By Lauren Zink
“I am a storyteller first, and sometimes an unexpected, reluctant activist second.”
By the time you read this article, Cynthia Wade may or may not have won her second Academy Award in five years. As an accomplished documentary filmmaker who focuses on social issues, winning another Oscar is not what is important to her – creating compelling stories is.
Cynthia’s desire to become a documentary filmmaker began when she was a theatre major at Smith College in Northampton, MA. Spending her time traveling from audition to audition, and landing few roles, she was left feeling frustrated and absent from the creative process. When Cynthia found a camera her sophomore year and began filming her friends, she realized being behind-the scenes was where she belonged.
During her senior year Cynthia decided to apply to the Smith Scholars Program, a special study program where instead of taking classes, she could make a documentary. In 1989, she completed her first film – about women’s dating lives and romantic expectations at an all-female college. Cynthia compared her story to that of her grandmother’s time, a 1939 Smith College graduate.
On graduation day, Cynthia’s documentary screened in front of 800 people. The film included scenes from lesbian and bi-sexual dances, and many considered it too edgy and controversial. Days later, the then-President of Smith College held a meeting in which she announced that she would not run an article about the film in the alumnae magazine because the presence of lesbians at Smith upset some of the older alumnae.
“I didn’t mean for it to be controversial, I was just trying to figure out what college dating life meant to students. This was the first time I realized there was real power to a documentary film,” said Cynthia.
This experience solidified Cynthia’s desire to become a documentary filmmaker and she went on to receive her Masters in Documentary Filmmaking from Stanford University.
In 2008, Cynthia won her first Academy Award for her short documentary film, FREEHELD. This 39-minute film follows the life of Laurel Hester, a police officer who is dying of cancer, and simultaneously fighting for earned pension benefits for her partner, Stacie Andree.
Although FREEHELD was released during a very controversial time in the United States – when the subject of gay rights was being talked about on every media outlet in the country – Cynthia had no idea how big of an impact the film would have. “I just fell in love with the women in that story and their relationship – the love and care that they had for each other. My passion for a film always starts with the people. I am a storyteller first, and sometimes an unexpected, reluctant activist second.”
FREEHELD was televised on Cinemax and won 15 film festival prizes, including the Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. FREEHELD is set to be a major feature film, with Ellen Page already signed on to play the role of Andree.
Amidst her hectic lifestyle post-Oscars, Cynthia said she realized — while walking up her fourth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn — that never before had she had her own sacred place. “What I yearned for was a quiet place, a special place, for my family. I dreamt of having a little house with a fireplace, wood-plank floors, and a private space for me, my husband and two daughters. After her Oscar win in 2008 Cynthia said to her husband, “I need to go some place where it’s just us as a family.”
Cynthia’s wish came true when she found the perfect home in South Egremont, Massachusetts – a real-estate listing she found on Craig’s List. “The house was crooked, small, cozy, and had wide plank floors and a fireplace. It needed work, and I loved it,” Cynthia states. Originally a weekend getaway, the family moved to the Berkshires permanently 2 ½ years ago.
At a time where people can do their work anywhere, Cynthia feels very fortunate that she can live in the countryside and still have just as successful a career. “The Berkshires,” Cynthia says, “has the potential to have the same creative vibrancy as Brooklyn does.”
The Berkshire community rallied around Cynthia for her second Oscar nomination. Melissa Bigarel, owner of the Great Barrington store Louisa Ellis, was her stylist for the dresses leading up to the Oscars; Anni Crofut, jewelry designer and owner of Anni Maliki, lent some jewelry; and Annie Okerstrom-Lang, local realtor and co-owner of the Great Barrington Okerstrom Lang Landscape Architects, introduced Cynthia to her brother Todd Okerstrom, head of Personal Shopping at Bergdorf Goodman. Todd connected Cynthia with NYC designer Randi Rahm. Rahm lent her a gold beaded gown for the awards ceremony.
This time around, Cynthia’s documentary, MONDAYS AT RACINE, moves people in a different way. The 39-minute film focuses around a Long Island hair salon that, every third Monday of the month, closes its doors to the public for women who have cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy. During this time these women enjoy free beauty services, and along the way, have become a major support system for one another. The sisters, who own the Racine Salon and lost their mother to cancer, will be Cynthia’s dates to the Academy Awards.
Andrew O’Hehir, writer for Salon.com, writes of MONDAYS AT RACINE as “a modestly scaled film with a modest suburban setting, about the ramifications of a disease that has touched most American families, but Wade’s blend of intimacy, hopefulness and profound tragedy ultimately makes it much, much bigger than that sounds.”
Currently, Cynthia runs her own production company, Cynthia Wade Productions Inc., and is traveling all over the world – one day she’s working in Indonesia and the next she’s in Manhattan. How lucky we are to have Cynthia, and her masterful storytelling talents, here in western Massachusetts. To learn more about Cynthia Wade you can visit her website at www.cynthiawade.com
Lauren Zink is the Communications Manager for the Berkshire Film and Media Commission. Reach her anytime at [email protected]. To keep up-to-date with the film scene in western Massachusetts you can read Lauren’s tweets at @BerkshireFilm.