Two Determined Women's Tale

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tracy Seretean reminisces about picking up the Academy Award for this year's best documentary short, "Big Mama." After mounting those endless, clear, vertigo-inducing steps to the stage of the Shrine Auditorium, Seretean quietly asked presenter Samuel L. Jackson if he could hold the Oscar for her. It was so heavy. She was so nervous. He said no, later explaining, "Do you know how absurd that would look?" The tall, imposing African American actor would be cooling his heels, keeping the award warm for the waifish, white documentarian.

Whether Jackson was right or not about how this might be perceived, one thing is certain: Seretean is colorblind. "Big Mama," (premiering tonight on Cinemax) whose characters are African American, could easily be about race but isn't. It's about family and love. Big Mama is Viola Dees, who, at 89, was attempting to raise her 9-year-old grandson, Walter, in South-Central L.A. Aside from the obvious difference in ages, Viola had to cope with Walter's erratic behavior, the product of his in-utero exposure to crack, his mother's abandonment of him and his father's death. As if this weren't enough, Viola's health was failing and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services was trying to take Walter away from her, reasoning, not so unreasonably, that she was too old to care for him.

Originally, Seretean read about Viola in a Los Angeles Times article detailing her fight to keep Walter.

"I thought, 'Wow, what a woman, she should have legal guardianship of him,' " Seretean says. "I just went to a pay phone and got directory assistance. I got her on the line and took down her address and said, 'Keep up the good fight,' and wrote her a little note and sent her a check."

The check was for $500. That was in January 1996. The following December, Seretean received a singing Christmas card from Viola along with a letter telling her how she and Walter were doing. Seretean went to visit her and was so charmed by her and so impressed by others' response to the article--Viola had a stack of letters from people who'd read it--that she thought: This woman is a film. Never mind that she'd never made one and didn't know the first thing about filmmaking. At the time, Seretean was producing KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" and "The Treatment." Previously she had worked in corporate marketing. She was, as she laughingly concedes, succeeding downward.

Seretean took a monthlong course in filmmaking and shot what she regards as a "horrible" eight-minute short about Viola. Bad as it was, she pursued the story--that is, raised money and found people who knew what they were doing to help her. She subsequently won a grant from Aperture, which gave her a year to turn in a 30-minute film about Viola and Walter.

On the day she was to begin filming, Seretean almost lost her subject. She and her director of photography met Viola at her doctor's office to pick her up, only to learn that she had suffered a heart attack and that she should be taken to a hospital immediately. While suffering chest pains, Viola apologized for not feeling well and gave Seretean permission to begin shooting. So Seretean was there to capture an amazing scene of Walter seeing Viola in the hospital and then shaking his head back and forth, over and over, almost autistically.

As that scene indicates, Walter didn't react well to the prospect of losing Viola. In what the fire department called an accident, he burned down Viola's house. There are scenes of Viola wandering around the ruins, looking dazed. The L.A. Department of Children and Family Services, deciding enough was enough, brought Walter in for psychiatric care, and then he was placed in a long-term facility, the Vista Del Mar Residence and School. From there, he went into foster care, which might seem sensible, given Viola's age, but it hadn't worked very well the first time around--Walter had been in foster care for the first four years of his life.

"When she got him, Viola said he would climb under furniture rather than talk to people and couldn't use a pencil or a fork. He was like a wild child," Seretean says. "Her idea was that he would have trouble attaching to other people when he got older because he'd become used to not becoming attached. So she really fought hard to maintain the connection and have guardianship of him."

Seretean says that though Viola's family welcomed her and her director of photography, others in the community did not. The parishioners at Walter's church plucked at the filmmakers' sleeves while they were shooting Walter lighting candles. They were verbally harassed while filming Viola and Walter on a city bus. When they shot Viola and Walter shopping at a local grocery, the owner called the police, thinking they were doing an expose on tainted meat.

After a year of shooting, Seretean ended up with about 60 hours of footage and the interest of, among others, HBO. The premium cable channel helped her arrange the material (for example, placing some post-heart attack material before the heart attack, to establish their relationship) and whittling it down. Initially, Seretean was not thrilled with the cuts. She envisioned something feature length.

"We carved it up," says Sheila Nevins, executive vice president of original programming at HBO. "My hunch was it didn't hold up for that long, because you started to ask questions in the longer version, like, 'What about the rest of her family?' 'For all the schmaltz, should she really be alone with Walter?' I wanted it to be about love, not about right and wrong."

More pain was to come. The L.A. Department of Children and Family Services took a belated interest in what Seretean had put together. Apparently they felt threatened by it.

"A social worker came to Viola's home, and she was bedridden," Seretean says. "He was like, 'Where's the tape, we want to see the tape,' and he was poking around in other rooms. She says, 'Come back in here, I don't have the tape.' It was like a scare tactic. She called just sobbing."

Viola died in December. Two weeks later, the department sued Seretean, seeking to prevent "Big Mama" from being exhibited, citing Walter's right to privacy, among other issues. The suit scared Seretean. She'd already signed a contract with HBO. It was on the short list of Oscar nominees. Help came from an unexpected quarter.

She was on the phone discussing her troubles with a friend whose husband happened to be a lawyer. He volunteered to file a brief pro bono. The brief, which made the point that Walter's right to privacy was abrogated by all of the publicity attending the original Times story, was entered in January, and the case was thrown out of court. All she had to do now was not trip over those steps at the Shrine and hang on to the Oscar.

As for Walter, he's out of foster care and back at Vista del Mar, where he gets round-the-clock care. He attended the Oscar ceremonies with one of his aunts, though he didn't go to any of the parties. After all, he's still only a boy. It's one of the things that hasn't been taken away from him--that and the memory of Big Mama.

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* "Big Mama" can be seen tonight at 7:30 on Cinemax. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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