Sunday, June 24, 2007

Starting a whole new discussion about gender in America - Interview with Jennifer Fox, director & subject of Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman

Jennifer Fox is the director of the Sundance Film Festival 2007 premiered Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman. Flying is a six hour long, six part documentary that explores the life of Fox and her female friends around the world as they deal with major issues as well as minor challenges and interesting details that come their way. Among other situations, the movie deals with Fox's own debate regarding getting married and also regarding having children, her romantic relationships, a major illness of a friend, and a divorce of another friend. Flying opens for a New York City theatrical run on July 4th at Film Forum and will be available throughout the US and several other countries through theatrical exhibition, television broadcasts and on DVD in the coming months. I spoke with Fox recently about her acclaimed documentary.

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About Jennifer Fox (from the Flying website): Jennifer Fox is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning director, producer, camera woman and educator who has been involved in countless documentaries over the last 25 years. Her first film, BEIRUT THE LAST HOME MOVIE was broadcast in 20 countries and won seven international awards, including Best Documentary Film and Best Cinematography at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival and Best Documentary of the Year at 1988 Cinema Du Reel Festival. She directed the groundbreaking ten hour PBS television series AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY, which received a Gracie Award for Best Television Series and was named ”One of the Top Ten Television Series of 1999” by The New York Times and five other major American papers. Her current work, the cutting edge six part film, FLYING: CONFESSIONS OF A FREE WOMAN was made through a unique Danish American co-production and was funded by the Danish Film Institute, TV-2 Denmark, BBC, ARTE, YLE-1, SBS, SVT, ICON & Humanist Channels Netherlands and HBO -- and was awarded a prestigious Creative Capital Grant. Fox is currently preparing to edit a new feature documentary, filmed over fifteen years, called LEARNING TO SWIM, co-produced with the Dutch Buddhist Television Network (BOS). Fox has Executive Produced many films including the award-winners: LOVE & DIANE; ON THE ROPES; DOUBLE EXPOSURE; PROJECT TEN: REAL STORIES FROM A FREE SOUTH AFRICA; COWBOYS, LAWYERS AND INDIANS; and the soon to be released, "ABSOLUTELY SAFE?". She has consulted on numerous documentaries, including SOUTHERN COMFORT and STONE READER. Fox is one of the subjects of two documentaries on filmmaking, "THE HECK WITH HOLLYWOOD!" by Doug Block, and CINEMA VERITE, DEFINING THE MOMENT by Peter Wintonic.

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Sujewa: What's been the audience reaction to your movie? Are women very appreciative, in general, for the fact that your movie exists? Since there does not seem to be a lot of movies that go into great detail (compared to those about men) about all aspects of the female experience.

Jennifer: The audience reaction to the film has been amazing, especially from women. Many women have come up to me and said that they’d never seen a film that actually shows their real lives until they watched FLYING. The interesting thing is that the film tends to appeal to people of all ages, but for very different reasons. I remember being in Sweden and a 20 something young man and two young women came up to me. They were friends and were saying this is what they talked about all the time, these are the issues they are struggling with for their futures, but they’d never seen it on film before. At the same time, I’ve seen women in their forties respond to the film for other reasons. They feel that the complicated issues of being a woman today are finally being addressed on film. Unlike the young people, who are on the verge of making decisions and so their dialogue is full of these questions; the older women have actually experienced my dilemma first hand. By seeing me go through what they have struggled with, they feel understood for the first time.

Sujewa: How do men who have seen your movie feel about it? So far I have seen 1.25 episodes & liked what I saw, looking forward to watching the rest of the movie when I get a chance (which WILL be before the flick plays in NYC starting 7/4, i want to see the rest of the episodes all in one sitting). Have men been bored by the movie or is there a range of responses, from being interested in the project to being very enthusiastic about the project?

