Winter 2020


Greenfield's Keen Eye

For the photographer, documentarian and commercials director, a picture is worth a thousand words

By Kathy A. McDonald

Director Lauren Greenfield (Photo: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Contour RA)

Lauren Greenfield is known for her investigative portraits exposing the desultory lives of the young and affluent, subjects she has photographed for books and a 25-year retrospective exhibition at L.A.'s Annenberg Space for Photography and chronicled in documentaries. She is also an in-demand commercials director, one with a viral ad to her credit, 2014's #LikeAGirl campaign for the feminine hygiene brand Always.

The social impact of the attendant #LikeA Girl Super Bowl spot, with 218 million views and 2 billion impressions, demonstrably changed the way the phrase is used to describe empowerment, says Greenfield. And while the campaign earned her recognition among her peers—a DGA Commercial Award nomination, as well as Cannes Lions and Emmy Awards—Greenfield used her increased profile to confront gender disparity. "I realized there was a representation problem in commercials: less than 8% of commercial directors are women while 86% of consumer decisions are made by women," she says.

She is working toward leveling the playing field via Girl Culture Films, the year-old commercial production company she launched with partner Frank Evers, which actively promotes female directors and mentors women helmers who are crossing over from narrative and nonfiction into the commercials realm. "I was tired of people on the agency side saying there are no great women directors," she says. To that end, Girl Culture Films' roster of recruits already shows considerable promise, including Greenfield's fellow documentarians Marina Zenovich and Amy Berg, as well as narrative feature standouts Catherine Hardwicke and Karyn Kusama.

"I think it's important to have female voices in that space because a lot of my work has been about the negative power of advertising and how influential it is," she says. As a commercials director, Greenfield balances expressing her own vision with that of the agency. Casting is one highly visible way to influence a campaign and reverse negative stereotypes. (The #LikeAGirl campaign used non-athletes with real body types.) "Whether it's more diversity, more roles for women or showing realistic bodies, there are so many ways women and diverse voices bring something different to commercials that has a positive impact in our world," she finds.

Optics have driven Greenfield's work from the beginning. Prior to directing her first feature documentary, Thin (2006), she spent years in the field as a photojournalist on assignment for Time, Newsweek and other publications. Her images are studied, sure and revealing.

Greenfield approaches her photography and documentaries with the anticipation of discovery. "I have a feeling and I'm drawn to a world," she explains. The narrative premise is general at first: Thin (2006) examined women and girls with eating disorders; The Queen of Versailles (2012) focused on a couple building the biggest house in America, and received a DGA Award nomination; and Generation Wealth (2018) explored the American Dream. "In all of my films," she explains, "there have been discoveries that have completely changed the direction of the film that I could not have expected in the beginning."

Greenfield films Imelda Marcos on her own lavish turf for the documentary The Kingmaker. (Photo: Courtesy Lauren Greenfield)

Her latest documentary, The Kingmaker, revolves around in-depth interviews with former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos and makes considerable use of archival footage. The feature was sparked by an article she read on a neglected African wild animal park established by Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos on Calauit Island, in the Philippines archipelago. As filming progressed and current events eclipsed the past, the film evolved into an investigative piece. "I realized pretty soon into interviewing her that she is constantly rewriting history with myths and untruths about the Marcos era," Greenfield explains. "Journalistically I felt compelled to tell the audience what the truth was and why she was doing this and how dangerous it was."

With Greenfield's background in visual anthropology and photojournalism, she is a firm advocate for subjective investigation. "There's nothing that is truly objective," she says. "As a documentarian I believe in embedding, researching, spending a lot of time to understand the story and the characters as much as you can. And show the truth as you see it and be honest about the filter through which you are seeing it." Generation Wealth, which grew out of her Annenberg exhibition, includes the characters she photographed, as well as herself and her family. The documentary is highly subjective as it surveys her personal journey and her conflicts as a working parent, often far from home on assignment.

From her initial interview with Imelda Marcos and throughout The Kingmaker, Greenfield demonstrates Marcos' attempts to rewrite history and whitewash the ills of her late husband's regime. Greenfield's process of total immersion into the topic, coupled with time, resulted in a completely different film than she pitched. "I spent five years on this, and the story I started out telling didn't turn out to be the important story," she says. With the election of strong man Rodrigo Duterte to the Philippines' presidency, she found her ending—once she confirmed a clear-cut link between the Marcos family and Duterte. "I went back and reedited and restructured the movie to tell that story," she says.

For the Emmy-nominated Thin, Greenfield was able to obtain unprecedented and lengthy access to anorexia patients while chronicling their treatment and care. "We really had to continually negotiate our access and also make (the patients) feel safe," she says. The subjects' participation was essential for the audience to understand a disease that's often shrouded in secrecy and cloaked in shame.

Her still compositions and on-camera interview style were influenced by famed photographer Arnold Newman's theory of the environmental portrait, in which a subject's surroundings tells as much about them as the subject itself.

In The Kingmaker, Marcos is pointing to framed portraits of herself with world leaders. One falls to the ground, the glass shatters, and a servant comes to clean it up. For Greenfield, the scene demonstrated a deep conceit and confirmed Marcos' single-mindedness to tell her story no matter what is happening around her.

Explains Greenfield: "Often the nonverbal moments tell you as much as what they actually say."

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