by Katie Carman-Lehach
There's no greater American success story than that of the Williams sisters: Venus and Serena, born a year apart but basically twins, who grew up in the rough & tumble neighborhood of Compton, California only to become two of the highest ranking female tennis players in history. But their success has not come for free, and this new documentary from directors Michelle Major and Maiken Baird, takes us behind the scenes and beyond the hype to learn the true story of these incredible athlete warriors. Contributing writer Katie Carman-Lehach had the opportunity to sit down with the directors recently to get the lowdown on what it was really like to spend so much time with the Williams sisters, what they found most surprising about their relationship, and also what their experience has been like as female filmmakers producing this female-centric doc.
(Originally published at Her Film on April 24, 2012.)
Therese Shechter deftly uses humor-spiked, personal narrative to chronicle feminism and sexuality, and is proud to have been labeled a “Brazen Advocate of Slut Culture” by conservative bloggers. Her first documentary I Was A Teenage Feminist has screened from Stockholm to Delhi to Rio and at Serbia’s first-ever Women’s Film Festival. Therese has created videos and written about virginity and feminism on the film’s blog and in the Chicago Tribune, the Bitch Magazine blog, Adios Barbie and Women & Hollywood. She was recently a featured panelist at Harvard University’s “Rethinking Virginity” Conference and at MomentumCon: Feminism, Sexuality and Relationships in Washington. Therese’s short documentary How I Learned to Speak Turkish has screened internationally and her production company Trixie Films is based in Brooklyn and sometimes at a little cafe in Istanbul.
“I won’t tell you how to have sex for the first time, but I do want to know why we’re so obsessed with female virginity.”
The US government has spent 1.5 billion dollars promoting it. It has fetched tens of thousands of dollars at auction. And 50 years after the sexual revolution, it continues to define a young woman’s morality and self-worth. Using her own path out of ‘virginity’ to guide the narrative, filmmaker Therese Shechter creates a far-reaching and very personal dialogue with women along the sexuality spectrum, revealing the myths and misconceptions behind this so-called precious gift.
Her Film: You’ve been working on your documentary How to Lose Your Virginity for the past several years. Can you update us on the film?
Therese Shechter: We’re almost done editing the film, which is very exciting. This is the most challenging part because this film’s subject is complicated, and there are a lot of moving pieces. I really like tackling big concepts like feminism and virginity by getting at them through very personal stories, both my subjects’ and mine. Then we’ll be working with our composer and animator to add the finishing touches. By the time we’re clearing footage and correcting color and mixing sound, I’ll be in heaven because the heavy lifting will be behind us. Frankly, I’m exhausted.
Needless to say, this all costs a lot of money, so this Kickstarter is really crucial. I’m so psyched to finish it and get it out in the world. We just did a great little sneak preview at the Momentum conference for many of the top folks in feminism and sexuality. I get contacted by distributors, film festivals and college professors all the time asking “Is it done? Is it done?” and I really can’t wait to say “Yes! Here it is!”
HF: How are you building your audience?
TS: We’ve been building our audience almost from the very beginning through our blog. Some people do blogs to track their filmmaking process, but I was a lot more interested in the topic of virginity itself. I initially wrote posts that called out a lot of the sexism and bad science around abstinence-until-marriage programs, and the disturbing outbreak of virginity auctions all over the world. Then I branched out into pop culture as well as creating a space for our audience to talk about their own personal experiences with virginity culture.
Plus there’s the constant back and forth of Facebook and Twitter posts, sharing little bits of video online, supporting other writers and filmmakers doing sexuality-related work, and writing for other publications on the topic. I recently did something about virginity loss myths for a great site called Adios Barbie, and did a breakdown of the virginity loss stereotypes in an episode of “Glee” for Women & Hollywood. I think you have to create a good balance between interesting information and dialogue with your audience if you want to build that anticipation and goodwill. We can see it with the response to our fundraising campaign, with so many people supporting a project they already feel invested in personally.
HF: I’ve taken a few looks at the blog you have to support the storytelling and sharing around the topic of virginity, and you include many first-person pieces. It’s amazing and inspiring to see how many people are willing to share information about something so personal as their virginity and sexuality. What inspired you to introduce this type of “confessional-style” blog post?
TS: I love First Person, and since we launched it in 2009, it’s become the most popular thing on the blog. I was inspired by fellow virginity geek Kate Monro who writes a blog called The Virginity Project in the UK. Aside from her work, most everything else I found was very mainstream and almost nothing outside of religious sites addressed people who weren’t sexually active. I could tell from our blog comments I had a lot of folks out there whose experiences–and even definitions of virginity–didn’t conform to the black-and-white stereotypes of pop culture. So I started building this collection of what I like to call “sexual debuts and deferrals.”
We’ve run stories from a woman who lost her straight, gay and three-way virginity in one night (hey, it worked for her); a Mormon college student who first wrote about being a virgin and then did an update after she had forbidden pre-marital sex (verdict: meh); and we get quite a few submissions from guys in their 30s and 40s who talk about what it’s like to be an older male virgin (not good). We’ve also run several First Persons by women who had intercourse for the first time because of sexual assault, and they want to share their experiences and recovery with others. My favorites are the “update” First Persons that I get when a previous poster starts having sex. One woman said the first three people she told were her roommate, her best friend and me for the blog. I kind of love that.
There’s a lot of silence around how and why and if we become sexual and I think these stories really help us all feel less weird and alone. I really could have used this when I felt like the very last virgin in art school.
HF: Are there differences in what you’ve learned through the actual filming of the documentary and the interactions you have with people online through your blog or twitter, for example?
TS: When I started working on the film, I was really focusing on young women being shamed for being sexual and the value that’s place on virginity. It was in the zeitgeist and was getting all the attention. But when I started getting the First Persons, I was surprised at how many were coming from people in their 20′s who were ashamed of not being sexually active and that became a much bigger part of my film and the blog.
I think it goes without saying that it’s far, far easier to get candid stories from anonymous writers than getting people to talk about the same things on camera. I’m really grateful to the people agreed to be filmed. They’re very smart and thoughtful about their intimate lives, and they provide an antidote to the way we usually hear stories about sex: Reality TV and porn.
HF: Can you talk about your current crowdfunding campaign and the phases of your financing for the film (where the money goes)? In a message to me earlier this year on twitter, you said you’d “love to mention how much ‘low budget’ docs cost, because some backers don’t know why $13K didn’t cover all our costs.” Any challenges in dealing with financial backers that you’d like to talk about?
WATCH THE TRAILER FOR How To Lose Your Virginity
TS: Since 2008, almost every independent documentary filmmaker has been struggling to find financing for their projects. Not that it was so easy before, but now foundations have even smaller endowments than ever and many TV networks are either only looking at finished films or have abandoned documentaries altogether in favor of reality shows.
We’re currently doing a Kickstarter to raise $35,000 to pay for the rest of our edit, our composer and our animator. If we don’t meet our goal I’m really not sure how we’re going to finish the film. We got through production thanks to an amazing group of DPs and producers who worked for free or lowered fees, lots of interns doing the research and one very small fundraiser. Then we had our first Kickstarter and raised $13,000 which paid for about five weeks of editing. For the rest of it I’ve had to beg, borrow and reach very deep into my own pockets to keep things going.
The average documentary you see on TV will cost half a million to a million dollars to complete, and that often means hundreds of thousands of dollars of free labor by the filmmakers. A lot of our non-filmmaker backers have no idea, and really why should they? We have to keep educating them on what things cost and the fact that you really do have to pay your full-time editor a salary for at least several months. And also about how it takes so incredibly long to finish something because you have to keep stopping to raise (or earn) more money.
I think that once people understand what goes into a documentary, they’re amazingly supportive. I’m been blown away by the support we’re getting for this campaign and the abundant generosity of complete strangers. We can’t relax until May 9th, though. If we don’t meet our $35,000 goal by then, we don’t get anything, so it’s going to be a little intense until then.
Read a recent article at the Huffington Post on female sexuality which discusses Shechter’s new film: “Virgins, Bondage and a Shameful Media Fail” by Soraya Chemaly.
To connect with this filmmaker, support her film and to learn more about her work, check out these links:
Crowdfunding: Kickstarter (15 days to go with $35,000 campaign goal. As of this blog post, $16,682 has been raised)
Her Film Interview from June 21, 2010: Click here.
