Tom Hall, director of The Sarasota Film Festival from 2005-2014 was invited back for SFF’s 25th anniversary on Saturday, April 1st for a very special Q&A session with the key players of It’s Only Life After All, a film that shares an intimate look into the lives of one of the most iconic folk-rock duos in America, Indigo Girls. During the Q&A session in which Hall invited members of the audience to participate, Atlanta-based singer-songwriters Amy Ray and Emily Saliers were open and candid about sharing details of their musical careers, their commitment to LGBTQ rights and visibility, their partnering with Indigenous activist Winona LaDuke in the fight for environmental justice and their own personal struggles throughout the years. Director Alexandria Bombach discussed her experience in working with Saliers and Ray in uncovering forty years of raw footage and introducing the Indigo Girls in a never-before-seen format to fans new and old. On April 2, 2023, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers were presented with the Sarasota Maestro Award by Sarasota Film Festival board chairman and president, Mark Famiglio.

How DID you guys come together for this project? What was that like for you making the decision to work ON THIS PROJECT?  Amy Ray:  Well, we had a friend, a wonderful friend named Kathlyn Horan, who had met Alexandria. Kathlyn is in film and directs and writes and producer, and she said, “I want you to meet somebody.” And then Alexandria said that she wanted to do a documentary about us, and we were like, why? And then we were like, you can, yes, but it can’t really be about us.  Emily Saliers:  It was a surprise that anyone would want to make a documentary about us. We’d never had that in our plans, but we just trusted Alexandria. And honestly, during the whole course of the interviews and when the film crews were there, we had no idea what the film was going to be about. And then COVID happened right in the middle of it. So, there were all kinds of things, but we’re very, very grateful. It’s a big honor for us, and she did all the work, so I’m going to let her talk about it.  Alexandria Bombach:  Well, I’ve been a fan since I was like 12. So, in the making of my film, On Her Shoulders, it was a really rough edit. And Kathlyn and I had met at a director’s retreat and she had mentioned that she was friends and had worked with the Indigo Girls for many years. And I was like, wow, that’s incredible. If you ever need me to come on a shoot, just let me know. And so she knew I was having a hard time with the last edit, and so she brought me to a show and I was just sobbing in the theater listening at the Ace Hotel in LA and I looked around and other people were crying too, and I was like, it’s not just me. Then I went back, had incredible conversations with them and just was really blown away and quickly looking on my phone if anyone had ever made a film about them, because it just seemed like it needed to happen. And, yeah, I was just really honored that they let me do it and terrified. 

Working with archive material is a challenge. You’re going to have some sacred moments that are not going to make it in the film. I mean, the moment when you pop in the first tape and it gets that nicely staged boom box shot, it’s just beautiful. BOMBACH:  Yeah, listening to those cassette tapes was such a joy. I think that was one of the most painful parts not to be able to share more of because it was just such cool songs that no one’s heard, really amazing stuff…So yeah, it was a painful, painful process because there’s just so much left on the cutting room floor. It was a two-and-a-half-year edit, but I was just there mostly alone editing, just in my own little room. You picture a crazy person that has a red string connecting to one thing or another. That was me, just insane. Just trying to make connections of past and present and to all and everything in between and just putting it all together took a long time.

