By Lou Fancher
The 20th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival’s 40 features and 38 shorts cut a zig-zag path like a serrated knife across six different programs to reveal the best and worst of humanity. Instantly striking is the geographic indent of East Bay creators and topics: featured are a half dozen directors, producers or writers from Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda; along with people and subjects with deep connection to Richmond, Bayview, Orinda, and distant east-of-East Bay locations including Davis and Sacramento. Even one documentary largely made in West Virginia, Gramma & Ginga: The Movie, a film about two sisters ages 104 and 99 who became in internet sensation with millions of FB views, has an East Bay tie to director Jennifer Steinman Sternin, co-founder of Smush Media, a film and video production company in Oakland.
An immediate, secondary impression is of the immense and variable emotional and internal thought track that unfolds in response to viewing early screeners. I laugh, cry, cheer, mourn, remember, rage; experience grief, wonder, awe, sadness; wrestle with questions about aging, mortality, social injustice, white prejudice; worry about nuclear war, teenagers who are people of color coming of age; and thrill at artistic and activist creativity that uplifts or challenges those of us committed to using our individual skills and collective wisdom to build a better, safer, more just world for ourselves and future generations.
The SF DocFest spins into orbit June 3 with an opening night party at Church of 8 Wheels, a roller disco in San Francisco. The skate party follows an in-person screening of filmmaker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s unforgettably powerful Summer of Soul at the nearby Roxie Theatre. The music film’s Bay Area premiere signals the reopening of the city’s live events and Thompson’s debut documentary as it celebrates the Black history, culture and fashion on display during six weeks in the summer of 1969, when the Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Marcus Garvey Park. Located just one hundred miles south of Woodstock—until now a far better served location and music event than Garvey Park and the Harlem festival—Summer of Soul includes rare, never-before-seen performances by Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, B. B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder and others.
In an interview with Sternin, who lives in South Berkeley, we talk about the phenomenal response to the primary characters featured in her 30-minute Gramma & Ginga documentary and the unique aspects of documentary filmmaking. Our conversation touches on the granular “grunt work” and “climactic highs” of the art form, but also addresses cultural and historical implications and the importance of cinematic and documentary storytelling.
Asked about forces impacting Bay Area filmmakers during COVID-19, she says, “The pandemic is absolutely affecting what is getting funded. Heavy subjects are not funded as often because people don’t want to watch them. For people who care about social justice and the climate crisis and films’ ability to speak to them, for people like me and others, it’s hard to stomach. But when people have hard times, they want to laugh, not cry more.”
Which goes a long way to explaining the amazing response garnered by Gramma and Ginga’s five-year presence as social media darlings now forever immortalized in Sternin’s documentary. The film is a wild romp mostly captured in Clarksburg, West Virginia, with archival footage to provide context and a lively soundscore. Gramma and Ginga are two sisters, Genevieve “Gramma” Musci (b.March 21, 1914-d. December 25, 2020) and Arlene “Ginga” Bashnett (b. February 4, 1919). The lifelong residents of Clarksburg are two of four children born to Italian immigrants Salvatore and Maria Audia Buttafusco. Gramma married Frank Musci at age 15 and raised two daughters while staying at home and never learning to drive. Ginga was married four times, worked for her brother-in-law Frank, and after his death, became Gramma’s self-appointed driver and errand runner.
But what makes the film—and the sisters—a hoot that has ignited a digital firestorm with millions of followers who tracked the pair on a Facebook page set up in 2015 by two of Gramma’s grandchildren, Frank Allen and Sheila Lynn, is the dialogue they exchange. Pithy, raw, obscenity-laced at times, cranky, funny, bickering, hollering, whispering asides and at all times undeniably a blend of sincere love and critical truth, their exchanges throw open the window on what it means to be a family and, on a deeper level, serve to deny and counter the inevitable invisibility and expected withering of aging people.
As the sisters’ shared history goes viral—depicted in the film as they careen through narrow hallways and tangle with each other in bathrooms and kitchens, or ride shotgun in the back seat of Sheila’s SUV—Sternin says she recognized in their story a lasting resonance. The power of laughter, family, relatives who can’t stand each other but who would lay their lives down to support each other at critical moments is captured in each scene. “These sisters drive each other crazy but there’s nobody they love more than each other,” she says. “Every family has a Gramma and Ginga story.”
Filming was completed during three trips to West Virginia between May and November of 2018. A Kickstarter campaign raised $70,000, approximately half of the entire budget. The roughly 50 hours of footage sat on Sternin’s shelf until 2020, when during the downtime of the pandemic she started editing. “We wanted to film more but we were lucky with what we got because shortly afterwards, their health deteriorated,” she recalls. Gramma died on Christmas Day in 2020. Ginga suffered a stroke.
Sternin has been making films for more than two decades. She produced the EMMY® Award-winning documentary, TIME FOR ILHAN, which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and streams on Amazon Prime. Previous feature films include DESERT RUNNERS, one of Huffington Post’s “Top 10 Documentaries of 2013,” and MOTHERLAND, a SXSW Film Festival Audience Award Winner in 2009. Sternin has produced and edited content for ABC, MTV, PBS, Discovery, National Geographic, Disney+ and other television networks.
“I always go into a project with a question,” she says. “It’s always a variation of “What can we learn from hearing this person’s story?” It’s not pedantic, it’s more of an exploration. For example, I’m not a runner, but when I started Desert Runners, I wanted to know why these ordinary people, not professional athletes, were determined to run 800 miles though four of the harshest deserts in the world. What makes them think it’s possible? How do we define for ourselves what is possible, versus what’s impossible?”
Sternin also is a strong advocate for humor, especially in films addressing grim topics. “There’s a certain documentary style that’s more lecturing and those have their place. My personal taste is to make an entertaining, enjoyable film. Especially when filming sensitive subjects, everybody needs a break and a good laugh every once in a while. Humor brings in humanity: we need to laugh to survive. My first film, about mothers losing a child, there couldn’t be a more tragic subject, but showing they still laugh shows our resiliency.”
Thinking of the filmmaking craft as a giant jigsaw puzzle, Sternin says directing and editing is knowing which pieces are infiltrators as much as it is recognizing the golden moments. Her favorite outtakes are of the sisters telling jokes. Why leave those out? “The jokes were pretty dirty, but they’d also forget the punchlines so it was hysterical. We couldn’t fit it in the film because things like that play long in a 30-minute film. You can’t take five minutes for gramma to tell a joke.”
Among the golden scenes is one in which Shiela talks about her Gramma growing old and how people of advanced age are usually forgotten. “This attention brought them joy they might not have gotten and she says what a gift that was,” says Sternin. “There’s so much love and laughter in this family, and spunkiness. The fact that these two little old ladies from West Virginia were able to have millions of people click on them and get to know them, they obviously struck a chord.”
Sternin says filmmakers and people who want to change the world will keep making documentaries that raise awareness and are calls to action. She believes it will “be complicated and take a couple of years to figure out what normal is, to move from small screens to large screens, to find comfort gathering in theaters.” In the meantime, she’ll keep making films that bring joy and excitement and follow stories that surpass the “blood, sweat, tears and trauma” she experiences during her three-year creative process. Pulled forward by a hunch, hoping expertise will steer her clear of dead end paths, she’s grateful that each opportunity hones her skills and allows her to tap humanity for compelling stories.