How to Lose Your Virginity Blog: www.virginitymovie.com
Trixie Films (production co.): www.TrixieFilms.com
(Originally published at Her Film on June 21, 2010)
This week’s installment of the rapid-fire Q & A with women filmmakers focuses on the work of Therese Shechter, a widely recognized feminist filmmaker (woot!) who makes fascinating movies. In particular, we focus on the topic of virginity and how she is making her newest documentary film How to Lose Your Virginity. After I noticed she was following Her Film on Twitter I thought that would be a nice intro to asking her if she’d like to do a Q & A for the blog. She was kind enough to say “yes” and I had a real ball reading her responses. Here’s hoping you do, too! Lots to learn from this important artist…
BIO: Therese Shechter is a filmmaker who uses humor-spiked, personal narrative to make award-winning documentaries including I Was A Teenage Feminist and How I Learned to Speak Turkish. She writes about virginity and feminism for her blog The American Virgin and other blogs and publications.
After 10 years as a Chicago Tribune graphics editor, she gave it all up to work for Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Productions in New York, before going out on her own. She’s won coveted spots in the Doc Lab Master Class (Toronto Hot Docs 2008 Festival) and was one of 5 filmmakers selected for the Paley DocFest 2009 Pitch Workshop. Therese worked at Sundance through 7 festivals, where she was inspired by countless independent filmmakers. Therese is a stealth Canadian who is based in Brooklyn.
Learn more about Therese Shechter’s work:
KICKSTARTER page for Therese Shechter’s new film
The American Virgin blog
@TrixieFilms on Twitter
Trixie Films website
On to the Q & A…
Q: With the feature documentary film I Was a Teenage Feminist under your belt, you are now focusing on a new project, How to Lose Your Virginity, which is another feature doc. Can you discuss how you came to concentrate your efforts on this topic and how your two films might relate?
A: I think all my films look at the world through a feminist lens. Of the two shorts I’ve done, How I Learned to Speak Turkish is about sexuality and power and Womanly Perfection is about body image. Taken along with I Was A Teenage Feminist, which I think is about finding a political and personal identity, they all feed into to the ideas I’m playing with in How to Lose your Virginity. I also would say that the virginity project is similar stylistically to I Was a Teenage Feminist—it’s funny, there’s a lot of intimacy with subjects, and I use my personal experience to make universal points.
When my editor and I were cutting I Was A Teenage Feminist, we watched a lot of those old ‘Now You Are A Woman’ films from the 1950s. I was struck not only by how useless the information was, but also how they kept telling girls that the only way to avoid social and physical ruin was to be a ‘good’ girl (read: a girl who doesn’t have sex). The abstinence-until-marriage programs (which the government still funds, by the way) are really just a present-day extension of those ideas. I started to wonder what we were telling young women about their sexuality, especially given that pop culture is full of highly sexualized girls that seem to be the polar opposite of this ‘good girl’ expectation.
I realized that it all comes down to the same message: that women should model themselves on images of male desire. In trying to mold themselves into either virgin or whore (or an impossible combination of both), women are constantly working to fit someone else’s needs instead of pursuing their own sexual identities.
On a personal note, I was planning my own wedding at the time of the shooting, and was getting a little freaked out by all the chastity-based wedding rituals and coded wedding accessories. What would it mean for me to embrace the white dress, don a veil, and be ‘given away’? What would that say about my own sexual autonomy and identity? It echoes the narration of I Was a Teenage Feminist where I refer to myself as “a woman who feels incredible pressure to conform to an ideal that I don’t even buy into. Is it possible to be who I want to be without judgment, or apology or compromise?”
Q: In American culture, virginity experiences a dichotomous treatment. The social state of virginity is also binary in nature — you either are or you aren’t, at least socially. What differences do you see between gender, age and sexual orientation when the topic of virginity is discussed?
A: Virginity is basically a complex social construct that’s always been more about female sexuality than male. There’s actually no medical definition, and our conventional concept of ‘losing your virginity’ through penis-in-vagina sex is incredibly narrow. Is a penis really the only way to turn a woman into a sexual person? How then do lesbians lose their virginity? Do we suddenly become sexual beings or is it gradual? When we lose our virginity, what specifically are we losing, if anything at all?
In queer communities, the concept of virginity loss is far more nuanced and individualistic because it doesn’t fit into established hetero understandings about sex. But although ideas about how a person loses his or her virginity might vary, there is still some point where most of us cross a threshold of sexual initiation. It may be a construct, but it’s still an important defining moment – however we define it.
