Filmmaker brings sense of otherness to Ozarks drama

A riveting drama set in the Ozark Mountains, “Winter’s Bone” has such a strong sense of place, and is so steeped in backwoods mores, that it’s hard to believe it was directed by a Jewish urbanite. Until you meet Debra Granik.

Debra Granik

“Visual anthropology is a huge draw for me, always looking at lives that are different from my own,” the Manhattan filmmaker explains. “It’s not an alienation from who I am necessarily; in addition to who I am, I’m curious about these other life experiences.”

There’s a vast difference between Granik’s world and that of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), the stubborn 17-year-old protagonist of “Winter’s Bone” who takes matters into her own hands when her far-from-ideal father disappears and puts the family’s home in jeopardy. Granik couldn’t help feeling like a stranger in a strange land from her first scouting trip in southern Missouri with Daniel Woodrell, author of the source novel.

“Being a Jewish person in the Bible Belt is intense,” the 30-something director says. “When you leave New York, where like a bazillion people have my genetic prototype, of course you are going to feel some sense of otherness because you have now walked into a place where you are much more of a minority.”

“Winter’s Bone” took the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, providing a nifty bookend to the best director award Granik won at the 2004 festival for “Down to the Bone,” her feature debut starring Vera Farmiga (“Up In the Air”) as a mother with a drug problem.

Granik, who grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., and went to Brandeis University, moved to Boston after graduation to work in educational films and documentaries. After a few years, she enrolled in New York University’s graduate film program to pursue narrative filmmaking. Two for two at Sundance, Granik is as golden as any director in the indie film scene.

Yet it’s a documentary she shot, “Thunder in Guyana,” that gets Granik especially excited. The 2003 film profiled director Suzanne Wasserman’s cousin, Janet Rosenberg Jagan, an American Jew who moved to Guyana during World War II and eventually became prime minister and president in the late 1990s.

Ashlee Thompson (left), Jennifer Lawrence and Isaiah Stone star in “Winter’s Bone,” a family drama set in the Ozarks. photo/sebastian mlynarski

“Janet Jagan fed all parts of my pantheon of what makes me respect someone,” Granik effuses. “I loved her radical politics. I loved that she had to go full cycles of exploring certain forms of social justice. She had to make a profound break with her family at some point, and then she had to forge forward to a very unknown place, make her way and stick to her lifelong convictions.”

Closer to home, Granik’s great-grandmother, who came over from the Old Country as a child and lived on the Lower East Side, holds a central position in the pantheon.

“My positive affinity with being Jewish was with this 4-foot person who had gone through huge historical times of migration, and had been a really courageous person in my book, and my life,” Granik recalls. “She was a positive link to an ethnic identity that I couldn’t get [from] the Washington scene of affluent Jewish suburban assimilation.”

Granik notes that being an outsider, as she was in the Ozarks, and telling a story about a community is a serious responsibility. She also accepts that peering into another world goes both ways.

“My curiosity about other’s people lives is such that it is only right and appropriate that they would be curious about mine as well,” Granik admits. “I have to be open to that even though for me it’s a lot easier to be the person asking the questions.”

At the same time, Granik allows that she keeps one card close to her chest.

“All my life I’ve absorbed anxiety about what generalized negative thoughts people may have about Jews,” she says. “I’ve traveled extensively, and I make sure people really get to know me. [Being Jewish] is not the first thing I disclose about myself at all, because I want to make sure that people don’t use that as a filtration.”

“Winter’s Bone” opens June 18 at the Embarcadero in San Francisco and the California in Berkeley.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.