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WomanOf the Month 12-02: Sandy McLeod

Like many filmmakers, Sandy McLeod is a film buff. Asked to narrow down her favorite type of film, she says she likes edgy stories with courageous characters. And after more than two decades as a music video producer, script supervisor, actress, visual consultant, and production designer, she’s directed a film of her own about a courageous woman. That effort, "Asylum," a short documentary, was awarded an honorable mention at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.

The film profiles a Ghanian woman, Babba, who escapes to the U.S. to avoid the practice of genital mutilation. Claiming refugee status, she spends a year in a detention center in New Jersey until she can prove she has a legitimate reason for being granted asylum. Produced by Gini Reticker, the film was one of 70 shorts selected out of an entry pool of several thousand for Sundance.

The idea for the film germinated with Reticker, who was interested in the potential for a series of short films profiling women who seek asylum in the U.S. "We were interested in these women’s different stories," says McLeod. "We wanted to look at why women come to this country and what they are fleeing from."

While genital mutilation is officially banned in Ghana, it still is practiced, particularly in rural areas. "It’s a familial thing, a cultural thing. They feel that it’s unclean in a sense if they don’t do it," says McLeod. The film is presented entirely from Babba’s point of view—hers is the only voice.

"Even though this sounds like a horrible thing to us, we’re not from there and we don’t know what that experience is like," says McLeod. "To hear her talk about it in her own words is interesting, because she doesn’t really condemn it. She just didn’t want it to be part of her life. Especially now, with everything that’s going on in the world, it’s really important for us to understand other peoples’ points of view, from their point of view. We tend to be rather isolated in the U.S. We can be very ignorant of other situations."

As a baby, Babba’s mother ran away from her husband, and Babba believed her father was dead. She and her mother led a middle-class existence, with Babba largely supporting the family when she became old enough to work as a secretary at a gold mine. When she wanted to marry, however, she needed to seek her father’s family’s approval. With the help of a half-sister, she traveled to the village where the family lived and learned that her father, now a wealthy man, was alive. All went well until she brought up the notion of marriage. Her father had selected an old man from the village to be her husband, had taken the dowry, and had scheduled her excision, or genital mutilation, for the next day. Babba ran away, but because her father was wealthy enough to offer rewards for her return through the newspapers, she fled to the U.S. on a false passport.

After Babba was released from the detention center, the filmmakers shot an eight-hour interview with her. They then realized the need to travel to Ghana to provide cultural context for the film. During a three-week trip they photographed cultural iconography to help illustrate her story. All the signs in Ghana are hand-painted, and many were used in the film. "It’s a very colorful, interesting culture," says McLeod.

McLeod herself grew up during a tumultuous period—the 50’s and 60’s in Birmingham, Alabama. She attended West Georgia College for two years in Carrollton, Georgia, where she was threatened for dating a black student, before deciding to move to New York. "I thought, this is a better education if I can stick this out," she recalls. She worked as a model, briefly, then landed a job in a recording studio as a librarian where she watched the mix of "Gimme Shelter". "That’s when I thought, I’d like to get into filmmaking," she says.

McLeod began producing music videos 25 years ago for artists such as Alex Cox, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, UB40, Bruce Springsteen, and Roy Orbison. She directed a short film for Saturday Night Live called Doll Day Afternoon, which has been shown in museums across the U.S.

As a woman filmmaker, McLeod works in what remains a male-dominated industry on both the creative and business ends. She notes the difficulty of selling a woman’s story to Hollywood. And as she looks at different projects for her next effort, she harbors hope of one day bringing to the screen a script she wrote some six years ago, about a divorced older woman who becomes homeless. "There are a lot of people out there like that, living on the edge," she says.