Laurie Kahn

Founder, Blueberry Hill Productions

I got into this business in a roundabout way.  I’d always wanted to be writer.  After studying philosophy and economics in college, where I worked dozens of hours each week for the daily paper, I took a year off to work as a reporter in Tucson, Arizona, where I fell in love with big skies and dry heat. I got the film bug when I was in grad school studying philosophy in England where I must have seen five to six films a week. When a good friend made an 8mm film adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant story, I helped out, and also I found some paying work on the side, writing film reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and Time Out.

Early Radio & TV Work

After returning to the US, I worked for NPR’s evening news program All Things Considered in DC, where I discovered how much I enjoy creating stories from sound alone (ah for the days of ¼ inch tape and razorblades!). When I moved to Boston, I did some reporter pieces for ATC but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do long term.  So I tried a variety of things; I edited books for MIT Press, and taught philosophy at Harvard (as a teaching fellow) and Tufts (as a lecturer).When Frontline launched their four-hour series Crisis in Central America (back when Reagan was president and Central America was on the front page of the paper most days), I was in the right place at the right time.  I started work on the series as an unpaid intern, but was promoted to Assistant Producer when a staff member left and a desperate producer needed to fill the empty spot immediately.   From there I moved on to Blackside, to be Senior Series Researcher for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965, a remarkable project that changed the lives of all of us who were involved.  Telling the story of the Civil Right Movement from the perspective of its foot-soldiers as well as its leaders was inspiring, and it convinced me of the power of letting extraordinary ordinary people tell their own stories.  I then returned to WGBH and worked as Senior Associate Producer for The American Experience for five years, where I had the good fortune to work with many excellent independent filmmakers.  I made the big jump and started my own independent company, Blueberry Hill Productions, in 1992.

A Midwife's Tale

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Laurie Kahn on the set of A Midwife's Tale

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Laurie Kahn on the set of A Midwife's Tale

My first independent film, A Midwife’s Tale, was based on the daily diary of 18th century midwife, Martha Ballard and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize-winning book (A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812).  Laurel Ulrich (a fabulous, generous collaborator and also a character in the film) and I worked closely with Dick Rogers, who embraced my ambitious (some would say crazy) project and did a sensitive, beautiful job directing the film.  A Midwife’s Tale begins with two characters: Laurel Ulrich in the 20th century and the massive but cryptic 27-year diary of Martha Ballard, which has survived from the 18th century.  As Laurel pieces together the life and world of Martha Ballard, that world slowly fills in and takes over the film.  In effect, the film is a doc that becomes a drama.  A Midwife’s Tale was the opening show of the 10th season of the PBS series The American Experience in 1998.  It won numerous awards at film festivals, as well as a national Emmy for outstanding non-fiction as part of The American Experience’s 10th season. I’m proud to say the film is now used in classrooms internationally in courses on women’s history, medical history, early American history, obstetrics, and midwifery.

DoHistory.org

When people came up to me after screenings of A Midwife’s Tale at film festivals, universities, and medical group meetings, they frequently asked how they could piece together the lives of ordinary people in their own families and communities.  So Laurel Ulrich and I dreamt up an ambitious and innovative website, DoHistory.org, that immerses its users in the process of piecing together the life of an "ordinary" person in the past. The site has hundreds of primary documents, Ballard’s entire diary (in her handwriting and also transcribed), “doing history” interactives, behind-the-scenes explorations of the making of the book and the film, and a toolkit to launch website users into the archives and into their own communities with tools they need to create their own history projects.  The website has won prizes for both its design and its content since its launch in 2001.

When the website was near completion, I decided I’d like to make a purely documentary film next. Having been in charge of a cast and crew of hundreds on A Midwife’s Tale, I thought that working with a crew of three would be more manageable, especially since I had two small children at the time.  While on a fellowship at the Smithsonian doing research for a series of films about the history of plastic (a quirky but revealing way to look at America in the 20th century), I came across the papers of Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise, and knew I had a film staring me in the face.

Tupperware!

TUPPERWARE! tells the remarkable story of Earl Silas Tupper, an ambitious but reclusive small-town inventor, and Brownie Wise, the self-taught saleswoman who built him an empire out of bowls that burped. To make the film, I interviewed more than 300 people involved with the company in the 1950s and dug up rare footage from basements, attics, and back rooms: color home movies taken by Tupperware Ladies and Jubilee footage shot by Tupperware Home Parties, as well as ads and television excerpts from the period.  The footage is interwoven with fabulous and funny stories told by Tupperware Ladies who witnessed the company’s early years. Making the film was a blast.  My small staff and I would goof around singing fake musical songs suggested by phrases from the interviews, and text in Tupperware’s motivational newsletters.  TUPPERWARE! won the George Foster Peabody Award, and the Banff Festival Rockie prize for best history/biography film of the year; it has been nominated for the prime time Emmy for best direction of a non-fiction program, and the International Documentary Association's prize for the best documentary in a continuing series; and it has been shown at film festivals all over the world, on PBS's series American Experience, and on television networks in more than two dozen countries around the world.

After completing TUPPERWARE!, I developed a series of ten films about extraordinary, little-known women in the American past.  This took me into archives across the country, and The Mercury 13 is the first film in the series that I will make. In addition, the Broadway theater company Jujamcyn has bought the theater rights to my Tupperware documentary, and I will be a consultant on the project as the creative team transforms Earl and Brownie’s story into a Broadway musical.  It will be new territory for me!

The Popular Romance Project & Love Between the Covers

Daniel Brooks, Joseph Friedman, and Laurie Kahn shooting for Love Between the Covers

Daniel Brooks, Joseph Friedman, and Laurie Kahn shooting for Love Between the Covers

In 2010, I dreamt up the Popular Romance Project, which has been an exciting five-year collaboration with the Library of Congress, the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, the Center for History and New Media, and the project’s amazing board of advisors. All of the programs that are part of the Popular Romance Project have exceeded my expectations. PopularRomanceProject.org, which has been active since 2011, has gotten hits from more than 170 countries! The conference What is Love? Romance Fiction in the Digital Age was a huge success at the Library of Congress in February of 2015.  It began with a sneak preview screening of my film Love Between the Covers in the historic Jefferson Building, to a packed hall of 500.  And the next day, there were four panels where top romance authors, well-known scholars looking at love from many disciplines, romance business insiders, and romance readers all took part in thoughtful, fun, groundbreaking conversations about romance! 

I’m on the road a lot these days traveling with Love Between the Covers, taking it to film and book festivals, universities, public libraries, and conferences.  The press we’ve gotten has been glowing, and audiences have loved the film.  

My films -- A Midwife’s Tale, Tupperware! and Love Between the Covers – are very different from one another, but they have all been shaped by my desire to look honestly at communities of women who haven’t been taken seriously (but should be), who deserve to be heard without being mocked. As a documentary filmmaker, I want to bring the lives and work of compelling women to the screen, because any industry dominated by women is typically dismissed as trivial and “merely domestic.”  I want to tell stories that others aren’t telling, and give strong, interesting women a platform from which their voices can be heard.

I love the work I do and I love my two kids. In an effort to broaden my horizons, I’ve joined Boston Harmony, a group that sings world music (from South Africa, Bulgaria, Georgia, shape note songs from the 18th century, etc), and I’m an active member of various communities. I have been on the board of the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian Institution, Commonplace: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, and the Society for Arts in Healthcare (now called the Arts & Health Alliance). I’m Chair of the Board of the Creativity Foundation, and I’m a Resident Scholar at the Brandeis University Women's Studies Research Center.