When “Love and Other Anxieties” had its area premiere at the Independent Film Festival Boston (IFFB) in April, a who’s who of the local film world packed the Somerville Theatre and filled it with thunderous applause. They came in support of the documentary’s first-time director, Lyda Kuth.
The name probably means little to most movie audiences. But for New England documentary filmmakers, it often means the difference between taking a risk or not, between finishing a film or not. Kuth is the executive director of LEF Foundation New England. In its 10 years of funding regional cinema, the organization’s Moving Image Fund has supported 200 independent filmmaker projects with approximately $3.5 million in grants at various phases of production.
“To be a funder and come out to the community with any film felt risky and open to judgment,” says Kuth, 58. “But I ended up making one that would be held up against the best personal documentaries. I had rushes of anxiety. But the urge to express myself creatively was stronger than any of the fears.”
The LEF Foundation, a private endowment with offices in Northern California and Cambridge, created the Moving Image Fund in 2001 to support filmmakers working in narrative, documentary, animation, and experimental genres. Kuth, who was born in Ohio and raised in California, is a member of the family that created the foundation in 1985 with an endowment of $3 million. A Cambridge resident since the early 1980s, she assumed directorship of LEF New England in 1992 after serving as a board member. Kuth was instrumental in establishing the Moving Image Fund, which, she says, grew from her passion for film.
“She single-handedly saved documentary filmmaking in Boston [by] investing in the creative community here. Many filmmakers were leaving for New York,” says Amy Geller, who came on board as producer of Kuth’s film six months before it was finished. “You’d like to have four or five more Lyda Kuths who are invested in the creative community here.”
Geller says it’s no surprise that the community has turned out in force to support Kuth: “People were excited that Lyda made a film. There was an enormous amount of good will toward her that was sincere. We cheered her on, gave her constructive feedback, and came together around her at the IFFB. She was blown away by the love of the crowd. You don’t feel many moments like that.”
Besides working on Kuth’s film, Geller, who recently became artistic director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, is a LEF grant recipient for “Labor of Love,” her latest work in progress. Another LEF beneficiary, Lucia Small, who made the acclaimed 2002 documentary “My Father, the Genius,” edited and co-wrote “Love and Other Anxieties.”
Since its IFFB premiere, Kuth’s film has played numerous festivals and won several awards. It will have its first extended area engagement at the Coolidge Corner Theatre starting Friday. Kuth will attend many of screenings with guests, including “Love and Other Anxieties” cinematographer Mary Jane Doherty, a professor of film at Boston University. For her follow-up project, Kuth says she will serve as producer for Doherty’s documentary in the making, about ballet in Cuba.
Seated in the foundation’s Harvard Square office, Kuth is surrounded by reminders of films that LEF has supported. On the walls are posters for Frederick Wiseman’s “Boxing Gym,” Rob Moss’s “The Same River Twice,” “My Father, the Genius,” Chico Colvard’s “Family Affair.” Hovering over everything is the specter of personal documentary guru Ed Pincus, whose seminal 1977 film, “Life and Other Anxieties,” inspired Kuth’s effort.
“I love memoir. I love the personal documentary. It made it that much more terrifying, insane, and nuts to put my work against the films that I had championed,” says Kuth. “I have deep regard for that work. . . . It took me a while to accept that I was making a personal film but once I knew it, I knew it had to be good. Looking back, I chose Lucia [to edit] for a reason. Lucia raised the bar with me. I learned a lot in our rough-cut screenings with other filmmakers. I had the best of the best to talk with. My mother was hardly in the story in the beginning. I became conscious that I was making an homage.”
It didn’t start that way. Kuth was going to make a short film about love. She shot 20 hours of interviews with friends, young people, and experts such as Stephanie Coontz, author of the 2005 book, “Marriage, A History.” But Kuth was in her early 50s and her only daughter, Lily, was about to depart for college, leaving Kuth and her husband, Kent, in the proverbial empty nest. Her film project began to take a different, more introspective turn. The final result, a 60-minute film that took five years to complete, ends up being about the creative process itself. As she struggled to find her story, Kuth realized she was making a documentary that examined her own ideas of love and romance and ambivalence about her marriage. It takes the trajectory of any creative endeavor: questions, self-doubt, revelations and finally, a kind of acceptance.
“Someone used the term ‘busting out’ — there was part of me struggling to make the film at a midlife moment,” Kuth says. “I’ve been looking at films for 18 years. I wanted to put my hands on it so at the very least I could educate myself. I did that.”
What did she learn? “I learned never to ask [a filmmaker], ‘What’s taking you so long?’” Kuth says. “And I didn’t have to fund-raise. I was privileged. That’s what usually takes years. What took me so long was formulating a narrative. That can’t be rushed. I also learned the key role a producer plays. If I can give filmmakers a gift, it is a stable of producers for independent films. Amy protected the creative space right up to the end.”
Geller says Kuth has long understood what it means to support fledgling film projects. “As a funder, she’s not about ‘here’s a check.’ She supports films through the process as a resource and collaborator, giving incredibly useful feedback. It’s not just about money. She loves documentary and wants to see it thrive.”
Over the past six months, Kuth was surprised to learn how much she liked making the festival rounds and talking about “Love and Other Anxieties” with diverse audiences. “The most gratifying thing was allowing myself to be creative, to make space in my life for this endeavor after years of putting those desires aside. I had to be in my mid-50s to do it,” she says. “In my 50s, I have more ego strength, but I tested it. I questioned whether the attention, positive or negative, could be dislocating. But I have been able to stay grounded. I don’t think I could have managed that until midlife. I am enjoying it.”
For information about “Love and Other Anxieties” screenings with filmmaker Lyda Kuth attending in person, go to www.coolidge.org or call 617-734-2500.