by C. J. Hirschfield
When the feature documentary Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives was released in 1977, it rocked my world. I already loved documentaries, but this one–widely considered to be the first feature film about lesbian and gay identity made by gay people, quickly became a symbol of the emerging gay rights movement. I was living in glorious San Francisco at the time, where the film premiered at the Castro Theater. Directed by six people collectively known as the Mariposa Group, it took five years, and over two hundred interviews with gays, to complete the historic project.
Oakland-based Veronica Selver was one of those directors, and her new documentary, co-directed by Susan Fanshel, is not so much a bold political statement as the exploration of one very special person’s life—that of her own mother, Irmi Selver.
And what a life it was.
Irmi is both intensely personal–and unexpectedly universal. Irmi’s comfortable early life in Germany was shattered when the Nazis began persecuting Jews, and she, her husband and two children were forced to escape on a boat to Chile in 1939. While passing through the English Channel, the boat was sunk by a Nazi mine, killing 140 civilians—including Irmi’s family. What follows is one woman’s journey through many countries, challenges, and ultimately to the creation of a new life and family.
What shines through—and makes the film so very special—is Irmi’s conscious decision “both visceral and intuitive,” says Veronica, to choose life. There was joy, which came from her deep connection with people across generations, but there was also ongoing anxiety. “She was not heroic,” Veronica says, “but she had a fortunate disposition, that included courage and curiosity.”
And although you might not think that a hugely compelling story could be made about a working woman who was a secretary by day and a certified masseuse by night, you’d be wrong, because Irmi is, well, a force of nature.
The impetus for the film was a memoir Irmi wrote in the mid-eighties, in response to questions about her life from her grandchildren, and the film uses the document as its chronological and moral compass.
Because the film is so deeply personal to Veronica, she was wise to bring together a talented group of collaborators with different perspectives, and whose collective efforts elevate the film to excellence.
Co-director Susan Fanshel has known Veronica for over 60 years—they had previously worked on a film together about Berkeley’s KPFA radio station. “The level of trust we have was absolutely critical in sharing the work,” says Veronica, who appreciated the rigor her partner brought to the work, as well as her ability to provide some distance between the film’s subject and her loving daughter.
The richness of the extensive historical footage assembled by film archivist Rachel Antell is noteworthy. We travel though five countries, six decades, and even see film of the sinking of the actual ship Irmi was on. A home movie made by Irmi in the 1950s to celebrate her husband’s birthday is priceless, as are the family’s photos. Of the value of all of these visuals to the film, Veronica says, “It made all the difference.”
And then there is the music: some of it is found; everything from Mozart and Beethoven, to Scott Joplin and Louis Armstrong. The elegantly emotional score of composer Todd Boekelheide ties it all together seamlessly. Actress Hanna Schygulla (who made 23 movies with director Rainer Werner Fassbinder) beautifully voices the film.
Irmi Selver died in 2003 at the age of 97, but she continues to inspire.
Veronica says that the feedback she’s received from the film has been extraordinary.
“People are surprised that a personal story, in historical context, has its own potency that resonates. “It’s joyful to see someone who’s been through terrible tragedy, and then has to navigate how to continue to live.”
Given the pandemic in which we live, the “R” word—resilience—is certainly germane, but also wildly overused. But resilience is what Irmi was all about, and what makes the film particularly timely.
Irmi can be seen through BAMFA at this link.
Irmi will also open November 13 at Roxie Virtual Cinema, San Francisco. Details are at this link.
Word is Out can be streamed here: