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J.R. Hardman: “Muslims in Love”

As part of Reenactress, I’ve been able to work with museums like the New-York Historical Society to put on educational programs for children and adults to help them learn more about women’s history. I’ve given talks to elementary, high school, and university classes, both in person and on Zoom. I’ve contributed to an educational unit […]

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As part of Reenactress, I’ve been able to work with museums like the New-York Historical Society to put on educational programs for children and adults to help them learn more about women’s history. I’ve given talks to elementary, high school, and university classes, both in person and on Zoom. I’ve contributed to an educational unit for a non-profit organization called History UnErased that focuses on diversity and inclusion of LGBTQ+ history in K-12 classrooms. During the pandemic, I’m hoping to do more online educational programming for kids about women’s history to assist teachers in their herculean effort of adapting their curricula to the online environment.


As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing J.R. Hardman.

J.R. Hardman is an emerging documentary filmmaker and women’s history advocate currently working on her first feature-length film, Reenactress. She has produced and directed several short documentaries and fiction films including “Muslims in Love,” which premiered at the 2009 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival; “The Coach,” which screened as part of the 2011 Arnold Sports Film Festival; and “Touching,” which was selected for the 25th Anniversary Outfest: Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival. She previously served as Operations Manager for Sundance Institute Artist Programs in Park City, Utah, and Senior Tour Manager for Campus Movie Fest (CMF), a film competition for university students. She is a graduate of the Cinema/Television Production program at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.


Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

Since I was a young child, I have always been inspired by stories of people who broke out of the social confines of their era and did unexpected, transgressive, sometimes even forbidden, things. Seeing someone do something that other people told them was impossible made me want to do “impossible” things, too. As a teenage girl, I was cast in the role of an old man in a play, and, to this day, it’s one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had. I learned to embody the character of someone who I thought was completely contradictory to myself, and found commonality with that character. I have always wanted to understand the emotions, longings, and motivations of other people, which is what led me to making documentary films. People tell you the strangest, most wonderful tales about themselves and really let you into their lives when you put a camera in front of them. I also knew that there have never been as many women in filmmaking as men, and it was important to me to transgress that boundary and do something that people told me I couldn’t. I wanted to prove those naysayers wrong!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

When I was working as a producer on a documentary about Muslim-American courtship practices called “Muslims in Love,” we interviewed a married couple that we were considering including in our film. The couple talked to us for hours, and told us a story of how the wife’s parents had arranged her marriage to another man, but she defied them and secretly began dating the man who eventually became her husband behind her family’s back. Eventually, her family did accept her now husband, and they planned a spectacular week-long wedding in traditional Indian style, which they meticulously documented with hours of video footage. The family asked the couple never to tell their siblings or cousins how they got together because it might encourage dating (which is not an acceptable practice) among their younger, impressionable relatives. The director of our documentary ended up cutting this couple’s story from the final version of the film, and when the other producer and I went to return the video tapes of the couple’s wedding footage, they revealed to us that they just found out they were pregnant! They told us, a documentary crew full of strangers, that they were expecting their first child, before they told anyone else in their family. It was a truly remarkable experience to be the first people included in this couple’s good news. I’ve always wished that story had ended up in our documentary instead of on the cutting room floor, but I’m glad I could tell it here.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

As part of the Reenactress project, I had the opportunity to document the 150th Anniversary of Queen Street Baptist Church, a historically black church in Virginia, which was founded by self-emancipated people after they escaped slavery. The Church was founded on the site of a contraband camp, which is what a refugee camp for formerly enslaved people was called because those people were considered confiscated to be property rather than human beings. Until I started working on this project, I’d never even heard the word “contraband.” I never knew about the history of war refugees in the United States. I couldn’t believe we don’t talk about this history more! The story of the founding of this church was told to me by Yvette Blake, a retired National Guardswoman, who reenacts as a United States Colored Troops soldier in Virginia. She’s fantastically knowledgeable about this history. I greatly appreciated her sharing that research and knowledge with me.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

At the moment, I’m working on a film called Reenactress, which will tell the story of present-day women who crossdress as soldiers in American Civil War reenactments, commemorating the real women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War on both the Federal and Confederate sides of the conflict.

