Jessica Earnshaw on Exploring the Roots of Generational Trauma in “Jacinta”

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After Jessica Earnshaw had put away her still camera to begin filming what would become “Jacinta,” at first thought to be a short following the release of the young woman of its title from prison before the ensuing three-and-a-half years took her in an entirely unexpected direction, she looked back at the photos she had taken for her originally intended series at the Maine Correctional Center when she didn’t have any one subject in mind and found the 26-year-old resurfacing time and again.

“It’s funny because the prison is divided in the women’s center and if you come into the prison, you’re in the pods, which is way more high security, and I had been spending time in the pods photographing this other girl for this idea of this photo project I was going to do,” says Earnshaw, cracking a smile now. “I had been photographing in that pod for a number of days andI think I had a couple words with Jacinta at certain points, but she’s in all these old photos I have in the background, which is so weird now.”

That Jacinta kept coming back around was fitting when the film named after her ended up evolving into one of the most profound films you could see about the cyclical nature of trauma, passed down from one generation to another in the Hunt family. Earnshaw had to know she was onto something when she met Jacinta behind bars only after she met her mother Rosemary in the same facility, making for a remarkable opening which the first-time filmmaker’s debut never recedes from as the mother and daughter play cards and Jacinta blow dries her mother’s hair, and while there surely was a compelling tale in the fact that the two were soon to be separated with Jacinta’s impending release, Earnshaw finds something even more fascinating as she follows the younger Hunt out of prison, trying separately to establish some stability in her life and getting caught up in the same travails that landed her in prison to begin with and bedeviled her mother before in a small town rife with drug addiction.

Jacinta has the motivation to maintain her sobriety, having a 10-year-old daughter Caylynn that she can’t bear to disappoint, not to mention her father Rick, but as Earnshaw depicts so insightfully with her subject’s boundless generosity to share her story before the camera, the hold that both chemical dependency and the weight of history has on her are seemingly insurmountable as temptation lies around every turn and with no strong foundation of trust to begin with, even amongst a family that clearly cares for one another, any progress towards a regular life can be destroyed far easier than it can be built back up. Although its premiere was a casualty of the COVID-cancelled Tribeca Film Fest of 2020, the film is one of the best nonfiction works of recent memory and true to its subject, has shown great resilience as it has become a favorite on the festival circuit in the months since. With “Jacinta” arriving on Hulu and in theaters in Los Angeles and New York this weekend, Earnshaw graciously took the time to talk about the dedication required to tell the multigenerational story and showing great compassion in making the film with her subject, as well as how her background in still photography informed her work as a filmmaker and taking advantage of the exciting opportunities of working in a different medium.

This started out as a photography project, so what sold you on making a full-fledged film?

I was in the prison photographing aging in prison, so I was photographing an elderly woman named Nora and she was friends with Rosemary, and I ended up spending a lot of time with her. Rosemary told me she had a daughter, Jacinta, and I had been thinking about doing like a photo essay of women in prison who have traumatic childhoods and also addiction because one woman very early on said to me, “We’ll never deal with addiction until we deal with the trauma at the root of it.” So I thought, I’ll record everyone on a Zoom recorder and for whatever reason with Jacinta and Rosemary, instead of the Zoom Recorder, I filmed them with my camera. The first interview with them, I was just like “Whoa,” their dynamic was so interesting to me and they were finishing each other’s sentences. They seemed like best friends and I wanted to understand how Jacinta followed in Rosemary’s footsteps.

I met Jacinta three months before Jacinta’s release and I asked Jacinta if I could follow her until her release. At that point, I [thought], this is going to be way better as an interview instead of photos, but [I asked] “Can I follow you in the release and maybe it’ll be a short film.” I just thought I could follow her into the sober house because in Maine at the time, if you came out of a nine-month sentence, you would lose your medical care, so I was trying to figure out in my mind, like how does a person like Jacinta enter back into society fighting a heroin addiction with proper medical care? I knew she wanted to reconnect with her daughter, so I was just like “Okay, I’ll follow her out,” and she was so positive about it, like “I’ll do it this time.” I never intended to follow her in her addiction and I didn’t know her very well at the time and naively thought that I wouldn’t be around for it.

I’ve heard you ruined quite a few shots by having long conversations with Jacinta as you were filming to make sure she was comfortable with having the cameras on – did an increasing consciousness of what you could edit out make you more comfortable with filming?

Yeah, I knew from the beginning I was going to be making a lot of the difficult decisions in the edit because really early on, I was turning my camera off in certain moments, but then I would miss moments that were insignificant to me at the time, but that I only realized were later significant later when I knew the family better, so coming into this story with this verite style of filmmaking and not knowing the family that well, I was just like, I need to film everything because I don’t know them well enough and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I knew that I wanted to make sure that Jacinta could stand by the film at the end of the day and feel comfortable and feel it represented her family, and I knew I was going to show her the film before we locked picture on it.

From the get go, the addiction stuff was not of interest to me, even though it is a story about addiction. It was really about her psychological journey and her past tied into this and if we’re looking into addiction, I saw it more as the smoke, but where is the fire? That’s why I felt comfortable filming all these moments because it also made me more comfortable not to turn the camera off and then have to make decisions in the moment rather than just having it on. I think it also makes people more comfortable if you’re always there filming.

