Film planned about 19th century SF feminist

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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Zel Anders, shown here in Girona, Spain, is the driving force behind Amendment 28 Films, which has a feature planned about Juana Briones. Photo: Marry Me Films
Zel Anders, shown here in Girona, Spain, is the driving force behind Amendment 28 Films, which has a feature planned about Juana Briones. Photo: Marry Me Films

A new film, now in pre-production, will recall the life of Juana Briones, often remembered as the "Founding Mother of San Francisco." Briones lived at a time when women didn't have rights and were often viewed as second-class citizens. Yet during her lifetime Briones raised children as a single mother, owned property, practiced herbal medicine, and was a midwife. She also excelled at business even though she could not read or write.

Briones (1802-1889) was a woman of color, which made her accomplishments even more impressive, given the era in which she lived. Her ties to the city were strong. She had a farm near what's now the Presidio in San Francisco and owned a home in what is now known as North Beach. Perhaps the most amazing thing that Briones did was to leave her abusive husband, dropping his surname. This was something that wasn't done during the 19th century. Briones was a feminist long before the word was coined.

Filmmaker Zel Anders, who said that she identifies as a feminist tomboy, is the guiding force behind Amendment 28 Films, an independent film production company. Now in development at Amendment 28 is "A Woman of Three Nations," a feature that will bring Briones' story to the big screen. The film will be an adaptation of the book "Juana Briones of 19th Century California," a biography by Jeanne Farr McDonnell.

"I think that this is the thing I was put on earth to do," Anders told the Bay Area Reporter in a telephone interview. "It took me a long time to find my calling. There are films that I haven't seen out there, and I just want to see more films like that. I have an adopted granddaughter who's Hispanic, and I want her to see more positive influences. Briones is a great role model that I want young women and young men to see."

Amendment 28 is so named because of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would be the 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution if adopted. The amendment provides for equality of the sexes and prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. In order to have an amendment adopted, two-thirds of states, or 38 states, must ratify the measure. That threshold was passed in 2020, when Virginia became the 38th state to do so. But the Trump administration blocked the ERA's adoption, saying that the seven-year deadline that was set in 1972 to have states ratify the measure had passed, according to Truthout.

"Most of the stories I'm attracted to are people who have overcome enormous obstacles," Anders said. "Juana Briones is an example. I'm trying to show stories of women who have done extraordinary things, even though on paper they didn't have equality, but they did the best that they could and kept going."

Anders noted that Briones overcame many horrible things.

"I think because I lived in San Francisco I was attracted to her story," Anders said. "The fact is that she was Hispanic and lived during a time when Hispanic people were not treated well. Her husband was extraordinarily abusive. He beat her repeatedly. She managed to get away from him when she couldn't get a divorce and when the Catholic Church would not allow her to separate legally from him. It was a time when women made 10 cents on the dollar to what men made, and yet she just did what she needed to do to feed her children, to make money. She did all these extraordinary things and there's not even a street named for her."

According to the National Park Service, this photo is believed by her relatives to be Juana Briones. Photo: Courtesy NPS  

Anders feels that Briones' story will resonate with women not only across the United States, but with women around the world who have, or are overcoming, systemic gender inequity and systemic racism.

"This film will teach young women and men and teens about resiliency through the story of a woman who learned to pivot time and again, hustle, support her family, and help other people," Anders said. "All despite her own enormous personal challenges and political upheaval, racism and gender inequity prevalent during the time she lived. This film will also teach people about the amazing history of the San Francisco Bay Area and California from about 1830-1870."

Anders is committed to putting together a team of Hispanic, Latinx, and Indigenous filmmakers, including a female director and female writers. She has created a list of approximately 100 production companies to consider for financing the film, mainly women-owned companies, and others Latinx- or minority-owned. She will begin contacting them once a director, writer and a lead actor are in place.

"We hope to move this project along very quickly because the biographer, Jeanne Farr McDonnell, is 91 years old and I would like her to see a film made of her important book while she is still with us and while she can still enjoy it," Anders said.

For more information on "A Woman of Three Nations" and other upcoming Amendment 28 projects, click here.

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