her credit cards to make Mine. “That’s not a sustainable model if you’re a filmmaker,” she points out, then adds another factor to the mix. “Now, with the tightening of credit, I could never make this movie.”
Pezanoksi and editor and filmmaker Jennifer Steinman (Motherland) created a company, Smush Media, for their future projects. But just as Pezanoski was unable to let go of New Orleans, she’s been tenacious about Mine. For one thing, she retained the rights for benefit screenings for animal shelters when she negotiated her deal with Film Movement.
“For me, it wasn’t enough just to make it,” she says.” Why make a film if I’m not going to get it out there? So I’m still married to the movie.” She chuckles. “I’m kind of a one-film-at-a-time gal. But I do look forward to a new one.”
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