Between screenings at a film festival last May, Kathy Levitt M.F.A. ’83 popped out for dinner with some friends. Walking into the restaurant, she had no idea she held the final piece in a mystery that the UCLA Film & Television Archive had been trying to unravel for six years. 

In an eatery near the Billy Wilder Theater, where the Archive was hosting its biennial Festival of Preservation, Levitt was seated next to a friend of a friend, Todd Wiener, and the two were discussing the screenings they had just watched.

“I just happened to mention that I recognized some of the names on the films of people I had met when I was at UCLA,” she says. She told Wiener that in 1974, she and two other M.F.A. students had made a documentary “about women in prison.”

Wiener, the motion picture curator, shot a look across the table at Mark Quigley M.F.A. ’00, a television archivist at the Archive. They immediately asked her the name of the film.

We’re Alive,” she replied.

“Even telling you now,” Levitt says, “I get chills.”

Wiener and Quigley pounced on their dinner guest’s stunning disclosure. They told her she had just solved a puzzle that dated back to 2016, the year they had begun a worldwide search for a copy of the film. And even though they considered We’re Alive to be an abandoned “orphan film,” the Archive was planning to screen it at UCLA.

“We couldn’t find you,” the pair told her. “You don’t have your names on it.”

Levitt took it all in, “gobsmacked.”

The revelations kept coming. Wiener and Quigley told her that We’re Alive — which unflinchingly captures the voices of a group of women incarcerated at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in the 1970s — was now considered an important source by scholars studying feminist media and women’s incarceration. Indeed, the Archive intended to screen the film because of its relevance to conversations happening both on the UCLA campus and around the U.S. on criminal justice and mass incarceration.

All this for a film that had not been in circulation since the 1970s. Levitt wondered for a moment if they were putting her on. “I was like, ‘Oh, come on — you’re teasing, right?’”

Courtesy of UCLA Film & Television Archive
Scenes from a groundbreaking film, from left to right: the entrance of the California Institute for Women; a protest against forced sterilization that took place outside of the prison; two of the women filmmakers, taken from the film’s closing montage.

They were not. Wiener and Quigley were soon on their phones, spreading the breaking news.

Archive Director May Hong HaDuong M.A. ’06 remembers getting the text while she herself was at the Festival of Preservation that Saturday evening.

“It was, ‘We found the filmmaker of We’re Alive. We just met her.’ I had such a surge of not just joy, but relief,” HaDuong says. “When you don’t know the filmmaker of a work that you’re really wanting to preserve and wanting to share out there with the community … you feel this tremendous responsibility to find those people. So, yeah, my jaw dropped.”

HaDuong had been planning a public screening of the film in partnership with the UCLA Center for the Study of Women / Barbra Streisand Center, an event that was eventually held this past January at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum at UCLA. With the Archive’s mission to promote the cultural and educational value of film preservation, it was a chance to highlight that “unfortunately, things haven’t changed as much as we would hope,” HaDuong says, “and that these films that document these important voices need attention.”

The showing was followed by a discussion. Two women who were formerly incarcerated at CIW shared their perspectives — in some ways, continuing the conversation the women in We’re Alive started in 1974. And thanks to that revelatory festival dinner, the student filmmakers were also there.

Identifying them in advance was “gratifying,” HaDuong says, recalling that within two minutes of hearing about the jackpot discovery last May, she contacted colleagues at CSW.

“Oh my gosh,” she told them. “You would not believe what just happened.”

A Worldwide Search

The mystery of trying to find out who had actually made We’re Alive began seven years ago, when scholar Rox Samer, aware of the film’s existence and its connection to UCLA, inquired about it at UCLA’s Archive Research and Study Center (ARSC). Samer was writing a book, Lesbian Potentiality and Feminist Media in the 1970s, that was published in 2022. Later, another email requesting the film would arrive at ARSC, this one from media scholar Beth Capper, who is working on a book about the connection of feminist documentary making to abolishment of the carceral system.

ARSC is the on-campus home of the Film & Television Archive, where anyone can access, for free, a vast collection of 350,000-plus film and television programming. While the Archive houses the second-largest collection of moving images in the country (just behind the Library of Congress), its mission goes well beyond preservation. Every year, it assists hundreds of researchers and students in accessing the collection for scholarly pursuits ranging from books and academic papers to class assignments.

But the We’re Alive request stumped the staff.

“There have been so many people at the Archive who have searched,” says Maya Montañez Smukler M.A. ’08, Ph.D. ’14, head of the ARSC, recounting an effort akin to an archaeological dig to locate a copy of the film. Embracing the chase, staffers queried professors at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and dived into the universitywide archive. They even scoured back issues of the Daily Bruin.

Time and again, they came up empty.

But their calls for help rippled across a global film preservation network with a reputation for being collegial when it comes to tracking down materials. “That collaboration across institutions is just really remarkable, and so important to the work that we all do,” Montañez Smukler says. “Sometimes material doesn’t exist anymore because it was destroyed or it’s lost. So it’s oftentimes a sad story.”

A happier fate awaited We’re Alive. In 2018 — two years after Samer came calling — the British Film Institute (BFI) told Wiener they had discovered not just one but two 16mm prints. Better yet, BFI was willing to send one to Los Angeles for the Archive to copy. UCLA could finally share the work with researchers. 

But upon watching the film, the archivists were crestfallen to discover there were no production credits. The title card read simply: “The Video Workshop of the California Institution for Women and the Women’s Film Workshop of the University of California Los Angeles.”

