My Name is Zelda

[2003, 60 min.] Distributed by Terra Nova Films. In this documentary viewers meet an irrepressible and creative old woman who has become a fixture in the New York art scene. Zelda lives life at a nonstop pace; she is like a force of nature. But when she is honored with an opportunity to sit for a photograph by Andres Serrano, the resulting photograph--shown as part of a gallery show by Serrano--seems to deflate her ego and reduce her to a stereotype of aging. At the end of the video Zelda surprises us again when we learn more about her commitment to helping African women.



Pre-Viewing Notes and Activities

Summary of Scenes

1. First image, slow motion of Zelda Kaplan’s legs as she walks on streets—then begins with two minute montage of voices—all speaking. Cut to African scene with old man drumming, then close-up of Zelda’s face, then back to Africa. “She’s legendary!” “She’s everything!” “She’s everywhere!” “She’s from a certain genre. She’s like the Jewish mambo mix.” “Her legs are unbelievable!” “She’s the only I’ve seen that’s capable of executing costume effectively.”

2. (2.00) She is at a gallery opening—photographs, all the beautiful people—several in “costumes.” Several greet her. Their costumes are more “outlandish” than is hers. She is wearing tribal garments from Mali. She greets the folks. Pictures taken. Kisses exchanged.

3. (3.10) Fashion shoot. She wears a beautiful magenta garment. Side view. Make-up. She says she is 85 plus (in June). “I’m 85 years young,” she says quietly.

4. Her male companion, a man in his 40s, with a pompadour and smooth hair combed back, waits in the lobby at 10:30 for her to come down—ready for a night of clubbing. He has been taking her to the clubs for the last three years. He seems to be from the Bronx, is a bit uncouth, and yet seems dedicated to her. NOTE: The idea is HOW PEOPLE SEE HER—these are exterior views of Zelda—because the film is not called “My Name is Zelda.” While he waits he talks about the way Zelda has the style he likes—because she is not the skinny model-type. He talks on camera. He complains about the feminine ideal, “created by fags, who are generally misogynists, and they try to create a woman that is devoid of any feminine characteristics—no curves, just a straight line, and all bones.”

5. Out on the town. They get a cab. He says Zelda does not like it when he uses word “fag.” “I don’t like lesbians; I feel rejected,” he says. Outside the club, he talks on camera. “I’ve become her late night companion.” He talks about getting her away from the gallery crowd—he takes a dim view of that group. There she is dancing in the red and then the blue light. She is woman unleashed.

6. (7.00) Later, she talks kto him about dancing. “I think it’s a sublimation of sex.” She disagrees. Says it is an art form—after all, she was trained as a dancer. Later, in the car, again she stands up for her views—on dancing as an art, as sex between consenting adults being a private affair. “Each to his own taste,” she says in French.

7. (8.48) Then she looks through old photos of herself teaching ballroom dance, and in her 40s, and yet she won’t talk about one of her husbands. The male companion is with her. Lots of archival photographs in the album. She had a beautiful figure. She maintains that her life began when her relationship with her husband ended. She talks to her woman friend, her “spiritual daughter,’ the graphic says, and she says, “I feel my life really began when he was out of my life.” She had been a “dutiful wife.” He never wanted children—she wanted four, two boys and two girls. Then she became Zelda. She says she was married twice. “Now my life is different. As soon as I was no longer the wife, I started to become Zelda.” GREAT QUOTE

8. (12.00) There she is at a Hell’s Angels art exhibit. Several men come by and compliment her on her clothes. “You’re a walking sculpture.” “You’re are an art piece as you are.” We get a montage-like sequence (edited—no music) as she spends most of her time explaining where her beautiful clothes came from. She bought the cloth from weavers, drew sketches, and went to a tailor. The people seem fascinated by her costume—by her externals!

9. (14.00) Then she goes to a painter, who takes pictures of her before he begins to paint Her male companion is there. Great close-ups of her face, her eyes open wide, rimmed with red. First time we see her up close without her thick round huge glasses. There he is painting away! It’s a lovely painting—his impression of Zelda. Everyone has an impression about Zelda.

10. (14.45) Then she is with her niece, and they talk—niece says she is inspired by this woman who speaks her mind. The two are seated next to each other. Zelda emphasizes moving forward. “Let them go, don’t keep them here (points to her back) bearing us down.”

11. (15.50) There she is with her niece at another gallery opening, and she wears a lovely black and white outfit, again with her signature African hat (vertical). First they hit the buffet table. The group is playing a Tito Puente classic, “Something Como Va.” She loves to dance—She grooves to the Tito Puente music, and the young people around her have never heard the music before.

