Feminism and religion. Can they coexist? The answer, of course, is yes — but the relationship is often complicated and difficult to understand from the outside. This week we chatted with a woman navigating that relationship in a really thoughtful and powerful way. Kristine Stolakis is the director of Where We Stand, a short documentary that follows a group of badass Mormon feminists working toward equality. Read more about how Kristine is shining a light on these women below.
Introduce yourself! Tell us who you are and what you do.
Hello! My name is Kristine Stolakis, and I am a documentary filmmaker based in San Francisco, California. My latest film is called Where We Stand. It tells the story of a controversial group of Mormon feminists fighting for women’s ordination in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’m currently running an Indiegogo for finishing and distribution funds. I’m also pumped to begin research for my first feature film. I’m still workshopping the idea privately, since it’ll probably transform completely over the next few months! But it is related to LGBTQ history, a particular and personal interest of mine.
Can you tell us a little about how feminism plays a part in what you do, and also how making this documentary has influenced your own understanding of feminism?
That spoke to me too, the fact that feminism was tying together a lot of social movements that had fascinated me growing up. And I’m still in the same place. Feminism gets me going personally, but also intellectually. It is such a fascinating lens to use to look through the world.
Absolutely. I love this question because this is how the creative cycle works — you bring your own experiences to making films, and then the experiences of the people you work with then affect your work.
I’ve always had a strong sense of justice and fairness. I was the kid in elementary school explaining how we needed to cut the rings of plastic those six-pack soda containers to be fair to birds. (This might really date me!) In high school and into college, I became a student of the Civil Rights Movement. All the work that went into making people understand that separate does not mean equal spoke to the little kid in me who deeply believed in fairness. This led to an academic interest in social justice as a concept. How does social change happen? What does that phrase even mean? I always had a parallel interest in art, so that question developed into how does art play a role in social movements? I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Native American documentary filmmakers really engaged in that question.
But for some reason, feminism as a concept and history didn’t really interest me. Maybe I thought I was complaining over nothing? I am also white and was raised middle class, so I had been shielded from a lot of the injustices of the world. I think I believed the feminist movement was over — ha! It wasn’t until my early twenties that it hit me that I was completely naive to the feminist movement (and continuing movement), a strange truth for a woman fascinated by justice movements.
So I started researching it from an academic place, reading history books on the subject and reading all the feminist blogs that were getting super popular when I graduated college. And I started to have a language that spoke to my own experiences — “the male gaze,” “the personal is political” (which might be a thesis for a tremendous amount of documentary filmmaking!), the concept of consent, the problem with essentialized gender roles etc. Feminism today is also intersectional, meaning it works to acknowledge that not all women’s experiences are the same — Black women experience wage discrimination differently (and in more pronounced ways) than white women, for example, and that a feminist movement needs to be inclusive of a wide-range of concerns. That spoke to me too, the fact that feminism was tying together a lot of social movements that had fascinated me growing up. And I’m still in the same place. Feminism gets me going personally, but also intellectually. It is such a fascinating lens to use to look through the world. I also love that it is based on research. As I’m sure is now clear, I’m a big school nerd.
Where We Stand followed a similar trajectory. When I first read about Mormon feminists I thought, what a fascinating group of people living out feminism in an unexpected way. My documentary gut was like, this is a really good story! Then as I dug deeper into research and then met a tremendous amount of Mormon feminists, I was reminded of my own Catholic upbringing. I never even considered doing social justice work within my own religion. I thought calling out gender inequality in religion was off limits! (I really was raised to respect the Pope!) And frankly, I stopped being Catholic once I fully understood how the church regarded LGTBQ individuals. All of a sudden, the seriousness of what Mormon feminists and Ordain Women, the particular group profiled in the film, are doing hit me on a deep level. This story has now really inspired me as a filmmaker. I’m now more fully committed to my next work digging into problems in my own, more personal backyard. Again, stay tuned for my first feature film.
What have been the best and most challenging parts of this work so far?
The best part has been being genuinely inspired by the people in my film. I could not mean that more. The hardest part is one, realizing how expensive films are to make, hence the Indiegogo. I only started directing my own documentaries about two years ago, and I was completely naive to what an expensive medium it is. When people talk about the lack of diversity behind the camera, I think this is a hugely unacknowledged part of the pipeline problem. How can I afford my first film? If someone out in the universe has studied this aspect of the pipeline problem, please let me know! Because let me tell you, before you get into a good rhythm of grants/investors/however you finance your films, just getting started is very, very expensive.
The other challenging part has been accepting the fact that I can’t talk about controversial things in my films and be considered by every stranger in the universe a “nice” person. I really hate being controversial — I am a total people pleaser — but I also believe in fairness. And I want my films to be about people chasing fairness. And often times the first people to call out the fact that something is not fair rub the general populous the wrong way. Now I’m the person sharing those stories. I don’t get to hide in the library and be quietly fascinated with social rights movements! Thus, not everyone is going to like me or my films! (A Mormon feminist recently laughed out loud when I told her that I really am not a controversial person. She was like, you do realize you made a film that discusses women wanting to be priests, right?) So that’s been a strange part of the job to accept. But it also has been a big source of growth.
What advice would you have for other women who want to get into filmmaking?
Do it! It is a hard kind of job to get started in, but once you get rolling, you will find freelancing jobs to pay the bills! You will figure out a way to cobble together funding for your films! And if you experience some sexism on set, either overtly or in some kind of unintentional way, don’t internalize it! Forget about it and go on to make brilliant films.
Also, do not compare your path to others. Documentary filmmaking is a creative profession that is absolutely not linear in terms of how you should make it work. Have specific goals and love yourself along the way. It is about playing the long game and giving yourself time to develop into the kind of filmmaker you want to be.