Iris Films interviewed
Lesbians lose their kids
in custody cases

by Cathy Cade, John Hess, and
Carole Raimondi

from Jump Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp. 6-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

In March 1975, five lesbian women in Los Angeles began Iris Films in order to make and distribute films by and about women. Two of them soon moved to Washington, D.C., and left the group. Frances Reid, Liz Stevens, and Kathy Zeutlin remained to begin work on IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILDREN. Some years before the collective began, Reid had wanted to make a videotape about a lesbian mother she knew who had very positive attitudes toward parenting. When they were discussing what film to make, a law student friend suggested a film about child custody cases, which lesbians often lose only because of their sexual preference. Stevens had lost her own children in just such a case.

While working on the film, the filmmakers received grants from the Liberty Hill Foundation, Joint Foundation Support, and the Eastman Fund. Later, the Vanguard Foundation gave them money to publish their research into child custody cases fought by lesbians. For rental and other information write to Iris Films, Box 5353, Berkeley, CA 94705.

We interviewed Frances Reid and Liz Stevens in Berkeley just after the film was screened several times in the Bay Area in August 1977. Later, members of the Jump Cut editorial board decided that some answers needed clarifications and that other questions needed to be asked. Reid and Stevens responded in writing and this new material has been edited into the original text. Because adding this additional material made it impossible to attribute all the questions and answers to individuals, we have used only Jump Cut and Iris Films.

Jump Cut: Once you decided to make a film about custody cases, what did you do?

Iris Films: We began doing research and interviewing a lot of lesbian mothers. For about nine months we researched all the legal documents in child custody cases and then started filming in July 1976. We outlined about 10 issues that came up for a lot of lesbian mothers in custody cases. We wanted to make a film that spoke directly to those specific issues.

Jump Cut: What assumptions did you make about your audience(s), and what information did you use to determine these assumptions? How did your concept of the projected public influence your choices during the making of the film?

Iris Films: The primary audience that we were interested in reaching in terms of creating a change of attitude or consciousness (and, as a result, a concrete change for lesbian mothers who come before family courts) was made up of those who had power in custody cases — the judges, probation officers, family court investigators, social workers, etc. Our assumption about this audience was that they were generally misinformed as to who lesbian mothers are and that their opinions, as well as the general public's, are mainly formed by existing prejudices and stereotypes. This assumption was generally substantiated by conversations and interviews we did with various individuals in those positions as part of our initial research for the film, as well as extensive reading of decisions made by judges in custody cases involving lesbian mothers.

As we did the research for the film and as we mat various lesbian mothers, our focus broadened a lot. We realized that we wanted to make a film that would speak to the general public as well, and also to lesbians. Our sense of the general public attitude as well as the attitude of our specific audience was that there is a pervasive feeling that children raised by lesbian mothers will be unhappy and not well adjusted. As a result of this, one of the things that was most important to us was to show the children of lesbian mothers (as they really are) — children who were willing to talk openly on the subject of their mothers' lesbianism.

The film is clearly propaganda, and we very much wanted it to be pleasant and positive. Some lesbians have criticized us for that. They found it unreal. We wanted it to look pretty, to have that nice music, to show positive, caring interactions between people.

Jump Cut: You mention that some lesbians complained about the positiveness of the film and that you feel that this was due to your decision to make it "pretty." Do you think that this aesthetic decision created what you see now as audience misconceptions (about class, etc.)?

Iris Films: Our choice to "make the film pretty" meant to us that in choosing locations in the women's environment for the film, we naturally chose the most aesthetically pleasing places as backdrops for interviews and interactions with their children. We were also interested in locations which reflected actual play or relaxation time that the women spent with their children. This translated into playground and park scenes, corners of rooms that had exterior window light, etc. Some criticism we received related to what some women perceived as a "middle-class" sense to the women. One woman was filmed in a San Francisco city park with her daugher — she said she was on welfare — but the visual sense of her life was in conflict with generally accepted idea of what a welfare mother's life is like.

We would say that this visual representation was in keeping with our choices for a film that showed the strength and lovingness of the people involved. We did not choose to ignore the pain and struggle (both economic and emotional) that lesbian mothers face in day-to-day living but rather to make a strong singular statement about these woman — that their relationships with their children are open, strong, caring relationships which happen by choice  — not by the need to fulfill a traditional female role.

Jump Cut: Again, though, there's that conflict about who you want to see the film. In the film everyone had such nice houses, such nice little family situations, and there weren't people in really non-traditional households. Did your sense of audience influence the range of lifestyles in the film?

