Sage-old advice tells us, “Never mix personal with professional.”
Director Jen Rainin went an altogether different route, not only choosing to work with her wife, but making a full-length documentary about her.
Ahead of the Curve—currently screening at the Cleveland International Film Festival—chronicles the rise of Curve, the best-selling lesbian lifestyle magazine ever published. The magazine was the brainchild of Franco Stevens, whose incredible journey to launch Curve took place years before she and Rainin married.
“It was a gift to get to immerse myself in her early years and what it was like for her moving through the world, creating change in the early 90s as such a boss-ass-baby dyke,” says Rainin.
The Buckeye Flame spoke with Rainin to get the backstory on this inspiring film.
What is the line that connects your former life as a teacher/literary specialist and your current life as a director of a documentary?
<laughs> Storytelling. That’s the direct through line to pretty much everything that I do. It’s all about storytelling.
And who is Jen Rainin as a storyteller?
I’m a person who cares really deeply about queer women’s community. I have seen how strong the impact of media is when our stories are told, told well, and told authentically. That very much shapes the kinds of stories I want to tell and the way I want to tell them.
I did! Tell our readers about that wonderful film.
That was one of the very first things I ever did in film where I wasn’t in front of the camera. I had started as an actor. But someone came to me with this film Two Spirits about queer culture in native and indigenous communities. I just thought it was a wonderful story that I hadn’t heard. It was something I wanted to learn about and I thought others would want to learn about it too, so I came on as an associate producer. It tickles me to no end to hear that it continues to impact people today. It’s really gratifying and I love that you brought it up!
Let’s dive right into Ahead of the Curve. Let me say two words to you: Directorial. Debut.
<laughs> How about I say two words back at you? COVID. 19. The pandemic had a really big impact on how my debut went out into the world.
Let’s talk about that! I would imagine that this is not exactly how you saw your directorial debut going.
Certainly not. But actually it has worked out really, really well. This film came about because when I married [Franco Stevens], I knew that she had started Curve magazine. And I knew it was a big deal. But I didn’t know the stories really.
And my wife is quite a character and when you see the film you’ll know what I mean. She would tell me things like “At one point I was sued by Catherine Deneuve” or “Nobody would give me any money to start this magazine, so I took out 12 credit cards in one day, cashed them out and went to the racetrack and bet on the horses.”
I knew this would make a wonderful movie, so I started writing a screenplay for a fiction film based on the story. But as I was researching it, I came to realize how few of our stories—queer women’s stories—had been documented well. There just is not a lot of source material out there. As I talked with the people Franco worked with in the early days to start the magazine and started to understand what they did, I knew that there was an imperative for me to tell this as a nonfiction story first.
As you mentioned, it’s my directorial debut. I hadn’t made a film before before in this role. I hadn’t directed anything. Fortunately for me, film is arguably the most collaborative art form. So I was able to tell the story I wanted to create in an engaging enough way with a beautiful community around myself. And I did it in the same way Franco created her magazine. I was able to put together a crew that was entirely composed of women, and mostly queer women and nonbinary people. It’s what Franco did. It worked really well for her and it worked really well for me too.
You did so well to highlight the intergenerational elements of this work and in our LGBTQ+ community. Was that a part of the story you set out to tell?
Very much so. Just in conversation with our friends, I think a lot of people of a certain age and above are feeling a little out of touch with what the younger generation are feeling. There was a period of time that you see in the film where a lot of folks were rebelling against that word “lesbian,” particularly the younger folks who associate it with trans exclusionary radical feminists. With how hard Franco and her team had to fight to put that word “lesbian” on the cover of a magazine in the early 90s, this pushback was a hard thing to hear.
Really what you saw in the film was that intergenerational conversation beginning that we would like to see happen on a larger scale. Franco reached out to a bunch of young folks in the community and said, “Talk to me. What do you need now? Tell me about the words that you use and how you identify.”
There was a lot of learning that happened on our end. But also so much learning that happened with younger folks in the community as well who, through this story, gained some understanding of their lineage, and how they fit into this larger community in a new way. This is something The Curve Foundation—which is very much an outgrowth of the film—seeks to expand upon.
After the credits have rolled and audiences finish viewing this work, what do you want people to take with them?
First of all, I hope everyone feels really good seeing a terrific film that brings up their energy. It’s a fun and crazy ride.
And I would love for people to really feel like they really know this story now, that they understand queer women’s history a little bit better. I want them to know that there’s a resource in Curve and through The Curve Foundation that will continue to serve the community.
And I hope people will watch the film and then feel connected. Whether they are part of our community, or allies, or people had no intention of watching this thing that they happened to watch, there’s inspiration for everyone in seeing the astonishing things that Curve has done and continues to do.