FEATURES • Spring 2002
Putting a Face on Social Issues

Jill Evans Petzall creates documentaries that explore social justice topics often overlooked in mainstream media.

By Nancy Belt

If seeing is believing, then award-winning filmmaker Jill Evans Petzall, A.B. '78, M.A. '81, has made believers of many.

As a writer, producer, and sometime director of documentaries and video poems, she tackles tough social issues—child and spouse abuse, immigration discrimination, and how children with mothers in prison suffer.

Whatever the subject matter, her work, which she describes as "female-centered," often challenges viewers' assumptions by presenting voices not usually heard in mainstream media. "There's a real power that a filmmaker has to reach people about issues that are often invisible," she says. "As an independent filmmaker, I want to use this power to approach subjects that the mainstream media don't often consider." Through Beacon Productions, Inc., her St. Louis-based production company, Petzall produces programming for nonprofit organizations, for broadcast, and for use as advocacy tools.

The Emmys and other awards she has won attest to her ability to portray social justice issues with authenticity. Petzall uses many narrative approaches as she helps people tell their stories, and she has won two Emmys for scriptwriting—one in 1991 and one in 1998. "Mostly, instead of writing anonymous voice-over scripts, I like to let characters speak for themselves," she says. "Real people tell their own stories best." And in the more than 40 videos she has produced, they speak powerfully and often poignantly.

"There's a real power that a filmmaker has to reach people about issues that are often invisible," she says. "As an independent filmmaker, I want to use this power to approach subjects that the mainstream media don't often consider."

In Veronica's Story, a true story based on a letter written by a teenage girl reaching out to understand a childhood of abuse, anguish is palpable in the haunting imagery of hands interwoven with an authentic narrative. The short piece, which Petzall produced, was screened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, when it won first prize from the Brooklyn Arts Council, and was nominated for two 1997 Midwest Emmys. Veronica's Storyand three of Petzall's other productions were directed by Deeds Rogers.

Petzall lets subjects speak entirely for themselves in her latest release, When the Bough Breaks, an hour-long documentary following one year in the lives of three St. Louis-area families with mothers in Missouri's maximum security prison exclusively for women, located in Vandalia, Missouri. The film, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and just released in 2001, shows that when mothers go to prison, their children suffer too. Bounced between social workers, foster parents, grandparents, and rare visits to prison, the children often suffer emotional neglect and abuse. Given the harm done to children, the documentary asks whether separating families is wise public policy when alternative sentences might be more productive for society's next generation.

The film meets one of Petzall's essential goals: to break false racial stereotypes. "Most people think only black women go to jail, but there are actually more white women than black women in prison," she says. "It's more accurate to say that poor, drug-involved women go to jail." She adds, "In all my social-action work, I want to put a human face on statistics."

The project has had a particularly deep impact on Petzall. "We followed three families for a year and a half on tape, and I got very involved," she says. "These families really had to be committed to the project, and I to them, and we developed strong relationships." Petzall has stayed in touch with all of the children. Recently, she accompanied one who will graduate from high school in May on a visit to an admissions counselor at Washington University.

While researching the documentary, Petzall joined forces with a small group of nuns and other professional women who had started Mothers and Children Together, a not-for-profit organization providing the only free transportation for St. Louis-area children to visit their inmate mothers. In addition, the documentary is being shown to Missouri legislators, in hopes of influencing sentencing norms and improving funding for prison programs.

In light of all her social-action films over the years, Petzall says, "I better understand the privileges involved in being white, educated, and middle-class, and I hope I never take these advantages for granted."

 


Born and reared in Richmond Heights, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb, Petzall, after high school, attended the University of New Mexico for a year. "My intended major was painting," she says, "but mostly I did all my boyfriend's architectural drafting assignments. Then I attended the San Francisco Art Institute for a short time."

It was in 1973, on the cusp of her children's teenage years, when she found herself "ravenous for more abstract thinking and beautiful language," that she became an undergraduate in Washington University's University College. "I was in my 30s, a single mom with three children. Filmmaking was the furthest thing from my mind," she says. "Mainly, I was filled with trepidation about being a good student." Ultimately, her burning interest in writing and poetry led her to day school in the University's College of Arts & Sciences. Majoring in literature and philosophy, Petzall graduated magna cum laude. Very interested in the underpinnings of language, she continued at Washington University as a doctoral student in philosophy, and she became a valued teaching assistant for award-winning novelist, critic, and philosopher William Gass, the David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities, now emeritus. "I wanted the knowledge, the words, and to be surrounded by thought," she says, "but I came to realize I didn't want to be a full-time academic."

 


 

In the early '80s, she was also interested in photography, and it was at her photography exhibit at Community School Gallery in Ladue, Missouri, when she was approached by a producer for ABC/Hearst cable television network to collaborate on an FYI-for-women series for what became the Lifetime cable network. She agreed, and Karen Foss, news anchor for KSDK-TV in St. Louis, was hired as the "talent." They worked well together, so, when Foss was asked by public television station KETC to host a video-arts magazine, St. Louis Skyline, Foss agreed to do it if she could bring Petzall along as associate producer. "In old-school terms, I was Karen's apprentice," Petzall says. "She began by teaching me to edit videotape." From 1983 to 1991, Petzall was an independent producer, director, and writer at Channel 9 (KETC).

During that time, she began work on her first independent production, Slatkin! A Symphony, a feature documentary about the former maestro of the Saint Louis Symphony. The piece, which she produced and wrote, was released in 1987. Shown on A&E (Arts & Entertainment television network), it was nominated for cable television's national ACE award.

Shortly after, in 1988, one of Petzall's former professors, Edward "Ned" McClennen, now London School of Economics Centennial Professor, introduced her to the man who has been her husband since 1992— J. Claude Evans, associate professor of philosophy in Arts & Sciences. Connections to the University run in her family. Two of her children are University alumnae—Julie, M.S.W. '88, and Jennifer, B.F.A. '92; her son, Guy, received an A.B. degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1989. All have helped with some of Petzall's productions.

Petzall's career continued to blossom as she broadened into topics including the first foster-parent program in the United States; T.S. Eliot; demolition of the Berlin Wall; and Vietnamese boat people. She says, "With each new piece, I get to set up a new challenge for myself as a filmmaker."

She's been able to share her philosophies while teaching film theory and writing at area universities, including Washington University.

Why did Petzall choose a visual medium to express herself? "Because I love all of its elements—images, words, musical sounds, and editing rhythms. In essence, when you make a documentary, your material is real time. You're making a tapestry by weaving together faces and words and events that, in video, are pieces of time."

Nancy Belt is the associate editor of this magazine.

For more information or to contact Jill Evans Petzall, please visit: www.beacondocs.com.

 

 

 

 

In When the Bough Breaks, Jill Evans Petzall (left) shows how a mother's incarceration affects the lives of her children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
When the Bough Breaks shows the suffering of children whose mothers are incarcerated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
The mothers in When the Bough Breaks are inmates at Missouri's maximum security prison for women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
In Veronica's Story, Veronica shares her own story of childhood abuse through writing a letter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Adolescent refugees tell the stories of Vietnamese boat people in S.O.S.—Stories of Survival.