Debra Chasnoff, 60; won Oscar for documentary
When Debra Chasnoff accepted the Academy Award in 1992 for producing the short-subject documentary “Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment,” she first thanked Infact, a Boston-based advocacy organization that was “campaigning to get General Electric and all other companies out of the deadly nuclear weapons industry. Infact supporters all over the world helped us tell the real story about the company that falsely claims it ‘brings good things to life.’ ”
As she stood on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, Ms. Chasnoff continued her speech and made history: “Finally, I’m very grateful to my friends and family, particularly to Kim Klausner, my life partner, who always had faith in me.”
That moment was believed to be the first time a woman thanked a same-sex partner in an Oscar acceptance speech. In an interview with the Globe a few days later, Ms. Chasnoff spoke about the impact of her words. “I knew those would both be political acts: endorsing the boycott and coming out as a lesbian on national television,” she said. “Really quite a lot for 45 seconds, but I pulled it off.”
Ms. Chasnoff, who honed her politics while living in Greater Boston and made documentaries and educational films on topics such as school bullying and same-sex marriage, died in her San Francisco home Nov. 7 of breast cancer. She was 60.
“My politics were shaped here,” she told the Globe in the 1992 interview, when she returned to Boston as “Deadly Deception” was playing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. “My organizing skills were crafted here. My heroes are people who live here and who do the kind of activist political work I believe in.”
She had first become involved with Infact, an organization now called Corporate Accountability, while she was a student at Wellesley College, from which she graduated in 1978. Infact had led a boycott of Nestle Corp. to protest the company’s marketing of infant formula in developing countries.
“I was outraged about the way women were treated and about the way corporations operated with blatant disregard for human life,” Ms. Chasnoff said in 1992. “All those things came together in the Nestle boycott. It was really exciting to find an organization that insisted people didn’t have to be powerless, that behaved as if people could take on big corporations. It taught me that if people work together, you really can make a difference.”
In the mid-1980s, Ms. Chasnoff produced her first film, “Choosing Children,” with Klausner. The documentary profiled several households with same-sex parents who raised children through adoption, foster parenting, previous relationships, and donor insemination. “I think that very first film has done more to change the world than anything else I could possibly do,” Ms. Chasnoff said in a blogtalkradio.com interview in 2013. “It’s no longer assumed you can’t be a parent if you’re gay.”
Klausner and Ms. Chasnoff, who had two sons together, moved from Boston to San Francisco in the mid-1980s. They later separated.
Ms. Chasnoff was president and senior producer at GroundSpark, a San Francisco-based nonprofit company whose Respect for All Project distributes films and companion educational guides for classroom discussion. She also was an owner of New Day Films, another distributor.
Her other films include “Let’s Get Real” (2003), about name calling; “One Wedding and a Revolution” (2004), about the legalization of same-sex marriage; “Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up” (2009), about sexuality conflicts faced by teenagers; and “Celebrating the Life of Del Martin” (2011), about a leading lesbian-rights activist.
Two of her best-known works were “It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School” (1996) and “That’s a Family” (2000). Shown in classrooms, “That’s a Family” introduced youths to diverse relationships, including households headed by single mothers, multiracial parents, and same-sex couples. Conservative activists criticized both films, and a school district banned “That’s a Family” from its third-grade classrooms.
“It’s taken a big toll personally, but I feel like politically it’s been incredibly important and fruitful,” Ms. Chasnoff told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1999. “There isn’t a day that goes by where we don’t get a very moving letter or e-mail or phone call from someone who’s incredibly moved” by the film “It’s Elementary.”
Born in Philadelphia, Ms. Chasnoff was a daughter of Joel Chasnoff, a lawyer who had been a Maryland state legislator, and the former Selina Sue Prosen, a psychologist.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics from Wellesley, Ms. Chasnoff worked at a consulting firm in downtown Boston, where her clients included large telecommunications firms that were involved in promoting nuclear power. Meanwhile, she was a member of the Clamshell Alliance, which organized protests against the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire.
“The same corporations I was working for during the day were the ones that I was organizing against at night,” she told the Globe in 1992.
Her other jobs included working at Dollars and Sense, an economics journal, and on a public affairs program at WBUR-FM. Blending activism with work led to producing her first documentary.
“What makes me different from other filmmakers is that I come out of a movement and the experience of political organizing,” she said in 1992. “Despite the Reagan-Bush years, many activists have maintained their vision of a better world, one we would rather live in. That’s something I got from living here in Boston.”
Ms. Chasnoff, who was known as Chas to friends, was diagnosed with cancer in June 2015. “We had just accepted positions at a university in China, teaching in the journalism department,” Nancy Otto, her wife and partner of 17 years, told The San Francisco Chronicle.
“One of the first things she said was, ‘All right, I’m going to document this whole journey.’ She just filmed every doctor’s appointment,” Otto added.
Ms. Chasnoff’s son Noah told the Chronicle that “when the oncologist would call at 9:30 p.m., someone would take out their cellphone and start filming.”
A collective of her friends plan to shape the footage into a film.
In addition to her wife, son, and father, Ms. Chasnoff leaves her other son, Oscar Klausner; her sister, Lori Langford of Marshall, Va.; and her brother, Jordan of Washington, D.C.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Nov. 28 in the Spirit Rock meditation center in Woodacre, Calif.
Recalling her Academy Award acceptance speech, Ms. Chasnoff told the Globe that the reaction was very positive.
“It’s been so meaningful to me that lots of people have said that my statement on Oscar night was very moving,” she said in 1992. “I think it’s a shock to see a real person say something with real content at an event like the Academy Awards. People think it’s very courageous and brave. But thanking your family is also something that everyone can relate to. It doesn’t seem weird to anybody. I like that. It helps people understand that gay relationships are meaningful and important, too.”
Material from The New York Times was used in this obituary.