Meet Documentarian Katrina Parks & Discover The Historic Women Of The West

History is full of remarkable women, but we often have little information on them and their stories. One filmmaker is on a mission to uncover the history of women and is using her creative voice to tell their stories. Meet Katrina Parks: writer, director and producer.

She always knew she wanted to be an artist in some medium but wasn’t exactly sure which medium it would be. Parks studied painting and drawing in college, trying her hand at fine art. She discovered her work was becoming more narrative as she found herself incorporating text in her paintings, taking a turn from fine art into mixed media. Shortly after she began doing performance pieces which she would document on film.

Bit By the Film Bug

One summer while she was in college, Katrina Parks went to go work for a friend of her father’s where she made a short documentary film about Vietnamese artists. This was her first experience with documentary filmmaking. “I had a lot of technical challenges to overcome because I was working solo and I hadn’t done much film before, but I just loved the whole experience,” she recalls. From there she realized that this was the path she wanted to follow.

She then went on to do a short film called Wrappings; a performance piece where she wore a dress that she made out of food wrappings. “I collected the wrappings of the food I ate for several months and made this dress. Then I wore the dress to places like Wall-street and Union Square,” says Parks. The short film went on to win a SASA award from the United Nations when it screened at an environmental film festival.

Walking the Walk

Parks began her career working for a documentary production company in San Francisco. While working there she learned about the Harvey Girls and was fascinated but she assumed someone else would cover their story when she mentioned that someone should do a documentary on the Harvey Girls. “I waited to see if someone else would do it and years passed and no body did. But I still had this idea lingering in the back of my mind so I started filming interviews,” Parks comments on how in 2000 she began her documentary-making adventure. She began tracking down more Harvey Girls, but it would be more than a decade before the film was completed and her vision realized.

In 2005 she moved to Los Angeles and began working in television as a writer and producer. Her credits include programs for A&E, Discovery Channel, Food Network, Fox, History, Lifetime, PBS, Spike, Travel Channel and TLC. All the while she continued to film her documentary in parts over the years.

“Documentary filmmakers often take a journey that is a bit out of their control because we’re telling a real story opposed to something someone made up in their head so sometimes we’re at the mercy of our subjects,” she remarks as she goes on to say that there are also fiscal obstacles when trying to get funding for historical films, let alone women’s history but ultimately the documentary film did get picked up and distributed to a dozen PBS stations through out the country.

Katrina Parks was one of the co-founders of the nonprofit fiscal sponsor for female filmmakers, Cinnefemme, and although she is no longer on the board and has left the organization, she still uses them for her fiscal sponsor and encourages other women to utilize them as a resource to help fund their films. “The organization acts as an umbrella so that people can make tax deductible donations to your project or non-profit funding organizations that give grants, for example, often require that you work with a non profit. They don’t want to give to an individual.”

The Real Harvey Girls Of the West

Many may be familiar with the 1946 MGM Studios film, The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland, but that is a fictional Hollywood story, and up until Katrina Parks’ documentary, The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound, was the only film made on these women. The Harvey Girls were young unmarried women who migrated from the East to the Midwest and West to work as waitresses in railroad towns. This trend lasted for almost 100 years, beginning in the 1880’s and continuing to flourish until the 1960s, yielding over 100,000 Harvey Girls. Fred Harvey’s company was also one of the first to promote cultural diversity and employed Latin and Native American women as well.

Harvey Girls and employees at counter, Courtesy of Waynoka Historical Society

The Harvey Girls led Parks to her next project which is another fascinating feature documentary highlighting more women in history. Parks acknowledges, “As I was interviewing the later Harvey Girls I could see how their lives connected to the mother road. I was finding that the women who had been Harvey Girls went on to have interesting careers along route 66 and it had me wondering in what other capacity were women’s lives touched by this iconic American road, so I started to dig into that.”

All Along the Mother Road

Her latest project tells the stories of women who worked along the historic Route 66 entitled, The Women On The Mother Road in Southern California. Katrina Parks’ film gives a voice to the women that historians have left out of the story. “When you dig deeper you find that women have always had a much wider range of experiences than we’ve been led to believe”, Parks states as she believes a lot of what historians wrote had more do to with their assumptions of the roles of women than the reality of women’s roles.

Harvey Girl Mary Mochimaru Montoya dressed for Indian Ceremonial in Gallup, NM. Photo courtesy of Rose Marie Sandoval.

The film is full of fascinating interviews that easily captivates the viewers attention and like any good film it leaves us wanting more. Some of the great stories told are that of the Mitla Cafe, which is still functional today, Andrea Limon who was a Harvey girl and went onto run the post office which ran along the road in Cadiz, and the tale of Bobby and Cynthia Troupe, who came up with the classic hit song “Route 66” while they traveled along the road. (It was actually Cynthia who came up with that line, “get your kicks on route 66”, but she was never credited for it).

If ever there was a time to start pulling back the veil and telling the other half of the story, it’s definitely now. Parks confidently states, “Many women were involved on some level in shaping route 66.” The film is inspiring, eye opening, informative and educational.

On a Closing Note

Katrina Parks believes that it’s important to keep looking at history and correcting the misinformation we’ve been handed about the roles of women in history and the backlash against strong and determined women:

“Women in this century have accomplished a tremendous amount and things have gotten better for women. We’re in an interesting time where we’ve just seen a tremendous backlash against a powerful woman but we also have to keep in mind that’s not unusual. It has happened time and again. There will always be backlashes but we’ve still managed to advance. And I think that’s what makes my work really relevant at the moment, is that message.”

How much do you know about women in the west and their history?

The Women On The Mother Road is currently being crowdfunded and you can make a donation here, through Cinefemme.

Watch The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound on Vimeo on Demand.

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