12. (17.20) Then he music continues, and we see the late Tito in a club scene, and there she is on the dance floor. He is playing his classic number. There she is hugging and kissing him.

13. (19.08) Then parallel cuts back to the gallery opening and Zelda grooving to the music. She is the only one dancing around on the floor for a while—she repeats her mantras to different people—she is Afro-Cuban, and the dancing begins in the hips and then moves to the feet. Then she demonstrates how one does it—and she grooves to the music. There she goes! Great moves.

14. (20.45) Then the filmmaker shows her at the door—not dressed for the public, and Zelda asks her to turn off the camera. Then a quick scene of her inside her apartment and doing her laundry. “You think I’m a decrepit old lady?” as she stands on the edge of her bathtub to hang up some clothes.

15. (21.50) Then a montage of her rushing, running, in her long dresses—some of this is funny, cute, then back in another location, she talks about the effects of aging—and the way she views her own body—interesting—then she is looking at pictures of her youth, and in a bikini—“I was a nice person.” Then she is on the road again—always moving—she picks up a young woman friend, and that woman talks about Zelda’s “butt.” Zelda talks about her physical characteristics. Men would say, “You’re built like a brick **house.” At a gallery opening, a woman suggests that Zelda get a facelift in order to have her face match her beautiful body. Then Zelda is looking at a newspaper, with headline, “The Effects of Aging, Viewed Unblinkingly,” and she talks about her own self-perception. “When I look at my own flesh, it’s so ravaged by age. It doesn’t look like anything I remember. For so many years it was a nice body. Now it’s a mass of wrinkles, and the position of the different parts is downward. It’s a very distressing thing to look at, and I try not to look at it too often.” She refers to the article. It says “we have to accept the ravages of age.”

16. She is looking at pictures of her again—“millions of pictures of me in a bikini.” “I was a nice person. I didn’t wear lipstick, either.” Back in a car again. Side view of her wrinkled face. “And now look at me.”

17. (26.30) Then another gallery opening—and there she is with another lovely outfit. Crowded. She refers to being shot by Andres Serrano. “You just got shot by Andres? You’re famous now!” “Zelda made it big!” She asks what makes it so big—“You’ve been officially Andres Serrano-fied!” She looks around in the exhibit—people are nuts about her being photographed by Andre, and we see her Bronx hunk with her. She talks to some young women. “Zelda is woman of the year to me!” But it all seems to be because Andres Serrano photographed her. Then Andres is there and talks to her about it. “I want you to have what you want,” she tells him. She will get what she asked for. He says he will look at the film tomorrow. He asks her what she told her friends. She whispers, “I told them that I was wearing hose and it showed my private parts—“

18. (29.30) In cab later, she tells story about Andres asking her to raise the dress higher and higher. She feels some concern about this. “I wonder how high he is holding the skirt?” But she respects the ability to create—“I think one should respect the ability to create something. I think one should cooperate. At least, that’s how I’m explaining it to myself. She really is unsettled by this emotionally. “Intellectually I think I’m right.”

19. (31.00)-there she is at the opening of the show—the one that will have her photograph. People greet her warmly outside the gallery. Trumpets begin to play on the soundtrack as she enters the gallery—suggesting that there is going to be a downfall here. As they walk around the gallery, everyone can’t wait until she sees the picture. The picture just before hers is of a man dressed like a cleric, and he is leaning over, showing his bum, as well, perhaps, as his scrotum hanging down. “Oh my gosh!” she says. Finally, she sees her photograph—she is wearing a tiara, is dressed in a bright red brocade, and then the camera pans down to show her vulva exposed under the raised dress. Several young people praise the work. “Didn’t it shock you?” she asks. Oh, no. They loved it. Someone takes her picture next to the photograph. “You are officially part of history.” Then we hear from Serrano’s assistant, who says, after Andres keeps asking to have Zelda hitch up her skirt, ‘You’re really going to make that poor old lady do that?” We see her being interviewed by journalists. She says she would never assume that pose, “ever, ever, but for him I did it.” She sees Chris, and she greets him warmly. Some people even suggest that the shadow by her vulva shows another appendage—like a penis. “It’s like, thank God, when you’re 85 years old, you still have one,” a woman says, referring, I think, to the sexual organs of a woman. “What do you expect? Is it supposed to vanish?” Then Zelda greets Andres, and she tells him the show is “thought provoking.”