Was it much of an adjustment coming from photography into filmmaking?

It was pretty similar in the embedding and just the amount of time you really need to spend with people and the patience within that, and also not really knowing necessarily where the story was going. The difference is I was a solo person filming this, so I had to learn on the fly to get exterior shots and George [O’Donnell], my editor, was incredible because following Jacinta, we would sometimes go into places so quickly and then leave that I wasn’t able to get full coverage, so he was able to build something off of [what was] not necessarily a lot of shots sometimes. That’s such a different thing than photography because you just need one photo of a situation in photography.

From what I understand you were also doing quite a few interviews of people from Jacinta’s past just as background such as classmates that I imagine she may not have a recollection of now. What was it like getting to know her that way?

Yeah, early on when I was filming her, I was like, “Are you okay with me really digging into your history to get a better understanding for myself?” And she said, “Yeah, do whatever you want,” and it wasn’t necessarily the very beginning [of the process]. I was just really following her journey, but after a year in, I really started digging hard because I found everyone’s version and timelines of the past weren’t matching, like Rick’s memory on things and then Rosemary and Jacinta’s were all scattered. So I just wanted to understand the timeline and how things happened, even though that didn’t specifically make the film.

I did enough research to know what was accurate and what maybe wasn’t, and I was trying to be as accurate as possible in the way that we would be pulling back the onion, so you gradually learn more and more about her childhood and what happened. But a lot of people were saying various things had happened and we weren’t really sure if other people’s voices would come in [when] ultimately it’s Jacinta’s story and her point of view, so it was important it was the main people around her, not just people who were too far around the fringes of her life.

Something that is so brilliant about the film is how it only gradually introduces the people in her life, not all at once, but in such a way where you really understand their impact on her and vice versa. Was that tricky?

She already had a really natural journey as far as the film went. As far as Philip, the family friend that came in, he comes in really at that point in her journey when she does first use [again] and we brought Todd in when we did because we really wanted to start understanding Jacinta’s [role] within her family. But for the most part, I feel like if you take those three-and-a-half years that I filmed this and really packed it down, people are coming in at their appropriate times that they came in when I was following her.

Formally, was it exciting to work with the various elements of filmmaking? Music seems like it must’ve been a really interesting part of this.

So exciting. I absolutely loved being in the edit and working on the music with Gil [Talmi], our composer. It was really important to me that the music was as subtle as possible because this is such an intense emotional story that I just didn’t want anything be manipulative. I really wanted people to feel like they were being moved by Jacinta and Caylynn and Rick and that balance was so easy with Gil, being very careful to [avoid] using the sound like in other films when it came to addiction. We tried not to use guitars, and we had these themes where different music would come in depending on what the theme was in the moment — there’s a piano that comes in that represents Jacinta and Caylynn’s relationship, so all that was pretty thought out.

I wanted to ask about Caylynn – from what I’ve heard, you met her at 10, but only started speaking to her at 12. What was it like building that relationship?

Yeah, the first scenes of Caylynn are the first day I met her when she’s in the car and because I really didn’t know where this film was going the first year, especially when Jacinta was in her addiction, I was really concerned about Caylynn’s participation in the film. I didn’t want to include her, especially when we were deep in the addition. I also just didn’t know what I would say to her grandparents and I wanted to be very truthful in my intention with Caylynn. I just didn’t know what it was, so that’s part of the reason I waited [to involve her in the film] and when she was a little older, we could talk about it, and once we did talk about what the film was going to be and [ask] did she want to be a part of that, Caylynn definitely did. She really felt like if this could help her mom, she was all in and she’s got a pretty strong perspective. Even now, she’s seen the film at this point and she really wants to be part of the film’s journey along with Jacinta. She’s really proud of it.

It appears that Jacinta is all in too, as far as accompanying a tour of community centers in the film. What’s it like involving her in all of this?

It’s so fun and so rewarding. Jacinta and Rick came to our Tribeca premiere in June, which was really fun and we’re doing a whole social impact campaign with it, building it based on what Jacinta wants. She talks to our social impact producer once a week and she’s so passionate about children and trying to end the cycle with kids, and I always felt like following Jacinta and Caylynn, I was looking back in time. When I watch Caylynn, it’s like “Oh, that’s like Jacinta” because they are so similar, so it’s been incredible to have Jactina so part of this process and really also embrace her story. In some ways, I think it’s been healing for her to talk about it, answer questions about her life and really use her experience to help other people and then also for her and her family members to watch the film together and have conversations that they haven’t really had, and for Caylynn to see the film and feel like she understands her mother’s story a little better.

What’s all this been like for you, especially when making a feature is such a huge endeavor and you didn’t necessarily know that’s what this would be?

I’m so proud of the film because I loved it so much. That’s part of the reason I kept going, not knowing where it was going because I was just obsessed personally with all the questions the film poses and then I really just care about the family. What’s most rewarding is when someone sees the film and they tell me all the things that they got from it and that was my experience from following the story, literally on the ground. I was learning so much from Jacinta and Rosemary and Rick and Caylynn that [to have] that mirrored back at me from people who watch the film, I’m just really proud of it and proud of the way Jacinta has been able to take her story [back]. It’s her story and her film and she can run with it as well.