Lyon has pursued stories to the farthest reaches of the world, but her latest documentary finds her on the home front. Mr. Dreyfuss Goes to Washington, which airs Nov. 26 at 9 p.m. on the History Channel, features actor and activist Richard Dreyfuss as an enthusiastic narrator and tour guide for the history of the monuments and memorials of the nation's capital.
But Lyon got her rebellious start early in her career as part of a new generation of women filmmakers in the late 1970s. "We were in the first wave of women breaking down doors. It was so clear that things were really askew for women, and they were only going to change if people were willing to change."
To that end, Lyon co-founded Women in Film, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the status of women in film, video and other screen-based media, in the early '80s. "Women in Film is a great networking group now, but at the point ... it was definitely a political act," she says.
The seeds for Lyon's filmmaking career first were sown at Washington University "at the tail end of the Vietnam War, when women's issues really started breaking," Lyon recalls. While at school she discovered Tillie Olsen's novel Tell Me a Riddle about the relationship between a dying woman and her husband of 40 years. Inspired to turn the book into a film, she spent five years making it happen. As a 19-year-old with more chutzpah than experience, she got Francis Ford Coppola's address (illegally), paid him an unannounced visit while he was working on post-production of Apocalypse Now, and begged for a day of his time and a peek at his Rolodex. He agreed.
In 1980, Lyon and the all-woman company Godmother Productions developed Riddle, directed by Lee Grant and starring Melvyn Douglas in his final role. "In making an independently financed film of more than $1 million with a woman director, we were the third in film history. Mary Pickford was the first, and Ida Lupino the second. There were firsts all over for us; [it was] the first film directed by a woman in competition at Cannes."
After producing Riddle and the comedy The Oklahoma City Dolls, Lyon turned her attention to the subject of child sexual abuse with Men Who Molest, which attracted the attention of Ted Turner. "In 1985, Ted called me to make films for his first nonprofit company, the Better World Society. 'Yew know actors, yew know the community, obviously yew can git to the heart of the matter,'" she says in imitation of Turner's drawl. "We went around the world doing international co-productions, before that became a standard procedure."
Lyon's career afforded her the privilege to interview some of the world's great leaders and thinkers, and she cites the Dalai Lama and NPR's Nina Totenberg as two of her favorites. But she says she's not just drawn to the glamour jobs. "Nothing thrills me more like getting into a messy archive of footage and going to work."
That talent got her a call from the daughter of Orson Welles in the late 1980s. "She was trying to find the lost footage of Othello, and we went on a search through every receipt and scrap of information we could track down, until we finally found what we were looking for in a storage facility in Indiana." As one of the producers of Othello's restoration, Lyon says, "It was a wonderful and interesting project, but we still had to raise a lot of money for it, because no one thought it would be commercial."
Now an independent documentary producer, assistant professor at Reinhardt College in Waleska and president of Lioness Media Arts, Lyon continues her muckraking ways. "My goal is not Ted Koppel's goal. He's neutral. I'm not neutral. I have a position, although I'll back it up with 59 sources. I want to wrap my brain around an issue and help other people get the picture."
She knows full well that Mr. Dreyfuss Goes to Washington will be seen by a different country than the one that existed when she completed the film at Crawford Communications, an Atlanta post-production and telecommunications facility. "We finished it Sept. 9 and sent it to A&E. They received the master tapes at their headquarters in New York on the 10th, and the morning of the 11th they'd just e-mailed me to tell me they'd gotten it when they had to evacuate the building because of the attacks on the World Trade Center."
Lyon lost the husband of a close friend in the attack on the Pentagon. A few days later, while editing Washington down to a 35-minute version for use in classrooms, "I got to the part where we talk about the importance of the Lincoln Memorial and I started crying. We're in a whole different ballgame than when we made the film. We feel fragile now, but our democracy has always been fragile, we just haven't been aware of it. The film reminds us how precious and sacred what we have is, how we'll get through and survive now as we did in the Civil War, and as we'll do again."
She believes Mr. Dreyfuss Goes to Washington has an immediacy of its own. "This film has cutting-edge scholarship about [city planner] Pierre L'Enfant, and we are the maiden voyage for television for the story of the new FDR memorial. No matter what had or had not happened Sept. 11, we were overdue as Americans to look at and appreciate the incredible gift we have in our democracy."
Not that she's subscribes to "My country, right or wrong" -- quite the opposite. "This is my most patriotic film, but I'm not a big run-up-the-American-flag girl. In the very best sense of the word, I'm patriotic because I call 'em as I see 'em, and we're not the good guy in many cases. I use to the fullest extent possible my freedom of speech. In many issues that I've worked on and been a part of -- whether on the environment vs. development, the black market for plutonium, or our support of terrifying regimes during the Cold War -- I've been willing to include the United States in those that I've criticized. Which is not to say that I've singled us out."
Having researched national monuments, she has thoughts about how to memorialize the thousands who lost their lives Sept. 11. "I think we'll be looking to places like the Holocaust museum in Washington, where they took actual imagery of death camps to create its ambience," she says. "I think we'll have to work with some of the literal pieces of the building. There are ways to use architecture and landscaping to remember and recreate the emotional impact of what happened."
Lyon's work shows that such tributes can be accomplished with celluloid and videotape as well.
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