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PASSAGES: Documentary filmmaker, activist Debra Chasnoff dies
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2017-11-11

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Academy Award—winning documentary filmmaker and activist Debra Chasnoff, 60, died Nov. 7 of metastatic breast cancer at her home in San Francisco.

Known as "Chas" by almost everyone, she was nationally known as a visionary filmmaker and an LGBTQ rights champion as well as a social justice educator.

Chasnoff made history at the 64th annual Academy Awards in 1992 when she thanked her then-partner Mimi Kim Klausner ( the first lesbian to do so ) during her acceptance speech ( www.youtube.com/watch ) for her win in the Best Documentary Short category for, Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment. As Chasnoff left the podium, she also said "Boycott GE" and this also created a stir among Oscar attendees and viewers.

At the time of her death, Chasnoff was a senior producer and president of GroundSpark, a non-profit company she founded that produces and distributes films focusing on a wide range of LGBTQ and other progressive social-justice issues. In 1992, she co-created GroundSpark's Respect For All Project which "facilitates the development of inclusive, bias-free schools and communities by providing media resources, support and training to youth, educators and service providers."

Among the films Chasnoff produced and directed under the Respect For All Project banner are Straightlaced—How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up, It's Elementary—Talking About Gay Issues in School, It's STILL Elementary, Let's Get Real and That's a Family!, which was screened at the Clinton White House in 2000 to more than 100 national children's, family, education and civil-rights organization leaders.

In 1984, Chasnoff directed and co-produced her first film with Klausner, the groundbreaking documentary, Choosing Children, focusing on same-sex parenting. The documentary interviewed six lesbian-headed families in which children came via adoption, donor insemination, foster parenting and other means.

Although Chasnoff received accolades for her other films, she considered Choosing Children her most important film because, as she said in a 2013 Blog Talk Radio interview, "It is no longer assumed that you cannot parent just because you are gay, and we played a role in making that culture shift possible. I am very proud of that."

In addition to her role at GroundSpark, Chasnoff was a member/owner of New Day Films ( a filmmaker-run distribution company that provides award-winning films to educators, community groups, government agencies, public libraries and businesses ) since 1996.

Chasnoff came to New Day Films because she wanted to distribute her film, It's Elementary—Talking About Gay Issues in School, to schools and community organizations. The film was prompted in part by her son entering elementary school and focused on the bias, homophobia and misunderstanding about what it means to be gay or lesbian or the children of gay or lesbian parents. She brought seven films to New Day and established the co-op as a leader in LGBTQ-themed films. Additionally, she served two terms as its steering committee chair and mentored dozens of less-experienced filmmakers.

She also produced and directed ( in partnership with the National Center for Lesbian Rights ) One Wedding and a Revolution focusing on the first same-sex wedding in San Francisco's City Hall, of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in 2004 and Celebrating the Life of Del Martin in 2011.

Chasnoff was born Oct. 12, 1957 in Philadelphia and grew up in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. She got her BA in economics from Wellesley College in 1978 and moved to Boston following graduation where she volunteered with the anti-nuke Clamshell Alliance and worked for Dollars and Sense Magazine. While in Boston she met and started a romantic relationship with Klausner. They moved to San Francisco and soon after started the LGBTQ arts and culture focused Outlook Magazine.

Among her many awards and accolades are the Wallace A. Gerbode Foundation Fellowship for outstanding non-profit leadership, the Pathfinder Award from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network ( GLSEN ) and the first alumnae achievement award in documentary filmmaking from Wellesley. She has also won numerous awards for her individual films across the country, including at many LGBTQ film festivals.

Chasnoff was appointed by then-Mayor Art Agnos to San Francisco's Film and Video Arts Commission and was on Frameline's ( San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival ) advisory board and the boards of Jewish Voices for Peace and PowerUp.

Additionally, Chasnoff was a visiting scholar in Public Policy at Mills College and a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. She was also a lecturer at numerous college campuses. Chasnoff's films are housed in San Francisco Public Library's LGBTQIA Archival Collection.

Chasnoff is survived by her wife Nancy Otto ( glass sculptor and a non-profit fundraising consultant ), two sons— Noah Klausner Chasnoff and Oscar Chasnoff Klausner, father Joel Chasnoff, sister Lori Chasnoff Langford of Marshall, Virginia and brother Jordan Chasnoff of Washington, D.C. as well as countless friends, collaborators and chosen family members.

