Seeing Allred is a fascinating documentary about one of the most powerful and outspoken discrimination attorney and women’s rights advocates of our times: Gloria Allred.
Co-directed by Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman, the film gets up-close and personal with this formidable woman, from her high profile cases and strategic presence in the media, to her personal life, her feminist awakening, her dedication to civil rights and her passion for activism.
“There is a war on women. It’s real. It can be very ugly. Women depend on me to be strong, to be fearless, and to assert and protect their rights,” declares Allred.
Allred’s unconventional methods and unabashed style have been parodied countless times, from South Park to Saturday Night Live, where host Jimmy Kimmel went as far as saying that she was “in league with the devil”; none of which deterred Allred from winning highly publicized cases: Bill Cosby, Trump, Nicole Simpson, the Friars Club, to name a few.
From her historic battle to legalize same gender marriage to her support of Hilary Clinton, and her advocacy of the Me Too movement, the story reaches far beyond the panorama of her career by connecting to her roots and her determination to keep fighting regardless of the circumstances. She is joined by a cast of legal experts and supporters, including Gloria Steinem, another “pre-feminist” era activist who recalls her own turning point when she realized, “Wait a minute, we are not crazy, the system is crazy.”
One of the more memorable scenes in the film is when Allred majestically defuses the tension when confronted by an aggressive detractor on the steps of the Capitol, reminding us that there has never been a better time to empower women to control the narrative and become “fighters for change.”
CYNTHIA BIRET: How did you decide to make a documentary about Gloria Allred?
SOPHIE SARTAIN: I met her in 2011 through a friend of mine who works at her office. From the first time I saw her she was not anything like I expected from what I had seen on television, because although she is this formidable figure with a very big personality, I found her to be very approachable, very warm, just like a regular person. That led me to read her book Fight Back and Win, and then I said to Roberta, my co-director, “this looks like an incredible story,” and it is intersected with so many high-profile cases over several decades. When we first approached her, she was open to the idea of making a documentary, but ultimately said no because she was feeling protective of her clients as well as her own privacy.
BIRET: I would think this would be especially challenging for an attorney
SARTAIN: Exactly. There is so much confidentiality concerning clients. Then we went away and we worked on other projects for about a year, and I just could not let go of this idea. I just couldn’t let it die.
BIRET: How long did it take to get her approval and to complete this film?
SARTAIN: We started talking to her in 2012. Then we worked on another film for a year, it’s called Above and Beyond. Around 2014, I decided to approach her again, so we went back again. She told us that she admired our persistence, and at that time she said yes. We knew all along that we wanted to follow the contemporary story of her life in addition to telling the story of how she became who she is. Just by happenstance, about three months after we started filming, the Bill Cosby scandal broke in the news. And Gloria started bringing out accusers of Mr. Cosby. We just started following that story and watched it develop from the end of 2014 for about two and a half years.
BIRET: Interestingly enough, you are introducing her with one of her TV appearances instead of starting chronologically. What motivated you to build the documentary this way?
SARTAIN: At the beginning we were following her contemporary story because we did not have the money to do anything more than that, but after a while we pitched it to Netflix based on some of the footage we had of the Bill Cosby thread, and once they funded the doc, we were able to film everything else, including the back-story.
We wanted to introduce Gloria as the person that people are familiar with, the person on T.V., and in front of a bank of microphones during a press conference. And then we wanted to take you on a journey and show you things that maybe you did not know. So instead of starting the story of her life chronologically, we started it where an audience member might be right now, and who might not be familiar with her real personality. The whole idea is similar to peeling back the layers of an onion, and then, just as slowly, letting the story unfold that way. Personally, I love the type of stories that takes you unexpected places — here, for instance, to her childhood home in Philadelphia. And I love how this story ends in Washington D.C. on a cold, gray January morning on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
BIRET: Her journey is connected with other women as well, and with the Women’s Rights Movement.
SARTAIN: Yes, we wanted to tell that story as well. In the second wave of feminism they talk about “the personal is political, “and I think Gloria embodies that. She had her coming of age before the Women’s Movement. But then her life was activated by what she was seeing around her. And so we wanted to trace her awakening as it was happening for so many women in the late sixties or early seventies.
BIRET: An interesting turning point is that she first became active in the Civil Rights Movement and had a wake up call when an African American man suggested for her to get involved in fighting for her rights as a women.
