by Rob Kay
Kimberlee Ke‘ala Bassford is an independent, Honolulu-based documentary filmmaker with a passion for social issues, cultural and women’s stories. Born and raised in Honolulu, she graduated from Punahou and holds a BA in psychology from Harvard and a Masters in Journalism from the University of California Berkeley.
Ms. Bassford is probably best known in Hawai‘i for her documentary on the late Patsy Mink, a U.S. Representative and the first woman of color in Congress. (Patsy Mink was also the co-author of Title IX, the landmark legislation that mandated gender equity in education). The film premiered at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Favorite Documentary. The 60-minute production has also won numerous awards at other film festivals and was aired nationally on PBS in 2009.
Her latest endeavor, Winning Girl, also premiered at the Hawai’i International Film Festival last week. Winning Girl follows the nascent athletic career of Teshya Alo, a 16 year old, 125 pound, part-Polynesian judo and wrestling phenom who throws women twice her age and regularly beats the boys.
To call Teshya ambitious would be an understatement. She has her sights set on taking gold at both the judo and wrestling world championships–and, is gunning for the Olympics.
A truly gifted athlete, she has all the other right stuff–moxie, drive and a loving family that is squarely behind in her.
Clearly she wasn’t born with a silver spoon or anything close to it, but there’s plenty of fairy dust sprinkled in her corner. She’s a Kam School student, she’s got great coaching and somehow, she and her family are able to travel with her to Mainland and International tournaments.
Even with her immense confidence, Ms. Alo discovers going for the gold is no cakewalk. Her youth and lack of experience work sometimes favor her opponents. The “agony of defeat” shatter her ego but she finds the inner strength to pick herself up and move forward.
As if her judo and wrestling career aren’t enough of a distraction, she’s in the midst of puberty, protective parents and learning to confront her own limitations.
Think National Velvet meets Rocky Balboa.
It’s all neatly captured by Kimberlee Brassford.
I caught up with Ms. Brassford, aka Kim, at the Koko Marina Theater where her documentary was being featured on a recent Saturday afternoon.
Q: Tell us little about yourself. How did ever take the leap into film making?
A: I’m a local girl born and raised in Hawai‘i. I graduated from Punahou and then went to Harvard University for my undergraduate degree and the University of California Berkeley for my Masters in journalism, which is where I made my first documentary. I chose this career because I wanted to tell stories that made a difference in the world and I wanted to be creative visually. I also liked the idea of being my own boss, having a flexible work schedule, exercising many different skills each day and learning something new with each project.
Q: You’re well known in the community for the Patsy Mink documentary. What other films have you made?
A: My first documentary was a short called CHEERLEADER (2003) that followed a Northern California cheerleading squad of 8- to 11-year old girls through their season and ultimately to the national championships. It aired on HBO Family. I then worked on two different national PBS documentary series as a story producer, THE MEANING OF FOOD (2005) and UNNATURAL CAUSES: IS INEQUALITY MAKING US SICK? (2008). I also did a short documentary, LOTUS ROOT: A GREAT GRANDDAUGHTER’S JOURNEY (2010), about my great-grandfather who was the first person from my maternal family to come to Hawai‘i. Along with PATSY MINK: AHEAD OF THE MAJORITY (2008) which you mentioned, and now WINNING GIRL, all of my films seem to explore either gender or culture.
Q: How did you choose to make Winning Girl? What piqued your interest?
A: I first became aware of Teshya Alo’s story from a Honolulu Advertiser article published in July 2009, announcing Teshya’s recent victory as both the freestyle and Greco-Roman champion at a national wresting tournament in Utah, titles usually held by boys. I was instantly intrigued by this wrestling prodigy who happened to be a girl, and immediately contacted her coaches and family. The first time I met Teshya in person, the 11-year-old ran up to me, flexed her arm and said with a grin, “Do you want to feel my muscles?” I immediately knew this girl was going places.
Q: Were you always interested in sports?
A: No. I don’t even watch sports on television! In my childhood, I was a dancer and did gymnastics. And then I was a competitive cheerleader all through high school. I do find it kind of funny that many of my films have been about girls in sport, first with CHEERLEADER and now WINNING GIRL. My Patsy Mink documentary also touched on sports briefly since Patsy Mink was the co-author of the landmark Title IX legislation, which opened up athletic opportunities for America’s women. Maybe deep down I do love sports! As a filmmaker though, I think I’ve been attracted to sports stories because they have built-in drama and are dynamic and visual.