"Debra was my first true love, my co-director/co-producer on my most creative and meaningful work and the mother of our sons, Noah and Oscar," said her former partner Klausner. "Long live her legacies and may her memory be for a blessing."

"My story with Chas began a little more than a century ago, when our great-grandparents came from Eastern Europe to settle on a farm in Connecticut," said her cousin, Chicago-based filmmaker Salome Chasnoff. "But until about a decade ago, we did not know we shared this story. Somehow along the way family ties had been broken and the story was disrupted, like so many diasporic histories. In the 1990s, when I was involved with Women in the Director's Chair and we would screen Chas's films, I would say 'no' when people asked if we were related. About 10 years ago we learned that we were cousins: our grandfathers had been brothers. We were delighted and fascinated to see the many uncanny similarities in our lives. We were both filmmakers focusing our lens on LGBTQIA youth stories and social-justice education, and we both started media organizations, Groundspark and Beyondmedia Education, to expand media access to underrepresented and misrepresented voices.

"We wondered if DNA had anything to do with it. We also wondered how and why our grandfathers got separated from each other. It will be three years in January that we first got the idea to make a movie together, and that decision set us on a thrilling journey of discovery. Finding over 100 new relatives was an incredible mid-life gift—especially for Chas, who had a successful career, an amazing family and a close-knit community of friends but no connection to an extended family. We brought them all together for a great family gathering that we filmed in June 2016, everyone sharing stories to piece together our family history. Since then, Chas and I have been organizing and transcribing hours and hours of footage and envisioning our immigration story. Chas was a marvelous storyteller. I pray she will continue to sit with me and whisper in my ear as I carry on with our work."

"Chas was remarkable in so many very ways—she was brilliant, visionary, courageous—a trailblazing leader," said close friend and fellow filmmaker Lidia Szajko. "She was a loving and devoted friend with a great sense of humor and playfulness, and a big, beautiful, generous spirit. Her relationship with her wife Nancy was bursting with love and mutual respect and care—a model for us all."

"The impact of her many films stand on their own, but her impact on the filmmaking and the film-self-distribution community, and on its individual participants, was perhaps an even greater example of how she made a difference in this world and how she will be remembered by her peers," said close friend and fellow New Day member Rick Goldsmith.

"I met Chas within the first six months of serving as Mayor Daley's liaison to the LGBTQ community," said activist, filmmaker and The Morten Group President Mary Morten. "She had produced the ground-breaking film, It's Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in School. With a coalition, we got the film into every single Chicago Public School and this became an inaugural project for what would become the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance.

"Ten years later she came to Chicago to do a followup film lifting up why we must continue this professional development work in our schools. We worked together for several years on educator trainings after I left my my position and started The Morten Group. I was completely enamored by her and her production company since they were doing the work I wanted to do as a filmmaker. She was a visionary and a true champion for justice and equity. She will be sorely missed. We are fortunate her work will live on forever."

"Debra's film Choosing Children, which documented some of the first lesbians to have children after coming out, offered role models and inspiration to many queer women who had never before thought that they could become parents," said Mombian ( a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and newspaper column for LGBTQ parents ) Founder and Publisher Dana Rudolph. "Her subsequent educational films then supported these families—as well as many others—by showing teachers and children how to create classrooms that were welcoming to all LGBTQ families today, mine included."

"Debra's pioneering work and bold voice changed the world," said GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard. "Her film Choosing Children showed us that parenting was possible for lesbians and gay men, and in 1996 she sparked a revolution in public understanding of LGBTQ issues in schools with It's Elementary … . Millions of people around the world heard her thank her then 'life partner,' Kim Klausner, when accepting an Oscar in 1992 for best documentary short. Lesbians everywhere, myself included, cheered wildly.

"Chas used film to move us all forward, and make sure that families like hers and mine, and children like the children we once were, would not be invisible or ignored. Her leadership at New Day Films supported the work of truly independent filmmakers. I was honored to know Chas and to help her fundraise for It's Elementary in the early 1990s. I looked up to Chas. I was inspired—and, often, challenged—by her. Her passing is a gigantic loss for filmmakers and for the LGBTQ community."

In lieu of flowers, Chasnoff's family and friends have requested that any donations in her memory be sent to finish the film, Prognosis, she was making about her battle with cancer groundspark.org/get-involved and/or spiritrock.org/donate .


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