Making Movies About Art and a Famous Husband Named Jim

Filmmaker Nancy Dine brushes off limitations and does her own thing

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After years of fielding the question, "Are you related to the painter?" filmmaker Nancy Dine now gets the satisfaction of seeing the roles reversed. She began making documentary films 10 years ago, and earlier this year her biographical short about her husband, "Jim Dine A Self Portrait on the Walls," was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary: Short Subject in 1996.

"I've spent 40 years being who I am," she muses, pointing out that she was a still photographer for many years before she made her first film and always has had an independent creative life. She adds, laughing, that even the nominated film, though it was about her husband's work, "was not a collaboration. He had to sign a release because I didn't want to fight with anybody."

Perhaps because her sense of self-definition has been finely honed as a result of having a spouse in the limelight, Dine brushes off any other sense of limitation - in particular, being a woman in the film business. "I'm simply not conscious of being a woman in film," she observes. "I've always believed that if you do a good job, that's the bottom line."

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Dine's Oscar-nominated film details a six-day project by her husband in which he transforms a small German museum with massive charcoal drawings executed directly on the walls. "I've only ever worked with a male cinematographer, I have a male producing partner, and I've raised three sons. I relate well to men," she points out, adding the distinctly old-fashioned comment that she's a "firm believer in attracting more flies with honey than with vinegar."

If she is slightly more traditional in some ways, she is distinctly au courant on the important issues, such as discrimination against women.

"Women have been underpaid for equal work, and that needs to change." But she adds with a rueful laugh, "There's no money in documentaries anyway, so what little there is, is pretty equally divided between men and women."

Dine's career as a documentary filmmaker has garnered critical attention from its inception. She began in 1990 with "Debut," a look at a young chamber-music group from its early days to its New York debut. The film aired nationally on PBS and later won the Golden Hugo Award for best documentary at the Chicago International Film Festival.

Her next film, "Bali Beyond the Postcard," a profile of a multigenerational Balinese family, debuted at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York in late 1991 and went on to win the National Geographic EARTHWATCH award.

It was at this point that Dine undertook a triptych of films about her well-known husband. She had some concerns that people would perceive the films as nothing more than promotions. "They most definitely are not. They are finished films that have little to do with the commercial side of the art world," asserts Dine firmly.

BETSY MCLANE, executive director of the International Documentary Association (IDA), agrees. Noting that there are literally thousands of films on artists, Ms. McLane says that Dine's work is distinctive and not traditionally commercial. "She interjects a great deal of herself; her films are very personal, which is not the usual case with the art-on-film genre."

IDA screened Dine's Academy Award-nominated short at its annual pre-Oscar program earlier this year. McLane says the film was well received. "She really brought these inanimate objects to life," she adds, noting that most documentary filmmakers don't start with an inanimate object as Dine does.

In addition to the self-portrait film, Nancy Dine (under the umbrella of her production company, Outside in July) made "Jim Dine: Childhood Stories," an examination of the artist's early years, which won a CINE Golden Eagle award, and "All About Looking," a look at the painter teaching an intense three-week life-class in Austria. Her next two projects are more personal portraits: one of the French printer Aldo Crommelynck and another on "a woman writer," says filmmaker Dine.

She also nurtures the hope that she will be able to get funding for a pet project - a film on the need for population control. Dine is on the board of Planned Parenthood in New York City, where she lives.

She acknowledges that perhaps being a woman plays more of a role in her filmmaking life than she'd realized. "The differences may show up in the issues men and women choose to take on," she comments.

In addition, Dine adds that women may have more sensitivity about the need to help open doors for the next generation. "I didn't have any mentoring when I was getting started. At least I can give it now, even if I didn't get it," she reflects.

Dine says she makes a special effort to use interns and provide jobs for newcomers, although she points out that the statistics on women are far better in the field of documentary filmmaking than feature filmmaking. The membership of IDA is more than half female. The reason for that is simple, says Dine. "There's no money in documentary films, so men aren't as attracted to it."

As with most documentary filmmakers, raising money is an ongoing challenge for Dine. "Unless you're a Ken Burns or someone with that sort of very commercial film, you're not going to get the funding," notes Dine. All of which underlines the advantages and disadvantages of being related to someone famous.

"Because of Jim, I get additional media attention," observes Dine, "which I don't mind, of course. But on the other hand, people are less likely to give me money because they think I don't need it." Nothing could be further from the truth, says the filmmaker with a sigh and the wry observation that everything, including independence, has its price.

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