ID Check: Chelsea Spear

The no-talkies
By CAMILLE DODERO  |  June 7, 2006

Medford film director Chelsea Spear, outfitted in a plain cotton dress and a red-knitted cape, talked. Amateur actress and Medford High School sophomore Antonia Pugliese — black sweater over her shoulders, hair pulled back in vestal sweetness, long blue dress à la Little House on the Prairie — mostly fiddled with a string. Camera assistant Jess Schumann kept her arms folded and mostly kept quiet.

The filmmaking trio was at the Diesel Café on a recent Saturday to discuss The Ballad of Burd Janet, Spear’s black-and-white, silent retelling of Tam Lin, a Scottish folktale about a young woman who rescues her love interest from fairies. The Tam Lin story, also the subject of a Fairport Convention song, is traditionally told in much darker detail than most of the stories in Grimm’s Fairy Tales: in some versions, the Tam Lin characters wrestle with issues like premarital sex, human sacrifice, and abortion. The Ballad of Burd Janet doesn’t broach the carnal — after all, Spear’s lead performer, Pugliese, is still in her teens — but it does delve into the world of séances. Spear’s Tam Lin is Tom Lane (Ian Cardoni), a bespectacled boy living in the 1920s who is a ward of his spirit-medium aunt, Fay Stinson (played by Boston Globe reporter Emily Sweeney). And Janet is a working-class girl who rescues him by exposing his finger-wave-wigged aunt’s paranormality as a scam.

Spear has loved the Tam Lin tale since childhood. As an adult, it appeals to her feminist ideals: “It’s one of the few stories where the girl gets to rescue the guy.” In her version, the real protagonist is the heroine — hence the adjusted title — but it’s also a story about feminism and social class. “When I started to write this, Sex and the City was a big deal,” recalls Spear. “I started thinking about those characters as parallel to Clara Bow and the flappers, where it’s great that they’re out and doing a lot of that stuff, but there was also a sense of privilege with that.... There was that contrast between this very frivolous upper-class feminist, quote-unquote girl-power quote-unquote movement, and then there were a lot of women who were still working really terrible jobs and getting treated poorly. And what about their stories?”

Spear grew up in Medford, back when it was strictly a working-class enclave known largely for “big hair, Spandex, and KISS-108,” so she understands the injuries of class. After working in the field of nonprofit arts administration for a while, Spear now earns a living as a dog walker (“It’s nice to be working for some creature that appreciates you”). Since her filmmaking ambitions were awoken about eight years ago, after she saw Hal Hartley’s Trust (“It really moved me, and I wanted to be able to talk back to it”), she has made three short films: "Alphabet" (2002), a silent Super-8 piece about a 12-year-old girl playing the French horn and solving a math problem; "The Hidden" (2003), a five-minute progression about The Odyssey’s Calypso reset in World War II, which Spear now admits was “not particularly good”; and "The Unhappy Medium" (2004), an organ-scored four-minute precursor to The Ballad of Burd Janet, shot two summers ago in Medford.

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