In Focus: Julie Wyman's "STRONG!"

Trailer for Julie Wyman’s documentary STRONG!, which will broadcast on PBS on July 26.

This month, Julie Wyman (2008 Film/Video) celebrates the premiere of her Creative Capital-supported project, the documentary STRONG!, with a national broadcast debut on PBS’s Independent Lens series on July 26. Leading up to the PBS broadcast, STRONG! will be touring major cities throughout the country from July 18-25, using the new crowdsourcing platform TUGG to book one-night theatrical events in cities like Los Angeles, New York, San Diego and Atlanta, with more screenings to come. Last month, the film screened to wide critical praise at Silverdocs in Silver Spring, MD, and at the Frameline36 Festival in San Francisco.
STRONG! is the story of Cheryl Haworth, an Olympic weightlifter who has competed in three Olympic Games and held the title of National Champion for 11 consecutive years. I spoke with Julie about this remarkable new film about bodies, strength, expectations and contradictions.
Jenny Gill: How did you meet Olympic weightlifter Cheryl Haworth and decide to follow her story?
Julie Wyman: Cheryl’s image in the mainstream media captured my attention in 2000 when she medaled in the Sydney Olympics. I was captivated by the power I saw in this image of a confident 300-pound, 17-year-old girl who was an elite athlete. Her very existence flew in the face of so many of the assumptions we have about what girls can do, and what types of bodies get to be considered powerful, competent and masterful. An internet search connected me with her coach, and I instantly found her warm, open and quirky.
In 2004, I decided to make a short trip to her home in Savannah, Georgia.  When I started filming, Cheryl was recuperating from a massive elbow injury and preparing to head to the Athens Olympic Games. I wasn’t sure whether this film would develop into a short portrait or something longer. But when I met Cheryl, her affable, easy-going persona and her sense of depth and intelligence compelled me to get to know her better. We were of two different generations, from disparate geographic and cultural origins, from opposing political camps, and these differences intrigued me more. It became clear that the image of the heroic champion that had initially interested me had some cracks and complications, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to find out what would happen. I wrangled a flight to Athens using my mother’s frequent flyer miles, found a friend of a friend’s couch where I could sleep, and I was off.
Jenny: What challenges did you encounter when you began filming Cheryl in competition?
Julie: It turned out, despite the initial research I’d done before heading across the Atlantic, that my access to film in the Olympic venues in Athens and my access to Cheryl were extremely restricted. Somewhere buried in the early footage is an “interview” of myself that I shot—tear-streaked face, standing under the 90-degree Athens sun—explaining the foibles of my first international shoot. While the Athens Games ended up, like nearly 200 other hours of footage, on STRONG!’s “cutting room floor,” the Athens shoot laid the groundwork for making the rest of the documentary. I was hooked by the image of not only Cheryl on the stadium platform, but her band of superheavyweight counterparts from around the world.
One year later, the 2005 PanAmerican Championships in Shreveport, Louisiana were approaching, and this time, USA Weightlifting was able to provide me full access to film. Cheryl was in rare weightlifting form, and my cinematographer Ann Etheridge and I gleaned some outstanding lifting footage of Cheryl, her competitors and her teammates. It was on this shoot that Cheryl’s mother Sheila casually mentioned, “when you’re with us in Beijing, Julie!” With this comment, and the Beijing Olympics still three years away, it dawned on me that this had moved from an initial casual foray into a major endurance event.

STRONG! Behind the Scenes: Wyman became fascinated with breaking down the physical act of weightlifting with motion studies of Cheryl and her teammates.