20. (38.00) But her Bronx boy Chris and another woman are not too happy about it. “I feel embarrassed for her, as most of the people in her inner circle did. I cringed when I saw it. It’s not something you can just laugh off. It was done for shock value.” Later he talks about it with her and a few friends—as he holds up the photograph. “You could have used any woman for this.” Chris says it is “tragic”—she sits there mute, laughing, and for once Zelda is silenced. Then a morning scene, and Zelda not dressed up, “film me at my worst.” Then he refers to the famous 1987 Piss Christ, “at least you weren’t in a jar of urine. Consider yourself lucky.”

21. (40.00) Zelda not dressed up, at home, “You’re filming me at my worst.” Then she hails a cab and she talks to her cabbie. Mali—she asks him where in Mali—and she knows his tribe. Cabbie is shocked that she knows so much. She knows his tribe. He is amazed to find out that she has visited the area of Mali he lives in. Before she leaves, she gives him her name, and then she tells him about working with women about their human rights, “they shouldn’t be cut, and they shouldn’t be hit, and they should be able to inherit property. She tells him to talk to the other men. “You help to make the women stronger.” So she has said her piece.

22. (42.40) Then in Harlem at African Wax Museum. Bob Marley in wax—and what is Zelda doing? She is talking about how she gets her clothes done. Later, Zelda in cab again and this time off to Africa—just like that—

23. (44.30_—whole documentary changes now because she is in Africa—in Mali, where she visits the village. Change of music to fit the scenery. Benin, West Africa. Children in the village gather around. Red clay roads, green on both sides. White van. Zelda gets out and walks right up to the people and watches a man dancing and dressed in colorful garb. There is Zelda, right in the midst of the children. Camera zooms in on her. Lots of drumming and dancing.

24. Kids gather around the van. She talks about her first trip. She made her first trip in the late 1960s. She was looking for ritual carvings. She wanted to buy from the village people. We see her walking up to a dwelling. She learned that men regularly beat the women. She began to attend meetings in the villages. She began to teach that “A little penis does not make one human being better than another.” Zelda moves on to another site, where there is more dancing. She wears a broad brim hat. “We are waiting for the fetish to come out of the house.” Here comes the fetish out of the house. Woman sucking a goat’s head—man passes out and brought into hut—That man had been in a trance. People gathered in a wide circle around open areas Beautiful clothes. Zelda is seated near a dwelling among other older people. More singing.

25. (50.20) Then back to the van. “People respect the traditions. The only thing we have to change are the bad traditions, the ones that are unhealthy and bad for society” She sits in the van during a rainstorm. Later, she talks about genital mutilation. “The men will not marry a woman who is not cut. They believe the clitoris is a DIRTY thing.” One of the men there talks in French, I think, about the rights of women. She talks to that man, seated across from him outside a hut. This brief conversation does not resolve anything. Zelda is aware that men expect women to be cut, but at the same time, sex with the wife is not exciting. And so they go outside the marriage, to prostitutes, in order to get passionate sex. The man noted that women who were not cut were regarded as prostitutes.

26. (52.50) Then Zelda looking at cloth. “I like to buy from the women.” Why? “I put the money in her hand; then the children will eat. If I put the money in the husband’s hand, maybe he buys some beer or another lady. Who knows?” The man she is telling this to smiles at her wisdom. Zelda meets some women weavers. French seems to be the language. Then she busy some from a woman weaver, and she takes the woman’s picture. She goes to a tailor to have it made it into garments. She holds the tape tight to her body and speaks in French to indicate how tight she wants it.

27. (55.20) Later, she watches women dance, and we hear her V/O as she talks more about the difficulties women face in this culture. She talks about genital mutilation. Often women get infected. Zelda in her big straw hat as she sits and watches the dancing. People stand around her, all beautifully dressed. “I just try to explain how women in my society live. I think it’s important to open another window.” Then a woman dances with Zelda. Zelda joins the women in a large building and they sit around the edges in a circle and they share their concerns. “It is only through the educated women that the world will become a better place.” She leaves. “If we humans could think of ourselves as members of one family. . .”

28. (59.30) Back in the van and headed away from Benin. Zelda being interviewed for television. Her V/O as she talks about justifying her existence: “I just want to be a decent human being who can justify her existence in some way in this world.” Back to the artist we saw earlier finishing his portrait of Zelda. Ends 1.00.39

Discussion Questions and Sample Worksheet

Text of The Great Circle of Life: A Resource Guide to Films and Videos on Aging, copyright © 1987, 1999, 2005, Robert E. Yahnke. All photographs copyrighted by Robert E. Yahnke.  All rights reserved.  Contact author for permission to copy photographs or reprint portions of text.

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