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Debra Chasnoff, an Oscar-winning documentarian died November 7, Debra Chasnoff, an Oscar-winning documentarian died November 7, 2017 at her home in San Francisco.

The cause of death was breast cancer. She was 60-years-old.

Her films promoted greater understanding of lesbians and gay men.

In 1992 I interviewed Ms. Chasnoff shortly after winning the Academy Award for her film Deadly Deception.

Ms. Chasnoff's first film, which she produced inhe background color on this div will only show for the

Photo by Phyllis Christopher.

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AN INTERVIEW WITH DEBRA CHASNOFF


The 64th annual Academy Awards will be remembered as one of protest.

There were protests of the portrayals of lesbians and gay men in films like
Basic

Instinct
and JFK, and complaints about the lack of an Oscar nomination for the

critically acclaimed gay documentary
Paris is Burning. But Debra Chasnoff's

protest would make history.

by Sidney Brinkley

Debra ChasnoffWhen Debra Chasnoff stood at the podium to accept the Academy Award for her film Deadly Deception and thanked her domestic partner Kim Klausner and their son Noah, then called for a boycott of General Electric, in the space of a few seconds she became a heroine, to the gay community and environmentalists in general, and to lesbian mothers and anti-nuclear activists in particular.

Since then, she said, she has been inundated with telegrams and flowers from well-wishers and besieged by both the mainstream and gay press.

“I’ve done a lot of press,” she said pointing to a thick stack of newspaper clippings on the edge of her desk. “I was completely unprepared for the scope of the press. It has to do with my speech. But it’s good. It’s an additional opportunity to talk about these issues and be visible as a lesbian. I think it’s important to use that opportunity whenever we can.”

Chasnoff was born in Philadelphia but grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and attended Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, Md. Her father is a delegate in the Maryland House; her mother a professor at Johns Hopkins University. After graduating in 1974, she left the area for Wellesley college in Boston, Mass., where she majored in economics.

It was there that two things occurred that would change her life and her future: She came out as a lesbian and fell in love. She said she was an “oddball” during her young teen years and said, while some may have thought she was a lesbian, she wasn’t aware of it until college. At Wellesley, she met Kim Klausner and began what is now a 12-year-old relationship.

"One day, my girlfriend Kim announced she wanted to make a film and asked if I wanted to make it with her. ‘I don’t know how to make a film,’ I said. She said, ‘I don’t either but let’s do it.’

“In our social circle at the time, our lesbian friends were talking about wanting to have children; but, in the early 1980s, not too many of them knew of women who had children as lesbians. Most women had them from previous marriages or from relationships with men.”

The subject became the focus of their film, and after asking other filmmakers for help and advice, in 1985 Choosing Children was released and went on to become a critically acclaimed, award-winning documentary.

In an ironic twist, Klausner would later enter the business world, and Chasnoff would stay in film. It was through Choosing Children that she came to the attention of INFACT, “a Boston-based, grass-roots, anti-nuclear organization that had led the Nestle boycott,” Chasnoff said.

“I was very intrigued with the idea of General Electric,” she said. “We use actual bits of their own commercials in the film and turn it back against them.”

Winning the Oscar was a heady experience for Chasnoff.

“I was just stunned that it all happened. That I had won. That I had given that speech. I couldn’t believe it.” After the ceremony, she said, she and Kim went to the post Oscar Governor’s Ball. As they danced together, many people came up to them and offered congratulations.

“I hardly remember it. I was on another planet by the time we got there,” she recalls. What she does remember turned out to be what she calls the “highlight of the Ball.”

“I looked around, and there was Jodie Foster,” a two-time Academy Award winning actress. “So, I said ‘I’m going to go over and say hi.’ Why not? I just won an Oscar. I can do anything. So I walked up to her and said, ‘Congratulations.’ And she said, ‘Congratulations to you.’ I had extended my hand for a handshake, but she took my hand and pulled me closer, gave me a big hug, and said, ‘That was really cool what you did.’ I was so thrilled.”

If it’s remembered for anything, the occasion of the 64th annual Academy Awards will be remembered as one of protest. In addition to Chasnoff’s remarks about G.E., there were protests of the portrayals of lesbians and gay men in films like Basic Instinct and JFK, and complaints about the lack of an Oscar nomination for the critically acclaimed gay documentary Paris is Burning.

“I don’t think its impossible to get a lesbian and gay film through there,” said Chasnoff, noting that The Times of Harvey Milk, a documentary about slain San Francisco Board Supervisor, won an Academy Award a few years ago. “I don’t think the process by which these films are nominated is very clear. It’s shocking to me that Deadly Deception was nominated. It’s a very, very political film and hard hitting against one of the nation’s most powerful corporations. I would have nominated Tongues Untied and Paris is Burning. I did have an opportunity to see all the films that were nominated, both feature category and shorts category, and I think that those two films were as good, if not better, than those that were nominated.

Chasnoff said her Oscar is on the mantle in her house. “Noah likes to show it to everyone that comes in,” she said.

As passionate as Chasnoff appears when discussing her work, it doesn’t compare to the glow that comes over her when discussing her three-year-old son.

“He’s the most wonderful thing that ever happened and also the most challenging thing. I think no matter how many times other parents told us how having a kid is ‘the thing’ that will change your life, you don’t believe it until you have to live through it yourself.

“There was a period of time,” she said, “I saw the world in terms of people of different races, or men and women, or lesbian and gay men and straight people. Now I see it as parents and non-parents,” she said laughing. “I’ve decided that’s the dividing line.”

However, Chasnoff balked and refused to answer when I asked her about Noah's birth and whether she or Klausner is the biological mother. Days later The Washington Post ran an interview in which Chasnoff told the reporter that Klausner was the birth mother. I called Ms. Chasnoff about that and she apologized for her initial refusal to discuss it with me.

She said she had felt like the media had been asking her so many personal questions during interviews since that Oscars, that by the time she spoke to me, she had simply decided to stop talking about her son.

"Straight people don't have to go into the details of how their children are born, so we don't feel a need to go into those details," she said. "The important thing is that we were able to have a child together as a lesbian couple and we are both his parents."

Chasnoff has not yet decided what her next project will be.

“A film about homophobia in children is one of the many projects I’m looking into,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of meetings this month with foundations and organizations. There are a lot of different things I’m looking into and I hope to start working on them in the next few months.”

Lately, Debra Chasnoff has often said she see herself as an activist first and a filmmaker second.

“It’s my activism that got me into filmmaking and media. That’s why I choose to work in media. It’s the way I can best be politically active and that’s a perspective I bring to all the different media work I’ve done. However,” she added, jokingly, “after winning the Academy Award I guess I’d better stop saying I’m a filmmaker second.”

END