You are more special because of the time period from which you came. We were in the AIDS crisis when your music was happening and you became champions of a community really, that launched an entirely new awareness in the music industry. To come out at that moment in our society and then to carry that into this beautiful awareness of other people. Ray:  I’ll say the AIDS crisis was huge. And it really opened us up to what activism could achieve because I had a lot of friends in New York too that were doing really brave things. And for me, I feel like the audience, because we started so young that the audience was always kind of our peers. And so, we were learning from them language about gender, language about sexuality, language about activism. And we would talk to each other and we would get letters and we would talk at the bus and we would watch people’s development and they would become amazing people that were in the Peace Corps or whatever. I have some regrets about how long it took me to take up the mantle of understanding the true idea of feminism and separatism and some of the earlier theories that I could not grasp because I was scared and I had a lot of internalized homophobia. I have regrets about that because I didn’t need to suffer for so long. It’s even more important to me now because I suffered to get it for so long.  SAILERS:  The AIDs crisis eviscerated a huge chunk of humanity. And we knew a lot of people connected to that terror. And now I see what’s going on in this country and what the conservative factions in this country are doing. They’re trying to make large sections of human beings in this state invisible. They are passing these trans laws. They want to make being trans, not a thing. And they think if they pass these laws, they can do that. And they want to make critical race theory, they want to make what happened to black Americans, not a thing that happened because it’s all about white people. And I’m not telling y’all anything you don’t know, but as a musician now, and Amy and I, we’re very fired up about what is going on around us, there’s always a fire inside to speak to issues and to learn from mentors and to network and see how we can all come together and be effective to fight these terrible things that are happening like a wave in our country right now.

Today is National Trans Day of Visibility, which is an important day. I’m not in my home in Brooklyn right now, I’m here with you guys, but I’m glad I’m here with you. Alexandria, did you know about that sort of history, that the arc of their activism as part of their story when you embarked on this project? BOMBACH:  I definitely did just because buying their CDs, they always had causes in the albums themselves. And I think that really affected me growing up that that was important to have in a CD case. So yeah, I mean I knew that about their history, but I didn’t know the things that they said in the interview about the transition of meeting Winona LaDuke and all of that stuff. So, it was fascinating to me. It was also really reinvigorating for me because a lot of the films I’ve made in the past are kind of critiquing, not activism itself, but just the struggle that activism has. And a lot of my last film was at the UN and sometimes that can be very disheartening. So, I came into this film feeling like, yeah, I’m sure we’ll talk about activism, but what I was discovering and learning about, seeing the footage and hearing the interviews, I was just incredibly inspired. And then it’s funny what it does to you when you gather all that stuff and you make a scene and you tell the story, it kind of changes you on the inside. And so, I feel so lucky to have made this film because I just feel so much more hope in that space.

You guys are reluctant as self-historians in this movie, you know, don’t want to dig too far into the past, but you’re laughing at some of it and enjoying it…But there are things that you are not thrilled about in your own past. So, I’m wondering, now that you’ve seen the film, what was that experience like?  Saliers:  When Alexandria first had a very almost final cut, but not the final cut, she showed it to Amy in her hotel room. We were on the road and I was overwhelmed, I couldn’t really take it in. And then Sundance happened and it was like, woo-wee this is awesome. And then I watched it again and I was like, oh, you could have said that. You could have done this. You come across like this, all this weird stuff. And then of course I did see it one more time and it was better in the end. I’ll say each time I watched that I had a different experience, but it’s okay. It’s a really good film.  RAY:  I’m going to plead the fifth on this one. No, I think it’s a brilliant film. I just have to compartmentalize it and pretend it’s not me because I hate to watch myself. It’s just my own issue of self-esteem and all that we deal with our whole lives. But I just know it’s really good. I think the arc is super interesting. I know all that. And when there are scenes in it where I’m like, I don’t want to show that to anybody. I think to myself, take one for the team. Who is the team? Alexandria’s the team. Take one for the team. Because ultimately she’s the filmmaker, she’s the director, she’s the editor. And I have this massive reverence for filmmakers because I’m basically married to one, my partner. I mean, we’re not married, but anyway, 20 years. So, I have this thing where I’m like defer to the filmmaker, defer to the filmmaker. It’s their vision, it’s their film. It doesn’t have our name on it. It’s not directed by Indigo Girls. And so it’s like trust because if you don’t trust, you just dilute the whole thing and it becomes just a bunch of cut-up pieces that don’t make any sense to anybody. So, that’s how I looked at it and you just have to grin and bear it. I don’t watch it anymore, except there are certain scenes I want to see, which are the pictures of old friends or the “Indigenous Women’s Network” pictures. Because a lot of those women are not alive anymore and they were so close to us.  —Compiled by B. Heit