GREAT BARRINGTON — What do mermaids and flagmakers have in common?
In the cinematic universe, the answer is Academy Award-winning documentary, commercial and fiction director Cynthia Wade, who is bringing the first part of her four-part Netflix docuseries, “MerPeople” and her latest documentary short, “The Flagmakers” to the Berkshire International Film Festival.
Wade is also one of three women filmmakers participating in BIFF’s 12:30 p.m. Tea Talk, “Celebrating Excellence in Film Through the Lens of Berkshire Female Filmmakers.” The talk, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, moderated by Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative Executive Director Diane Pearlman, includes Wade, Karen Allen and Barbara Kopple.
“Fins and Flags,” which features the series and the documentary, will screen back-to-back, from 9:45 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. June 3 at The Triplex. A Q&A with Wade follows. The Saturday morning screening is free, but registration is required.
“MerPeople,” which debuted on Netflix on May 23, takes a “look at the fascinating world of underwater performers who have turned their love for mystical sea creatures into real-world careers.”
“The Flagmakers,” now streaming on Disney+, asks the question: who is the American flag for? To find the answer, Wade and co-director Sharon Liese, went inside the employee-owned Eder Flag in Oak Creek, Wisc., which sews and ships 5 million flags a year. Here, the employees are a mix of citizens, refugees and immigrants with varying political beliefs, stories and experiences.
“You’ll get to see episode one of ‘MerPeople’ which really sets the stage, the stakes, the world of these fabulous merpeople who are really unexpected,” Wade said. “It’s not who you think; it’s super unexpected and that’s what I love about this series. Then, we’ll shift and see ‘The Flagmakers.’ It’s a little bit of mermaids and a little bit of flag making.”
And while the two might seem like disparate topics, Wade says both the film and docuseries are connected on a deeper level.
‘It's really about identity and belonging,” she said. “‘The Flagmakers,’ is about identity and belonging because a lot of them are immigrants and refugees working on the American flag. With ‘MerPeople,’ it’s really about like, if your life feels either too overwhelming or uncomfortable or you know, you've been told, the world has told you that it doesn't want you on land — which has been the life experience of some of my mermaids — in the water, they feel whole and they feel beautiful.
“It’s calming and nothing else above the surface matters. They’re just down there, being their true authentic selves. In some ways, there is a lot of similarity between the two films, thematically, even though on the surface it wouldn’t look like that.”
Wade, who won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2008 for “Freehold,” was also nominated in the same category in 2013 for “Mondays at Racine.” Among her myriad accolades are a Prime Time Emmy in 2011 for Outstanding Writing in a Children’s Series for “Sesame Street: Growing Hope Against Hunger” and a Clio Image Award for “Selfie,” the Dove Real Beauty Campaign spot, she filmed over a two-week period at Monument Mountain Regional High School.
Editor's note: Ahead of the June 3 BIFF Tea Talk, Wade, a former Berkshires resident, answered a few of our questions about being a woman filmmaker, the film industry and her Berkshires experience. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: How do you get involved with a project? How did ‘MerPeople’ come about?
CYNTHIA WADE: My projects come in a combination of ways. Sometimes I come up with an idea and I do it the really, really hard way, which is I can see it, but nobody else around me can see it, so it’s years and years of fundraising and trying to get grants, foundation grants, maybe doing fundraises and maybe having high net worth people come on board and they give a deductible contribution, etc. I've done that a lot and actually one of the pieces that I'm showing at BIFF this year was that model. “The Flagmakers” was an independent film before eventually, National Geographic picked it up and then bumped it up to Disney+.
That was a way that was a three-year labor of love and mostly shot during the pandemic, and just tough. That was tough. Then on the flip side, I have agents. I lived in the Berkshires full-time for nine years, but at the end of 2019, it became really clear that my husband and I, we both freelance in the business — we had one kid finishing eighth grade in the Berkshires and one kid finishing Monument Mountain Regional High School — that it was really a time to shift and to move to Los Angeles. So we left and of course, the giant pandemic hit like four months after we moved.
But, it really allowed us to just kind of establish here and it through just being here I got some new agents. They were putting me up for different interviews and I was the seventh or eighth director that Netflix interviewed for the MerPeople thing and then got the job.
It had been researched pretty heavily by an independent photographer who's actually going to be at BIFF. She’s going to be at the screening, which is awesome. She's amazing. She's really good at really figuring out subcultures that have been that are unknown or underrepresented.
So she had been photographing mermaids and she'd actually partnered with the producers of Queer Eye, and they are the ones who sold it to Netflix. Netflix said 'you need to find and book the director before we're gonna say go on this.' So, while the initial research had been done, I’m the one that was there to figure out the stories and the structure and kind of weave them together because the episodes are not episodic. They really are a braided narrative.
Q: Has living in the Berkshires informed or benefited your filmmaking career in any way?
CYNTHIA WADE: In 2008, I won an Academy Award for “Freehold” And my life — and you know, it's always short-lived — went on hyperspeed. I was being invited to all kinds of things showing up at all kinds of black-tie events, presenting awards, being presented awards, being flown to different countries, and getting offers to do documentaries with funding attached, which was new for me, all while I was getting into commercial work. My husband had given up a lot, a full-time job in New York, but was working at the time in tech and advertising and it became very clear that somebody was going to need to be with our kids; take care of our kids because at that point when I won, one daughter was seven and one daughter was two. It began to feel like a runaway train. It felt very uncomfortable to me. It never felt like it was about the destination, that it was always about the journey. It becomes this type of thing where everything you do as a documentary filmmaker goes out the window and it becomes this sort of Teflon existence. It burns hot and celebrity-like, but in the end you have to come back to the work. It wasn’t a grounding experience. A bunch of things happened and we had an opportunity to move to Los Angeles and I made a decision. I said, “Let’s go to the Berkshires.” My sister and her husband live there. She’s a writer. We have girls the same age as their girls ...
It was a way of grounding ourselves and a way of slowing down our children’s childhood. I think I bought back one possibly two years of their childhood back that I just wouldn’t have if we had gone to Los Angeles at that point. Living in the Berkshires really forced us into a different rhythm.
Q: What are you working on next?
CYNTHIA WADE: I worked as a volunteer docent at Hancock Shaker Village for a short while, but an intense while, and became really obsessed with the Shakers, Shaker history and in particular, the Hancock Shakers. I started doing history research and connected through a screenwriters group I was part of in the Berkshires, with a local writer, Nanina Gilder. She wrote the film, “Sproutland,” which I directed and was at BIFF [in 2021]. We worked really well together and we worked through the pandemic, on and off, from then until now. We wrote this script [about the Shakers] and applied to this screenwriting retreat in Italy and we got in. Somebody from the Berkshires wrote a grant to help us get there and the day after BIFF ends, I’m going to Italy to meet up with Nannina and we’re going to write this Shaker screenplay for a month. I want to come back and direct a fiction film based on a true event that happened in 1871 at Hancock Shaker Village.
IF YOU GO
Fins and Flags
What: Screenings of "MerPeople" episode one and "The Flagmakers" followed by a Q&A with director Cynthia Wade
When: 9:45-11:45 a.m. June 3
Where: Triplex Cinema, 70 Railroad St., Great Barrington
Tickets: Free, but reservations required
Information and reservations: 413-528-8030, biffma.org
Celebrating Excellence in Film Through the Lens of Berkshire Female Filmmakers
What: Berkshire International Film Festival Tea Talk
Who: Cynthia Wade, Karen Allen and Barbara Kopple in conversation with Diane Pearlman
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington
When: 12:30-2 p.m., June 3
Information and reservations: 413-528-8030, biffma.org