Valerie Kontakos • Director of Queen of the Deuce
“We recreated Chelly Wilson’s view of the second half of the 20th century”
- The Greek-American filmmaker reveals behind-the-scenes details on her charismatic main character’s personality and the controversy she caused within her environment
We spoke to Valerie Kontakos, whose hilarious fourth feature documentary Queen of the Deuce [+see also:
interview: Valerie Kontakos
film profile] tells the story of Greek-Jewish entrepreneur Chelly Wilson, who owned the majority of porn cinemas in New York in the 1970s, with this being just one side of her eclectic and energetic personality. The film has just won the Greek Association of Film Critics (PEKK) Award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival.
Cineuropa: How did you encounter Chelly Wilson and when did you decide to make a film about her?
Valerie Kontakos: My mother knew Chelly because my uncle was a producer in Greece and he used to send her Greek films back in the 60s, which she would show in New York. When I was about sixteen, I wanted to work part-time, so my mum spoke to her. So I started selling tickets in the Tivoli theatre on Sundays when they would show Greek films. The rest of the week it was all porn. I always thought I would make a film about Chelly, but she was such a complicated person that it took me a while to figure out how to approach her story in a way that was true to her personality and that I would also feel comfortable with. I wondered whether portraying her as sharp, funny, and successful would be interesting enough. Over the years, the rest of the world and people’s norms caught up with her, so they could finally embrace her. I started research on the films almost fifteen years ago, then dropped it. Later on, I met Christos Asteriou, our writer and researcher, who was investigating Greek immigrants in the US. He knew about her and that’s how the serious work started, because I felt that the time had come.
It is surprising that you were questioning her value as a character. The film left me with the impression that she must have been very charismatic.
It was more the politics of defending her because, in many people’s eyes, she was this shady, not very respectable person. Some of the people around her did not want to participate. This is happening even now, years after her death.
Her family, however, are proud of her, apparently.
Of course. Her daughters and grandchildren were very cooperative and that’s why the process turned out so wonderfully. They shared their family archive of home movies and photographs.
You did a great job with the script too, because you not only tell the entertaining story of a successful Greek immigrant, you also portray the free-spirited era of 1970s New York.
Well, I worked with Rob Ruzic who is an exceptional editor, and with Erin Chisholm who is an exceptional archivist. Initially, I did a lot of my own research, mostly online, for trailers and pitches in order to raise money. When we started the film’s production, we found many of the porn films that she’d made online. They are not well preserved and are very low quality, so we had to look for the best possible copies. Back then, porn-making was more like community work, it wasn’t that much of an industry, so the films were neglected. Erin also did a fantastic job with the New York footage and that of Greece during the war; she knew where to look for authentic images. We recreated Chelly Wilson’s view of the second half of the 20th century.
Chelly’s personality is inspiring and motivating. How did she impact your personality?
Her independence, self-assuredness, and strength influenced me a lot. For me, as a teenager, it was really important to encounter a woman who could be on her own and manage her life the way she wanted. Later on, I learned that she’s still a leader in schools. Some people are born with certain talents. Her talent must be the ability to stand strong and feel good about herself. Today, when I have to deal with a difficult situation, I find myself wondering: “How would Chelly have approached this?” She taught me that everything is possible.
Did you discover new things about her while making the film?
Oh, yes. By the end of post-production, I saw her in a better light. The whole story about her daughter Polette, whom Chelly hid in Greece within a Christian family during World War II, came to light in the production process. I also found out that she’d offered passports to other Greek Jews who fled the Nazis for the United States. She was very supportive of my mother and of the wider Greek community too. She helped many people on a personal basis, doing whatever she could for everyone in her circle. The irony is that, throughout the research, we met two men in their 70s whom Chelly helped to settle in New York, but they did not want to participate in the movie because of prejudice. This saddens me.
What is the distribution strategy for the film?
We are very lucky because Cinephil from Israel took it on a while ago, and they also are in contact with a distributor in the United States. Next, Queen of the Deuce is going to Tel Aviv and Poland.
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