Frameline Award: Debra Chasnoff (1957-2017) with screening of It's Elementary
Debra Chasnoff was a documentary filmmaker and social justice activist—to her the two were synonymous. Quite simply, she changed the world. Chasnoff (Chas to her friends) indelibly transformed the landscape in the fight for the rights of LGBTQ folks to be parents. She altered the country’s understanding of LGBTQ families and was a leader in creating safe schools by teaching children about difference and diversity—not just LGBTQ diversity, but racial, family structure, and gender diversity. She was funny, a brilliant strategist, and an inspiring filmmaker whose work championed respect for people and the environment.
Want to know what a revolutionary and a force of nature looks like? Cue up Debra Chasnoff’s acceptance speech from the 1992 Academy Awards ceremony. Her documentary short Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment won her an Oscar, and her acceptance speech landed a staccato one-two punch: Chas strode up to the podium and became the first woman to thank her same-sex partner on the nationally broadcast Oscars and she encouraged people to boycott General Electric because they manufactured nuclear weapon components. That’s chutzpah!
Chas grew up in Maryland with liberal, Jewish parents who modeled advocacy for social justice. She graduated from Wellesley College and was an activist before she was a filmmaker, working to shut down a nuclear power plant in New Hampshire and then later as an editor of Outlook Magazine. The filmmaking bug bit her hard when she—with her former partner Mimi (Kim) Klausner—made her first film, Choosing Children (1984), about six lesbian-headed families who decide to become parents. Through that film, Chas recognized the power of using documentary storytelling to change people’s minds and to launch a movement. And launch a movement she did.
Chas’ 1996 film It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School—which boldly turned the minefield of teaching about LGBTQ issues in elementary schools into a navigable playing field—was instrumental in bringing queer issues into elementary school curricula. According to Nancy Otto, Chas’ wife of 17 years, “She had an uncanny talent at taking very complicated or controversial concepts and distilling them in ways that were easily understood. Chas and her films opened people’s hearts.”
Chas’ work, much of which screened at Frameline, went national. Her San Francisco-based non-profit production company Groundspark created the Respect for All project—films and teacher training resources designed to help prevent prejudice among young people, including That’s a Family, Straightlaced, and Let’s Get Real. That’s a Family brilliantly juxtaposed issues faced by queer kids with those faced by children of divorced, single, or mixed-race parents, provoking a nationwide backlash from conservatives. Undaunted, Chas—inspired by her sons Noah and Oscar—kept making films so that teachers and students had the tools to talk about tough topics.
Chas died of breast cancer at the age of 60 on November 7, 2017. At the time of her diagnosis, she fearlessly picked up a camera and turned it on herself, starting a new film titled Prognosis. Chas hoped that her experience would help other people facing serious medical conditions. The film—an intimate portrait of the poignant, humorous, and unpredictable nature of hanging on while letting go—is being finished by her wife Nancy Otto and a team of local filmmakers—Kate Stilley Steiner, Carrie Lozano, Lidia Szajko and Joan Lefkowitz, who were some of her best friends (and who will show a short clip at the June 20 Frameline Award presentation). It is no surprise that Chas was, until the very end, a filmmaker and an activist.
For our 42nd anniversary Festival, we are honored to present the Frameline Award posthumously to Debra Chasnoff, an exceptional queer filmmaker, visionary activist, and life-long champion of social justice.
Join Frameline and Kate Kendell (National Center for Lesbian Rights) for the 2018 Frameline Award presentation on June 20, 4pm, at the Castro Theatre, including a tribute to Debra Chasnoff and the screening of It's Elementary.
— NANCY FISHMAN