“The History of Armed Women Is the History of American Women”: Cathryne Czubek’s A Girl and a Gun

Cathryne Czubek spent 10 years working on her documentary A Girl and a Gun, which opened last week in select theaters across the country. (It’s also available on demand and through iTunes.) In the film, she examines how firearms affect women’s lives, speaking to one of the first female combat Marines, a young woman who was paralyzed by a stray bullet, a ponytailed world champion skeet shooter, and more. I sat down to talk with her recently.

EG: How did you come to the world of women and guns as a topic?

CZ: It started in 2001. I was working at the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport, and I met a group of girls, between the ages of 10 and 14, who shot at a local gun club. It was my first experience around guns and gun culture.  To be at a shooting range and to see these young girls juxtaposed with .22 rifles—most of them had borrowed them from their granddad—was visually captivating. As I got to know them they said, if you’re photographing us you need to know what this feels like, and I couldn’t argue. So, I actually shot my first gun alongside a 10-year-old girl. I grew up in Michigan and my family is now in the South, both very gun friendly areas with a lot of hunting, but it just wasn’t part of my life.

When I got back to New York, I began photographing a women’s league that meets at Westside Rifle Range in Chelsea.  I met women from all backgrounds, women from all over the country. They came to that meeting with such different attitudes, reasons and motivations for what they wanted to get out of it, ranging from a teacher who wanted to know how to use a gun in case she ever confronted one in the classroom, to women who just wanted to check off the bucket list, and women who were terrified and wanted to confront that fear. I photographed them for a few years, and then in 2005 I started capturing the stories in video because the complexity of the women’s experiences was far beyond what a photograph or series of images could capture.

EG: What were you hoping to uncover in making a documentary about guns?

CZ:  I never set out with a thesis, as some documentary filmmakers will, because I was discovering this part of American culture for the first time myself. And most documentaries on gun issues focus on politics, so by focusing on how women relate to guns and gun culture, I found a very different and surprising portrait.

EG:  How did you choose the women to document for the film?

CZ:  I was looking for women who’d had different relationship with guns at different points in their lives.  For Crissy [Springer, a nurse from Tennessee whose brother was shot and killed in a childhood hunting accident], it meant being with her family hunting. Then with her brother it was the object that took her brother’s life. Now it’s a way for her to spend time with her family outdoors, and importantly it’s about reconnecting with her brother.

Then I chose Karen Copeland [who is serving a life sentence in Louisiana for murdering her girlfriend] because I wanted to hear from a woman who had shot and killed someone. She was so honest and emotional about it, even 13 years after the incident.

And in the case of Robin Nantanel, a Tai-Chi instructor in her 40s who carries a concealed handgun in her purse for self-defense, she was recovering from a recent incident where an ex-boyfriend broke into and vandalized her house. Even though she was trained in martial arts, she was absolutely terrified, and I wanted to portray that level of fear she was working through.

EG:  Did Robin ever try to get a restraining order against her ex rather than buy a gun?

CZ: Robin did not get a restraining order for fear of enraging her ex-boyfriend further.

An alarming aspect about restraining orders is that many women who actually obtain one end up being attacked again or even killed, because something has to happen to get the order. The police can’t come and protect you without an incident. So that’s a major societal failure, in my opinion—you either have nothing, or you can buy a gun. When you’re living with that level of fear, you feel like you have no one to protect you but yourself.

EG:  What was it like for you as a filmmaker, spending time with the women you document?

CZ: It’s always a gift to be invited into someone’s life to tell their story, and here even more so because I was staying with them in their homes for budget reasons and living in a constant, crazy state of always observing. So I would come home utterly exhausted, and I came to care about every single one of them deeply. Even if they didn’t agree with what I think and what I believe, I felt like I found myself in all of their stories. The process definitely changed me. It opened me up.

EG:  What surprised you most along the way? 

CZ: Well, frequently I’d talk to someone about guns for four or five hours and I’d feel like I’d gotten it, and I’d think, “That’s it! Now I understand what it’s all about!”  Then I’d meet the next person and they’d have a totally different story.

One moment that surprised me was talking to Violet Blue, who said, “You move through the world as a target when you are female, period.  We see and hear things differently because we are constantly concerned about our well-being and our safety.  And those women who aren’t come from a very privileged status.”

“You move through the world as a target when you are female, period.”

That made sense to me, and shifted my approach in the film distinctly.  I personally don’t wake up day to day with fear. However, if you live in an area plagued with crime, or way out in a rural area where there’s nobody around, or like Sarah McKinley, who lives in Oklahoma and it’s going to take 30 minutes for the cops to get there, then that’s a very different reality.

