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The Scarlet & Black

Filmmaker discusses feminism behind bars


Noga Ashkenazi ’09 is the writer, producer and director of the film  The Grey Area, a documentary following a group of women in the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa, as they complete a course on feminism taught by Grinnell students. There will be a screening of the film tonight at 7 p.m. in JRC 101 followed by a Q & A session with Ashkenazi. She will also be speaking at a Career Connection event today at 12:15 p.m. in the Career Development Office on 1127 Park Street. Ashkenazi, born in Israel, was a Theatre & Dance major at Grinnell and, after graduating, moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a filmmaker. The Grey Area is her first feature film. The  S&B’s Prisca Kim spoke with Ashkenazi on the phone.

Where did you get the idea for the film?
When I was a senior at Grinnell, I was a volunteer for the Grinnell Liberal Arts in Prison program, which is a volunteer program that sends Grinnell College students to teach liberal arts classes at two prisons in Iowa, and I was, at the time, planning on teaching a feminism class at the women’s prison. I wanted to make a documentary about my experience there because I had a feeling that teaching a feminism class at the women’s prison would be a good framework to talk about women’s issues in the criminal justice system in general and to bring the stories of these women to the public through this film.

Why do you think it’s important to document these women’s stories?
A lot of these women have been victims before they became offenders and that’s something that [is] really important for people to know and to hear their stories because many of them have experience with domestic violence and sexual abuse and the abuse that they experience is directly connected to the crimes they committed in some cases. And so I really think it’s important for the public to know who are these women and not just have the standard stereotypes when you hear about people who are incarcerated. People have a set of assumptions and I want to complicate that set of assumptions and present people with more information to base their opinions on and I just think these women have stories that are very important to be told.

Noga Ashkenazi. Photo contributed.

How was your experience directing The Grey Area?
I started the film in 2009 and I just completed it at the end of 2012. It was four years in the making and it was a very long and difficult process. As a college student, I was at the prison every week filming and when I left Grinnell, I had over 100 hours of footage that needed to be cut down to a 65-minute documentary, so obviously it was a long process. Finding the team in Los Angeles, raising the money to finish the film and just finding the best way to tell the story [was difficult] because we did have so much footage. I learned a lot in the process and there were a lot of challenges along the way, but it was a passion project and it was something that was really important for me to finish.

What has your experience been pursuing a career in filmmaking in Los Angeles?
One of the challenges of finishing the film was that the entire time I was working on the film, I was also working a full-time job in the film industry and was working 11-hour days in the office and working on the documentary on the side, on nights on weekends, every free moment that I had. It felt like I was constantly working and there wasn’t much break from work. I was really fortunate to have this L.A. experience. I went to a lot of screenings, met a lot of filmmakers and basically spent three years learning about how the Hollywood film industry functions.

How has your time at Grinnell influenced your career?
Grinnell obviously had a very meaningful effect on my career and a direct connection is… that at Grinnell, I took Gender Women’s [and Sexuality] Studies classes, which led me to want to teach a class at [the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women] and make a documentary about it. So I spent the past four years making the film essentially about feminism and that’s something that would not have happened without Grinnell. Grinnell was amazing in many different ways: just being around people who were excited about similar ideas to the ideas that I was excited by, people who were willing to volunteer and work on this film and help make it happen. I would say this film was born out of Grinnell and is very much informed by my time at Grinnell. I owe Grinnell a lot for the great education I received and all the tools that I got at Grinnell, from critical thinking to being able to convey ideas to other people. … I’m grateful for that.

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