Inside Out 2017 Profile: Jac Gares
“I wanted to live in a world where women are treated equally, not hated and abused, and feminism was embedded in me when I became educated about it.”
FREE CeCe! is a film about many things. It is a look at the epidemic of violence against transgender women of colour that plagues communities everywhere. It is a commentary on the American prison industrial complex and its treatment of transgender women, and especially transgender women of colour. It is a recounting of a 2011 event in Minneapolis that sparked an international movement. And it is the story of CeCe McDonald — a black trans woman who survived a racist, transphobic attack by fighting back in self-defense and who was unfairly incarcerated as a result — and her role in the fight against all the injustice she and her sisters have faced and continue to face in this world.
Director Jacqueline (Jac) Gares is a New York-based filmmaker who began independently producing and directing FREE CeCe! with co-producer Laverne Cox in 2013. Previously, Jac has acted as a producer for In The Life — a LGBT documentary series that broadcast on PBS for 20 seasons—and has produced specials and documentaries for The History Channel, Food Network, USA Networks, and PBS’ POV. Her first documentary Unraveled won a Freddie Award in 2008, and her short film Remnant won a Telly Award in 1999.
FREE CeCe! had its World Premiere at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival and has gone on to play dozens of festivals worldwide, including BlackStar Film Festival (where it won the Audience Award), Portland Film Festival, Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, Out On Film: Atlanta’s LGBT Film Festival, Baltimore International Black Film Festival, Reel Affirmations LGBT Film Festival, Twin Cities Film Festival, San Francisco Transgender Film Festival, St. Louis International Film Festival, Foyle Film Festival, International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema, Bahamas International Film Festival, Frozen River Film Festival, BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, PATOIS Human Rights Film Festival, San Diego Black Film Festival, and TRANSlations Film Festival.
You can see the Canadian Premiere of FREE CeCe! at this year’s Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival, screening at 1:45pm on May 28th. GET YOUR TICKETS HERE.
TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOURSELF AND HOW YOU GOT INVOLVED WITH FILMMAKING.
Jac Gares: I was so into movie cameras when I was a young girl growing up in New Jersey in the ‘70s. My family wanted me to stop saving for cameras and settle down to be an English teacher! When I worked on POV on PBS as an Associate Producer in the late ‘90s, my grandmother would call me after the broadcast to say, “We saw your name in the credits!” then wish me a good night. I loved that only because I felt that they were finally taking me seriously about this “media thing” that I was into. That stint at POV lead me to make my first documentary Unraveled, which was about genetic testing and Alzheimer’s Disease. Then I moved on to producing more documentary content for public television. When the public TV show ended, I began FREE CeCe!
TELL US A BIT ABOUT FREE CECE! WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO TELL THIS STORY?
JG: CeCe McDonald was just walking down the street on a Summer’s evening with a group of her friends on the way to the store when they were accosted by a group of people hanging outside meaning them harm. CeCe was attacked by one of the members of the group, then fighting broke out leaving one of CeCe’s attackers dead.
I had read about CeCe McDonald’s incident, and charging, then followed her case, but it wasn’t until I started meeting with Laverne Cox to produce something for the show I used to supervise that I felt I could really begin to tell her story. Laverne’s voice was crucial. Bringing Laverne to meet CeCe in prison to talk was powerful. CeCe was a beam of light in a very bleak prison that day. We got to hear her experience directly and I was compelled to lift up her voice from that day forward.
YOU REALLY GOT GREAT ACCESS TO A LOT OF INDIVIDUALS FOR THIS PROJECT! WAS THERE ANYONE WHO YOU WANTED TO INCLUDE THAT WAS UNATTAINABLE?
JG: I wanted to include the people who worked at the bar where CeCe was attacked outside. I spoke with them and they did not see any benefit in talking about what had happened. They just wanted to move past it, even thought they had experienced a drop in business since the incident. I felt that was a missed opportunity for them, but you cannot persuade people, you can only try to reason with them like human beings.
WHAT IMPACT DO YOU HOPE THIS FILM WILL HAVE ON ITS AUDIENCES?
JG: The impact I hope the film has is first to help heal trans women of color who have experienced violence by being able to witness CeCe’s struggle and transformation into an icon, activist, and prison abolitionist. Second, I hope this film helps cisgender white people to interrogate their own privilege. Third, I hope it helps everyone to take action when they see an injustice happening.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT SOME/ALL OF THE OTHER AMAZING WOMEN WHO WORKED ON THIS FILM?
JG: Well, I have to lift up Laverne Cox. She is grace — pure grace — to know, let alone be able to count as a collaborator. Laverne has a powerful voice, and I listened. I also listened to the brilliance of CeCe McDonald. CeCe’s voice was so consistent, even as her sense of activism was evolving throughout the film. I do feel blessed to have been in the company of these women as such an important story was being told.
TELL US ABOUT WHY YOU ARE A FEMINIST AND WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO YOUR FILMMAKING.
JG: Feminism is at the core of my work because of my childhood. I grew up witnessing domestic abuse. My mom and dad physically fought and I can remember my dad’s hand having the last word each time. I wanted to live in a world where women are treated equally, not hated and abused, and feminism was embedded in me when I became educated about it. I think our current political climate has escalated misogyny as well as racism in our country, so I find someone like CeCe McDonald to be a shining example of how to fight back in a world that is trying to erase your existence. The utterance of the words “I am” are the most powerful to me because of my background.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE WOMEN WORKING IN THE FILM INDUSTRY?
JG: We had a special screening in Chicago for TransReelizations hosted by Lana and Lili Wachowski that was amazing because I admire them on a professional and personal level. I have also been a huge Jamie Babbit fan since But I’m A Cheerleader and I think it is so smart what she is doing with Silicon Valley for HBO, which I watch a lot. I saw HBO Films’ The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks recently — before CeCe and I screened FREE CeCe! at UC Santa Barbara — so Oprah Winfrey is on my mind these days. She is so brave, smart, and flawless. Maria Bamford’s work has blown me away for a long time now. Before she was seen as “The Target Lady”, I used to play her comedy on a CD in my car for people who were trapped driving somewhere with me. In the end they were converted fans. It is good to see her creating content for Netflix like Lady Dynamite! I also admire powerhouse showrunners who are behind the scenes, like Sally Wainwright of Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax.
WHAT’S YOUR GO-TO JAM?
JG: At the moment it is Lorde. I can’t seem to go through the day without hearing ‘Green Light’ either intentionally or unintentionally.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW/NEXT?
JG: I am in a honeymoon period with my next project. I know my next work will be a documentary project, I am just figuring out the right format for the storytelling.
RECOMMEND ONE #MUFFAPPROVED FILM FOR OUR BLOG READERS:
JG: When I am not devouring episodes of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, I like to kick it with a glass of wine, some popcorn, and a great documentary. Shola Lynch has made two great ones that you should check out if you have not already: Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed and also Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. Check her out here.