Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Stella Walsh Documentary Film at CIFF

Stella Walsh (2014) movie poster

Stella Walsh Documentary Film at CIFF 2015
by Joanna Wilson

I've been following the progress of Akronite Rob Lucas' latest documentary film Stella Walsh for the past several years. The short film is now completed and has been making the rounds of the film festival circuit for the past year. I'm so excited to see it screening at the Cleveland International Film Festival. I first met the film's director Rob Lucas in 2007 who was then working as the director of the Akron Film Festival. Lucas has been active in the Akron film scene for a long time and I'm proud to see his latest project at the prestigious CIFF.

Before she ran in the 1932 Olympics, Stella dominated the high school circuit. (Courtesy of Cleveland State University, Special Collections) 

Lucas' 15 minute documentary shares the story of Cleveland runner, Stella Walsh.  From the press kit:
"Stella Walsh was one of the most celebrated female athletes on the planet. She had thousands of medals, ribbons, honors and fans from around the world. Her popularity continued for decades after winning a gold medal in the 1932 Olympics, until she was killed in a robbery and it was discovered that she had ambiguous gender.

Even during her autopsy it was difficult to classify Walsh as either male or female. A 1980 genetic test determined that she had XY chromosomes is some cells and other cells with X, but not a complimentary X or Y. The news of her death and sexual development disorder became a hot topic in the sports world, casting doubt on her many achievements. While Stella had many supporters, she also had past competitors who felt that her medals were earned by a man posing as a woman.

Despite her detractors, the fact remains that Walsh was an extraordinary athlete who proved that no matter who or what you are, all people should excel in their daily lives and deserve respect. 

This documentary explores the life of Stella, her death and her gender controversy through interviews with friends, trainees, members of the media, and a geneticist as well as photos and archival footage from years of in-depth research."

I asked Rob about his project, more specifically about how he first learned about Walsh.  Rob replied, "I am the managing editor of a book company [Gray & Company] that exclusively publishes nonfiction books about Cleveland and Ohio. In 2009 two of my authors mentioned Stella Walsh in their books. At that time I had not heard her story before and thought it was fascinating. I started to conduct a little research about her and decided to make a documentary right after that."  When asked why he chose to make his film a documentary, Lucas responded, "I have made movies for several years, but hasn't made a documentary since I was in college. I thought this was a good way to combine my research skills from publishing with my love of filmmaking."

Stella Walsh's writer/director/producer, Rob Lucas (right) with the film's co-producer/editor Steve Felix (left)

Later, I asked Rob why he thinks his film is important.  He said, "Stories about sports and gender, more specially, the Olympic Games and gender have become hot topics since South African runner Caster Semenya was accused of being something other than a woman. When I started working on the movie I thought gender could be easily defined as male or female, but I know know that it is infinitely more complicated than that. It's important to me because  it helped me discover that gender is a spectrum and it can be told by this fascinating story of an incredibly accomplished athlete.

Beyond the gender material I just mentioned, I think it's fascinating that Stella, knowing that she was somehow different from other women, didn't let her genetic condition hold her back. She was fiercely competitive and took every chance she could get to improve herself. She competed on the world stage in the public eye during a time in European history where being different could cost you your life, but it didn't stop her from achieving greatness. I hope audiences have a better understanding how complicated gender can be and also that it doesn't matter if you are male or female, you need to do everything to the best of your ability." 

For more information about the short film, check out the website: Stella Walsh: A Documentary
You can also follow the film's events and progress through the festival circuit on the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/StellaWalshdocumentary

Rob's film is screening at CIFF on Wed. March 25th, 9:20pm during the Ohio Shorts Program 2. (That's pg. 180 in the printed CIFF guide.) You can buy tickets HERE using the film code: OHSH25

Or, you can join the Facebook event for the CIFF screening of Stella Walsh HERE.

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