And so the Archive embarked on yet another pursuit, this time to try to identify and locate the elusive filmmakers. As Wiener, Quigley and Levitt randomly connected the dots at that dinner last May, Montañez Smukler was also attending the Festival of Preservation. “It sounds corny, but it was just truly a magical moment,” she says. “You just cannot imagine how long we’d been talking about that.”

Watch an exclusive clip from Were Alive:

The staff at UCLA weren’t the only ones set abuzz. Levitt had remained close with one student from the project, Michie Gleason M.F.A. ’83. Both based in L.A., they quickly connected over the news. But both had lost touch with the third of their filmmaking trio, Christine Mohanna Lesiak ’73, M.F.A. ’77. It took a bit of detective work on Gleason’s part to find her, but she did, finally reaching her college friend by phone as Lesiak was trying on jeans in a secondhand store in Nebraska, where she lives.

“Two hours later, I emerged from the dressing room, and everybody’s looking at me saying, ‘What happened?’” Lesiak says. “Well, what happened was, we talked and we talked and we caught up, and my mind was blown by the fact that this film had reemerged. I was just shocked.”

The three friends were thrilled to be reunited after decades and to know that the discovery of their forgotten film had paved the way for a full digital restoration. Technology had changed a lot since they lugged a 25-pound Portapak video recorder into CIW. “We had no idea that sometime in the future you would be able to take a phone that you could hold in your hand and point at someone,” Lesiak says. Using copies Levitt had in storage, the Archive is making the picture and sound as good as possible to, as HaDuong explains, “enhance the ability for people to connect with the film.”

Past and Present

Back in 1974 Levitt, Gleason and Lesiak were officially visiting CIW — about 60 miles west of campus, in Chino — to teach a filmmaking workshop every Sunday for about six months. But while learning about camera angles, their incarcerated pupils seized the chance to get a message to the outside world. They wanted people to hear about their experiences in prison, and about the inequality that had led to their being incarcerated. “If you want to get rid of prison, you’ve got to start organizing in your own communities and change a society,” one says pointedly in the film.

Each week, the UCLA trio took footage back to the editing room on campus and started assembling the mostly black-and-white documentary that would become We’re Alive.

The alumnae never appear on camera. But, Gleason says, the filmmakers became friends with the incarcerated women, which helped to foster free-flowing conversations. “These are women who you can tell could be making real contributions to society,” Gleason remembers thinking. “What are they doing here?”

Though the lack of detailed credits on the film would later vex UCLA archivists, the filmmakers say there was a reason their names didn’t appear. “Our philosophy was that we are just facilitating the making of this film. And it’s the women themselves telling their stories, who are creating the film,” Lesiak says. 

In the film, the women at CIW speak candidly about racism, substance abuse and domestic violence. They describe missing their families, receiving unhygienic medical care, working for no pay and having to appear before a capricious parole board. They note the system’s disproportionate impact on Black people, and they offer astute analysis of a system that is punitive, not rehabilitative.

Courtesy of UCLA Film & Television Archive
More stills from the film, from left to right: Discussing the socialization between women that occurs in prison, but not in outside life; explaining that there are no guaranteed job positions after being released; a songwriter details how life within the prison walls inspired her work. 

Romarilyn Ralston is currently executive director of Project Rebound at Cal State Fullerton, a program that supports formerly incarcerated people with reentry and pursuit of higher education. As someone who was herself incarcerated at CIW from 1988 to 2011, Ralston says We’re Alive lays bare just how little progress has been made toward restorative justice.

“The same things they were saying are still true today — the lack of support, the poor conditions, the atrocious medical care,” says Ralston, who was a panelist for a discussion after the screening of We’re Alive in January. How little has changed wasn’t the only thing she recognized. “The resiliency and the passion and the strength of the women in the film resonated with me, because I have met women like them for 23 years,” she says.

Colby Lenz, deputy director of policy and community research at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women (CSW) and moderator of the January panel, has worked for almost 20 years as an organizer and legal advocate. Lenz hopes We’re Alive resonates with audiences just as strongly as it did with the young women who bravely made it. “So much that happens behind prison walls,” Lenz says, “is very much hidden from the public.”

Collaborating with the CSW “has just added so much to preserving this film and reintroducing it to contemporary audiences,” says Montañez Smukler. “[They] are just really helping us to contextualize the documentary, and helping us with the present-day questions about incarcerated populations and women who are incarcerated. Film as an art form, as a commercial format, is or can be political in different ways and is social content in different ways.”

Lesiak has worked with PBS for decades, creating documentaries such as In the White Man’s Image and Willa Cather—The Road Is All. Levitt received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to write and direct Umbrella. Gleason’s feature credits as a writer/director have taken her to Paris and Amsterdam, and she recently wrote a film adaptation of the William Faulkner’s first novel, Soldiers’ Pay.

We’re Alive was used by 1970s prison reform advocates around the U.S. to raise awareness about inhumane prison conditions and to raise money. It was also used in criminology, sociology and political science courses. The three filmmakers — all of whom have continued to make films — are proud that We’re Alive “served a purpose,” Levitt says. “It had a life.”

And now it has a new one, some 50 years later. The current revival keeps a promise of sorts that appears in black-and-white text at the start of the film, with a steady drumbeat playing in the background: “To all the women before / To all the women after / From the women now.”

See the entire film:

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2023 issue.