Iris Films: We did not intentionally leave out unconventional households because of that. We wanted to show as broad a range of lifestyles and economic backgrounds as we could. After all, a white, middle-class, professional lesbian would stand a much better chance with the judge because her values and the judge's are going to be much more compatible than those of anybody who is doing any kind of alternative thing, or is poor, or on welfare, or is black. So we wanted to show women who did not fit in with the neat stereotype that a judge might have of any acceptable mother in general. I think we succeeded in that to some extent, but we didn't find as much of a cross section as we wanted to. Also, we knew who these women were and made certain assumptions about what would come across in the film.

We had eight women in the film and we focused almost entirely, because we had to, just in terms of time, on their relationships with their kids. We did not get to talk about how they made a living, what their environment was like. If we had focused on just one woman, we could have done a lot more complex picture of who she was, her entire lifestyle. We didn't get to do that and we have found that a lot of audiences have coma away with certain misconceptions of who these women are.

We also know that we're starting at the very bottom with the general audience in terms of exposure to lesbianism, especially to lesbians who are raising children. Our focus on the relationship between the mother and the children is the basic thing that has to be addressed, if we're going to try to give people a little bit of enlightened information about lesbian mothers. People don't even know that there are lesbian mothers. The film shows people how these relationships come across, the reality of the relationships between these eight woman and their fifteen children. Those are really damn good relationships and cannot be ignored. For that reason, we would really like to get the file on television.

Jump Cut: Do you feel that the film has been successful, so far, in reaching those audiences that you had in mind to see it? Are there specific things about the film that you can now point to as being especially successful or, on the other hand, any things that you would do differently?

Iris Films: In terms of using the film as propaganda, we find, for the most part, that it has been very successful. We have gotten considerable feedback from groups and individuals who have used the film for education, discussion, and consciousness raising both with our specific audience and with general audiences who report that the film had a very beneficial impact. Our experience in doing public showings with the film has also been to find that it has definitely had a consciousness-raising effect.

Occasionally, we will get skeptical responses, particularly about the children, with statements like "they seem too happy" or like they've been to too many encounter groups. In spite of these responses, I don't think that we would change what we have shown of the children because they generally evoke the most positive responses. Their qualities present the most compelling evidence for the right of lesbian mothers to maintain custody of their children. The primary thing we would want to change about the film would be to show the mothers in a broader context than we have, including their work (what they do to survive) and the support that they get from their communities, their connections to the woman's movement, etc. The weakest aspect of the film, we believe, is that it shows the women in such isolated situations. This happened largely as a result of our need to tightly control how much we filmed because of budgetary considerations.

Jump Cut: What efforts have you made to have the film used in custody cases and what has happened?

Iris Films: The film has been used frequently as a fund-raising film for custody cases and extensively by the lesbian mothers National Defense Fund. Because of our own workload, we have not been able to follow up totally on the success that the film has had in individual cases. Whether it can serve as evidence in a trial is up to the judge's discretion. It's not clear how the film fits into legal categories. What will happen is that attorneys will get judges to see the film by saying that they want to show the film as evidence. The judge will have to see the film in order to decide whether to admit it as evidence. Probation officers are very powerful in these cases because judges very often accept their recommendations. So we want to get them to see the film.

To our knowledge it has not, as a piece of evidence, actually affected the outcome of any custody case as the determining factor. However, it seams to be having more long-range effects in terms of being seen by and opening up the minds of those who work in the area of child custody. We get extremely positive feedback both from lawyers and lesbian mothers who have used this film in their work either on a specific case or in general educational work with family court judges, lawyers, social workers, etc. They feel that the film is extremely useful in opening up discussion and in graphically showing a reality that dismisses stereotypes faster than anything they could express. We're trying to get the film shown in schools of social work, at mental health conferences, etc. We want to get into libraries and schools.

Jump Cut: What do you see as the problems in using an accepted, traditional film form to express radical ideas?

Iris Films: The use of traditional film forms to express radical ideas is a potentially powerful tactic. As much as radical filmmakers would hope that the general public would understand the contradictions in our society no matter how the information is presented, the public — the working woman and man — has been trained to the TV news aesthetic — and to what they can live with emotionally. This means that we need to study the traditional forms and use them where possible and change them gradually to a more straightforward approach to reality. It is manipulation but it is necessary. The problem that we feel is the most obvious here is that the traditional forms keep us answering the traditional questions rather than posing new ones. Rather than answering the question, "Are lesbian mothers raising weird kids or queer kids?" how much better it would be to pose the question, "What are the possible rationales for this society's heterosexist assumptions and the ransoming of children for women's proper behavior?"

