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Nancy Buirski: The Loving Story

In the 1960s, opposition to the marriage of Mildred and Richard Loving led to the end of anti-miscegenation laws across the U.S. It's quite a love story.

The Loving Story
Photo credit: Grey Villey


Tribeca: Tell us a little about The Loving Story.

Nancy Buirski: The Loving Story is first of all a love story. It’s a story of a modest, humble couple who triumph over all odds to reverse decades-old anti-miscegenation/anti-interracial marriage sentiments and bigotry. The Lovings were a couple who wanted the right to love whom they wanted to love, and felt that it was important for other people to have that same right.


Tribeca: Mildred Loving is such a quietly elegant figure in the film. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.


Nancy Buirski: We were lucky to have such a compelling protagonist in a true story. She really was elegant, but so humble, too—a filmmaker’s dream.


Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? Did you know the family?


Nancy Buirski: No, I actually read Mildred Loving’s obituary in 2008, and I was so struck by not only her elegance and her beauty, but by the story itself. Having worked at film festivals—I founded the Full Frame Festival in North Carolina and ran it for 10 years—I had the opportunity to look at so many docs about social justice and civil rights, but I had not come across this story in documentary form. I was pretty sure it had not been told. So really, it was just recognizing a beautiful and dramatic story that I felt needed to be told. Recognizing the importance of the story, I felt I had a responsibility to tell it.


Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from The Loving Story? Do you intend the parallels between their story and the current fight for gay marriage rights?


Nancy Buirski: I certainly did. Theirs is a universal story, one that is not just about civil rights but about human rights. It’s important for people to appreciate how people have struggled over decades and centuries to achieve what we take for granted today. When we look at marriage issues today, it pertains to one very important community. We forget that others were precluded from mixed marriage not very long ago—it’s striking that this happened only 45 years ago.


And we forget that these kinds of struggles can rear their ugly heads again—it’s important to cherish these rights, but also to honor the people who brought the changes about. Sometimes these people are unexpected heroes—Mildred and Richard Loving did not set out to change the world, not activists raising banners for universal change. They just wanted to go home and live with their family in Virginia.


Through this film we’re also reminded that even if you don’t feel you can effect change, you really can—everybody can.


Tribeca: How did you get to know Peggy Loving, Mildred and Richard’s daughter?


Nancy Buirski: I was introduced to her in 2009 by one of the lawyers who fought for her parents, Bernie Cohen.


He warned me she was reluctant to do interviews, and she wouldn’t like to be on camera. She inherited her mother’s humility—in her later years, Mildred had avoided interviews because she didn’t feel like she deserved to be the center of attention; she almost always refused. Peggy appreciated that, and she felt like if her mother hadn’t wanted to be interviewed, neither shoud she. She eventually grew to trust us and is a great supporter of this film.


Nancy Buirski


Tribeca: Where did you get the video footage from the 60s?


Nancy Buirski: The key black and white video of the Loving family came from a woman named Hope Ryden. I only found her because the lawyers—in 2009, 45 years later!—remembered Hope being there during the case, remembered her name, and connected me with her. I hadn’t heard of her, but it turned out she made films with D.A. Pennebaker, who is not only a good friend of mine, but is also an advisor to this film. (His foundation is our fiscal sponsor.) So I called Penny and Chris Hegedus and they put me in touch with Hope.


When I called Hope, at first she wasn’t sure what she had done with the footage, but she said, “Hold on a minute.” And she found it—it had been in her closet for 44 years. I told her I wanted to license the film, and we had Magno pick it up that day. They transferred it, and it turned out to be beautiful black and white 16mm footage.


Tribeca: Why hadn’t she done anything with the footage?


Nancy Buirski: She had hoped to do a doc… but she got involved in other stories. A bigger question is: Why didn’t the Lovings get more attention at the time?


Tribeca: Why do you think that is?


Nancy Buirski: I think three reasons:


1. I think there were other major civil rights events taking place around that time, and they overtook the interracial marriage issue: voting rights, school desegregation was still a hot-button issue… the fact that a mixed race couple couldn’t marry wasn’t the highest priority. That didn’t mean that interracial couples weren’t living together.


Tribeca: Kind of like gay marriage today.


Nancy Buirski: Yes. 2. The Lovings didn’t want a lot of attention. They weren’t seeking out a public response to what they were doing—it was even the opposite.


