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New Day Rising: Liane Brandon

Liane Brandon talks about her film "Betty Tells Her Story" and the changes she's seen in the film community since co-founding New Day Films.

By Marisa J. Creed

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Courtesy of the Boston Film/Video Foundation

In 1972, Liane Brandon, co-founder of New Day Films, released "Betty Tells Her Story." For 20 minutes, audiences listened to a woman named Betty tell the story of her search for the perfect dress. Twice. At first, Betty entertains viewers with the details of her search, of her struggles with her budget, and of her ultimate triumph. The second time through, Betty reveals her insecurity about her own image, her own beauty. Brandon's documentary, which went on to win the Festival Award at the Ann Arbor Festival and to earn a nomination for the preservation in the National Film Registry, was groundbreaking in terms of its exploration, through an individual's voice, of the role female body image and beauty in American culture.

Marisa Creed of the Boston Film & Video Foundation talked with Ms. Brandon this fall about the film, which still resonates with audiences today, and the changes she's seen in the local film community since she helped establish New Day.


MJC: Why did you decide to make the film "Betty Tells Her Story"?

BRANDON: It happened through circumstance. I was serving on a board that was developing curricula for English teachers. The people I met with were very interesting, but the meetings were--how should I put this gently?--quite deadly. Except there were several people that were absolutely fascinating and wonderful, one of whom was Betty.

MJC: How did you find out about her story originally?

BRANDON: We'd take long breaks from these meetings (mostly out of self-preservation!), and in conversation, Betty would tell me stories. She was a great raconteur. She told me the story about the dress, and it stuck in my head. At the time, I was thinking about a lot of ideas concerning women--since this was early on in the Women's Movement when it was radical to be thinking about women and clothing, the culture and body image.

MJC: And this became the idea for a film?

BRANDON: Originally, I thought this would be great in color, acted out as a fiction film. But that would be expensive, and when you make a film, the expense forces you to really think through your choices.

MJC: Is that why you went with the simple, unedited stories and style of the film?

BRANDON: Right. Part of it was economic, because color film was more expensive at the time, and part of it was the story. The story brought up many issues of identity and women who don't fit the mold of the fashion model. I also realized it was the combination of Betty and her telling of the story that got me. So Ricky Leacock loaned me his camera, and John Terry came with me to do sound.

MJC: Did you expect Betty to give such different reactions in both takes of the story?

BRANDON: No. I only expected the original story she told me, the first story. But every time you shoot anything, you wonder, "Did I get it?" And since I'd already bought three magazines of film, I figured I might as well use them. Then during a break, John and I were talking about how stories change in the telling, and I said to Betty, "Is that the way you thought about the story when it happened?" She replied, "I don't think I ever thought of how I actually felt when it was happening." So I suggested we try it that way. I knew the minute she started that this was different. It felt heavy, deep.

MJC: So you decided...

BRANDON: I never intended to show both versions! I spent a year trying to figure out which version, because I knew that filmmakers didn't do that; you always show the best take. I showed my best friend the first and last version to help me choose which one, and we looked at both without stopping. I looked at her and said, "Can I do this?" I had never seen any films like this. Documentaries were usually about big events in history; this was about our interior history.

MJC: How did Betty feel about having her feelings revealed publicly?

BRANDON: She felt a little vulnerable, but she felt that as long as people were reacting positively towards the film, she was okay with it.

MJC: It was so different for the time. How did people receive it when it came out in 1972?

BRANDON: Well, I showed it at a conference in Philadelphia, and it was very controversial. I was on the stage after it was shown, and one of the gentlemen on the panel looked at me and said, 'Why would anyone care about a heavy woman telling the story of a dress she lost?' Whether it was out of sheer desperation or bravado, I turned to the audience and said, "Does anyone here understand what this film is about?" The whole audience applauded. They got it.

MJC: What about critics and the rest of the independent community?

BRANDON: I showed it first to some women's groups to get a reaction, and they loved it. Then Gene Siskel reviewed it, which gave it a lot of recognition. Later, it won awards at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and others. The Museum of Modern Art, Chicago Art Institute and the Learning Channel featured it as well. The film was well received.

MJC: How were you notified of the nomination for the National Film Registry?

BRANDON: While on the Web, I saw that my film was going to be screened at the Mary Pickford Theatre. I wondered why it was going to be shown there, so I called them and they said they'd been looking for me, because I'd been nominated! It was the Theatre for the Library of Congress!

MJC: As a woman pioneer in a man's film world 30 years ago, what are your thoughts on women in the independent community now?

BRANDON: Oh, it's vastly different now. I was one of only three women working in film at that time in Boston.

MJC: That's amazing. Now, you created New Day Films because you weren't getting any distribution on your own?

BRANDON: Well, distributors used to say to me, "The Women's Movement isn't going to last more than a year or two." They were not interested in films by or about women. So Julia Reichert, Jim Klein, Amalie Rothschild, and I started New Day Films, which is still thriving. We distribute all kinds of social-issue films now.

MJC: Will you return to directing or shooting film again in the near future?

BRANDON: I've been working for the past six years developing the UMass Educational TV project, which is fun and creative for now. Eventually I'll do another documentary.

MJC: Do you have contact with Betty now?

BRANDON: Sadly, Betty passed away in '91.

MJC: How do you feel about everything that has happened with "Betty Tells Her Story"?

BRANDON: I'm very pleased, particularly because it still touches people after 27 years. I didn't make the film to be a "classic." I made the film to tell a story. This is like dessert for me.

For more information on Liane Brandon's films, or a catalog of New Day Films' other offerings, visit the Web site at www.newday.com, or email the company at curator@newday.com.