Arts & Culture Guide

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Janet Goldwater (left) and Barbara Attie. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Better Late Than Never
Two local filmmakers take their documentary pet projects to the masses.

By Catherine Quillman

Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater are sitting in the screening room of their Bala Cynwyd-based film company, Attie & Goldwater Productions. OK, so it’s really a small sitting room off the kitchen in Attie’s comfortably furnished home. And while they’d never be confused with the hip, young things who troll the scene at the Sundance Film Festival, they are the real deal.

For one thing, Attie, 62, and Goldwater, 59, do what counts in the world of documentary filmmaking: They find the funds and they get their films out there—typically on local PBS stations and overseas with outlets like HBO and Cinemax Latin America.

Right now, they’re in the final editing stage of Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, set for PBS broadcast this winter. And thanks to a small grant from the Leeway Foundation, the pair is about to begin work on a video about the life and art of internationally recognized poet/activist Sonia Sanchez.

Attie and Goldwater were in their 40s and raising children when they launched their production company. But they have learned to manage the kind of successful trajectory traced in their film biographies. They include Maggie Growls, about Gray Panthers co-founder Maggie Kuhn, and Landowska: Uncommon Visionary, focused on the life of pioneering harpsichordist Wanda Landowska.

Even with the down economy and the “struts kicked out from under the independent film market” (as one film industry reporter has described it), Daughter earned the support of several coveted funders, including the Sundance Institute’s documentary division and the Independent Television Service, an arm of PBS that funds documentaries. The 55-minute film is partly set in West Africa and based on the life of a young immigrant who was brought to Philadelphia to marry.

By the time Attie and Goldwater take up her story, she’s married with a young daughter and is seeking asylum. One distributor describes the film as “sensitive and moving”—in regards to not only to the legal issues surrounding immigration but also the controversial African tradition of female genital cutting. Its subject makes it less likely to be shown anytime soon at a multiplex near you. But its success on the independent film circuit points to what two decades of experience will do. “We think that if we find something to be interesting and compelling, other people will, too,” says Goldwater. “We’ve learned to trust our instincts.”

Indeed, in their two decades of working together, only one project failed to get funding. The film’s subject—three 19th-century Philadelphia illustrators known as the “Red Rose Girls”—was hardly controversial. But that generally isn’t an issue.

“One of the good things about the funding process is that it forces you to sort of pre-imagine the film to sell it to funders,” says Goldwater. “We write up comprehensive treatments. We try to visualize how we are going to develop the story.”

Another aspect of their creative process: They invite friends and acquaintances to Attie’s home to nitpick a work in progress. “If people are uniformly confused about something, it tells us that maybe we need to work on that section,” Goldwater says.

“It’s important for us to create a context in which to see [these] lives,” adds Attie. “There is a historical and cultural motif that runs through a film. But we also want to tell a good story.”

Point of view, as a narrative focus, has always been a strong element of the pair’s films, beginning with their first, 1992’s Motherless, about four people who, as children, lost their mothers from complications after illegal abortions. At the time, neither Goldwater (a graphic designer, photographer and abortion-rights activist with an idea for a documentary) nor Attie (a mother of three attending Temple University’s graduate film program) had envisioned a long-term career. Attie began film school thinking she could work as a cameraperson but realized—in the days before digital technology—that the equipment was too heavy for her to carry.

Then came a life-changing event. Midway through the filming, Attie’s husband was killed by a drunk driver while bicycling on West River Drive. The tragedy could’ve derailed their film partnership. Instead, it marked the beginning of an unusual give-and-take style. On most projects, they serve as co-directors and co-producers.

It also led to the discovery that getting past the big learning curve is made easier by becoming an expert in certain subjects. Counting Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, Attie & Goldwater Productions has produced six feature documentaries that explore individual rights or abortion issues. “We feel the need to capitalize on our expertise,” Attie says. “And if we can’t, we work with someone who does.”

Their “team” often includes musicians who produce original scores, New York-based editors, and their experienced cameraman, Peter Brownscombe, to whom they generally give free rein—even when a translator is needed.

“The challenge for us is, when we have films in different languages, we don’t know what is being said until we get home and have it translated,” says Goldwater.

Indeed, working alone was never an option for either. “It’s really so hard, and you face so much rejection,” says Goldwater. “You need someone else to absorb some of that sense of failure.”

To view clips from various Attie & Goldwater productions, visit

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