SARTAIN: That was fascinating, and the fact that she was drawn to study African American writers in college . . . she was very tuned into the Civil Rights Movement and learned to apply it to herself as a woman.
BIRET: She is a real champion for human’s rights. Let’s go back to the Cosby story. The statute of limitations had passed, and yet she still went for it. Gloria has the impulse to fight and never give up, like a warrior.
SARTAIN: I really admire her fighting spirit, and I was always hoping that some of her chutzpah would rub off on me, because she is such a fighter. If you look at each accuser that came forward against Bill Cosby, by in large they did not have cases to bring to a district attorney and be prosecuted. And many lawyers would say: “I am sorry for your experience, but I cannot help you.” Gloria believes that there are many avenues for justice. Sometimes to hold someone accountable in the court of public opinion is one way to seek justice for a client when there are no other legal technical ways to do it.
BIRET: She explained this during one of her interviews.
SARTAIN: Yes. So I admire that she gives survivors, particularly women, a platform on which to speak, to break their silence and tell their stories. She enabled these women to come forward with these press conferences in a way that would happen over a period of months. And in the beginning the women were so brave because they were not believed for speaking out against this incredibly famous and talented figure. I mean, we all grew up with The Cosby Show. He was America’s Dad! People could not believe these allegations. Now, of course, many years later, we have a different opinion. But at the time, in the late 2014 early 2015, the general public completely dismissed these women.
BIRET: He represented a patriarchal figure, which is engrained in our minds early on, kind of a patriarchal conditioning.
SARTAIN: Right. Even more so than Harvey Weinstein, who is a very prominent and powerful figure, but not a powerful father figure such as Cosby, who everyone had a real emotional connection with. Those women were incredibly brave, and many had not spoken about what happened to them in decades. They had not told their family members. It was incredibly powerful for me to watch them come out. I was there at the press conferences, and not only could I feel their fear in the room, but also their courage. There were times where I filmed the point of view of women sitting there, facing the cameras.
BIRET: There was an atmosphere of fear and anticipation.
SARTAIN: Yes. You are looking at a sea of cameramen, because people filming were predominantly male, and all eyes are on you. It’s terrifying to be in that scene, but at the same time you have Gloria sitting next to you.
BIRET: She is much more than an attorney representing her clients; she is also comforting and pampering them.
SARTAIN: She is protecting you while you are there.
BIRET: She’s hugging them.
SARTAIN: Yes. It was amazing to see that these women were incredibly courageous. And then the tide started to turn, and we watched it happen while we were filming. More and more women came out, and by the summer of 2015 the tide had turned and people started to believe these women. And then his deposition came out, where he had admitted giving them Quaaludes to have sex, and even Whoopi Goldberg changed her opinion.
BIRET: It is very powerful transition.
SARTAIN: So much of that is due to Gloria believing these women, supporting them and giving them a platform to speak up.
BIRET: While following these stories, you must have had an enormous amount of footage to work with in post-production.
SARTAIN: We did! We had a lot of contemporary material that we filmed and also hundreds of hours of archival footage, because Gloria has been on the news for decades. That was just a treasure trove of material, which was also very daunting to go through and pick up the pieces and create the historical part for the back-story.
BIRET: How did you choose whom to interview? You have, of course, Gloria Steineim, but you also have legal experts giving their opinion on her trials. Did you do this to reinforce her legal discourse?
SARTAIN: That’s correct. We had three, maybe even four types of interviewees, if we include Gloria Steinem. We wanted some legal experts to weigh in on her as a legal perspective, and to provide context for some of the legal issues that arise in the film, such as the statute of limitations. We wanted to have people from the media, because she is such a media personality, and we wanted to have the people who knew her privately, such as her daughter and her childhood friend, Fern. We also wanted to show Gloria’s role in the women’s movement and her role as an activist, because in addition to being a mother and a lawyer, she has also a streak of activism within her.
BIRET: The scene on the Capitol’s steps, where she is confronted by a very conservative man, is at the same time frightening and powerful.