And 3. Anything that deals with sex and the bedroom was hard for people in the mid-60s to deal with. It’s easier to deal with voting rights.


Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production? Sounds like maybe the thing with Hope Ryden.


Nancy Buirski: Certainly that. But there’s another thing. In the summer of 2009… I was then working with Elisabeth Haviland James (producer and editor)… and she and I went to shoot in Virginia. We got to know Peggy and her family; I think she grew to trust us.


The following year we came back with a trailer that we’d cut for the film, and we showed it to Peggy and members of the community. They were very moved. All along, we had been asking about family photographs, but Peggy had never made any promises. “They are around here somewhere…” But when we screened the trailer, she said, “I did bring some pictures.”


Well, she comes back with 60 large proofs of the pictures taken by Grey Villet, 5 or 6 of which had been published in Life Magazine. We were awestruck, almost in tears, when Peggy gave them to us. We have since dealt with Grey Villet’s widow Barbara, who represents his estate, and are using them in the film.


And to top it all off, there is even more footage from Hope Ryden—she had shot hours of footage for a 4-5 minute story on ABC News. So most of our footage and photographs are seen for the first time in this film. It’s been a wonderful journey—unearthing this amazing footage and intimate photographs of the Lovings and their family.


Tribeca: After years on the other side, this is your first time making a film. What’s the biggest thing you learned while making The Loving Story?


Nancy Buirski: It’s really hard. There are a lot of things that can come together, as when the stars align, and you feel blessed to be working with wonderful people—both on the filmmaking end and as your subjects. People think that since technology has made part of this work easier, that it’s easy to make a film. But it takes a lot of hard work and determination. And without great partners, a film will not get made, no matter how strong your vision. Don’t underestimate the need for a vision, a commitment to how the story will be told. In that respect, it’s not that different from starting and running a film festival. It’s the vision, but it’s also the collaboration with other talented people that make it happen. I will always be grateful for working with Elisabeth Haviland James especially—it been a labor of love.


Also, to get the support of a company like HBO Documentary Films is amazing and gratifying. They can push you in directions you might not have thought to go, but they also completely respect your vision.


Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers? Particularly women filmmakers?


Nancy Buirski: It’s too easy to accept no for an answer, whenever you find yourself up against something that seems difficult; you can talk yourself out of it. You really have to be stubborn and passionate and determined, and you can’t take no for an answer. I have learned this, not only in filmmaking—I was a photographer, I’ve published a book, I started Full Frame. Sometimes it doesn’t occur to you, but you have to feel like you can do it. If you say you can, then you will do it. I don’t mean to oversimplify the obstacles and all the other things that go into making a film. But without this determination, none of the rest will make it happen.


Tribeca: What are your hopes for The Loving Story at Tribeca?


Nancy Buirski: There are a lot of stories that are political, and the filmmakers clearly delineate issues; it’s clear where they stand. In our case, we felt that the Lovings’ story needed to be rescued. It had been buried for years, and our goal was to not make a political film as such. We believed the issues would emerge naturally and organically if we just told their story honestly. Our panel will then allow us to deal with the issues the film doesn’t deal with explicitly.


In a case where you don’t have a film that explicitly posits a point of view, issues can come out in a gentle way, allowing us to get more diverse groups together for a conversation—that’s what I hope will happen.


Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?


Nancy Buirski: The funny thing is that I would have dinner with the person I just saw today: Martin Scorsese. He has been a friend for many years, and he inspires me more than any other filmmaker I know. I am always re-inspired and excited by my conversations with him—I can never have enough dinners with Marty!


Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?


Nancy Buirski: Right now, I am reading the James Kaplan book on Sinatra. And I just saw the new Jane Eyre, which I thought was beautiful—I highly recommend that. My favorite film in the last few years might surprise you: the Edith Piaf biopic, La Vie en Rose.


Tribeca: What makes The Loving Story a Tribeca must-see?


Nancy Buirski: It’s obviously a story about human rights and social justice, but it’s also a profound and powerful love story, one most people will never forget.


The Loving Story screens throughout the Festival, but on Wednesday, April 27, at 5:30 pm, the film will be followed by a Tribeca Talks panel:


Tribeca Talks After the Movie (4/27 only): Join director Nancy Buirski, attorney Phil Hirschkop, who represented the Lovings, Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU, and others as they discuss this landmark case and the current issues surrounding race and marriage equality.


Browse all this year's Festival films in the 2011 Film Guide.


Meet more Faces of the Festival.


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