It’s a priceless little tool to be able to take a situation that doesn’t feel good and just take all the weight off of it and bring it into perspective – to laugh about it.
– Teresa Parmely, from “Free to Laugh”
Lara Everly made “Free to Laugh,” one of this year’s LUNAFEST films, as part of a web series distributed by Oprah.com called Gratitude Revealed. “I had complete autonomy as the director/creator of my episode, and my task was to show how creativity helps you be grateful,” the writer, director, and actress explained. “So I wanted to bring creativity to an at-risk community that was starved of creativity.” Lara’s background in comedy set the tone, and she knew immediately which community to highlight – incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. According to a June 2014 Public Policy Institute of California report, California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country, with approximately 65 percent of those who are released from the California State prison system returning in less than one year. “I feel like culturally we’re dancing around the topic with ‘Orange is the New Black’ and ‘Making a Murderer,’ but the authentic voice of female inmates and former inmates is still an underrepresented one,” Lara pointed out.
The setting for “Free to Laugh” is Los Angeles-based Amity Foundation, which housed women recently released from prison on parole or probation and supports marginalized people with community-building services. Lara hired two teachers and together they created a three-day comedy workshop and brought it to Amity to shoot. The version showing in LUNAFEST film festivals runs eight minutes; however, the version playing at other festivals is 15 minutes long. While audiences still embrace the big heartedness of the shorter version, the original film enables the women to share more of their often-heartbreaking life stories.
Gaining the trust of these women to talk about their lives was something that worried Lara the most going into the shoot, especially since she was going to interview them directly. “Who the hell am I to ask them to share their crimes, their childhood, their hopes with me?” she remembered asking herself. A meet-and-greet event prior to shooting served as an ice-breaker. “I also think the teachers, Samantha Jacks and Gerry Katzman, did an incredible job in bonding with the women,” Lara noted. In addition, the acting skill of being a good listener served her well. “I tried really hard to be completely present and compassionate, so they felt comfortable sharing their stories with me. That said, the biggest credit goes to the women in the film who were brave and vulnerable in opening up to us,” she said.
About five of the 19 women in the program are doing “really well,” Lara reported. They have gotten jobs and apartments to call home, and some of them have gotten married. While the rest are struggling and are “still part of a broken system,” according to Lara, the women who have overcome all odds have attended the local film festival screenings and are keeping in touch.
‘Comedy with an underbelly’
As a child, Lara was shy and sensitive. “I discovered early on that my humor and wit was not only a way to entertain, but also a way for me to work through my emotions,” she said. “Comedy has been cathartic in helping me cope with my own sensitivity.” And Lara – plain and simple – likes to make people laugh. She has written and directed across myriad types of media, from short films and television to web series, music videos, and commercials. Whatever the media, her approach remains constant. “The connective tissue is championing women in comedy both behind and in front of the camera,” Lara explained. “I like to straddle intelligence and irreverence. I love dark humor, strong female characters, and raw storytelling – comedy with an underbelly.” The other constants are female friendships, finding your voice, and coming into your own.
Two comedies, in particular, expose that underbelly. In “Timmy,” two competitive sets of parents who are trying to one-up one another at a dinner party are put in their place by the host’s outwardly awkward, late-blooming child. While parents may laugh, for many it’s a knowing or uncomfortable laugh. And – who knew? – in “Trumped,” Lara creates a dystopia in the OBGYN’s patient room that chillingly foretells of the impending war over a woman’s body. Lara got a lot of Facebook views for this get-out-the-vote pro-women’s reproductive rights video. “As I was watching the election, I was also watching the comments pour in [about the video], and a lot were negative from conservatives,” she said. “And while many were low-brow attacks, I felt like, ‘Okay, well, I made something that elicited strong reactions.’ I am glad I’m part of the conversation.”
Ultimately, Lara pointed out, she wants people to feel something. “My job is to create something funny that is true, something authentic to human nature,” she said. “And the goal is people walking away feeling something – happiness, sadness, anger – whatever it may be. I think our only hope is that our work has an impact.”
Speaking out, being disruptive
Another issue Lara has tackled is the gender discrimination that women filmmakers have historically faced in the industry. “I deal with it by writing and by being a part of the genesis of material,” she said. “And by speaking up against sexism in the industry and about offensive stereotypes in stories. But mainly, I deal with it by sticking around, by not going anywhere, even though it can be really uphill as a woman.”
Lara recently contributed her thoughts on the topic for the blog section of a website called Or Die Trying, whose tagline is “Dreams are worth fighting for.” In an excerpt of her blog, Lara talks about gender discrimination: “I witness daily the walls women directors encounter that men don’t. My best weapon to gender disparity is to write and keep sharing the female perspective. There is a systemic lack of trust of women in the film industry. Only 8% of directors are female. I didn’t choose this career because I get a high off the gender imbalance, I chose it for the love of the craft. That said, because female directors are such [a] steep minority and we don’t get equal pay, my job inherently makes me political. As women in film, we have a responsibility to not only hire other talented women but to tell our stories. So much of mainstream media is created under the male gaze. Film and comedy are powerful tools, and with it we can disrupt the way women are seen.”
Lara’s current projects reflect how she’s wielding her weapons of the pen and camera – and humor. As a new mom, she has been doing “mom-centric comedy.” “As an artist, your work is always going to be a reflection of where you are in your life,” said Lara. “For me right now, that’s exploring the joy and upheaval of being a mom.” She is collaborating with Refinery29’s comedy channel RIOT on a series of sketch comedy, which debuted with the release of “Trumped” in early November. The second in the series was released in mid-November. “Baby and Me Yoga,” pokes fun at two mothers whose recent birthing hardships turn a mother/baby yoga class into a wrestling match over mommy righteousness and entitlement, throwing Namaste out the window. The final installment, “Sugar Babies,” was released November 29th.
In addition to the videos, Lara’s pilot presentation, “The Patriettes,” a musical comedy about a mock government summer camp for teenage girls, is currently in post-production. She’s in talks with the California Institute for Women about the CIW Film Project, which mentors work with inmates to help them create a film made inside the women’s prison. And lastly, Lara is writing a feature film, which she is setting her sights on as her “next big venture.”
Note: You can see Lara’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information, click here.