Q: Was the Alo family accepting of you from the get-go or did you have to really earn their trust?
A. Oddly, both. The family was warm and inviting from the very start. And when it came to Teshya and her sports, access was great. But later into the project, I realized that Teshya’s parents were a little more hesitant about me filming them (which is understandable). So it took time to build trust and to make them understand that while the film was about Teshya, they were an integral part of her story and really needed to be in the film too.
Q: Teshya struck me as being a great subject for the camera. Talented, photogenic, cocky but at the same time vulnerable. What made her story appealing to you?
A. I really love that the story unfolds over four years and that you get to see Teshya grow up before your eyes from age 12 to 16. When I started filming her, she was already a judo and wrestling phenom, beating boys and girls who were much older than her. But in the film, you really see her transform into a world-class athlete. With each competition, she challenges bigger and more experienced opponents and has more at stake as she pushes herself ever closer to her dream of being world champion.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
A: Well, I ended up having two kids over the five years of the project. So trying to keep the project going while becoming a mother for the first time was probably my biggest challenge (and finding a balance between family and career is an ongoing challenge)! But besides that, there were certainly many challenges related to the film itself. Since this was a vérité film, I didn’t know where Teshya’s story would lead or what would happen. So deciding what to film and when was always a question. If I had all the time in the world and all the resources and unlimited access, I would film 24/7 but of course, that’s not possible (and probably would make the edit impossible!), so you have to make choices based on the information on hand and what you think the story is. There was also the challenge that Teshya did two sports not one, so there were twice as many practices, matches, tournaments (many of which were on the mainland or abroad), coaches, etc. And then once filming was done, we had so much footage, it was a challenge not to get lost in it all and to really find the core of the film’s story.
Q: This was obviously a long term endeavor. Where did you find the funds and how much did it take to make?
A: Funding was a huge challenge. Most film funders are looking to support social issue documentaries, and while my intent with the film has always been to use Teshya’s story to empower girls, the film isn’t squarely a social issue doc. And neither is it a humanities-based documentary, which is the other focus of most film funders. So I had to look elsewhere. The biggest funder of the film was Pacific Islanders in Communications (PIC), which is a member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Minority Consortia and whose mission is to promote programming about Pacific Islanders on public television. PIC supported the project in development, production and post-production, and I’m incredibly grateful. I probably would not have embarked on this project had I not had PIC’s early support. I also received funding from the Harold K. L. Castle Foundation, Atherton Family Foundation and Dolores Furtado Martin Foundation, as well as numerous individual and corporate donors, most of whom I know personally.
Q: What did you take away from this film? What did you learn from the subject, the family and perhaps about yourself?
A: For me, the film shows that it takes a village to realize a dream. Teshya is an incredibly gifted athlete, but I think much of her success lies in the fact that she has a family, coaches and support network that are fully committed to her dream too. Personally, I am so inspired by Teshya’s positive attitude and her pursuit of excellence. In the film, she suffers a big loss, and I love something she says about it. She says, “Whenever I think about losing, I don’t think about giving up or quitting, I think about the next match that is gonna happen…and how much better I can make myself.” I think it’s that commitment to continuous improvement that is one of the keys to her success. She knows she can always improve, always do better. And I think that’s something that people who are successful in all fields share — that idea that excellence is not fixed but something to continue to strive for. Finally, what I learned about myself during this project is that it’s tough to balance family, career and life. I feel like you can do anything, but you can’t do everything — at least not by yourself. So it’s important to prioritize and to collaborate with others whom you trust. This film was completed in part because I had strong collaborators to lean on, such as the film’s editor Shirley Thompson, director of photography Henry Mochida, mainland/international crew David Hamilton and Tania Khalaf, animator Ashley Burke and composer Mark Menza.
Q: So what’s on for you in the future?
A: Well, the festival version of the film is done, but I still have to finish the hour-long PBS version! And there’s still a lot of work to be done in getting the film out to the world, which includes submitting to film festivals, organizing outreach and community screenings, getting a website up and finding a distributor. I also have a few ideas for new documentaries brewing and will be applying for development funds for those. And now that the film is done, I am hoping to get more sleep again, or at least to go to bed before midnight most nights!
photos courtesy of Making Waves films