A documentary filmmaker gets the real story behind the Reed Sisters of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Nanstad Tracks Down 'Sisters' Act

Michael Fox January 12, 2011

You’ve never heard of the Reed Sisters, a family musical act that performed on a Tennessee cable-access station from 1976-84. Rachel Nanstad watched them as a kid growing up in Oak Ridge, and spent more than a few idle moments in the next quarter century wondering what happened to them. About three years ago, a childhood friend found some video of the gals on YouTube. “Seeing the clip was like a distant moment that had never happened,” Nanstad says. Well, that’s how a lot of us feel about the ’70s and ’80s. But Nanstad, still fascinated by the odd tension and attraction the Reed Sisters emitted, picked up the trail.

“When I was little, I would see them on the show and I’d say, ‘That’s not a Southern accent. What is that?’” Nanstad relates. “We could never identify where they were from. Finding out that they were originally from the Philippines was revelatory, in a certain way. There was a slight awkwardness to their whole presence anyway that I was trying to figure out. They lived in Hawaii for a while but their mother wanted them to be American, so she changed all their names and made them wear long sleeves so their skin wouldn’t get dark and make them sound like they had American accents. Moved them to the rural South, to make it big.”

We share a laugh. “She had her definite ideas,” Nanstad says dryly. “The execution was questionable.”

When Nanstad discovered that one of the sisters lived in San Jose, she composed an email. The woman agreed to meet, and Nanstad brought her camera along, just in case. That was the start of The Reed Sisters: An American Story.

Nanstad has lived in the Bay Area for the last 10 years following stints in Boston and New Orleans. She earned a degree in the Academy of Art’s motion picture department, and works as a freelance shooter and editor. The Reed Sisters: An American Story marks her long form debut and, like a lot of first-time filmmakers, she’s financing it herself.

She hops back and forth between the documentary and her for-hire jobs, and admits to some frustration at not being able to focus exclusively on the film. With the aforementioned childhood friend, Christopher Shirley, who lives in St. Louis and is serving as producer, she’s devised some strategies to keep moving forward.

“It’s kind of a funny situation because I did my first phase of interviews with the sisters,” Nanstad relates.” I had all this nice archival footage from the shows and I wanted to put something together to see if I had some substance there. So I cut together a good 20-minute piece and I sent it in to the Secret City Film Festival in my hometown, which is where they had their show, and it was accepted. [It screened last October.] But it’s totally not a finished piece. It’s a work-in-progress that has a cliffhanger ending.”

Nanstad currently conceives of the film as a personal narrative. (Check out the trailer at thereedsistersmovie.com) She intends to use humor throughout, not only to make the piece more inviting to a wider audience but also to avoid getting trapped in the heaviness of the family saga. There was no shortage of drama, she discovered, including a teenage runaway and pregnancy, schizophrenia, sexual abuse and voodoo. Yes, voodoo.

“Some of the stories they told me in the last year I have no footage for,” Nanstad explains. “So I decided to build these little dioramas with some artist friends of mine and use little dolls for stop-motion animation to illustrate some of the things that went on in their house, and life history, that I find significant and worth excavating. I have the diorama in my living room and I’ve been doing some test shoots.”

Given some of the events being re-enacted with dolls in her Oakland abode, perhaps it should be called a psychodiorama. In any event, Nanstad’s DIY creativity offered a way to solve a visuals problem and give her a break from desktop editing.

“That’s where it’s at right now,” she says, “hand-making the dolls’ outfits and animating the scenes. I have a seamstress friend who’s helping make some outfits and some I designed for fun. I wanted to get off the computer and do something with my hands, you know?”

Nanstad must be pretty good with her hands; she plays the amplified washtub bass and messes around on the cigar box banjo. She used to be in the Lynchpins, and is now a member of the delightfully named Chicken Paw, which she describes as hillbilly funk with a little bit of looping and electronica.

Rest assured, though, that the lion’s share of the music in The Reed Sisters: An American Story will be performed by none other than the Reed Sisters.

Notes from the Underground
Peter Yates
, the British director of one of the all-time great San Francisco movies, Bullitt, died January 9. … Fernando Pena and Paula Felix-Dedier, the Argentineans who discovered the complete version of Metropolis in a Buenos Aires film archive and accompanied the restored print to the S.F. Silent Film Festival last summer, asked Eddie Muller to accept the L.A. Film Critics Association’s special Legacy of Cinema Award on their behalf this weekend. … Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies premieres Friday, Jan. 21 on PBS with Bay Area blogger and critic Omar Moore among the contributors. … Sean Penn receives the Producers Guild of America’s Stanley Kramer Award, given to a film or individual that “illuminates provocative social issues in an accessible and elevating fashion,” Jan. 22 in Los Angeles. In fact, Penn is the first person to be so honored; the first eight awardees were movies.

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