Karen J. Whitehead Talks about Her Film

Last month I wrote about an incredible photographer: Jini Dellaccio. In my post, I mentioned that someone is making a documentary about her life. Well that someone is Karen J. Whitehead. I sat down recently to ask Karen, the producer/director of the film, a few questions. (Be sure to and follow her production blog.)

(c) Five Star Films 2011

(c) Five Star Films 2011

Jean: How did you first learn about Jini Dellaccio?

Karen: A friend of a friend got in touch after coming across Jini’s photographs online – thinking (quite rightly) she would make a great subject for a film.

Jean: When did you approach her about a documentary and how did she feel about the idea?

Karen: I started doing some research for myself about the Northwest music scene in the 1960s, and Jini’s story, in the fall of 2009. After several conversations with the Jini Dellaccio Collection, which oversees Jini’s archive, I arranged a research trip to meet them and Jini in January 2010.

We spent several hours together, and as I listened to Jini describing some of her life experiences and passion for art and music, I was captivated and at the same time staggered that the world does not know who Jini is!

Jini was thrilled that I was interested in her life and artistry. We really made a strong connection, and I think she was immediately open to the idea of doing a film because I wanted it to be very much an intimate oral history. By that, I mean in her own words, (no narrator or scripted scenes), as she remembers the many decades of her creative journey and her personal background, with recollections of some of the musicians she photographed. From this, I felt the film could be a fascinating exploration of her relationship with her subjects as well as her fine art photography and how it is all underpinned by the importance of music and art in her life.

Jean: What parts of Jini’s life are you focusing on and how did you choose them?

Karen: A central part of the film is of course, behind the scenes of Jini’s rock ‘n’ roll photography in the 1960s. She was responsible for capturing the frenetic energy of live concerts by The Who, The Rolling Stones, Mitch Ryder, Mamas & Papas to name just a few – and she was doing this years ahead of Annie Leibovitz. But really the heart of the story is how Jini got to be shooting the Godfathers of garage punk rock (The Wailers/The Sonics) and other great Northwest bands like The Daily Flash and Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts – in her middle age! Plus the tales from her Neil Young shoot and all the great concert photography she did with her beloved Hasselblad camera.

But it is also much more than that – I really wanted to craft a film that explores Jini’s creativity and determination. I think her life story from humble beginnings to jazz musician in the 1930s to her discovery of art and then self-taught photography is really inspiring. Especially when you consider she was often going against the grain, and conventional roles for the time. She was always in a man’s world, but not afraid to experiment, and be out there, in pursuit of her art. So, to give the audience an insight into this, I have Jini and other photographers, as well as the subjects of her lens, commenting on her work and I show her “at work” still in her 90s taking on a new challenge – digital technology, and shooting a new generation of rock bands coming out of Seattle’s vibrant music scene – The Moondoggies. When you see Jini working with The Moondoggies, almost 50 years from her first rock band shoot, I think you get the measure of Jini’s accomplishments and her legacy.

Jean: When creating documentaries, are there storylines that “write themselves” (unexpected narratives) or do you shape the film’s development?

Karen: That is a very good question! And the short answer is yes and no – or a bit of both!  Documentary is often about revealing unexpected narratives and in this case, I really felt that the rich cultural history behind Jini’s personal (mostly untold and unknown) journey as an artist would appeal to audiences. But of course, for audiences to really “connect” with your subject matter, you have to give them some compelling visuals and a simple rule but a golden one: good story telling, to keep them engaged. That is where the crafting of the narrative structure comes in. So, although there is no formal script as such – we build the filming around Jini’s  recollections and what she reveals about her motivations and life experiences. It is a collaborative process really – what you discover along the way may take you in different directions than you were expecting or planning – but it is important to have a structure like a road map so you don’t get lost in the edit!

Jean: What’s the most surprising thing you learned in the making of this film?

Karen: Some things Jini told me from her Jazz days in the 1930s were incredible, but I don’t want to reveal all the cool stories in the film here. Lets just say there are some “crackers” as us Brits like to put it!

Also – sideline, Seattle really does have some of the best coffee in the world…I am a definite fan!

Jean: Anything else you want to share?

Karen: Here’s something to think about:

“Storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately, connect us.” —Robert Redford

So, let’s make sure stories like Jini’s are not “lost.” Unfortunately, indie arts films like this are hard to make because we have fewer places to go for funding than other film projects. In the current dismal climate for arts funding, with threats to vital lifelines like the National Endowment for The Arts, it is increasingly up to individuals to engage not merely as an audience – viewing a finished product, but as a participator much earlier on in the process.

I want Jini’s artistic excellence, creativity and innovation to be shared with the world and that is why I put my passion and resources into this project. Although I was able to complete all essential filming with Jini, for the film to be complete – which includes editing and the specialised scanning and treatment of Jini’s vintage stills from the archive, the production is seeking funding from donors, industry sources and fellow believers in arts projects as a necessity not a luxury. Hopefully with support from Seattle’s vibrant arts community this film will be heading to the big screen soon.

Jean: You’re having a fundraising event in Seattle. When is it, and how can people attend?

Karen: The fundraiser event and world premiere screening of the extended trailer, followed by Q & A with the production team, and film contributors (Jini guest of honor) will take place at our fiscal sponsor Northwest Film Forum on Saturday, March 12th at 4pm. A limited number of seats are still open to the general public on a first come first serve basis – just RSVP the production team for your official invite at: dellacciodoc@fivestarfilmsinc.com.

~

I want to thank Karen for taking time out of her busy filmmaking schedule to answer my questions. If you want more information about contributing to the fundraising efforts, attending the premier screening, or anything else related to the film, feel free to drop me a line at jeanofalltrades@live.com.

For more information, check out:

The Production Blog
The Five Star Films Corporate website

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Filed under Art, Feminism, Film, Music

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