By Gordon K. Smith
Allen and Cynthia Mondell have been making movies in Dallas since forming their own production company, Media Projects, Inc, in 1978. Not ones with zombies, explosions, and car chases, but something better – movies that make changes in the lives of people, so that people can make a difference in the world.
They’ve done that with over 40 documentaries on history, social issues, and culture – touching on everything from feminism (SISTERS OF ’77) to the resurgence in European antisemitism (A MONSTER AMONG US) to the secret formula for Texas State Fair corn dogs (A FAIR TO REMEMBER). And they continue to make a living at it, which has always amazed people. The Mondells talked about their unique place in Texas film history last Wednesday at a roundtable discussion as they prepare to be honored at the 2012 Dallas VideoFest, celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year.
Joining them was festival director Bart Weiss, who’s known the Mondells for 30 years, and edited some of their earlier projects. One of those was 1989’s FILMS FROM THE SIXTH FLOOR installation at the Sixth Floor Museum, which in fact has asked the Mondells to produce an updated “remake”.
“History is history, it’s evergreen”, says Cynthia, “but you can tell it in different ways now, so you can relate to young people. They communicate and receive information so differently now”. She sees informing young people as a moral imperative now, the only way to make social change. Inspiration often comes from friends and acquaintances. Allen relates how the idea for their documentary on teen suicide, A REASON TO LIVE, appeared. “We had friends with twin sons who were just getting started in life. One died from a drug overdose. A year later, the second one committed suicide. A terrible tragedy, but with it, we saw the need to address this very real problem.” A REASON TO LIVE won the prestigious CINE Golden Eagle.
Sometimes the husband and wife work on separate projects, as is the case now with Allen’s WAGING PEACE: THE PEACE CORPS EXPERIENCE, and Cynthia’s SOLE SISTERS, about women’s relationships with their footwear, still in production. Allen’s film, now in distribution, sprang from his own experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960’s. “It was a very important program, initiated by President Kennedy, and it really showed the world the value of volunteerism and how people can be sensitive to cultural differences.” But if his project gets polite respect, Cynthia’s gets more enthusiasm, by far, when people ask what they’re working on. “I describe WAGING PEACE, and they show the proper attention. I tell them Cynthia’s doing a film about women’s obsession with shoes, and they go, ‘THAT’S REALLY FASCINATING!’”, Allen laughs.
Filmmaking technology has changed a lot since 1978, mostly for the better for the documentarian, says Cynthia. “In the early years we had to haul around a heavy 16mm film camera and a Nagra recorder for sound. That was pretty hard for a woman to manage. Then we had these reel-to-reel porta packs for tape, which were bulky too. Bart did the editing on the Steenbeck flatbed editing deck then. All your film clips were hanging in bins, and an editor could easily spend two hours looking for two frames” (Bart added a demonstration of that).
“And it took much more money then. You took what you shot, made a work print, transferred your quarter-inch audio tape to a 16mm gauge for the flatbed. Then you had to send it off to the lab, to print the opticals you wanted. Now, during a preview, I see something that needs fixing, I can do it in two hours. In the old days, you had to start over, and that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We made 20-30 16mm prints of each film to distribute, and we had to clean each one when it came back. People are making whole
movies with iPhone now, and projecting them on screens.”
Their dream film is to do an entire project through the eyes of kids who all have digital cameras or capture devices, perhaps with their daughter Fonya, an in-demand producer herself who trained in L.A. Allen admits he’s better at the all-important money-raising for projects, while Cynthia finds funding “really hard and draining”. However, she at times has been better at getting responses from subjects in their sights, such as Ann Richards for SISTERS OF ’77, which in fact is now used for diversity training at FDIC. Still, during productions, says Allen, he and Cynthia do sometimes get their wires crossed and can really go at it. So who would he rather have as a co-producer, Cynthia or Fonya?
“I’d rather answer that when Cynthia’s not in the room,” Allen says, with a very large grin.
Their tribute happens Sunday, September 30 at 6pm in the Horchow Auditorium. VideoFest 25 runs from September 27-30 at the Dallas Museum of Art. For more information, go to www.videofest.org.