"...you should be in the papers twice in your life: When you're born and when you die. That's the unspoken family motto."
What drew you to this story about your great aunt? How did you first discover her?
I was about 8 years old and we have a family tree, a record of the Rothschilds over the past 200 years. And to my astonishment I saw the name "Kathleen Annie Pannonica" -- she was my grandfather's sister and I'd never heard of her. And I started asking and my father said "Yes, she's my aunt but I don't know anything about her. I've never met her." So it was at an early age that the idea of her lodged in my head. Then in my late teens, like many people, I felt I didn't really fit in and was looking around for a kind of alternative way of living, a kind of role model and her name came up again. I heard she'd been a friend of Charlie Parker's and Thelonius Monk's and I went and found out who they were. I heard she flew Lancaster bombers during the war and I went and looked up Lancaster bombers - this was long before the Internet so it was much harder in those days. I joined the BBC in my early twenties to make films and was sent to New York, the first time I'd been to America, and got her number from another relation and rang her up cold. She said: "Wild! I'll meet you at 12 o'clock." - and she meant midnight! That was in 1984 and she died in 1988 so we had a four year friendship. I'd come to NY as much as possible and she'd take me to clubs. And in between she'd send me records and letters telling me "you must listen to so and so, you must go buy this record." She started to try and educate me. As it happened, our lives turned out very differently and she didn't turn out to be a role model in the practical sense, but she was a spiritual role model. I loved her bravery: that she was prepared to be different and stand up for what she believed in.
At what point did you decide to do the film?
The late 80s, quite soon after Nica died, her sister Miriam was wheelchair bound and I thought oh my God, a whole period of family history is about to disappear. So I started filming [Miriam] on a little children's video camera, not knowing what I was going to do with it. And then I saw a jazz great die, and another, and I decided to interview people every time I went to America. So I started gathering the research and the material quite a long time before I knew I was going to make a documentary. I went straight from Oxford to the BBC so I was making films about other people. In some ways making a film about a member of your family is very obvious and in some ways it's unobvious because it seems slightly indulgent. Even once I decided to make the film, although I worked at the BBC, I couldn't get anyone to commission it. I spent four years trying.
It seemed it was hard to find out much about her from your family. Why was that?
The family is very private. They believe you should be in the papers twice in your life: When you're born and when you die. That's the unspoken family motto. But I think trying to protect her almost fueled worst fears -- people thought that the truth was much worse than it was. In the end I had to rely on the musicians rather than the family to find out what that truth was.
How much time did she actually spend in jail?
She spent only a night in jail. And that's a very good example of something I've only recently, even since I've finished the film, been able to pinpoint that. Trying to get prison records from that period, 1962, was not easy, but I'm now nearly 100 % sure she was only there for a night, possibly two nights. Then the case went to appeal and she got off on a technicality as you see in the film. But in her mind, for that year and a half while she was waiting for the final appeal, I think that was a very difficult period for her because she had no idea if she was going to get off or not.
Did you have any theories about what it was that drove her to be such a champion of these musicians?
She'd fought in the war on the side of freedom. Some of her relations and lots of friends had been killed in camps. The war ends in '45 and she's in NY in '61. I'm not likening racism in America to the Holocaust in Europe; those are very separate things. But if you've devoted five years of your life to fighting for freedom and equality to then see a different form play out in front of your eyes, you go on fighting.
What was one of the biggest challenges of putting the film together?