Megan Rossman is an out and proud lesbian filmmaker. But while making The Archivettes, whose Chicago premiere is part of the Reeling Film Festival, she had a lot to learn.
"I had never thought of my history as a lesbian and how I fit into the larger LGBTQ+ community," said Rossman, a tenure-track professor and communications department chair at the State University of New York's Purchase College. "When I walked into [the Lesbian History Archives], it was really powerful to realize there were people like me that were here before and were able to successfully exist. I think everyone should know their history, and it doesn't have to mean your genealogy."
The Archivettes is a documentary about the Lesbian Herstory Archives, now located in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Co-founders Deborah Edel and Joan Nestle established the all-volunteer museum after realizing "our history was disappearing as quickly as we were making it." Over the past four decades, Edel and Nestle have sought and preserved artifacts that chronicle both pivotal and everyday moments in queer history. "Some of the most engaging materials are women's personal diaries," Rossman said. "You can learn what it was like to be a lesbian in 1947."
After making three short films about the Archives, Rossman decided a longer feature was the next step.
"One thing everyone at the Archives told me is that we have to know our history so we don't repeat it," she said. Time was also of the essence. "The original founders are in their final chapter of involvement, and I wanted to document their stories," Rossman said. "There's a woman in the film [who] had a stroke a couple months after I interviewed her, and her memory is not at the point that it was when we did the interview."
Everyone involved in making The Archivettes identified as female or nonbinary. According to Rossman, this was a deliberate choice. "As women and LGBTQ+ people, we are underemployed in the film industry," she said. "When I set out to make this film about queer women, I wanted to make sure I could include folks that…would treat the content with care and tenderness." Because of the project's limited budget, the crew made necessary sacrifices. "People would work at reduced rates, and they were willing to do it because of the nature of the project."
Rossman learned a few surprising facts in the process. "When [the Archives] first started, everyone was always concerned there would be an attack [or] someone would come in and destroy the materials," Rossman said. "In the beginning they had a lot of strategies. There was a caretaker in Joan's apartment building, and when they bought a larger building, they continued the tradition, and always had more than one person staffing."
Perhaps even more surprising was the Archives' "secret" location. "At first they didn't even publish the address. You would have to call and talk to someone," Rossman said. "I don't know exactly when that stopped, but it was their M.O. [modus operandi] for quite a while, including the early '90s."
When asked about the film's takeaways, Rossman emphasized personal documentation.
"When we're here and we're well, that's when we have the power to document our lives and think about what kind of legacy we want to leave," she said. "I think it's important for [queer people] to take control of that, whether we're 17 or 77."
Rossman recommended keeping a paper journal. "Have your stories written down," she said. "I would [also] encourage people to print their pictures and make sure they're keeping a physical record as well as a digital record, so they have that narrative to go from."
Although Rossman now lives in New York, the Cleveland native spent a summer interning at the Chicago Tribune and still has family and friends here. She's excited to share The Archivettes with a Windy City audience. "In some ways, the Chicago premiere feels like coming home."
The Archivettes will screen Sunday, Sept. 22, at 3:15 p.m. at Landmark's Centure Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. Director Megan Rossman will attend. For more about the 2019 Reeling Film Festival, which runs Sept. 19-29, visit ReelingRlmFestival.org .