A Word With Seeing Allred Co-Director Sophie Sartain

by Cynthia Biret

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.”

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Gloria Allred in a scene from the Netflix documentary Seeing Allred

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?

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Netflix promo image for Seeing Allred

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.

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Gloria Allred (right) with client Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe” in Roe v. Wade), 1989

SARTAIN: Yes, we wanted to tell that story as well. In the second wave of feminism they talk about the woman who 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. . .

To read the rest of this interview, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/seeing-allred-co-director-sophie-sartain/

And please follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/riotmaterial/

RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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