Susan Steinberg Woll:
Activist and Artist
 by Rebecca Richards  

Susan Steinberg Woll has long been seen as an activist in New England’s filmmaking community and rightly so. As she herself says, "When I see a need I think, ‘Why not try to solve it?’" This take-charge attitude was most recently demonstrated in her organizing the first-ever screening of Academy-Award nominated documentaries for a local Boston audience. In fact, when I saw her recently at the New England Film & Video Festival’s 25th Anniversary Gala, she was busy circulating a petition to have Boston become a designated voting site for the Oscar-nominated films. As she describes it, "Here we are with one of the biggest documentary communities in the country and we were being left out of the process. I wanted our unique voice to be heard."

Susan Steinberg Woll at lunch at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles after a meeting at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on behalf of Documentary Voting in New England.  

Woll was determined to rectify the situation. While in LA last year, she contacted the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences to express her concerns and they were surprisingly receptive. Once back in Boston, Woll formed a task force with Bruce Jenkins of the Harvard Film Archive and Lyda Kuth of the LEF Foundation with additional help from Linda Jacobs of the Helios Foundation to move forward with the issue. Her initial persistence and determination paid off when the films were shown last month to packed house screenings at both the Brattle and Coolidge Corner Theatres.

Woll’s activist leanings can be traced back to her early upbringing and subsequent political awareness during the Vietnam War. Born into a family of physicians with a mother who was a social worker, Woll learned early on about the importance of service to others. Though always drawn to the arts, Woll felt as though she also had to do something of service. She says simply, "It was expected with the kind of environment I grew up in. Though I wanted to be an artist, art just seemed too self-indulgent a choice to me." So she prepared instead for a career in medicine. As a pre-med student at the University of Michigan, she continued to gravitate towards the arts and became part of a writers’ group whose members included future screenwriter David Newman (BONNIE AND CLYDE, SUPERMAN), and novelists Peter Beagle and Edmund White. Still struggling with her desire to be an artist with her sense of obligation to her family, Woll now reluctantly applied to medical school. "I couldn’t even bring myself to write the essays for admission," she says, "Ed White offered to do them and I accepted."

To her family’s delight, she was soon among only a handful of women accepted into the prestigious Albert Einstein College of Medicine. But she knew it wasn’t for her. Woll managed to stay for a year before she left. Though there was fall-out with her family, she didn’t back down. Wanting to start anew, Woll soon found herself living in Pittsburgh where she met her former husband, Burt Woll. "He was a physicist, but he wanted to be an architect, so we were very simpatico. We understood each other’s need to be doing something else." Woll and her husband eventually ended up in Cambridge so he could attend Harvard School of Design, but not before a stint living in Canada where Woll picked up a graduate degree and the couple befriended a number of local filmmakers, including David Cronenberg and Ivan Reitman. Woll was now starting to think more about film as a possible means for her own creative expression.

Once settled in Cambridge, Woll was hired as a researcher by Dr. Hans Lukaj Teuberg, who was doing clinical research on war veterans and head injuries at MIT. Woll was fascinated by the work, but was quickly becoming absorbed in the growing anti-war movement. As she recalls, "It was an extremely political time. There was a lot of activity going on with student strikes and demonstrations at the schools. I couldn’t not participate." Woll and her husband became activists against the war, helping people cross the border into Canada. It was also around this time that Woll discovered the film program at MIT. "It was almost like a secret society" she says. She applied and got in. Once again, she was only among a handful of women in the program. "While there was a lot of testosterone floating around, it was an incredible experience to be a part of. Because it was such a small program, we had huge amounts of attention from the faculty. They poured enormous amounts of energy into the students. And there was lots of equipment available to us. The creative energy was amazing. We’d all have lunch together at the F&T deli and we’d just sit there and talk about film ideas for hours. It was really a remarkable environment to be a part of."