You can see how important it is when you speak to older virgins who for whatever reason haven’t yet had sex. I hear from a lot of them through my blog The American Virgin, and there’s a lot of shame and secrecy around being an older virgin (which I think can begin as young as your early 20s). Everyone thinks everyone else is having sex but them, but it’s just not true.
In the same way that the blog offers young women the space to be sexual beings on their own terms, it tells people who don’t feel ready for sex (or aren’t into it at all) that they’re not freaks. I get a lot of letters along the lines of: “I generally feel like I’m harboring a shameful secret, and before I found your blog was pretty convinced that I was the only woman in her mid-twenties who had never had sex.” Speaking as someone who became sexually active only after college, I can really relate. I hope to make that perspective a dynamic part of the film.
Q: I hear from filmmakers over and over that people don’t give money to films, they give money to people. How do you approach potential financial supporters of your film when dealing with what is seen by many as an extraordinarily private topic? How do you sell the story? (Feel free to plug away!)
A: You know, it was hard enough to fundraise for a film about feminism. Some people had such negative reactions to even just the word. But imagine a film that uses “penis,” “vagina” and ‘anal sex’ liberally. With older people especially, the pitch and the trailer can get uncomfortable. And I’m pretty sure that my parents, while being personally supportive, are not bragging about it to their friends.
On the other hand, I Was A Teenage Feminist is really well known in the feminist community, so I come with some good references and a sort of anticipation for what I’ll do next.
Unfortunately, there’s also very little money in this community, so with our current fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, we’re relying on a lot of small contributions adding up to a large goal. We’ve raised almost $7000 this way, but we still need another $3000 to meet our July 1 deadline. Kickstarter is a great new way for creative projects to get funding, but it comes with a catch: if you don’t meet your goal, you don’t get a cent. We’re all working really hard to get the word out to as many people as possible. Even a $10 donation makes a difference. Plus, if people give more, we give them cool rewards. We’re like public television, but without the tote bags.
Q: Please talk a bit about your experiences with interviewees… [and] tell us a bit about your production team and how you work with a crew when dealing with people’s (interviewees’) deeply personal experiences?
A: When I interview someone, I want it to be as casual and as intimate as possible. I want them to talk right to the audience, so they look directly at the camera, not off to the side. And I like to shoot them in their natural environments as much as possible. We have a tiny crew. Sometimes it’s just me, and at most it’s my DP and one PA and minimal if any lights. We give up on some of the beauty, but like I said, I want it to be intimate so subjects can talk about really personal things and feel safe doing it. I’m always humbled by the things they’re willing to share. Of course, the more they are able to share, the more likely it is someone in the audience might find something to relate to.
I’m also very open with them about my own experiences during the interview. I figure I should be just as willing to talk about whatever I’m asking of them. It helps to have a blog I can point to so they can see my approach to the topic. Of course, that backfires when you’re trying to get the Purity Ball people on camera. It doesn’t take much of a Google search to find out I’m not a fan of their philosophy, but I’m not going to misrepresent myself to get an interview. So that’s an ongoing challenge.
Another challenge has been finding older virgins who are willing to be on camera. If they’re religious and are waiting until marriage, they’re more comfortable with talking about it. But people who are virgins of circumstance are often too embarrassed to be on camera, even in shadow. So, I’m currently in search of more subjects who are older virgins, especially people of color and members of queer or trans communities. People should definitely contact me if they’re interested.
Q: How long have you spent thus far on How to Lose Your Virginity and what have you personally taken away from it?
A: I first started researching the topic four years ago. But in terms of more concentrated work, it’s been about three years on and off. You know how it is–you work in spurts when there’s funding and when there’s inspiration. When the economy tanked I had to focus on paid work, so it went on the back burner. Since last fall it’s been a priority again. We were part of the Paley Docfest Pitch Workshop late last year, which prompted me to cut a new trailer. The audience and panel response was so great that I knew I had to get the thing done as soon as I could.
Personally, it’s been an interesting way to look at my own sexual history and see if and how it defines me. I started late, but then really made up for lost time, as they say. The abstinence people claim a lot of casual pre-marital sex will doom my marriage, so I’m waiting to see how that goes. And now people refer to me as a sex blogger, which I find sort of hilarious, even though I guess they’re more or less right.
