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Filmmaker's Message Transcends Generations

Feature Articles
About "If I Could"

Denver Post
October 17 2001

Baltimore Sun
May 15, 2001

Washington Post
May 17, 2001

Rocky Mountain Independant
November 2001

iCom Film Magazine Production news brief about "If I Could" June 2003

Psychiatric News, newspaper of the American Psychiatric Association, July 9, 2002. Second article


By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 17, 2001

To work as a documentary filmmaker is to walk the thin line between observation and involvement. The best often become so intimately embroiled in their subjects' lives that, in the end, they can't pull away.

Which is exactly what happened between Annapolis filmmaker Patti Obrow White and her first subject: A troubled 13-year-old girl named Tracy. More than two decades after White told Tracy's story on "CBS Reports," where White was a producer, the two women were reunited for White's latest feature-length documentary, "If I Could." The film's theme: "Families destroy themselves, so families have to heal themselves." Narrated by Sally Field, the film will be screened Sunday at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts as a benefit for the YWCA's violence prevention programs and will make its formal debut June 15 at the Seattle International Film Festival.

It's an intergenerational story that begins in 1979, when White began following Tracy, a 13-year-old "throwaway kid" who'd been sexually abused, then gotten involved in drugs and prostitution. Instead of being locked up in juvenile detention, she was sent to a Tucson-based rehabilitation program called VisionQuest -- a wagon-train program meant to instill in its young charges a sense of responsibility. The idea was for them to work through their problems to earn their way home.

"There were 90 kids on the wagon train," White remembers, "and she stood out in a crowd. She was very verbal, very feisty and very angry. She agreed to do this [be a part of the film], but a day or two into the filming, she was screaming at me and putting her hand into the camera. "And I've since had some of the same issues with her son." Tracy's son, James, is the subject of the second film. "I don't think people have really tackled issues that show how people carry these things from generation to generation," White says. "It gets handed down because the traumas" -- in this case, sexual abuse -- "aren't dealt with the right way."

"After Tracy left the program," White continues, "I stayed in touch with her." Tracy and her mother lived in Denver but still struggled with, as White puts it, "poverty issues. They kept getting kicked out of apartments, but she didn't go back to prostitution and she didn't go back to drugs." She did, however, get pregnant at 16. White returned to Denver with "60 Minutes" host Harry Reasoner to do a story on teen prostitution. When they finished filming, White stopped by Tracy's apartment and discovered she was about to give birth.

They went out for dinner, then Tracy felt her first contraction. "I was there for the labor," White says, and after the birth, "I was the first person to hold the baby." Tracy was planning to give up the baby for adoption, but she changed her mind and tore up the papers.

Eight months into raising the girl she called Becky, however, Tracy was collapsing under the responsibility. She called Bob Burton, the VisionQuest founder who'd helped her during the wagon train, and he flew to Tucson to help her put the baby up for adoption. White didn't know it at the time, but she had already started the process of becoming enmeshed in the third act of Tracy's life.

First, though, they had to make it through Act II. After Becky was born, Tracy gave birth to James, now a troubled young man of 14. Next came Holly, 11, then Antonio, 6, and Simon, 3. Two years ago, Burton called White and told her: "You won't believe who I heard from. . . . Tracy! . . . And we're going to take her son -- we're going to take him on scholarship" into the VisionQuest program.

The same problems that affected Tracy's life were now affecting her son's life. Where Tracy accused her father of abusing her, her son accused a friend of his father's of abusing him.Tracy called Burton because she hoped he could save her son the way he'd saved her.

"These are intergenerational family issues," says White, a 52-year-old mother of two whose husband owns a yacht manufacturing firm with offices in Annapolis. "And they were trying to continue the healing of these issues."

White was faced with a huge decision. She believed she had the makings of a great film, but she didn't have the financial backing she needed or the time to find it. But, as White says: "I couldn't duck away from this. It felt like destiny to me."

So she called Tracy and asked, "How would you feel if we took a look at you and your son and helped other families?" After thinking it over a few days, Tracy agreed to give the filmmaker and her crew complete access. The result is "If I Could," which was filmed in real time while also using the CBS footage of Tracy at 13. The final cost: $650,000, only half of which has been underwritten by corporate sponsors. White's crew edited the film in Eastport. Last fall, they were trying to find a narrator and sent it off to Sally Field's representatives. When the actress finally watched the movie, says White, she called back immediately and said: "People have to see this film. People don't understand what families go through."

Adds Lee Anderson, who works with White: "This [film] is edgy and tough and very explosive, and a lot of people are afraid of it because it's very real. It's almost too close to real life." White and her group are now trying to sell the film to Showtime, HBO, PBS, A&E or some other cable network. And even though her second film about Tracy and her family is finished, the filmmaker's involvement in Tracy's life continues.

Two months ago, Burton suddenly called White and said: "Well. You were the first person to hold her, so you can talk to her." On the other end of the line was Rebecca, the child Tracy had given up for adoption 19 years ago. White told her: "Your mother has never not loved you. The only reason she gave you up is because she didn't want you to go through the struggles she went through."

Last month, Tracy and Rebecca were reunited in Tucson. Sitting next to each other, with Rebecca rubbing her mother's shoulders and holding her hand, they watched their own history -- White's film, "If I Could."

"If I Could" will be shown at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase Street, to benefit the Anne Arundel County YWCA's violence prevention programs. The proceeds will also provide a VisionQuest scholarship for one local at-risk youth. Tickets are $50, which includes a catered reception afterward. Call 410-626-7800.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company



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