When alumna Alexandra (Haggiag) Dean (’97) first sat down with us on March 6, “emotional” was the one word that came to mind on her return to ASL. She recalled former classmates, teachers and experiences that shaped her educational career, having attended from Grade 3 to 12. “You realize this is where you began, this is where your roots are and you know when you come from an international community it’s not always easy to see your roots,” she said.
Throughout her time at ASL, Dean felt all activities lead her back to storytelling and that was where her true passion lied. As a student, Dean was Editor-in-Chief of Jambalaya, and felt her international experience growing up in London helped her solidify her career path as a journalist.
Dean believes that journalism allowed her both depth and breadth on the topic of her choosing– allowing her to combine both her interests. “Journalism allows your curiosity free reign, you’re never trapped in one subject, you can constantly move and learn and grow and… you can find your own rhythm as human being,” she said.
Dean began working in broadcasting at a show called “Now on PBS”. Originally, she struggled with returning to the U.S. after growing up internationally, and felt that it made her an outsider. However, Dean explained with a smile, she came to realize that “most journalists see themselves in one way or another as an outsider and it gives you that little bit of separation to really analyze something.”
This “outsider” perspective prompted Dean to pursue a story on college finances in the U.S. “I got to do one of the first big stories about student loans within the U.S., and the reason I got to do that was because I was coming as an outsider and I saw it as ridiculous,” she said.
Yet journalism was not always where her interests lay, and following graduation from ASL, Dean believed that she wanted to pursue history. After attending Harvard University, Dean went to Oxford University for a graduate degree in art history. Upon writing her master’s thesis, it was a professor that helped her realized storytelling and journalism were her true passions. “I tried to write [my final thesis] as a journalist would and I was much more in love with the storytelling than the academia,” she said.
Dean firmly believes that to be a good journalist lies within areas the author loves. She was able to combine her passions for history and storytelling, and delve into the world of documentaries. For her, documentaries provided the history she onced loved studying, coupled with the thrill of storytelling.
This is when Dean came across the story of Hedy Lamarr, a once famous actress, and next subject of Dean’s Emmy-award winning documentary Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr story. Lamarr was not only an actress, but was responsible for changing the modern world with an invention that made way for Wifi, GPS and bluetooth, although very few give credit where credit is due.
When Dean began the project, only three books had been written about Lamarr’s life, none of which contained the whole story. That challenge was enough to hook Dean in, setting her “off to the races” in 2014. She described the creation of “Bombshell” as “The best treasure hunt of your life.” Dean scoured the earth looking for people who knew anything about anything related to Lamarr and, eventually, she struck gold.
Flemming Meeks, a journalist and childhood friend of Lamarr, had recorded Lamarr telling her own life story. “Because of this relentless shoe-leather reporting we found [the tapes]. We were the first to find [them], they were falling apart and we had to restitch together the conversation but in the end we had Hedy Lamarr telling her story in her own words for the first time,” Dean said.
The last words Lamarr says in the film, and ever said to her children were, “‘Even if you are never recognized for your greatest achievements and you never get the applause you deserve in your life, do it anyway.” Dean explained that even though Lamarr never felt recognized, she felt that she was changing the world. “It was in doing something, really trying to change the world, that she found meaning in her life, not the recognition,” Dean said.
Perhaps these words are even more true for Dean, as she attempts to work as a documentarian in the Hollywood era of post-Harvey Weinstein allegations and the Time’s Up Movement. “Fed up,” is how Dean described the atmosphere in Hollywood currently, with the idea, Dean explained, that in the film industry women can’t make mistakes.
What frustrates Dean most about the industry is the inability for women to dip their toes in the water and try something new. Dean has found that for big corporations like Netflix, women typically need to have three previous hit films before coming to direct, whereas a man only needs one. “Why is there this massive barrier to entry for us?” Dean said. “It’s actually in making your mistakes that you grow. Women get one shot because it’s like maybe you’ll be able to do something that actually sells, and then if it doesn’t, you’re done. That has to change.”
However, Dean can’t imagine that future isn’t going to be more diverse and accepting that it is now. she is already breaking traditional norms, having founded her own production studio, Reframed Pictures, with actress Susan Sarandon and her brother, Adam Haggiag (’01). “What gives me energy is that if I break down these barriers now, so much great talent will come through those doors that wouldn’t have been able to otherwise,” she said.
Written by Editor-in-Chief: Print Michaela Towfighi and Lead Features Editor Alexandra Gers
Photo from MintoArtsCouncil.ca