And I certainly loved hearing from a few young girls how they figured out from a very early age that the only way to bond with their dads was to take up skeet shooting.

The process also changed the way I think about the gun control debate, which is usually yes-or-no, black-and-white. But for me to see people fall in between those extremes, drawing their own lines and figuring out what worked for them—it made the discussion feel much less like such a dead-end debate.

EG:  The Newtown shooting occurred when you were finished with the film.  Did the event impact your decisions in the documentary in any way?

CZ:  Everyone who I’ve talked to recently about my film has said to me, “Great timing.”  But sadly, I feel like the entire eight years I was working on the film has been the right timing for the conversation: Virginia Tech, Columbine, Newtown, Aurora, Colorado. We didn’t address those specific incidences because it would have taken the film in an entirely different direction, but I’m not indifferent. There’s certainly a lot in the film pointing to all of the issues that are coming up in the headlines.

EG: So it was a conscious decision to step away from politics in the film?

CZ:  When we were screening rough cuts, we realized that whenever we included overtly political scenes, audience members were pulled straight out of the film into their own points of view on gun issues. By focusing on the normal, everyday stories of average women, people began to relate in an entirely different way, coming away with a much bigger, more complex conversation about the issues raised in the film.

EG:  How did you support yourself and finance the film throughout that decade of work?

CZ: I was photo editor at a magazine for a long time, so I had a day job.  For the last few years I’ve been freelance producing.

The financing for the film was definitely difficult.  The New York State Council for the Arts came on board, but it was tough to get funding because I think grant boards wanted the film to have a specific statement on the gun debate. We did a Kickstarter campaign, and a lot went on my credit cards.  Every vacation and holiday I spent with one of the characters in their homes.  My editor, Amanda Hughes, also works during the day, so we did all our editing after hours.

EG:  How did you have the juice to sustain a decade-long project?  Did you ever have moments of wanting to walk away?

CZ:  I never felt like abandoning it. I was constantly working on it in every spare moment.  I feel like I have a big gap in my social life for a few years.

As the documentary evolved, it became clear to me that my footage was illuminating a fresh way of looking at contemporary women’s issues. After one of our rough-cut screenings, a woman came up to me and said, “I’ve never talked about vulnerability.  Ever. Outside of a specific rape defense class.” That’s what resonates, certainly for women, but also in a different way for men. There are men who tell me, “I never knew this is what it’s like for a woman on a daily basis, to walk down the street and feel potential dangers, or to get cat-calls.” Generally, the ideas and experience men have in regards to self-defense are very different.

EG:  How did shooting the film change your initial thoughts and beliefs about the issues you’re dealing with?

CZ:  I didn’t even realize that I had these general stereotypes about what gun culture was about and who “gun people” were, but I did—I always thought gun owners came from a rural setting, people who had always grown up around them. But a lot of the people I interviewed came to guns later in life. And it was surprising that many women came to guns on their own, because I had always assumed that women who owned guns were introduced to them by a male figure in their lives.

It was also really interesting that I saw politics disappear. Guns are not precisely a Democrat/ Republican issue. There are so many distinct political beliefs represented in this film, if not necessarily overtly.

EG:  What other specific women’s issues did examining guns illuminate?

CZ: Well, you take these two potent symbols—woman and gun—and it electrifies this other issue of how we, and women specifically, negotiate power.  You see this in the brief historical timeline in the film from Laura Browder, who says, “The history of armed women is the history of American women.” For instance, in the 1960s, some women were arming themselves in the Black Panthers and other radical movements while others were marching for peace.  It opens up the issue about the instinctual nature of women that has always rattled feminism: are women different from men and more peaceful?  Or are we just as fierce and warlike?

The human side of the gun debate is really important. It’s easy to sit in Manhattan or your own little bubble in this place of privilege and criticize from afar.  But there are people like Crissy, who is a hunter and who lives in an area where everyone has guns. People have been critical of her teaching her son to shoot, especially after what happened with her brother, but her reasoning is that he is going to experience guns in other households, so she wants to control that experience and make sure he understands the consequences and power of the gun. As a sidenote, I’ve also never seen a family that has spent so much time together, and in an age where most kids are glued to video games, it’s hard to argue against their hunting pastime. It never hurts to look at how other people experience life in the world, and guns are a huge part of American culture.

Photos courtesy Cathryne Czubek/First Run Features.

Elizabeth Greenwood is at work on a nonfiction book about people who have faked their own deaths entitled PLAYING DEAD: The Art and Folly of Pseudocide, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. Follow her on Twitter at @lizgreenwood4u.

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