Jenny: You sent us a great “Behind the Scenes” video about the making of STRONG! where you talk about how you became fascinated with breaking down the physical act of weightlifting. Can you talk about how the Eadweard Muybridge-inspired motion study footage you shot is used in the film?
Julie: When I shot the motion study sequences, I wasn’t exactly sure how they would fit into the narrative. I had one idea that they would be used to first explain the different stages of the lift. In the split second that it takes to do a “snatch” or a “clean and jerk,” lifters go through several stages, and when they train they break down the movement into each part, from getting a good grip and starting position over the bar on the ground, to engaging in the act of lifting it off the ground to what they call the “second pull” where the biggest explosive movement of lifting the bar to shoulder height happens, to getting the body position under the bar, to driving the weight overhead, etc. So in part I wanted the audience to see this and to learn about the sport. In other words, I had thought of literally breaking down what it was that the weightlifters are doing in a “primer” type sequence that would explain the key moments in the lift.
But once I started assembling and crafting the story and discovered the larger film’s own rhythms and pace, it became clear that this abstract and slowed down footage was also evocative of something else that was important for me, which was Cheryl’s interior space. The first line of the film is Cheryl saying over some of this silhouetted footage, “It’s a battle with yourself when you’re in a sport so individual.” So this theme of how Cheryl relates to herself—her relationship with her own body in the world—was always central to my concept. I wanted to create the space within the film where we could reside for a moment with Cheryl and her internal experience of walking up to the weight on the platform—or more broadly or metaphorically, walking up to the various challenges that she faces as an athlete and as a young woman who weighs 300 pounds. So it’s really this latter use that we employed in several places throughout the film—both the “motion study” of the act of weightlifting, but also of the simple act of walking across the terrain or the proscenium of the screen.
Jenny: As the Summer Olympics in London approach, Holley Mangold, a rising star in American women’s weightlifting, has been getting lots of media attention. I know Cheryl isn’t competing this year, but will she be traveling to London to watch her fellow weightlifters compete?
Julie: This year, Team USA for the sport of Women’s Weightlifting is comprised of two women who, like Cheryl, are in the Superheavyweight class: Holley Mangold and Sarah Robles. It’s really exciting to see the visibility that they’re both bringing to this amazing and under-represented sport, and I’m thrilled to see them draw attention to the fact that women with big, heavy bodies can be athletic, fast, graceful and beautiful. Their stories in the media have also focused—much like Cheryl’s—on the ways that they encounter discrimination and misunderstanding, the struggles they face to receive attention, sponsorship and other forms of recognition in a culture that ostracizes women whose bodies do not fit the narrow, conventional mold of “feminine” or “attractive.”
Like me, Cheryl will be watching and cheering on her teammates this year from the comfort of home, but I know that we are both very much with them in spirit—not only for their moments on the platform, but for the long-term as their images reverberate through our culture’s limited register of representations, hopefully shaking up our assumptions about health, weight, gender roles and athleticism.
Jenny:  You received the Creative Capital grant in 2008. Since then, how has your film evolved? How has Creative Capital been able to help bring this project to fruition?
Julie: One of my earliest goals in this project, artistically speaking, was to walk the line, or find a balance, between two things: 1) A story that was accessible and character-driven and 2) an experience of the imaginary and unspoken levels that underlie the everyday. The challenge for me was to have my “cake” (the trajectory of an athlete headed for the Olympics and facing major obstacles like injury, self-doubt and just growing up) and “eat” that cake too: I wanted to allow for moments when the audience would leave that trajectory, meander or meditate for a bit. After several years of filming, refilming, and hunkering down with two talented editors, Vicky Funari and Jennifer Chinlund, I can say that I am happy with the balance I found. There were big ideas that got tried and discarded. Elaborate scenes shot and various themes explored that didn’t make it into the cut. Sometimes I feel that the “evolution” of this film was a process of letting go of big ideas, or just determining how many experiments I could do in one project. But it was only through the resources, support, encouragement and vote of confidence provided by Creative Capital—and all the friends I made through Creative Capital—that I was able to take risks, make mistakes and really grow as an artist.
Jenny: You’ve been working with the online platform TUGG to schedule on-demand theatrical screenings of STRONG! Any tips or learned experience you want to share with other filmmakers exploring self-distribution options?
Julie: For the past couple of years, I’ve been sequestered in my editing cave, and hearing all the clamoring out in the world about how film distribution is undergoing a revolution. The timing of making STRONG! was such that I missed several big waves—I’m probably the last filmmaker who hasn’t yet had a Kickstarter campaign, and my Facebook page and Twitter feed didn’t really get going until (gulp) the film was complete. Which is to say that I’m a latecomer to the New World of Distribution. That said, it’s been really exciting to enter a landscape where the fact that some so-called “gatekeeper” festivals didn’t program STRONG! doesn’t prevent the film from being screened—in nice theaters with digital projection! Because of preview events I’d held, I knew that there were certain groups of people who would LOVE Cheryl’s story, and it’s so exciting that through TUGG and the outreach work I’ve done with Film Presence and Independent Lens’ Community Cinema program, and with community partners from the Weightlifting and Health at Every Size communities, we can really bring the film to those audiences, perhaps even more meaningfully than a traditional theatrical release allows.  It makes very concrete for me the fact that many rules about distribution are suspended or changed. And I’m excited to see where this all goes.

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