SARTAIN: We were with her on the election night in 2016 and showed how devastating it was for her as a Hillary delegate in 2016 and as far back as 2008. At that time pretty much everyone thought that Hillary was going to win, and we had actually already made arrangements to go to the inauguration. And then about two days later I went to her office and said, “I guess we’re not going to be at the inauguration, are we?” And she replied, “Maybe we will, you know, there’s talk of people showing up.” And so we were there every day of the inauguration, and by that time the Women’s March had been planned for the day after, and we followed her there, too. The following day she was getting ready to leave on a train to New York. We did not have a sound person — I just had my cameraman — and we decided to pick her up an hour early to go over to the Lincoln Memorial and grab a few shots. We had a permit to film, but unexpectedly we ran into a protest going on, and the Park police did not want us there because she was attracting attention. We were shoed out of the way by some of the protesters, and Alex, our DP, ended up at the bottom of the steps. I walked up to the Memorial and all of a sudden I lost Gloria. She was pulled like a magnet into the crowd. She just wanted to be part of the protest. That’s how I ended up filming that scene with my iPhone.
BIRET: The scene drew you into the action and the arguments from people facing each other with radically different opinions.
SARTAIN: I was scared because the tempers ran really high. At one point a big guy got really close to her and started engaging her, and I did not know which way it was going to go. But it was amazing to see that Gloria was able to listen to him respectfully. By listening to him and showing him respect, she diffused the situation and prevented it from escalating.
BIRET: He challenged her first on woman’s rights and then on religion.
SARTAIN: He was talking about things like sin and same-sex marriage, and somehow she managed to calm down the situation. And she was not being combative as she often is when she fights for her causes. We discovered a different side to Gloria. She was absolutely amazing to observe.
BIRET: She was surrounded by protestors who were mostly women, and spoke on behalf of all of them.
SARTAIN: I love the fact that there were a lot of women who sort of encircled her. And I love that there were also a lot of young women who were there at the March who maybe had discovered feminism recently. I love the intergenerational aspect of that. Gloria had been fighting these battles for decades, and she was surrounded by a whole new generation of younger women who had been newly activated and kind of protected her in that moment.
BIRET: It was a very touching scene.
SARTAIN: For that moment where she diffused the tension, I felt I was in the presence of someone really special. And I started crying when I got in the car because I had been so scared and also because I witnessed a very powerful moment in this historical setting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was overwhelming to me, but Gloria was fine. She was not fazed at all.
BIRET: In that moment you realize the truth in her statement when she said there is a war against women, and that it’s not over.
SARTAIN: Isn’t that amazing! I was just listening to that line yesterday. And often times we don’t want to think about it because it’s scary. You don’t want to ever have to face that type of opposition — someone wanting to put women in their place. But it’s still very much alive today.
BIRET: Talk to me about your collaboration with Roberta, your co-director on this film.
SARTAIN: It was a really great partnership because we each bring different strengths to the table. I was taking on was all the Verité style footage, being a fly on the wall and shadowing Gloria. And Roberta took the lead on the interviews that we did. Her personality is very good for asking tough questions.
BIRET: How challenging was it to talk about her rape?
SARTAIN: She had talked about it before
BIRET: Yes, there are scenes in the movie where TV presenters bring it up.
SARTAIN: She also knew that we were going to ask that question, so we didn’t just bring it on her. But it was nevertheless an emotional interview.
BIRET: It is something you cannot erase
SARTAIN: She made the decision a long time ago to speak up about it, knowing that by telling her story she could empower others to break their own cycle of silence and talk about what happened to them.
BIRET: But the charge was still there. It felt as if it had just happened and that’s unfortunately often the case with rape survivors
SARTAIN: In showing these segments in the film we wanted to let them play out without editing too closely. We let the long silences play out. In these types of scenes oftentimes there is music, but we wanted it to be really silent. Nothing in the background, just silence in that moment.
BIRET: Were you surprised that her daughter was actually defending Weinstein at one point?
SARTAIN: As far as Lisa (Lisa Bloom), I am not sure in what capacity she worked for Weinstein. It was a brief period from what I understand. She stopped advising him when she began to realize the scope of the allegations.
BIRET: Gloria’s presence is as important today as it was in the 70’s. She could have easily retired, but she keeps on fighting. She also says something that might be hard to grasp at first: Power only understands power.
SARTAIN: Yes I love that.
BIRET: By showing her choosing her clothes, her jewelry, and then taking off in her sports car, you are establishing her as feminine and powerful.
