Combining archived footage and the sudden challenges of HIV and AIDS, Lis Bartlett’s EMMY NOMINATED documentary LIGHT IN THE WATER is one to add to your list at this years BFI Flare LGBTQ film festival. Featuring the West Hollywood Swim team (later renamed West Hollywood Aquatics after they added water polo), here Lis talks to us about how past experiences shaped her way into becoming a director.
How did you get into directing?
BARTLETT: I have wanted to direct since seeing "The Lion King" on Broadway when I was about 14. I recognized the power of art to change minds then hearts, and it seemed like the most fun way to spend my life. I studied theatre in college in San Francisco, then switched to Media Studies because the department was centered on acting. After college I started filming and editing friends' "love stories" who were getting married, and from there I got a few jobs making industrial videos for companies. This allowed me to continue developing as a documentary filmmaker. Every person has a story, and every company has a story too! Then I moved to LA to immerse myself in the entertainment world, and worked in post-production for 3 years until I had the guts and experience to take on my own project as a Director - that became Light in the Water.
Where did the concept of the story come from?
BARTLETT: I have been a swimmer since middle school and through my own personal life challenges (I lost my brother at 14 and my dad at 18), I always kept swimming. I joined West Hollywood Aquatics when I moved to LA and quickly realized this team had a powerful story. I understood that because the team had been around for 35 years, we could use it as a lens to look at the last 35 years in LGBTQ progress / life. That was a huge net to cast. My vision was always first and foremost to shine a light on the history of the team that I felt more people should know about. During post, the question was always, "How will we blend the past with the present?" After a few months of working with Editor Jim Cude, the movie kept wanting to be a historical civil rights movie. Finally the focus came down to "The battle for acceptance.'" Pretty much everything that wasn't part of that was removed, and the movie became chronological.
Did you come across any obstacles during the making of the film?
BARTLETT: We raised the first chunk of money ourselves and before this project I was not comfortable asking for money. I worked with a fundraising consultant to overcome the fear and shift my perspective. When I heard a "no," I pushed harder. It helped that I believed in the movie. I knew people cared about it and it drove me to fundraise to get it done.
Indie projects put more stress on everyone because they require so much prolonged effort over time (especially for a feature doc)! As Director I was also by default producing since we were low budget. I truly feel I wouldn't have been able to "keep going" without the emotional support of my producing partner Nathan Santell, my boyfriend Sahgia Silva, friends, and family. The hard work was rewarded when Logo came on board and gave us finishing funds, as well as two fabulous producers I got to work closely with, Patty Ivins-Specht and Taj Paxton! They took a lot of the weight off my shoulders and let me focus on creative, which was a dream come true.
What was the best part of the experience of making this film?
BARTLETT: Besides working with so many fantastic hard-working people on the creative team to bring this movie to life (Editor Jim Cude, Producer Patty Ivins-Specht, Composer Amie Doherty, Underwater DP Eitan Almagor, to name a few) The best part has been sharing in the recognition of the movie with my teammates on West Hollywood Aquatics who have lived their truths, then so vulnerably and openly shared their stories to the camera. To feel like we got it right for audiences today, and for the history books, is amazing!
How was it putting together all of the archive footage?
BARTLETT: Working with archival footage was so fun. I got addicted to finding gems, like a treasure hunt! The footage in this movie came from: VHS tapes from the 80s that were in cardboard boxes in garages across Southern California; carefully cataloged hi-8 and dv tapes that had never been converted to digital; and archives like the LGBT archive in San Francisco, Vevo Media Archive in Vancouver, and the ONE Gay and Lesbian archives at USC. So much of the footage we found, my teammates hadn't even seen before! I am so grateful archives exist to make projects like this possible.
What do you want the audience to take away from your film?
BARTLETT: If the audience leaves enlightened about a perspective they may not have thought about before, that's a huge win. A young lesbian friend told me she left feeling like she had been given a big hug. I always wanted the movie to be a celebration of inclusivity, so if people leave feeling that, I consider that a huge win.
Only 4% of the highest grossing films in the past decade were directed by women, being a female director can be disheartening in this environment. What would your advice be for aspiring female directors out there?
BARTLETT: I am a member of a few female filmmaker groups in LA, which I source a lot of empowerment and inspiration from. I generally love to surround myself with badass women in my daily life! It has taken a few lessons learned the hard way to understand that there is no use collaborating with someone who I don't feel empowered by. (Unless it gives me a lesson in what NOT to do, which is useful too....) I tend to go where I can find the positive energy, and use it to move me forward. There might be a small amount of denial in that, but focusing on the positive seems to work well. Haters gonna hate, but that doesn't mean I have to take on their bad vibes. Onward and upward!
What’s next for you?
BARTLETT: I am very excited about a docu-series I am developing that features grandmothers cooking in different cultures around the world. The recipe is a way to showcase the grandmother and her story.
Interview by Sophie Duncan & Caris Rianne
Light In The Water will be showing at the BFI Southbank on Fri 22 March and Sun 24 March. For tickets and information please visit here. You can view the trailer below along with links to the film makers social media platforms.