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Q & A with strike documentarian Alexa Pagonas

Spending Commencement weekend doing presentations and showing previews is just part of the process for Alexa Pagonas ’91, who is creating a documentary on the 1990 strike the year of its 25th anniversary. Pagonas entered the film business after leaving Mills. The documentary, which is currently unnamed, is expected to be completed by 2016.

The Campanil: What lead to creating a documentary about the strike?

Alexa Pagonas: Even during the strike, we knew that something special was happening and dreamt about how the story could be told.  There was even a list of blockaders made matching our players with stars of the day. Ever since I started in the film business in 1995, I have thought about and discussed with other producers and writers how this story could be told in a fictionalized format. But I couldn’t come up with a writer I liked or characters as wonderful as the real Mills women.

Then over the years, watching the different celebrations of anniversaries, and in conversations with others, like Professor Marianne Sheldon, it seemed clear that there was a true need to actually document what took place in a cohesive and organized fashion. That is when I began my research in earnest.

TC: What was the process like going through all the archives and having all these conversations?

AP: Fascinating and emotional. The fascinating part was reading other people’s work. In the Bender room there are student theses for master degrees from a few women that were staff [of The Weekly] at the time of the strike. The strike was also covered in a very well written history of student protests. And then there are pieces from newspapers and from campus reflections of the strike. I found it really interesting to compare and contrast the different views of the same events, especially since I had my own first-person experience.

It was also emotional. The strike brought up a lot of heated and very personal feelings regarding a whole host of issues. Issues that are still timely, unfortunately, today. In addition to trying to figure out how we were going to address the college, we were trying to fix our own inequities and prejudices. The result was spectacularly beautiful but also very exhausting. There were times in the research I just needed to step away and regroup before proceeding.

TC: What do you hope the reaction will be when people see the documentary?

AP: I hope thatpeople [who] were part of the strike see the film and feel it is an accurate description of their experiences.

For the larger audience, I hope that they are inspired by what can be. The way Mills handled herself was remarkably beautiful.
And I particularly hope that it entices and encourages more women to attend women’s colleges.  We need them.
TC: How can the Mills community view the documentary?

AP: Well, we are [a ways] from that happening. It has to be made first! I am in the beginning of production right now. It will be a good year or more before the film is finished — there are interviews to still film, then it needs editing and post. But once finished it will most definitely be screened for the Mills community first!

 But while we are discussing this, a big part of my presentation at commencement weekend, and reunion too, is to get people talking. Even with tons of research, there are still stories out there I don’t know. I hope people will let me know if they have a story to tell so that I can get it on film.

TC: How many members of the Mills community do you hope to interview? Are you looking to talk to only those who participated in the strike/were part of the Mills community at the time or are you also looking at more perspectives?

AP: Definitely looking at many perspectives. The ‘going coed’ problem is one many campuses have had and are still facing. There will be interviews from many people, some of whom may never even have set foot on the Mills campus and certainly some that are part of the community but may not have been part of the strike.

 While I have a story for the narrative, like any good research, it has flexibility. Therefore, I do not have a set number of interviews in mind. I know there are some “must-haves,” but I am hoping for some undiscovered gems. For example, I’d really like to interview a husband of a striking student or a father. I want some “Mills men” on film.

The AAMC brunch commemorating the 25th anniversary of the 1990 Strike will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Founders Commons. Cost is $8.50 per person at the door. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this Q&A (and the print edition) incorrectly stated that Alexa Pagonas was a former editor of The Mills College Weekly. Pagonas was not on The Weekly staff.