SARTAIN: For that first sequence, we wanted to show her putting on her armor essentially. She was putting on her power suit and getting ready for another day to go out and fight her fight, and we wanted to show that in a lot of ways that the suit is part of her own armor; being her armor.
BIRET: She is kind of like a general in action, with a tactical aim.
SARTAIN: Laurie Levinson, one of our legal scholars in the film, really summarizes Gloria in many ways when she said that Gloria Steinheim is the philosopher of the movement, and that Gloria Allred is the warrior up front. I love the way she said that and it made a lot of sense to me.
BIRET: If Gloria Allred did not exist, some historical changes might have been missed, including the Justice for Victims Act that was signed in 2016. That’s just 2 years ago!
SARTAIN: The scene with the women testifying in Sacramento was the point where I knew in my gut that we had a film because I had seen many of these women during a press conference and they were terrified and shaking, and I had seen them form this sisterhood and band together with Gloria to fight and to change the law in California. At that moment they had a victory that is captured in the film. To see their journeys and to see how it had already transformed their lives by coming forward and working together to bring change, this matches Gloria’s whole philosophy that she often talks about, from being a victim to being a survivor, to becoming a fighter for change. It was amazing to capture that in our film.
BIRET: This might perhaps be one of the reasons why she didn’t speak to her best friend for seven years after she declined her offer to join her on her fights.
SARTAIN: Oh yeah. (Laughs)
BIRET: What were your biggest challenges with this film?
SARTAIN: The biggest challenge was in knowing when to stop.
BIRET: That was actually going to be my next question: How did you decide when to stop filming and when?
SARTAIN: The hardest thing was to know when to stop because Gloria never stops. After filming her during the women’s march on January 2017, and the scene on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I thought that we couldn’t have a better finale, so we started editing at that point; but things were still happening: Most remarkably, the Me Too movement just exploded that October of 2017, and we were pretty much finished with the film by then. We felt that we had to include it because it became the main story of late 2017 and in a lot of ways, it also reframed the film, because we had no idea that it would explode like that. You could see how the seeds were planted by the women coming out against Bill Cosby for the first part of the film, and then all of a sudden there was this groundswell with Me Too. But even after we stopped there was the Roy Moore controversy, and things continued to come out, and then Cosby himself was found guilty of the charges.
BIRET: Would you like to share your upcoming projects?
SARTAIN: Roberta and I have about three projects going right now: She has a film that she just completed called Who Will Write our History. It’s about the Warsaw ghetto in Poland In World War II, and I am working on a film about activism right now, following a lot of activists in the year 2018, which is proving to be a very active year for activism around our country. We work and support other filmmakers as well, so I’m working with another filmmaker on her project. It’s about a historical photographer.
BIRET: If you were to look back, what made you originally sensitive to this topic? Was it your upbringing?
SARTAIN: I’ve always felt aligned with the goals of the women’s movement. I have always been a feminist. About10 years ago, Roberta and I tried to make a film about Anita Hill. It was just a timing issue we went and approached her, but she had already started a film with another filmmaker. We just missed that one, But we got Gloria!
BIRET: As we are wrapping up, I also loved the humor in the film, especially with the parade. And because she is fighting not only for women’s rights, so but for same sex marriage and civil rights issues, it’s good to see her laughing when she is being honored in West Hollywood with her copycat on the float. She had becoming bigger than herself.
SARTAIN: She’s always done the parade in Hollywood, but it was more of a basic participation, the same way a city councilwoman or a congressperson will ride in one of those cars with a nice sign on the side, waiving to the crowd. Dan really pushed her to do stuff with costumes and extras and actually make it really fun!
BIRET: Did she give you any feedback for the film?
SARTAIN: I think she is overall pleased with the film
BIRET: Would you like to share a message with filmmakers who are interested in working on human rights movies?
SARTAIN: My primary advice is to show up, because if you don’t show up, you won’t get this sort of a story. You never know how it’s going to unfold, but you have to somehow get there and turn the camera on, and then things can happen. So I feel that I was really lucky on this film, regardless if I showed up with with a regular camera or with my iPhone. It is about just showing up, just being there.
Cynthia Biret is a professional filmmaker, editor, producer, videographer and journalist with over 20 years of experience in the film and television industry.