This project has been a labor of love for the past several years as I have traveled across the country meeting with reenactors, historians, genealogists, and even a living relative of a real woman soldier all starting with the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the Civil War, which was commemorated between 2011 and 2015.

Our goal with this project is to inspire people to learn more about the untold histories of America and the important part that folks like them played in building the United States. This is essential because the way we tell stories and who gets to document history is such an important social justice issue. Women’s History, LGBTQ+ History, Black History, Indigenous History, and the histories of non-white immigrants are rich enough to span years of instruction, but often get relegated to only their prescribed month of the year, and sometimes only to one or two days in our educational system. We want to inspire educators and historians to continue to change that.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

My current documentary project, Reenactress, is about the history of women soldiers who disguised themselves as men to serve in the Civil War.

One of the people I’m most excited to be able to document further is Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a poor farm girl from upstate New York, who enlisted in the Union Army, fought in several battles in the Red River Campaign, and made it all the way to New Orleans on foot before dying of dysentery. She’s buried under her male alias, Lyons Wakeman. Her true identity was unknown by the public until the 1990’s, and I want to tell that story to a broader part of the public.

I’m also interested in the story of Julia Wilbur and her documentation of a woman named Maria Lewis. Julia Wilbur was a Quaker abolitionist who was working in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, helping with the resettlement of formerly enslaved people who had escaped or had been liberated from slavery. She came across a young, Black girl named Maria Lewis, who served for 18 months with the 8th New York Cavalry, disguised as a white boy. The historians I’m working with for Reenactress, including Dr. Anita L. Henderson, are trying to find evidence of Maria Lewis’s origins and what eventually happened to her, but so far have been unable to locate any further records apart from the documentation of Lewis in Julia Wilbur’s diary. I’m really hoping they uncover more.

I’m also extremely inspired by the women who served more recently in our military and have made it to prominent national positions like Senator Tammy Duckworth and Senate Candidate MJ Hegar, who are both Purple Heart recipients even though the Combat Exclusion Policy barring women from combat roles was still in place during the time they served. How someone can get injured in battle and that’s not considered “combat” is absolutely baffling to me! It’s extremely important that women like Senator Duckworth and Candidate Hegar tell their stories because when someone hears the word “veteran,” they should never jump to the conclusion that the veteran is a man. Women have served in every single American conflict, and they are just as much veterans as their male counterparts.

As a filmmaker, I’m inspired by Alice Guy-Blaché, the first woman director and film studio owner, who worked in the silent film era. There’s a great documentary about her called Be Natural, which came out just a couple of years ago. I highly recommend that film, and I wish I could have worked on it!

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

As part of Reenactress, I’ve been able to work with museums like the New-York Historical Society to put on educational programs for children and adults to help them learn more about women’s history. I’ve given talks to elementary, high school, and university classes, both in person and on Zoom. I’ve contributed to an educational unit for a non-profit organization called History UnErased that focuses on diversity and inclusion of LGBTQ+ history in K-12 classrooms. During the pandemic, I’m hoping to do more online educational programming for kids about women’s history to assist teachers in their herculean effort of adapting their curricula to the online environment.

I would like, one day, for the role of women in our history classrooms to be just as prominent as the role of men. I would like to see Women’s History Month being extended to Women’s History Semester, Women’s History Year, or beyond. The same goes for inclusion of Black History, Indigenous History, LGBTQ+ History, Immigrant History, and the history of other traditionally marginalized groups. I want to see this history be the main text of our history books, not just the footnotes.

Women should also be featured just as prominently on U.S. currency, as well as in statues and memorials, as men are, and the more people understand that women’s history is fully half of U.S. History, the more they will want to talk about them.

