An Expanding Definition of Family

Karen Skloss' personal documentary explores mothers and daughters and the choices they make

<i>Sunshine</i> director and star Karen Skloss with her daughter, Jasmine
Sunshine director and star Karen Skloss with her daughter, Jasmine (Photo by Sandy Carson)

"You're endangering yourself and the child," 9-year-old Jasmine Harrison parrots in her deepest bass after a golfer chides her and her mother for lounging in the grass at Hancock Golf Course. Jasmine is one of the main subjects of Sunshine, a documentary directed by and featuring her mother, Austinite Karen Skloss. A former film student at the University of Texas, Skloss didn't realize a decade ago that she'd be premiering a personal documentary some day. "I wanted to make narratives," she explains, but she began editing documentary shorts for Ellen Spiro (Body of War) just after Jasmine was born and became drawn to the medium. And it doesn't hurt that Skloss' life could be the premise of a Lifetime original movie – if Lifetime original movies were interesting.

In 1975, there was a house tucked away on West Campus where young women went to disappear for the duration of an unplanned pregnancy. This house, Marywood, was where Skloss' life began. Coming from a high-profile family in small-town Texas, Skloss' biological mother, Mary Tinsley, felt like Marywood was her only option when she became pregnant at 19. The women who got pregnant "in her community would disappear. And if they kept the baby, they probably never came back, and it was a shameful thing," Skloss explains. So she understood the courage it took for Tinsley to reunite with her two decades later, and when Skloss unexpectedly became pregnant herself in 1999, it was "a karma thing. ... How could I be blasé about the fact that the same thing happened to me?"

In the beginning, however, Sunshine wasn't the story of Tinsley's and Skloss' pregnancies. It began with the fear that Jasmine's father, Jeremy Harrison, was going to move away. Unlike her mother, who gave Skloss up for adoption, Skloss and Harrison decided "to split everything 50-50; we did it on a handshake, we didn't go to court, and we didn't get along. ... It was like this vow." With equally shared parenting duties, Skloss didn't quite feel like a single mother, so when she felt the parenthood she and Harrison had created "was going to disintegrate right before [her] eyes," she began making a film about single parenting to deal with the change.

Skloss began creating a series of video portraits featuring single mothers and fathers in the Single Parent Resource Network, a local community group that creates "a little village to raise the child." At first, "the idea was that I'd take Jasmine to all of the shoots with me, and we'd be the little film crew, the single-mom-with-child-in-tow film crew that knocks over the camera sometimes and makes it imperfect, but it was really about gathering all of these other people's stories."

But the focus of the film shifted when Harrison didn't leave, and as Skloss filmed, "the whole process of dealing with it and trying to think about it made me get really introspective about my past." The emotional weight of Skloss' experience overshadowed other parents' stories, and the evolution of the family unit that Skloss saw in her own story became an overarching theme. In Austin in 1999, "the single mother was no big deal, but for [Mary], especially in her community at the time, divorce and single parenting were still pretty taboo." Comparing her own story to her biological mother's, she realized "that there is a silver lining to the erosion of the nuclear-family ideal and that we shouldn't forget about that.

"I think overall I wanted to remind people that the traditional family model excludes people. And there are plenty of people who should be included who don't fit into that model. I think our story is a case in point." In the movie, there is a clip from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood; he explains to his viewers that like the many different kinds of bird families that exist in nature, there are many different kinds of human families, as well, and "each one is fancy." Skloss admits in Sunshine that at first she didn't feel like her model of the family lived up to Mr. Rogers' assertion. But with a family unit that includes a precocious daughter, an ex-boyfriend who is fully committed to co-parenting, loving adoptive parents, and a biological family that has welcomed her with open arms, Skloss has something special. "It is fancy. But I think I had to make the movie to really realize we were fancy. And now I'm proud of it."


Lone Star States, World Premiere

Saturday, March 14, 3pm, Alamo Ritz

Monday, March 16, 9:15pm, Austin Convention Center

Friday, March 20, 2pm, Alamo Ritz

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Karen Skloss, Sunshine, Mary Tinsley, Jasmine Harrison, Jeremy Harrison, Single Parent Resource Network

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