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Tribeca Women Directors: Meet Olivia Klaus (Life After Manson)

Women and Hollywood By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood April 17, 2014 at 11:00AM

"The Manson Family story has been told numerous times over the last four decades, to an exhausting degree. [It] became clear that we had to focus solely on Patricia Krenwinkel, allowing the project be told in her voice... where she went wrong, who she was, and who she has become."
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Still from "Life After Manson"
Still from "Life After Manson"

Olivia Klaus is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work has been seen on networks like CNN, HLN, Discovery, MTV and The History Channel. Sin by Silence, her 2009 directorial debut, went on to win numerous film festival and advocacy awards, and was highlighted by People Magazine, NPR, HLN, and The Insider before being broadcast on Investigation Discovery to over 2.5 million viewers. 

The film even went on to inspire new legislation in California. The "Sin by Silence Bills," AB 593 and AB 1593, were signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2012 to improve the paths to freedom for nearly 7,000 currently incarcerated domestic violence victims who have spent decades behind bars. (Press materials)

The 25-minute "Life After Manson" will debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18.

 Please give us your description of the film playing.

"Life After Manson" is an intimate portrait of one of the world's most infamous crimes and one of Charles Manson's most devoted followers, Patricia Krenwinkel. For the first time ever, we take viewers behind the mystery of the Manson Family story to reveal the journey of what caused a young girl to recklessly run away from home and toward destruction. Now 67-years-old and still behind bars, Patricia opens up to reveal a woman haunted by suffering she caused over four decades ago, her arduous effort to evaluate the cost of her choices, and the possibility of self-forgiveness.

What drew you to this story?

I vividly remember the first evening I nervously entered the California Institution for Women as a volunteer back in 2001. I recall one of the first women I met who introduced herself as "Krenny." I slowly got to know this quiet woman, and while she seemed to be unsure of herself, there were simultaneous signs of strength. I was intrigued by what might be behind the walls that Krenny built around herself as protection.

It wasn't until about five years into my volunteer role at the prison that I finally got my answers as to who this woman really was. While interviewing another inmate, I was shocked when she mentioned Krenny's full name: Patricia Krenwinkel.

After some time, Krenny approached me, requesting to go on camera with her story. As she stood in front of that camera, it was as if the filming process became a therapeutic purge of her soul. I guess it was because of the years I had known her up to this point, that she finally felt she could trust someone with her deepest, darkest secrets.

That afternoon while filming, I heard Krenny's story and "got it." I understood how a young girl, so beaten down physically, emotionally, and sexually, got caught in the spell of madman. As a woman my heart broke for her, and I understood how at such a young, impressionable age the simplest choices can lead someone down a slippery slope. From that moment on, I began to better understand the dividing line between who she was and who she had become. The tragedy whose name was Patricia Krenwinkel and the prison mentor, Krenny, who struggles on a daily basis to be the woman she is today.

What was the biggest challenge?

Our biggest challenge was to create something different. The Manson Family story has been told numerous times over the last four decades, to an exhausting degree. Our challenge became telling a story that no one had heard before. But how do you create another Charles Manson story that's not particularly about Manson?

The vision became clear that we had to focus solely on Patricia Krenwinkel, allowing the project to be told in her voice, as if she were reading her diary to the world. We could have easily taken this storyline down the road of having experts discussing the outcomes of cults, brainwashing, the crimes, etc. But that would would have taken away from the exclusivity of just letting Patricia finally share her story for the first time -- where she went wrong, who she was, and who she has become.  

While the public flashes back to imagery of the "X" carved on her forehead, we had not been given the opportunity to understand Patricia in today's world, even from behind prison walls. There was something beautiful, and also tragic, in the simplicity of just letting the present carry the project. Hopefully, by telling this infamous story from such a fresh angle, we have somewhat demystified the Manson stigma to allow the audience an opportunity to reflect on the fragile identity of a broken woman and the possibility of rehabilitation.  

What advice do you have for other female directors?

Years ago, my grandmother sent me a quote she cut out of a magazine. Since then, I have always carried it in my wallet as a way to keep me moving forward on this journey as a female filmmaker. With so many distractions, hurdles, and obstacles in the way of trying to tell the stories we want to share with the world, it's amazing how a single sentence can put things into perspective: "Your whole life comes alive when you have the courage to follow your dream and to do what is right over what is easy."

What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?

I think because of my past work, most people assume that each project I create has an agenda to change the world. With my previous film, that was very true. Sin by Silence inspired a fierce movement to help incarcerated domestic violence survivors that went from grassroots to changing laws in California that help freedom become a reality for those who have spent decades behind bars.

With "Life After Manson," I felt the story drawing me away from my advocacy role and pushing me toward the simplicity of just sharing a story. A story that everyone knows about, but has never truly heard. A tragedy that everyone can actually learn something from, and a conversation that will hopefully carry on even days after seeing the film. Not every documentary has to change the world -- it's sometimes the quiet ones that speak the loudest.

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

I think the changing sphere of distribution is exciting! There are so many hidden gems of film projects that never see daylight that now have an opportunity to shine through online distribution, streaming platforms, and digital downloads. Yet with that accessibility also comes a larger strain to make sure your film reaches the right audiences that align with your story, instead of just casting a large net out into the sea.  

Name your favorite women directed film and why.

I love the work of Sofia Coppola. She has such a distinct voice, and each of her films have their own poetic tempo. She's not afraid to go toward an unorthodox road or style to create her vision. From The Virgin Suicides to Marie Antoinette, she creates films that have their own two legs to stand on.

This article is related to: Tribeca Film Festival, Women Directors, Interviews, Documentary, Life After Manson, Olivia Klaus