Jennifer: There is definitely a range of responses I’ve seen from men. Many men really love the film. My editor in Demark who is a man, Niels Pagh Andersen, responded to the footage immediately, because he felt he was living a similar life to me. He wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, had a string of love relationships, and like me, he was living in a period of history where the old rules for men no longer applied. He felt as lost as I did and he related to my dilemma, just as the young man in Sweden did. As Niels said recently: “Of course FLYING will appeal to a female audience, but to say it is nothing for men, is to reduce the modern man to a cliche, that belongs in our fathers generation.” I think with the issue of modern life, men and women struggle equally to define their lives when the old expectations have been nullified. Yet in the “new world”, men, like women, are also haunted by traditional gender values. How do I be open, emotional, and sensitive, while at the same time being masculine, powerful, and aggressive? Should I get married? Should I have children? Men are asking these questions equally (although I still think, as a woman, the issue of having children is a different conundrum for women than for men, but this is a longer discussion). The other response I’ve heard from men is a kind of thrill to be let into the “secret world” of women’s conversations that they’ve never been allowed to enter before. A lot of men have told me they feel like they’re getting the hidden guide to femaleness that will help them negotiate with women in their own lives. It’s like they are sitting in a room that normally they’d be kicked out of. A lot of men have come up to me and said how amazing it is to discover what women really talk about when they’re not there!
Of course, there are a small percentage of men, often older men, who find the film to be “too female”. I remember a fifty-something man came up to me after the film and said that this is exactly why he leaves the room when his wife and her friends get together. He said: “I don’t want to hear about menstruation, menopause, or babies, I’d rather watch the ball game!” There are a percentage of men who respond like this, but surprisingly it is relatively few.

Sujewa: In your movie you say that you modeled yourself to a large degree, when it comes to living your life, on your father. Do you think becoming a filmmaker was seen as a male & freeing thing by you when you were younger?

Jennifer: When I was younger I didn’t see things in terms of gender, so it is hard to respond to the question of whether I see filmmaking as masculine. I wanted to have the freedom to do anything I wanted – bar nothing - and I didn’t categorize things as gender specific. I was very naïve. I had no sense of history, no sense of the feminist movement, no sense of what women before me had fought for, to allow me to arrive at 20 years old and say I want to be a filmmaker and not have it be an impossible dream. All I know is that I wanted to do what I wanted to do. It is only looking back now, as a 40+ year old, that I realize that filmmaking requires a lot of “male qualities”. But I would say that, especially in documentary, it is really a mixture of female and male traits. Certainly people would consider the part of me that holds the camera, which is the cinematographer, as being the male aspect of my character. But the part of me that connects with other people, that gets them to reveal their lives, which is about community and compassion, would be considered female. I think for this reason, women often make better documentary filmmakers because it is such a feminine art (but we could get into a huge debate about this!).

Sujewa: Are female filmmakers, in general, supportive of your work & career or do they see you as a threat & as competition?

Jennifer: I think the issue of competition in any field is very individual. I have many girlfriends who are filmmakers who have really kept me going on this project and in my career. They’ve given me love and support and believed in the idea of this film when I was lacking in confidence. In fact it was a dear friend in London who was in the film business who was my biggest supporter for years, all through my 30’s. Whenever I was down, I’d go visit her for a few days and we’d sit down and have long girl talks until I was OK again. I always left her home feeling whole and ready to face “the good fight”. She was actually the first inspiration to make FLYING; she was the one who opened my eyes to how women hold each other together. So for me I don’t think of competition between women, I think more of support. I think competition really happens between strangers. When you don’t know someone, you often feel more competitive than if you have a relationship with him or her, but this is human nature and has nothing to do with being a woman.

Sujewa: What is your recommendation on how to watch the movie? As a mini-series, 1 episode a week or as an epic movie, all six episodes in one sitting?

Jennifer: I think how you watch the film is very individual. To my surprise, I’ve gotten feedback from people who have the DVDs and said “I watched all six hours in one night” or “I only stopped watching because I had to go out and I finished watching the next day.” People use the word “addictive” quite a bit when they tell me about the film and I’m thrilled about that. This was my hope when making FLYING, but you never know if you’ll succeed. On the other hand the way the film is structured I think you can watch one hour a week and it holds together. I see the film like a book in chapters, you can read one chapter a night or you can read a whole book in a night. It depends on your reading habits.

Sujewa: It seems like that there are still far fewer female directors in indie & also Hollywood fiction filmmaking. What do you recommend for young women (or older women for that matter) who are interested in becoming fiction or doc film directors? What are some steps that they should take? Or, at this point, in your view, is access to filmmaking a level playing field & gender neutral so that women should just feel free to do whatever their male counterparts do in developing a filmmaking career?

Jennifer: Gender doesn’t go away in any field. And like in any profession, the more money that is at stake, the more the power often rests in the hands of men -- or there are more men in power positions. That is why documentaries tend to have more women involved, especially in the lower budget documentaries. But when you go around the world the so-called “top” documentarians are mostly always men. I can’t tell you how many panels I’ve been on where I am the only woman with four or five men. It makes me really angry because what message are we sending? The only important artists are men? I think no society in the world has gotten away from the issue of gender, even in 2007. We pretend that we’re beyond it in the West but it is alive and well under the surface. You just don’t change thousands of years of gender politics in a few generations, because we carry the ghost of our forefathers’ and foremothers inside of us. None of us are free – myself included.

