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Film: The Accidental Documentarian

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Robin Greenspun
Photography by Aaron Mayes

Pulling stories from serendipitous encounters, Robin Greenspun’s films — including the new one debuting at the Las Vegas Film Festival — shed light on unseen lives

“I have basically lucked into every film that I’ve made,” says Robin Greenspun, whose latest documentary, The Zen Speaker: Breaking the Silence, premieres at this year’s Las Vegas Film Festival. A longtime fixture in local media and philanthropy, Greenspun embarked on a career as a documentary filmmaker with 2015’s Semicolon: The Adventures of Ostomy Girl, telling the story of Dana Marshall-Bernstein’s struggle with Crohn’s disease. That film came about after a discussion between Greenspun and her friend Cari Marshall, Dana’s mother, who made an offhand comment about following her daughter around with a camera. Greenspun turned it into a feature film. The impetus for Greenspun’s second film, 2017’s Are You Really My Friend?, was a similarly serendipitous conversation with artist Tanja Hollander, whose Facebook-inspired photo series is the film’s main focus. “You open your mouth at the right or wrong time, depending on how you look at it, and that’s what happens,” Greenspun says. “All of a sudden you’re making documentaries.”

Greenspun was inspired to work on The Zen Speaker after seeing local political activist and business consultant Amy Ayoub speak at a luncheon, discussing her experiences as a victim of sex trafficking nearly 40 years ago. “To say the least, I was blown away,” Greenspun says. “I just felt like this is a story that people need to hear about. Because when you think of people being trafficked, Amy Ayoub is not the person you think of.” Greenspun reached out to Ayoub on Facebook, and the two started discussing the possibility of turning Ayoub’s story into a documentary film. “It took us a long time to really talk through the direction that this film was going to go in,” Greenspun says. “And it took a long time for her to decide how much of her story she wanted to tell.”

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Working with her regular co-producer and editor Chris DeFranco, Greenspun crafted a film that addresses a larger social issue through one woman’s story. “It’s a personal story about Amy, and about what she has been able to do to find her purpose in life in spite of everything that she went through,” Greenspun says. She hopes that, like Semicolon (which received extensive distribution on the educational circuit), The Zen Speaker can open audience’s eyes about a subject many people are not aware of. “There are wonderful opportunities for people to see this, to really get an understanding (that) this is not just something that happens overseas,” she says.

The film’s journey will begin at LVFF, where it will join another documentary with local connections, Sundance favorite Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary. This year the festival returns to venues Downtown, along with the Brenden Theatres at the Palms, and once again partners with CineVegas, the now-dormant festival that Greenspun helped found and run from 1998 to 2009. The CineVegas name has been incorporated as a brand within LVFF, and former CineVegas programmer Mike Plante serves as LVFF’s captain of strategy, while Greenspun remains CineVegas president. “It’s this ethereal thing out there that people still talk about fondly,” she says of CineVegas. “We’re dedicated to not letting that go away.”

After three films, Greenspun is firmly established as a documentarian, and whether she’ll luck into any more stories, she’s deeply satisfied with the ones she’s told so far. “The women involved in the films that I’ve been making are so empowering,” she says. “Their bravery for allowing me to tell their stories (is) pretty astonishing. I don’t know if I could do it with my own story, but I am very grateful that they allow me to do it with theirs.”

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