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"It was surprising to me that people saw this as a completely vérité experience," says first-time filmmaker Jennifer Dworkin, recounting some initial responses to her documentary Love & Diane. "They come out not really realizing that there had been a lot of interior voice and memory sequences."
Dworkin's formal acknowledgment that the present always contains the past lends a rare richness to her dual profile of Diane Hazzard, a Brooklyn mother reunited with her kids after a six-year drug-related separation, and Hazzard's mercurial 18-year-old daughter Love Hinson--a mother herself, who has just been diagnosed with HIV and whose newborn is testing positive as well.
Dworkin came to Love & Diane indirectly. Born in New York but raised in the U.K., she recalls experiencing culture shock upon her college-age return: "The extremes of poverty were of a kind that we didn't see in England." At NYU film school she didn't work in documentary, only dabbling in vérité while volunteering at a Harlem shelter where she taught DIY film autobiography. As she grew closer to the daughters of one drug-addicted resident (Hazzard's brother, who dies in the course of Love & Diane), she began filming the family. When one of the girls decided to live with her aunt Diane, Dworkin arranged to meet Hazzard--camera in tow.
That first day, Diane and Love's stories proved riveting. "I asked them a couple questions, and then they started interviewing each other," Dworkin recalls. "I really didn't need to say anything else." Dworkin shifted her film's focus, following these two for the next five years.
Over lunch near the Safe Space office in Jamaica, Queens, where Hazzard has worked since completing a job-training program (a climactic sequence in the film), she describes meeting the filmmaker, now a close friend. "We're from two different worlds--she was raised with a silver spoon!" Hazzard laughs. "And I wasn't. Her father was a college professor, mother was a teacher. My mother was an alcoholic who drank herself to death." Hazzard had grave initial doubts about the project. "My first thought was that she wanted to do a film about a low-class black family struggling. And not get involved. But it didn't turn out that way."
While in Ithaca for grad school (returning frequently to Brooklyn to film), Dworkin met documentary lenser Slawomir Grunberg and, with his guidance, edited a grant-winning trailer. "While I was there cutting this dinky thing, footage he was shooting would be coming in. I learned an enormous amount about what makes a scene come alive from watching the rushes come in and seeing what went out." For her sense of pacing, Dworkin also credits 19th-century novels. "I'm much more of a reader than I am a moviegoer," she says.
Though obviously fortunate to have such candid subjects ("I come from a family where we never really talked about any of these big issues"), Dworkin says it was a challenge to convey the past trauma that would explain the family's current explosive bitterness: "When did the viewer need to know what Diane had really done in abandoning her children (the eldest of whom would end up taking his own life)? How to fit in the fact that things seemed to be repeating themselves?" There was also a critical narrative gap: Dworkin was not present when the Administration for Children's Services took Hinson's son Donyaeh from the home after a family blowout, plunging them again into the fickle world of social-service doublespeak.
"We missed the actual removal of Donyaeh," she recounts. "It was a huge pivotal moment. We didn't have it. We shot the wall. But it took a long time to get that right, because the viewer has to understand before that happens how much tension there is. And how destructive Love is. But we want you to engage with Love and see that she's very interesting, very intelligent. It's a fine line to convey that degree of anger and yet make somebody approachable."
When Donyaeh was removed, Dworkin moved back to the city, accompanying the family to serial conference rooms, courthouses, and lawyers' offices. Up to this point, she says, "I hadn't realized the extraordinary arbitrary power of social workers, and what an extraordinary lack of autonomy you have in the system." Regarding Hinson's housing woes, she recalls, "You had to have a T-cell count below a certain level, such that you would really be at death's door before you were eligible. For a long time, Love couldn't get Donyaeh back until she got the housing, and couldn't get the housing until she proved that she was sick enough--but if she was seen as that sick, she was afraid she wouldn't be able to get Donyaeh back." Dworkin adds, "Love understood the power politics. She just wouldn't play that game. I think her sisters made her understand that she wasn't going to get her baby back." Hazzard is more blunt. "I don't advise anybody to call ACS on anybody. If a child is not being physically hurt, think before you call them. Human beings, we are nosy. That's one of our instincts! Ask a child, 'What's the matter?'"