We find it real hard to present this material only as a civil rights issue, to say, "please stop hurting us," rather than to approach it from a really aggressive place. We would like to present it as a fully developed political issue. In the film we don't speak to the way lesbianism is incorporated into our politics. We're playing on peoples humanity. We're saying, here is an issue where women are having their children taken away from them and it's cruel, rather than insisting and demanding what is our right. It's hard to do that as a lesbian mother. The custody struggle totally paralyzes a woman. It's a terrible experience, especially since the husband usually doesn't really want the children anyway.

Jump Cut: One interesting aspect of the showing at the Pacific Film Archives (Berkeley) was the difference between the very pleasant film — it really is enjoyable to watch — and Liz's anger afterwards when a man asked something about the film that we couldn't hear. That anger is not in the film at all.

Iris Films: He asked the old question about isn't it bad for children to be brought up in an environment where there is not a male and a female. It's a question that comes not out of curiosity or interest but from someone who is threatened and is unable to see the movie, who has come for very questionable reasons and walks out untouched. I know there are going to be judges like that too. We've taken great pains to show people something they can see and easily understand. But it's very painful to me to have to put this in a language that insults my intelligence and integrity as a lesbian.

Jump Cut: What were your reasons for not dealing with anger within the context of the film? Did the women you interviewed not feel comfortable dealing with anger on film, or was it a filmmaker's decision?

Iris Films: It was not necessarily a conscious decision on our part not to deal with anger in the film, and if anger had been expressed by the women we interviewed it would have been included. However, the questions that we made a priority to ask the women were ones that did not tend to evoke their anger, not because we wanted to avoid dealing with anger but because we felt there were other aspects (that tended to be more benign) which were more important within the limited time we had for each woman. These questions primarily had to do with the relationships between the mothers and their children. With the women who talked about the custody problems they had had, they didn't tend to choose to deal with their anger over the matter although they did often express (and we believe the film reflects) their mistrust of and cynicism about the justice system that makes those decisions.

Jump Cut: Will you make a more militant film for feminists and lesbians?

Iris Films: It is questionable whether that would be a valuable film. We think that there are some films about lesbians and parenting that need to be made. Such films would include a strong, political analysis. And it would include some good examples of children who are being parented in a very untraditional way and what kind of children they are.

As a result of making this film, we have come up with at least ten possible films that are spin-offs of it. It feels like a real trap for filmmakers.

Jump Cut: Why does it feel like a trap?

Iris Films: I guess part of it is that there are so many things that need to have films made about them. If we could make some really fine films that deal with parenting, about the future as well as about oppression, that would be fine. Sometimes you have to change from talking about oppression and talk about alternative ways of being with each other — especially in terms of women and children, and women and their bodies. We also think that there is a film that needs to be made that will be a good lesbian organizing film, but we don't know what that film is yet. That probably says something about our undeveloped politics.

Jump Cut: It seems that the film that you weren't able to make while making this film would be it: a really militant lesbian film which would say that if lesbians join together there are things they can do as a group to change their conditions in this society.

Iris Films: That's such a project. We'd need to sit down for ten years to think about the direction to go in.

Jump Cut: It sounds like you've already thought about it a lot.

Iris Films: Around children I think we have a pretty good sense of the directions people OUGHT to take but not around other issues.

Jump Cut: Do you fear that there might be some backlash against the women in the film?

Iris Films: That is a real possibility. Also, it is a possibility that the kids will be hassled, depending on how broadly the film is seen. I don't know what we will do if that happens.

Jump Cut: Or if the kids who felt good about it change their minds?

Iris Films: We talked about that a lot with each other and the kids before we filmed and they/we all were aware of the risks that they were taking. And there were women who chose not to do it because of the risk involved. We think about it a lot as times get tighter and tighter. This film could be a really sticky thing for a lot of the women. They say things that make themselves really vulnerable. We don't know what we are going to do if a woman or child comes to us and says, "I don't want to be in this film anymore," and we have 100 prints all over the country.

Jump Cut (Raimondi): When I saw the children in the film being so together about their situations, I wished that my daughter was as clear about my lesbianism. I forgot the process that they (the children) and all of us go through. The ups and downs of theses kids' lives weren't shown and I needed more of that to be shown.

Iris Films: Maybe it's a criticism of the film that even as a propaganda film we needed to show that process a little bit — even to straighter audiences. As is, you're just presented with these wonderful kids. Maybe, if we were to do it again, we should have taken a little bit of time to explain that these kids have been going through a lot of struggles with their mothers. The only time we speak to it actually in the film is when Angie Norman says, "The first time when she came home and told me she was a lesbian, I really didn't understand." She's really telling the process that she went through as she got older. And you know that it took time with her, and then she came to the time when her mother was going on the radio and she thought about that and says, "Gee, my friends might get uptight. And then I thought if my friends won't accept my mother, then they're not my friends." And that's a valuable piece in there.