This inclusion will also empower young girls and transgender kids to see themselves as having infinite possibilities for career paths and ways to have a positive impact on society.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

There have been many new and reinvigorating “Aha moments” along the way for me, but the first moment I knew I had to create Reenactress was when I went to a Civil War reenactment, and a unit commander told me, “We don’t have women in our unit.” Being rejected in that way was very motivating. I don’t like being told what I can and cannot do because of my gender.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

A couple of years ago, I got an email from an elementary school teacher in Alaska, which I have never had the chance to visit, who asked me to speak to her 5th Graders on Zoom. That was extremely powerful and so much fun!

I’ve also been in communication with a few folks who have come out as transgender in the recent past, and told me that learning about our project was very validating and encouraging for them.

I’m hoping getting stories like these out to more people will continue to have that empowering and inspiring effect.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Individuals can come forward with their stories, their histories, and their research. If someone has a relative who was a woman soldier, we want to know about it! If someone has had an experience as a woman in military service and wants to talk about it, we’d love to listen.

Teachers, museums, universities, or other organizations can reach out to us if they’re looking for material for their classes. We’re happy to provide educational content by presenting to classrooms, answering questions, sending suggestions of books to read, sending video clips, and more.

Individuals and groups can support Reenactress with tax-deductible donations through our website and our Fiscal Sponsor, Filmmakers Collaborative, which supports our project and many other films working to make a difference for a variety of social issues.

We are also seeking additional funding from foundations, government entities, or broadcasters, and we’d love to partner with such organizations to finish our film and get the word out about this important topic.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. “You don’t need anybody’s permission to make a film.” You just need to show up with your camera and a microphone and start talking to people. The only way to make a film is to make a film. You don’t need the fanciest equipment. You don’t need the most money. You just need an idea and some way, any way, to record it.
  2. “You can get in touch with just about anyone, but they won’t always want to talk to you.” I’d been idolizing a speaker who I wanted to interview for my film for years. I thought they were the person with the most authoritative voice on a subject I really wanted to talk about in my film. When I finally pinned them down and got into the same room with them, they told me that the Civil War was a “toxic” subject to discuss, and they weren’t interested in helping with my project. It was a pretty tough blow. I felt totally dismissed and down that day. Sometimes people just don’t get what you’re trying to do, but that doesn’t mean you give up.
  3. “Never assume anything.” A historian who I thought would be totally against my project because they had written what I thought was kind of a sexist book, turned out to be someone who assisted me with research, talked to me for hours, connected me to other people, and even wrote me a letter of recommendation for a grant.
  4. “Everyone has a story to tell.” This is something I learned from working with Campus Movie Fest, a film competition for college students, which I helped to run for a little over eight years. It has proven true over and over again. I’ve seen so many people who never thought they could create a film or never thought their film would mean anything to anyone else find something they were burning to say, and be able to express it. I just spoke to a woman I barely knew last week, and she told me that she recently discovered her family is related to Alexander Hamilton!
  5. “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.” I believe romance novelist Nora Roberts said this originally, and it’s so true. I have at times been terrified to contact someone to ask them for help, but even after I receive ten “no” answers, one “yes” answer is still worth asking.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

You can make a difference, and even a small difference can have a ripple effect that turns it into a big difference. It’s that chain reaction like in the African American proverb that says, “Each one teach one.” If each person passes along their wisdom to the next person, we will all come out wiser.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I want to collaborate with the author and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates. He wrote an article for the Atlantic’s THE CIVIL WAR ISSUE called “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” several years back, and I would love to talk to him about that article and how more Black Civil War History can be uncovered and shared. The amazing history of self-emancipation is still so underrepresented.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A lesson I think is so important in life is to listen, ask questions, and then listen some more. It’s relevant to me as a documentary filmmaker and activist for women’s history because there are so many brilliant people in all walks of life, and the only way to become any more knowledgeable is to stop talking and listen more.

How can our readers follow you online?

Here’s a link to our website:

https://www.reenactress.com/

Here’s a link to our donation page:

https://filmmakerscollab.networkforgood.com/projects/26803-filmmakers-collaborative-current-projects-reenactress

We’re on Twitter and Instagram @reenactress

And our Facebook page is:

https://www.facebook.com/reenactress/

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

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