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Interview with Jenn Lee Smith and Zandra Vranes, Producers of the film “Jane and Emma”

By Sandra Clark

Jane and Emma, recently released, breathes life into the real-life friendship of Jane Manning and Emma Smith. This important film examines their friendship within its complex matrix of history fraught with racism, the murder of the prophet Joseph, his polygamy and the strain of Emma’s marriage. The deep friendship Jane and Emma, shown in the movie and based from the historical papers each woman left behind, is a telling passage, a cut from the cloth they were made of, a pieced quilt, stitched together through mutual trial and tenderness.  This thoughtfully created, written, and filmed work bears the collaborative efforts of many artists, but ultimately it is Jane’s story that speaks loudest – it is her time to be seen.

I was lucky to see the film in early release, and its message could not be more welcome and needed. It’s listening, leaning into inspiration, and seeing that we are all God’s children, “all alike unto God.” This film is independent with a limited release in Utah. How it performs determines if it will be extended to further dates and locations. And equally important, if more thoughtful films that deserve to be made and stories that need to be told are worth the investment to do so. Please go see it if you’re able. Tell – and take – your sisters, your brothers, your family, and your friends.

Additionally, I was able to speak with Producers Jenn Lee Smith (2017 Segullah Essay Contest Honorable Mention) and Zandra Vranes (Sistas in Zion) a bit about the film, themselves, and their creative work. Enjoy.

Sandra: Tell us a bit about yourself how you came to your creative work.

Jenn Lee: I’m a writer and film producer who focuses on underrepresented stories, particularly of women. On Jane and Emma (released October 12), my roles are as producer and executive producer. Beginning in 2001, with helping to start a micro-loan program for women, I have engaged in gender-balancing work. I’ve worked in nonprofit organizations for women and researched race and gender discourses in religion. A few years ago, I met a filmmaker named Dane Christensen who was planning to make a short documentary on gay male Mormons. I suggested he make one on lesbian Mormons — one of the most marginalized and invisible groups. He agreed and brought me on as producer. I found my passion in the process: collaborating with other creatives to share raw, authentic stories.

Connecting. Bridge-building. Showing that we have more in common with each other than we thought. This is at the heart of Jane and Emma and at the heart of all the films I’ve produced.

Zandra Vranes: Back in 2014 Tamu and I were having a convo about whether or not members of the LDS faith were destined to be friendly with each other or if we could truly be friends. LDS folks often tout, “focus on our similarities,” afraid that our differences will become divisive. Yet as Darius Gray says, “God is the author of diversity.” Therefore, true unity in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is inclusive of our differences. In our conversation, Tamu pointed out Jane Manning James and Emma Hale Smith as examples of women whose similarity in faith allowed them to embrace each other’s distinct lived experience. We wanted to know more about how these women were able to do something in the 1840s that we still struggle to do in 2018, and that sent us down a path of research and then presenting Jane and Emma’s history around the country. When we had an opportunity to pitch a film to Excel and Deseret Book, Jane and Emma the movie began to come to life.

Sandra: Melissa Leilani Larson is listed as the screenwriter of Jane and Emma, the film that brought you all together, but each of you are writers as well. Tell us a bit about your writing and how that informed your work with the new film.

Zandra Vranes: Tamu and I are writing partners and have written books together, so we have a love for collaborative writing. As story writers on the Jane and Emma film, we collaborated with Melissa on the script. Historically the narratives of people of color have not been told from our own voice. We struggle just to “prove” our stories worthy of being told, only to hear, “Great we’ll take it from here!” Our lives are researched and exploited for academia and entertainment and though we are the ones with the lived experience we are too often told that we don’t have the “credentials” to tell our own story.

It was pivotal to me that this would no longer be Jane’s plight. In coming to the table as one of the writers on this project I not only brought my creative skill set, but was asked to provide my real, raw, and vulnerable lived experience as a  Black woman in America, and in the LDS faith. For me, this is an aspect of my life which I guard with veracity and do not trot out as “field research” for projects. I did it for Jane and Emma, because of what their lives have meant in my life, but at times it was excruciating watching as my and other Black lived experiences were prodded and poked and misunderstood during the film-making process. It’s easy to go through that and say this is why it’s better to hide those experiences from the world, but when I think of the women who have gone before me including my own ancestors whose voices from the dust lift me up, I know that because I have been given much I too must give. So I did.

Sandra: I’m so glad, thank you for that. This movie felt so rich in heart, particularly with Jane. I’m certain that’s to your credit, Zandra (and Tamu).  Tell me about your creative process as contributors and how you worked together as a team.

Jenn Lee: Two years prior to my joining the team, Zandra, Tamu, Chantelle, and Mel worked together to develop the script. All contributed to the final story of Jane and Emma. Mel, with her extensive background in writing, put pen to paper. I had read Third Wheel and became an instant fan. Tamu and Zandra had brilliant ideas to inspire plot and cultural nuance. I gave feedback and mostly engaged in the producing side of things.