Sometimes I hear younger women say there are no gender problems in the film world and I must admit that 10 years ago that could have been me saying that! But now I realize what it took for me to get to where I am now was to pretend that gender didn’t exist - to put on blinders and go forward no matter what. And most young women now are like I was, I didn’t want to talk about gender, gender only slowed me down. I was scared to admit that there was a difference. Because if I admitted the problem, I felt I could be stopped by it. But now I think it is important to see and discuss the differences between men and women and to try to find a way to have real equality in the workplace.

Sujewa: Is Flying a first, as in, has there been other docs like it where the filmmaker examines aspects of her romantic & sexual relationships & difficult situations that her & her female friends face world wide? I've never heard of another movie like that but I am not an expert on documentary film history.

Jennifer: I think FLYING is paving a way for a new genre of filmmaking. In FLYING we merge the personal documentary and the survey documentary into a new hybrid form. We’ve seen filmmakers put themselves in survey films but they limit their role to an external one, the narrator pursuing an external truth. They don’t revel themselves personally on film – like they would in a personal film. FLYING depends on both my personal revelation and the revelations of others on the path of my survey. It uniquely puts five different circles of women together into one film: me; my girlfriends in New York; my girlfriends around the world; the women in my family; and the women strangers who I meet in on my travels. Generally films will have one of these circles or two at best, but here we are weaving a much wider fabric than that to show how all five of these circles have something in common. We’re also using a new, and slightly radical, technique called “Passing the Camera”, where the camera is passed between myself the so-called, “filmmaker”, and the so-called, “subject”. In today’s world we’ve seen filmmakers give subjects cameras to film their own lives but we have never seen the filmmaker give the subject the ability to expose the filmmaker.

Sujewa: I felt that episode 1 was very dramatic, or, full of dramatic situations. Did you think about, at some point, adding more humor to the episode? Episode 2 seems a little bit lighter in tone (what I've seen of it so far, about 20 mins.), but maybe that's because I am familiar with the characters & the situations from episode 1.

Jennifer: I think that we use a very light, playful hand in FLYING. Many of the situations and circumstances you’ll see in the six hours are tragic, but I didn’t want the viewer to think those women’s lives or my life was tragic. I hate pity, I hate it for myself and I hate it for other people. The worst idea is for people to watch the film and think: “Oh that poor spinster Jennifer Fox” or ‘Oh, her poor friend who has a brain tumor or is divorced” or “Oh, those poor women around the world who are so downtrodden”. I think of us as heroes! Not “heroes” with a capital “H” like men in action films, but quiet heroes who don’t have to shout about it. I wanted to tell a story about women who lead their lives with humor, irony and camaraderie without making big pronouncements or lying in bed crying all the time. So in this film, we tried to have a tone of lightness especially thorough the use of the music. Our theme music uses the accordion and is based on the waltz. It says: isn’t life strange? Isn’t life funny? The film should have a kind of Alice In Wonderland feel. I think it makes the film hopeful rather than dark.

Sujewa: Documentaries of all types seem to have become more popular & visible over the last 10 years. Do you think the American public is, to a significant degree, tired of escapist fictional entertainment or are there other reasons for the spike in doc popularity?

Jennifer: Documentaries are exploding all over the world because a great documentary is better than fiction. If you ask me I would rather read a memoir before I read a novel any day. Memoirs use fiction strategies with real life. There’s a lot in a memoir I can take to help me in my own life. Today, documentaries are using more fiction strategies to shape them into a more understandable and enjoyable form for a wider audience, but at the same time you get the best kick of all – they are true!

Sujewa: Are you happy with the distribution arrangement for Flying? Or do you want to see it play wider theatrically on top of the television broadcasts & the limited theatrical? I am not sure exactly what kind of distribution doc makers dream about, for us fiction people wide theatrical is still a big deal.

Jennifer: I am thrilled with the distribution for FLYING. It’s a very big film but its already been sold to nine countries around the world for Television including the Sundance Channel in the US. We are launching it theatrically in New York and plan on a wide theatrical distribution across America in every major city. In addition, we’re doing a college tour in the US in the fall/winter and we’ll have a big DVD release later next year. This is beyond my wildest expectations!! My goal is that FLYING starts a whole new discussion about gender in America. Things can’t get better than this!

Thanks Jennifer!

- Sujewa

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