Filmmaker Debra Chasnoff Dies

  • by Sari Staver
  • Wednesday November 15, 2017
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Academy Award-winning filmmaker Debra Chasnoff. Photo: Lois Tema
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Debra Chasnoff. Photo: Lois Tema

Documentary filmmaker Debra Chasnoff, who made history when she publicly thanked her female then-partner from the stage at the Academy Awards in 1992, died November 7 of metastatic breast cancer.

She died at her home in Noe Valley, where she lived with her spouse, Nancy Otto.

In addition to being a filmmaker, Ms. Chasnoff, 60, known as "Chas" to friends and family, was president and senior producer of Groundspark, which produces social justice films and campaigns.

A nationally recognized champion of using film as an organizing tool for social justice campaigns and a pioneering leader in the international movement working to create safe and welcoming schools and communities, Ms. Chasnoff's award-winning films include "Straightlaced - How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up," about the gender and sexuality pressures that teens and young adults face; "It's Elementary - Talking About Gay Issues in School," "Let's Get Real" (about bias and bullying); "That's a Family!" (supporting youth growing up in diverse family structures); and the Academy Award-winning "Deadly Deception - General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment."

Her first film, "Choosing Children," explored the once unheard of idea that lesbians and gay men could become parents after coming out.

Colleague and friend Lauretta Molitor, who identifies as queer, said that Ms. Chasnoff's "entire body of work was about social justice and compassion."

In a telephone interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Molitor said she was "in awe that it is still such a complete picture of what right livelihood would look like."

Molitor, a location sound recordist who worked on most of Ms. Chasnoff's films, added, "All lives are important and of value but few people leave as many ripples" as Ms. Chasnoff did.

In addition to the body of work she left behind, Molitor said she has met a number of filmmakers who began their career on projects with Ms. Chasnoff, "greatly enlarging" the number of filmmakers doing social justice work.

"Chas was a very passionate woman, but always expressed it in a very civilized way," added Molitor.

Mimi (Kim) Klausner, an archivist and social activist who was Ms. Chasnoff's partner for 17 years - and the woman she thanked at the Oscars - said Ms. Chasnoff "was my first true love and the co-pilot on some of my most creative and meaningful" projects.

Klausner, who co-directed and co-produced the film "Choosing Children" with Ms. Chasnoff, said the two women worked together with the PTA at their sons' elementary school to teach staff, parents, and students about diversity.

The film, said Klausner, was "made at this pivotal point in lesbian history where women had started to have children on the down low but it was not widely known in the community. We found a few of the women who had already done it, which inspired other women to think about whether they wanted to become parents."

Previously, said Klausner, "When you came out as gay you assumed you were not going to be a parent. But the film gave people an opportunity to see that this was an option and it radically changed the lesbian universe."

In an email to the B.A.R., Rick Goldsmith, a Bay Area documentary filmmaker as well as a colleague, friend, and confidant of Ms. Chasnoff's, described her this way: "As a filmmaker, Chas got to the heart of social issues, whether corporate malfeasance, homophobia, or how America needs to embrace everyone with respect and dignity. She did it with intelligence, assertiveness, humanity, and compassion."

"She was ahead of her time on social issues, but never backed down when attacked by those who asserted, in her words, 'that we (gay people) were the reason that America was going down the tubes,'" wrote Goldsmith, who declined to give his sexual orientation.

"She was down-to-earth and accessible to everyone on a personal level. Her professional power and personal warmth inspired and helped countless young filmmakers to find their own voices," wrote Goldsmith.

Goldsmith said he got to know Ms. Chasnoff 20 years ago, when she brought the film "It's Elementary" into the New Day Films co-op.

"She laid the groundwork for New Day Films to become a leader in LGBTQ-themed films. And she quickly stepped up to leadership within the co-op, ensuring that the co-op advanced with a combination of progressive social justice ideals, solid business practices, and active democratic participation among its members," Goldsmith wrote.

In addition to dozens of film festival awards, Ms. Chasnoff was the recipient of the Wallace A. Gerbode Foundation Fellowship for outstanding nonprofit leadership, the Pathfinder Award from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, and the first-ever alumnae achievement award in documentary filmmaking from Wellesley College.

According to a statement from Groundspark, Ms. Chasnoff documented "all facets" of her two-year struggle with breast cancer, shortly after her diagnosis in June 2015.

"She envisioned a film that could help shape how people with cancer, their families, caregivers, healers, and medical practitioners approach life-changing diagnoses," the statement read. "She hoped to provide a powerful example of how to live fully in the face of an unknown prognosis. Central to Chas and her wife Nancy's approach to dealing with cancer was an insistence that no one put a timeframe to her life expectancy. They offered the rest of us a breathtaking example."

Ms. Chasnoff was born October 12, 1957 in Philadelphia.

According to Groundspark, hundreds of hours have been filmed and there is much research and development to be done. Otto and Ms. Chasnoff's friends are expected to follow through on the project, the working title of which is "Prognosis."

In addition to Otto, and sons, Noah and Oscar, Ms. Chasnoff is survived by her father, Joel Chasnoff; sister, Lori Langford of Marshall, Virginia; and brother, Jordan Chasnoff of Washington, D.C.

A memorial service will be held Tuesday, November 28, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, 5000 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Woodacre. The family suggests memorial contributions to Groundspark or to Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

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