Gaylen Ross speaks to students

Gaylen Ross is an actress turned producer, writer, and director. Her transition was triggered by an epiphany during a beach scene: she noticed how much better it looked on the other side of the camera, how non-actors did not get splashed or covered in sand. She visited Carnegie Mellon University last Thursday to talk about storytelling through film. She began by speaking about how much movies have changed. How when she was younger, half the fun of a movie was watching it in the middle and having to guess what happened in the first half. Films have lost this essence, Ross said, and now they so clearly spell out the story for the viewer that it is almost impossible to guess or interpret any of it for yourself. As someone who does not think about movies much beyond the theater, I thought this was very interesting. Do I not think about movies long after I see them because of how clearly the plot is spelled out to me? Does the lack of outside thought required make me a passive movie watcher?

As I pondered this, Ross launched into how she chooses to layout the films she puts together. The first of her films that she spoke of was Caris’ Peace. This was a film she made about her late friend Caris Corfman, an actress from the Yale School of Drama who starred in several movies before developing a brain tumor that caused her to lose her short term memory. Ross discussed how important it was to not make the focus of the story that she got back onstage after this, but how she got back on stage. Ross explained that she did this to keep the film from being a cliché story about someone overcoming obstacles to finally achieve something that she thought she could not do. By starting the documentary off by showing that Corfman does get back onstage, the viewers were allowed to focus more on her journey rather than wondering if it would all be in vain.

Many of the excerpts that Ross shared of her films showed how she always tries to find the most unconventional way to tell a story. The most interesting way she did this was in her film Killing Kasztner: The Jew who Dealt with the Nazis, a movie about the life and death of Rudolf Kastner, a Hungarian Jew that helped other Jews escape occupied Europe during the Holocaust. Ross spent years collecting information on the subject not to build a case for or against Kastner, but to provide a comprehensive story and let the viewers decide which side of history was correct. She chose to begin this film by allowing Kastner’s assassin, Ze’ev Eckstein, to tell his side of the story first. This definitely made it harder as a viewer because there were moments where Eckstein would do or say something funny, but it felt wrong to get attached to him the way you would to any other person who was sharing the intimate details of his life with you.

Ross talked about how smart he was to build this sense of trust and understanding with those watching him so that at the end of the film when he recants his story and says that he actually didn’t shoot Kastner, you almost believe him. The film then goes on to the perspectives of Kastner’s daughter and granddaughters, which admittedly were not as interesting as the perspective of the assassin. The way that Ross not only arranged this film to include his perspective and make the film more unbiased, but set it in the present tense instead of focusing on the past was refreshing. I felt that this helped to make the story more relatable and also show how the version of history that is perpetuated can influence the present.

Overall, I really enjoyed the perspective that Ross had to offer regarding how to enhance stories by telling them through film. There are so many different ways to put together the different puzzle pieces of a story to make it much more interesting. By starting with a question that either can or can’t be answered, Ross challenges viewers to focus on things that usually would not be the focal point of a movie, such as the man behind the gun or how hard it is for a woman with no short term memory to remember why she is on stage in the first place. I cannot promise that I will be a more active movie watcher, but it would be nice if movies challenged me to be one a little more.