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Films that Challenge

Filmmaker Margaret Lazarus talks about her inspiration for Cambridge Documentary Films and her motivation to make films about social justice.

By Amy Souza

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A still from Cambridge Documentary Films' powerful film "Defending Our Lives."
Cambridge Documentary Films co-founder Margaret Lazarus proudly points out that all of the films her company make focus on social justice issues. It's the heart and soul of Cambridge Documentary Films, and by extension, of Lazarus herself.

In big, bold letters on its Web site, CDF promotes its "Films That Challenge." Judging by the awards CDF has won over the past 25 years, it seems they're also films that tell good stories. CDF's catalog focuses on the biggest social issues of the past three decades, from a chronicle of the women's health movement to a story of abused women who fought back, and who are doing jail time as a result. That film, "Defending Our Lives," brought the alternative Cambridge Documentary Films into the mainstream for a moment, when it won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.

CDF's most recent production, "Strong at the Broken Places," recounts the daily dramas of four people who lived through traumatic situations and came out survivors. In March the film received the prestigious PASS Award, given by the National Council of Crime and Delinquency to films and other media that work toward ending violence. In addition, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held a public screening for "Strong at the Broken Places," something done annually for documentaries deemed the most outstanding works of the year.

Lazarus founded CDF when she realized she didn't want work in television anymore; instead, she wanted to make her own films. Along with her partner, Renner Wunderlich, Lazarus has been doing that for over two decades.

For their first film on the women's health movement, Lazarus and Wunderlich worked closely with the Boston Women's Healthbook Collective, publishers of "Our Bodies, Ourselves." Though it may seem to be a given now, back in the '70s, the book's claim that women were in charge of what happened to their own bodies was heady stuff.

From there, the pair moved on to what is likely their most famous film to date, "Killing Us Softly." Though the film is still widely used in the education market to teach audiences about the adverse effects on body image caused by the media and advertising, Lazarus points out that the media's effect on body image is even worse now than it was in the '70s.

"Twenty-five years ago I thought I could change the world with documentary films, " Lazarus says. "But now I realize it's a really slow process."

Still, CDF keeps on keeping on. The drive to change the world is still there; it's just a bit more realistic. Lazarus and Wunderlich have moved on technologically as well. They used to shoot on film, but have switched to shooting on Mini DV. In fact, that technological change has had a profound effect on the whole documentary genre. Shooting film was prohibitively expensive, a tremendous hurdle that kept the documentary playing field small. But in some ways, Lazarus says, it's harder to make a film now. Though the advent of video has decreased costs, it's also served to open the floodgates. There are so many people vying for the same money that in some ways, documentary filmmaking is much harder to do now. In fact, Lazarus says, "I have a really hard time fund-raising, and I have a really good track record."

"What's fascinating to me -- and I see tons and tons of documentaries," she says, "is it's shocking how the subjects are the same [as in the past]. It's a good sign, too, though. It means the same issues sill have resonance and are still important."

"You have to be passionate about your subject," says Lazarus, "because it takes a lot of time to fund-raise and then produce a documentary." And, according to Lazarus, unless you're Ken Burns, the renowned documentarian whose "Civil War" was the most popular miniseries ever to air on PBS and who recently struck a multi-year deal with the Public Broadcasting System, you're not going to get rich making documentaries.

"Most documentary filmmakers have what we laughingly call a day job," Lazarus says. "Teaching, making industrials. Our day job is distribution."

In fact, Cambridge Documentary Films has been self-distributing since day one. It was a way to successfully jump that last hurdle of filmmaking. For what good is all of your effort if no one ever sees your film?

"That last hurdle is extremely difficult," says Lazarus. "I can't stress how important that is. And people do not go to the theaters to see documentaries. But," she point out, "things are changing so rapidly."

The Web, she says, has the possibility of revolutionizing distribution, "if we can keep it democratic and keep the large gatekeepers out of the way so that people don't have to spend a fortune to get their film out."

Gatekeepers, like large media corporations, could take over, for instance, and sell keywords for $100,000 -- way out of the range of small filmmakers' budgets. Lazarus fears that people searching the Web will only be pointed to, for instance, Time-Life video, as opposed to a smaller title, painstakingly researched and produced, that may tell a truer story.

In fact, the future brings with it that age-old conflict, big business versus the little guy. In its literature, CDF says it works with local community groups to "present an independent perspective and vision that is ignored by mainstream media." In our age of trash TV and corporate-mediated events, it's good to know somebody's protecting the alternative, little-guy views.

Visit Cambridge Documentary Films on the Web at http://www1.shore.net/~cdf/