As Woll describes it, the film program at MIT was unique in that it operated as a working film unit. The students worked under the guidance of legendary filmmakers Richard Leacock and Ed Pincus, who had pioneered a whole new movement in cinema verite and autobiographical documentary that emphasized a spontaneous and "living in the moment" approach to filmmaking. "It was definitely a radical approach to filmmaking", Woll says. "It was terrifying and dangerous territory to be exploring, but also incredibly exciting and exhilarating. There was a real push to be innovative, to be different from an industry cog." MIT prepared Woll to do just about anything on a shoot. After completing the program, Woll was now among only a handful of Boston-based highly skilled women working in production full time.

She was soon asked to collaborate on JOAN ROBINSON: ONE WOMAN’S STORY, a PBS national documentary special about a woman’s ongoing battle with cancer. The film went on to win the Dupont Award from Columbia University. But the experience of working on that film made Woll realize the need for a central production resource for local filmmakers. She says, "I had this short list of people to call who had interchangeable camera cables or Nagras I could use. That was it." In typical Woll fashion, she saw there was a problem and she wanted to solve it. She didn’t waste any time. She wrote an open letter to filmmakers in the university consortium newsletter telling them why a center was needed. The response to the letter was immediate. In 1976, Woll, together with John Rubin, a local experimental filmmaker, became co-directors of the first ever media arts center for filmmakers in New England. While the center was initially housed at MIT, it eventually evolved into what is now the Boston Film/Video Foundation (BF/VF), which remains one of the country’s most active media arts centers.

Woll was now busy working on numerous film projects, running the resource center and working on her own autobiographical documentary, which included the eventual breakdown of her marriage. She now found herself a single mother with a young daughter to support, so she became a production person for hire. Woll worked as an editor, production manager, field sound recordist, producer, scriptwriter and development person. "For over a decade, I was working any way I could in film and video to generate income." It was during that time that Woll’s mentor, Richard Leacock, asked her to co-write and direct the acclaimed documentary LULU IN BERLIN, which features the only filmed interview in existence with silent screen icon Louise Brooks. And one day, Ron Blau, who had been working as an editor at WGBH, came to Woll and asked her to view some footage for an experimental film he was making. After watching the film, she agreed to collaborate. Their finished effort, OUR TIME IN THE GARDEN was a winner of the Massachusetts Artists’ Foundation Award. Woll’s creative partnership with Blau soon evolved into a business one as well with the two of them forming the Central Studios production company. As CEO of Central Studios, Woll was involved in every aspect of production, including funding development, distribution and marketing.

By the early 1990’s Woll was soon to take on another role when she was invited to be among the first group of scholars at Boston University’s prestigious Professor’s Program. Woll said an important aspect of the program at BU was that it gave her an opportunity to spend some real time with her now teenaged daughter. "Unlike when I was actively working in production, I could come home at night. That was so very important to me." While at BU, Woll produced a scholarly text on autobiographical documentaries which served as her dissertation. Woll received her Ph.D. in Comparative Film Studies in 1996. An advisor to Woll suggested to her that maybe she should consider teaching. She agreed it was a great idea. For the last several years Woll has been a member of the faculty at both Emerson College and Harvard University. As Woll notes of her own remarkable history, "It’s fascinating when you think about it. Here we have Robert Flaherty, who’s considered the first documentary filmmaker, who trained Ricky Leacock, who then trained me. And now I’m teaching a new group of filmmakers. I tell them they’re like the great-grandchildren of Flaherty. It’s an amazing lineage."

Woll’s films have been screened to wide acclaim internationally and have won several major filmmaking awards. In addition to her teaching, she is developing several screenplays and writing a book on screenwriting. She also serves as an advisor to several media arts groups. Her ever-popular "Movie Talk" discussion series also continues at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

Screenwriter Rebecca Richards is a board member of Women in Film and Video/New England. Richards is also co-chair of the WIFV/NE Image Awards 2000 which will take place on May 16th at the Fairmont Copley Plaza.