The powerful independent documentary films that Catherine Saalfield Gund ’83 has created over her more than 20 years as a director and producer — films that partner with activists and support movements for social justice — have earned her critical acclaim and Emmy nominations. This spring, they also earned a distinction unique to Concord Academy graduates, the Joan Shaw Herman Award for Distinguished Service. Gund accepted the award in a recorded speech for fellow alumnae/i during her 30th reunion in June and returned to campus on October 18 to speak with CA students, faculty, and staff about her work, her personal journey, and the movements that matter immensely to her. Her talk left the CA community deeply moved and inspired.
Gund’s career was in some ways unexpected. She didn’t attend film school — following her graduation from CA, she instead studied semiotics at Brown University, where her political identity emerged. And as a child, she had no affinity for television. “I’ve despised TV for as long as I can remember,” Gund said in her remarks at CA, recollecting her attempts as a young girl to use candy to bribe her siblings away from the screen and toward more “direct and honest communication.” She began making movies to counter what she didn’t like on television — how the mainstream media discourages critical thinking and perpetuates stereotypes that shape people’s identities and lives.
Gund showed one of her short films advocating for criminal justice system reform.
Using video in support of social causes very personal to her allowed Gund to find her “truest self” as an artist and filmmaker. As a young adult, she devoted herself to understanding and harnessing media’s power. Gund came out as a lesbian her first year of undergraduate study at Brown, just the AIDS crisis was beginning and queer identities were becoming synonymous with HIV/AIDS, then a deadly disease that claimed many of her friends. Video, she said, became her “lifeline.”
After graduating from college, Gund moved to New York to complete the Whitney Independent Study Program and began making videos with DIVA TV (which stood for Damned Interfering Video Activist Television), a group that supported the activism of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). “We were doing civil disobedience one day and filming our friends getting arrested for blocking traffic the next,” she said. “We had decided to film the protests primarily because the mainstream media only showed us scared, dying, lonely and alone, desperate, sad people. And we knew we were more than that. We wanted everyone in ACT UP to know how beautiful, strong, scared, smart, unified, sad, and happy they looked. We couldn’t see that otherwise. Imagine growing up with no mirror.”
“That everyone can make videos now is nothing short of a revolution. I encourage you to use that power intentionally and abundantly.”Focused on media literacy and narrative change, community building and organizing, she also contributed to the Paper Tiger Television collective, a collectively produced weekly public access show. Gund founded the nonprofit Aubin Pictures in 1996. The production company’s first film, directed by Gund, was When Democracy Works (1997), which focused on the rise of the radical religious right in the United States and the successes of progressive grassroots organizers in upholding democratic values.
– Catherine Saalfield Gund ’83
Her recent films have fallen roughly into two categories. Films about strong women — such as Born to Fly (2014), about choreographer Elizabeth Streb and the STREB Extreme Action Company’s fierce art, and Chavela (2017), about iconoclastic Mexican singer Chavela Vargas — Gund characterized as “about bravery and challenging yourself.” Other of her films are made with and intended for organizers and activists — they’re media produced to have an immediate impact.
In addition to the trailer for Born to Fly, Gund showed a video she made for a national racial justice organization, Color of Change, part of the engagement campaign relating to her film Dispatches from Cleveland (2017), which showed activists turning out the vote, following the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, to hold prosecutors accountable for acknowledging racial bias in the criminal justice system.
Gund is currently working to establish an open-access database to collect, contextualize, repurpose, and share media about criminal justice for use by advocates for reform. She is also making a film about The Art for Justice Fund, which is using the power of art to expose the injustices of mass incarceration, call for change, and empower communities to address this crisis.
Gund was also recently inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This year for the first time, she’ll be voting for the Oscars. Following ongoing efforts to diversify, the Academy is still made up of only 39 percent women and 30 percent people of color. “We have a long way to go, but I’m glad to be part of the change,” she said.
Noting that she finished high school without ever having used a computer, Gund highlighted the difference that new, ubiquitous video technology is making for current CA students and the next generation of media producers. “That everyone can make videos now is nothing short of a revolution. I encourage you to use that power intentionally and abundantly,” she said. “The access that you guys have now to film stuff and to represent yourselves is formidable and it’s changing societies not only globally but also locally, within communities, especially as we remain so segregated by race and class.”
Gund encouraged students to vote and to join the community of artists who are advocating for change.
Gund addressed the political moment in which she spoke — following close on the wrenching and divisive Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the #MeToo era and with less than three weeks until the midterm elections. In response to her feelings of being “controlled, constrained, and erased,” she turned to a poem by Adrienne Rich, “The Trees,” which describes trees escaping a house for the forest, and which she read for the assembled crowd.
“To me that says that there is no forest without trees. The community of artists, who are firing on all cylinders, is populating our forest. And it’s been happening for millennia. You do not need to reinvent the wheel,” Gund said.
She finds importance in looking to history for a blueprint for living purposeful lives, instigating change, and making cultural contributions that matter. She recounted the first time she brought her oldest daughter with her to vote. It was 22 years ago, and Gund explained to her newborn the history of the expansion of voting rights and why it mattered for her life. Gund’s children have been a natural part of her activism, and her filmmaking, ever since.
In an emotional closing, Gund urged CA students to register when the time comes, and to vote on behalf of everyone who isn’t able to — “Vote for those who are too young. Vote for those we lost to AIDS. Vote for those who are incarcerated for being black, brown, or poor. Vote because of that poem about the trees. We have to get the trees out of the house, to get our voices heard and our contributions and our leadership recognized, celebrated, and honored.”
She ended her talk by asking everyone in the Performing Arts Center to hold up their arms. “These hands are our branches,” she said, “and I truly believe that all of us together hold the promise of creating a mighty and marvelous forest.”
The Joan Shaw Herman Distinguished Service Award is awarded annually to a Concord Academy alumna or alumnus in recognition of service to others. It is the single award bestowed at Concord Academy, in keeping with the school’s commitment to common trust, which challenges students to balance individual freedom with responsibility and service to a larger community. The first award was bestowed posthumously in 1976 to Joan Shaw Herman ’46, who though paralyzed after contracting polio worked tirelessly to improve the lives of disabled individuals. Over the years, Concord Academy’s Alumnae/i Association has selected many outstanding recipients. Learn more about them and about Herman, an abiding inspiration to the CA community.