Art, activism, and the award-winning documentary, “The Archivettes”

Lesbian Herstory Archives photo by Alina Oswald
Lesbian Herstory Archives photo by Alina Oswald

Herstory matters

On a gray, early December afternoon I meet with activist, educator and award-winning documentary filmmaker, Megan Rossman at The LGBT Center in New York City. We find our way to an empty room inside the building. Outside, the giant flag waves through the window, offering a rainbow of colors and hope, as if to accentuate this moment, my coming face to face with one of the artist activists whose work has brought about much needed change.

Lesbian Herstory Archives banner
A scene from the documentary “The Archivettes” featuring the Lesbian Herstory Archives banner

“Growing up, I’ve always loved photography,” Rossman says. “My mom, a writer herself, loved this idea of one of her kids becoming a journalist, and she introduced me to Lewis Hine (1874–1940), a photographer who used his camera as a tool for social reform. His pictures helped me make change in the world.”

The experience helped the Ohio native to understand the power of photography from a young age. “I didn’t have photography classes in high school, but we had a community college program, and you could take classes for free as a high schooler,” says Rossman. And so, she took a few photography classes. Together with her photography professor, they inspired her to study photojournalism. After graduation, she started working for The Washington Post in D.C.

While at The Post, she got to work on a few “news videos and interviews,” which, in turn, made her think of “videos as an art form.” And then, when one of her colleagues began working in the documentary video unit, she became interested in documentaries. There was something about “being a public servant as a photojournalist” and focusing on “stories that are actually happening” that really fueled her passion for and interest in making documentaries.

“As a journalist, you have to be objective,” Rossman emphasizes, pointing out that she strongly believes in and values journalistic objectivity, something that’s reflected in each and every project she worked on as a journalist. During her time at The Post (2008–2012), she got to make quite a few “very cool videos,” and cover the first election of President Obama.

After she left The Post, Rossman started working for Teach for America. That’s where she learned a lot about the educational landscape in America, and the “huge gap in equity” based on where people lived. And very soon she realized that things were unfair and that it took activism for anything to change for the better. Although she had always been interested in activism work, only after leaving The Post, when she wasn’t working as a journalist anymore, did she feel she could begin to do that kind of work. “That was a turning point for me in understanding activism as a tool,” Rossman said.

Today, Rossman uses art and activism as tools to make change. Her latest project is her most recent award-winning documentary, The Archivettes, which explores the story of Lesbian Herstory Archives, and “how this group came together to combat lesbian invisibility and create a place ‘that said yes.’”

It was by pure coincidence that Rossman discovered the Lesbian Herstory Archives while looking at Google maps with a friend. “I had no idea what it was and decided to reach out to them,” she says. “That’s how I met [activist] Maxine Wolfe and Deb Edel, who’s the co-founder. I interviewed both of them and was amazed by how open and kind they were.”

Located in Brooklyn, NY, the Lesbian Herstory Archives “is home to the world’s largest collection of materials by and about lesbians and their communities.” The first time she visited the Archives, Rossman felt as if she was “coming home.” Until then, she’d never thought about the history of the lesbian community and where her own narrative fit in, but “I found versions of myself,” she says, “and it was such an empowering experience to feel so connected, and to realize that there’re women who came before me and had similar paths, overcame a lot in their lives, and went on and did amazing things.” She adds, “that was when I felt the power of the Archives, and that I was part of something bigger than myself.”

Megan Rossman at the LGBT Center in New York City
Megan Rossman at the LGBT Center in New York City. Photo by Alina Oswald

At the time, Rossman was finishing her MFA at Hunter College and had to do a thesis project. “I knew that I had a year to work on it, and also that I wanted to push myself and do something that I hadn’t done before.” And so, she decided to talk to “the folks at the Archives” and see how they felt about her doing a feature film about them. At that point, they had become pretty close and trusted her, and so they were very excited about the idea.

Rossman decided to make a feature-length documentary (which is, as I find out, a bit shorter than a feature movie), and gave herself about one year to complete the project. “It was perfect, actually, because I started my full-time teaching job and continued working on the documentary,” she adds.

She first interviewed Edel and Wolfe and made a few short films. She entered one of these short films, Love Letter Rescue Squad, in “a bunch of film festivals” and it did really well. It premiered at the American Pavilion at Cannes Film Festival as part of the Emerging Filmmaker Showcase, where it was awarded Best Student Documentary Honors.

It took Rossman just over one year to finish filming The Archivettes. The documentary opened in L.A. then screened in places like Chicago and New York City and it continues to play at festivals. Just this fall it won the Audience Award at the Reeling Film Festival in Chicago. “That’s one of the most special awards I’ve won,” Rossman says, “because I’ve lived in Chicago, my sister’s been there for a long time, and I’m from the Midwest.”

Archivettes" featuring many of the early activists
A scene from the documentary “The Archivettes” featuring many of the early activists

Megan Rossman has been making films and change for a while now, and with each documentary she makes, she’s working on her craft and “learning so much.” And viewers also learn from her work, which teaches and inspires, and gives them a reason to believe in themselves and in their own power to, in turn, make change. Her dedication to for her work comes through in all her films, most recently in her latest award-winning documentary, The Archivettes, which she calls “this amazing fusion of doing something that I’m really passionate about and deeply invested in.”

Perhaps, at its core, The Archivettes teaches about the importance of history, of knowing and understanding one’s history, as individuals and as communities. To that, Rossman adds, “I want people to watch this film and say, ‘I matter, my history matters, and I need to document my life so that future generations can learn from it.’ I think that people often don’t think that they’re famous enough to be important, but the thing is… everyone’s life really matters. That’s what the Archives collection is about. It includes some well-known people, but most regular people.” Oftentimes, regular people are the ones who make change.

A look inside the Lesbian Herstory Archives
A look inside the Lesbian Herstory Archives

Rossman is an award-winning artist, activist, educator, and also an optimist. As an educator, she shares her optimism with her students, inspires them, and also gets inspired by them. “As a professor,” she says, “I look at my students, and think, ‘the world is going to a good place’. I look at how their views evolve, and I think of them growing up and coming into power. It gives me a lot of hope (because) they’re going to be that change.”

She encourages her students—and everybody else, for that matter—not to ever give up. “You don’t give up!” she reiterates. “When I started making The Archivettes I called some distributors just to get a gauge if people were interested.” A many said no, which was discouraging. But Women Make Movies said yes [the film was distributed with them], Princess Grace Foundation said yes [Rossman was awarded a scholarship for her thesis films]. “And I said yes,” the filmmaker adds. “People don’t only see the success. In my office, I have rejection letters hung on the wall ‘cause I want my students to see the failures and the success, and I think a lot of failures help you succeed.”

A welcome sign at the Lesbian Herstory Archives
A welcome sign at the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Photo by Alina Oswald.

She encourages up-and-coming artists as well as future activists to believe in themselves, and surround themselves with people who believe in them. In particular when it comes to activism work, she adds, “we have to be relentless. Sometimes it’s exhausting keeping that energy alive, but we have to keep telling our stories.”

As our conversation comes to an end, I glance out the window again at that giant rainbow flag. I think to myself, “Hope is, indeed, in the air.”