No Victims, in Filmmaker’s Feisty Exploration of Dementia

Photo courtesy of the filmmaker Director Sharon Greytak speaks with “Archaeology of a Woman” cast members (left to right: James Murtaugh, Victoria Clark, Karl Geary).
Photo courtesy of the filmmaker
Director Sharon Greytak speaks with “Archaeology of a Woman” cast members (left to right: James Murtaugh, Victoria Clark, Karl Geary).

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC  |  A lot can happen at a crosswalk.

For writer and director Sharon Greytak, a resident of Chelsea for 32 years, an encounter while crossing the street changed her trajectory as a filmmaker.

In the 1980s, Greytak was out of graduate school and relatively new to the neighborhood when she went to run errands. Her mind was preoccupied with thoughts of work — the experimental films she was creating, which were being screened in Downtown venues.

“I remember this elderly woman on 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, and the light was red and we weren’t supposed to cross. So we’re both standing there. She turned to me and said, ‘Miss, are you allowed to cross by yourself?’ ” recalled Greytak, who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she was seven and has used a wheelchair since she was 15. “It was just stunning. So she was seeing my disability.”

The disparity between her self-identification as an artist and how she was perceived made Greytak realize that she needed to address this issue, she noted during a recent interview at Chelsea Ristorante (on Eighth Ave., btw. 15th & 16th Sts.).

She transitioned from experimental films to documentaries with 1986’s “Weirded Out and Blown Away,” which told the stories of several disabled people — and touched on her own story as well.

Photo courtesy of the filmmaker On the set of “Archaeology of a Woman,” director Sharon Greytak (left) speaks with lead actress Sally Kirkland. At the camera is cinematographer Gus Sacks.
Photo courtesy of the filmmaker
On the set of “Archaeology of a Woman,” director Sharon Greytak (left) speaks with lead actress Sally Kirkland. At the camera is cinematographer Gus Sacks.

The need to depict characters and stories that are normally told one-dimensionally or not told at all is evident in Greytak’s latest feature, “Archaeology of a Woman,” which will have its New York City theatrical debut on Sept. 12 at Village East Cinema. The film premiered at the 2012 WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival.

The film shows the relationship between Margaret (Sally Kirkland), a former newspaper reporter who is sinking into dementia, and her daughter Kate (Victoria Clark).

For screenwriter and director Greytak, the story is not so much about dementia, but what happens when someone you know starts mixing time and space. Her challenge was to present a character for whom the ground underneath was shifting.

“You’re not on solid footing. You just don’t know what’s real and what isn’t real,” said Greytak, who had some experience in this vein with a family member. “I wanted to portray the mental state of that person and have the audience not just absorb the story but actually feel at points what it might be like.”

In Greytak’s hand, Margaret was going to be “the kind of women that I know in my own family, which is willful and unbending. The portrayals I’ve seen in cinema is this poor victim and you’re just going see them go downhill. I wanted someone feisty.” Nor was Kate to be the dutiful caretaker who would shoulder the responsibility of her aging mother silently. “I wanted to show a reluctant daughter. Somehow you know there is a mother-daughter struggle somewhere, that this has not been the most easy relationship,” she said. 

Shoot in 35mm, the low-budget “Archaeology of a Woman” received production and post-production funds from the New York State Council of the Arts, an organization that provides grants for artists. The council has funded Greytak’s films before and she also has a long relationship as a sponsored artist with the New York Foundation for the Arts, which “provides the concrete resources that working artists and emerging organizations need to thrive,” according to its website.

“I know the look of film [and] I know I can do this because I have done it before,” said Greytak, who has shot other features with a 35mm camera.

“Hearing Voices,” which was finished in 1989, shows the love between a heterosexual woman and a young gay man. Filmed on location in the Meatpacking District, 1995’s “The Love Lesson” concerns an adoption and an HIV-positive diagnosis for a heterosexual teenager.

Greytak has also filmed with a digital camera. For her second documentary, 2000’s “Losing It,” which took her to Brazil, Italy, Russia and Hong Kong to interview people with disabilities, the digital format was necessary for portability. “Hearing Voices,” “The Love Lesson” and “Losing It” were acquired by the UCLA/Sundance Collection for their archives in 2012.

Using actual film — not digital — was a good experience for younger crew members of “Archaeology of a Woman,” as they got the opportunity to load the camera. Some of Greytak’s former students also worked on this project. Greytak taught for five years at Syracuse University. This fall, she’ll teach a graduate course on producing at the School of Visual Arts.

Greytak herself never went to film school. She studied painting first at the Hartford Arts School at the University of Hartford and then at the California Institute for the Arts for her master’s degree.

Her artwork was abstract — a mix of drawing and painting on a canvas. She was interested in dramatic weather: seismic activities and earthquakes. Tiny shrimp-shaped tornadoes in pink, gray, black and white became an image she would overlay on aerial views.

Her painting background has informed her film work, and she called it “fantastic training” for a filmmaker. CalArts, she said, was all about ideas and finding the best form to express them. One of her first breaks was submitting several short films to WNET (PBS, channel 13) for a series. Her work didn’t make the program, but Laurence Kardish, a MOMA curator, was on the panel and contacted her. In 1983, Greytak got her first one-person show at MOMA as part of the Cineprobe series.

In the beginning, she used a Super 8 to create three-minute experimental shorts and then moved on to 16mm with films like “Some Pleasure on the Level of the Source” and the “Czechoslovakian Woman.”

Art and trips to New York City were both a part of her childhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“Holidays, if you wanted to make me happy, [you] brought me art books,” said Greytak, who was interested in the arts early.

Her father insisted that she, her brother and mother take trips to Manhattan every summer.

“It just always felt very natural to be here,” said Graytek, whose has memories of walking on 42nd St. and the Empire State building.

After graduate school, she moved back home to Connecticut for six weeks while she searched for an apartment in Manhattan. Many of her CalArt cohorts were moving to the East Village. She looked through newspaper ads and was calling for roommate shares only to find that it was a walk-up. Greytak needed an accessible apartment.

She finally connected with a broker, who had an office at Macy’s. “He said what do you, what’s your field and I told him I was in the arts. He just looked through his Rolodex and he said, ‘Oh Chelsea. You’ll like Chelsea,’ ” she recalled.

After the broker tore off a piece of paper with an address on it, Greytak ventured to see two apartments. In a time where the city had no curb cuts for wheelchair access, she needed help off and on the curb. She saw an apartment on Eighth Ave. and 15th St. and looked no further. “I’ll try it for a year. I can figure out the city from there,” she said, in the summer of 1982.

Chelsea has more big brand names now, she said, when asked how the neighborhood had changed. Before, there were more mom and pop shops and a greater diversity in food markets.

But she has not considered moving. “I’m very tied to the city,” she said. “It’s given me the life that I wanted.”

Written, directed and co-produced by Sharon Greytak “Archaeology of a Woman” screens Sept. 12-18 at Village East Cinema (189 Second Ave., btw. 11th & 12th Sts.). Visit facebook.com/archaeologyofawoman. Twitter: twitter.com/ArchofaWoman.