Zandra Vranes: One of the things that I don’t think that any of us bargained for in this process was how many opportunities we were going to get to actually walk the walk and not just talk the talk. There were times on this project that I felt like Jane, rejected, banned, silenced, and I wondered if her sacrifices had been in vain. That 800-mile journey that Jane and her family walked leaving blood-stained footprints on the ground has garnered new meaning in my life. Not everyone that says they’re with you in the journey truly is, and sometimes you end up traveling with someone completely unexpected. For Tamu, Jenn and I, we had to decide if we were truly in this journey with each other or not. As the three lone producers of color on set, we had to get real with one another. Conversations about what race in the church means for non-Black people of color, and hurts and assumptions that form because brown members are somewhat isolated from each other’s experiences in the church had to be had. They were vulnerable and uncomfortable, but in the end, unifying and faith-affirming.

Sandra: I can’t imagine how challenging it must have been to collaborate with so many passionate and talented creators and what was sacrificed to get to this final, beautifully cut film. In this film, and in your work beyond it, you each focus on bringing Mormons outside of the mainstream into awareness and acceptance. A huge and needed and deeply personal task – what compels you on when you get pushback?

Jenn Lee: What compels me on is what a dear friend said to me once: If we can focus on Christ’s first two commandments — love God and love each other as we love ourselves — that is already a lot and for me, that is all I can do most days. It’s a shared belief among religions of the world. Also, the knowledge that “It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” – 2 Nephi 2:11.

Zandra Vranes: As a Black woman pushback is my regular state of being in this world. There’s nothing about me that society doesn’t push back against my hair is too wild, my voice isn’t soft enough, my presence makes people uncomfortable. I don’t think about pushback because it’s so much a part of my existence. For me, it’s about where God has called each of us to be, and if that answer is the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, then that’s where I will be. And for anyone that feels like they aren’t being included I will make room, because that’s what Christ taught us to do, leave the 99, and go after the one. I’m compelled by the Spirit. That’s what keeps me going.

Sandra: I just appreciate you both so much. You have so much to offer that the church needs. I wish we could all spend more time listening and learning and leaning in together that our differences aren’t meant to be divisions. What advice can you offer others in their quest for understanding and inclusion?

Jenn Lee: Think. Travel. Read. If you’ve never been viciously attacked for something you can’t control such as a disability, skin color, sexual orientation, then your best bet is to find out what that’s like for other people. Traveling opens your eyes to difference and problematizes your sense of what is normal and that is a good thing. There are some great podcasts and words out there from folks who sincerely want to investigate truths. There’s also a lot of divisive information and mindless banter that contribute to communities building higher walls and inventing ways to hurt each other. That’s just heartbreaking. So if you find a source that comes from a place of love and learning, please share widely.

Zandra Vranes: Inclusion is not telling other people’s stories for them, it is making room for them to tell their own story.

Sandra: Amen. Your story is yours- no one else can tell it as you. I also have a few questions from the Segullah Staff if you don’t mind answering those too.

Rosalyn Eves: I always like knowing what surprised people most in the creation of their art: what did they feel or learn that they didn’t expect?

Jenn Lee: I didn’t expect my testimony to grow in the making of Jane and Emma, but it did.

Zandra Vranes: I learned that faith isn’t something that is always gained and maintained passively. Sometimes faith must be fought for.

Sherilyn Olsen: What was it like working with non-LDS actors trying to portray characters who are very sacred to some? How did they navigate some of the more controversial topics with a cast and crew of mixed faith and race?

Jenn Lee: It was a risk, no doubt. Danielle, Emily, and Brad are all phenomenal and seasoned actors who possess the talent and capacity to bring Jane, Emma, and Joseph to life on a big screen. They honor our founders with their performances. Most importantly, they are all intelligent, compassionate humans who navigated the complexity of topics with tenderness, love, professionalism, and dexterity. It was clear they understood the magnitude of the project and threw themselves completely into their roles. Even after 50+ viewings of this film in various forms, I still cry at several scenes and it has largely to do with these gifted performers delivering inspired lines by Melissa Leilani Larson, shot by the incomparable Wes Johnson, directed and edited by the talented Chantelle Squires.

Sandra: Looking forward, what would you like to do creatively that you haven’t yet?

Jenn Lee: Only a few years ago, I discovered what I really want to do with my life and that is to write and share stories of how categories are human constructs that are helpful to an extent but can ultimately ruin us and ruin our planet. I went into geography because I’m also in love with this globe — with its creatures, its landscapes, its variety. In the future, I’d like to help create films that move people into wanting to take better care of our shared home.

Sandra: Thank you so much, Jenn Lee, Zandra, and kudos to all the crew and cast!

About Sandra Clark

Sandra Clark Jergensen's writing (most often about food) has been published in Gastronomica, Apartment Therapy, The Exponent, and at Segullah, where she was once the Editor-in-Chief, and now as Features Editor. Sandra geeked out on food and writing as a master's student food studies at University of Texas, Arlington. She makes her home in California where she runs without shoes, foster parents, teaches cooking, develops recipes, and struggles to take pictures with her eyes open, and sometimes all at the same time. She is the owner and creator of thekitchennatural.com.

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