A heartfelt thank you to Therese Shechter for doing this Q & A and helping to support Her Film!
NOTES: Some pieces by and about Therese Shechter are linked below, but this is by no means a comprehensive list!
“The Difficulty in Defining Virginity: A Conversation that Continues”
“Rave On: Filmmaker Therese Shechter on Woman: An Intimate Geography”
“The Doc Doctor’s Anatomy of a Film: ‘I Was a Teenage Feminist’”
“How Funders are like Crushes and Other Sundance Morsels”
Guest post by Nilagia McCoy
“Maidentrip” is a documentary about Laura Dekker of Holland, who at age 14 embarked upon a two-year journey to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone.
Winner of the 2013 SXSW audience choice award, “Maidentrip” is also a study in collaboration between filmmaker and subject. Laura Dekker herself was instrumental in the film’s production, shooting her own footage at sea, and shaping the final narrative.
The story begins in 2009, when Laura is ensnared in a messy legal battle with Dutch authorities that attempt to stop her trip. She also becomes the subject of harsh media scrutiny, and is portrayed as deranged and spoiled. After a year, Laura is free to set sail aboard her forty-foot ship, Guppy, to pursue her dream.
Life at sea is not easy. Laura is a skilled sailor, but her travels across three oceans are long, often lonely, and sometimes treacherous. Candid shots of Laura are interspersed with scenes of the open sea, intimate voiceovers, and a soundscape that places the viewer in the belly of the boat right alongside Laura. The results are striking. We witness Laura’s exhilaration while riding out a storm, her wistful gratitude for the company of dolphins, and her discovery that she enjoys the solitude that only the ocean can provide.
Laura’s odyssey is punctuated by adventures in ports and islands along the way, from mountaintop hiking to diving in the Galapagos. She encounters kindred spirits at these stops; there are others like her who prefer life on a boat, and who understand her wanderlust. Together they form a genuine, if transient, community.
At its core, “Maidentrip” is a coming-of-age story about a teenager trying to find her way in the world. Laura travels the sometimes frustrating path of following your passion, even when it means leaving behind those you love, or pushing on in the face of doubt. In the end, Laura is more confident of her place in the world for having circled it.
NM: What inspired you to make this film?
JS: I was intrigued by Laura’s story from the start, when I read an op-ed about her in the New York Times in 2009. There were so many different opinions about her in the media, but I didn’t see her point of view represented anywhere. So I reached out to her because I wanted to work with her to tell her own story.
NM: It’s pretty clear in the film that Laura doesn’t like media attention or reporters. How were you able to collaborate and gain access to Laura’s personal life?
JS: Laura was actively involved in every stage of the process; that is part of what worked so well about making the film. Everyone on the crew treated her as a collaborator, as much as a subject. Everything shot at sea was shot by Laura alone. We never said what to film, or how often – it was totally self-directed.
For the voiceovers, we didn’t do sit down interviews. We gave her a recorder and we gave her topics to focus on, but she recorded them by herself, both in port and at sea. Media coverage is so hard because you’re asked lots of questions and you have to respond on the spot. When you sit alone and think about what you want to say and collect your thoughts, you can be more open and introspective.
NM: And then your crew would meet her as she stopped at the various ports and islands on her trip?
JS: Yes, I met Laura twice in Holland before she left and then at seven ports during her voyage, sometimes on my own or with a cinematographer. That went on for about a year and a half. It was more like being on an adventure with a friend than following a subject, and it was always with a very small crew.
NM: I found the sound design and score in the film quite powerful; the music highlights the moods in the film subtly but effectively, and the use of ambient sound adds a rich layer to the experience. Could you speak about those elements?
JS: We had Laura capture sound at sea, too. It was important that the sound be as much of a focus as the visuals. I wanted the film to be as experiential as possible, to capture the sites and sounds of what it’s like to be at sea, to be transported to this other world, and see it through Laura’s eyes.
For the music, we worked with composer Ben Sollee, who was open to experimentation with different instruments and using traditional instruments in unusual ways. We wanted the music to have the same spirit of freedom and adventure as the film itself, so some music was improvised on the spot.
NM: Can you discuss the editing process? How did you balance Laura’s personal story with the narrative that you wanted to tell about her? Whose story is it in the end?
JS: Laura came to New York and slept on my couch for a month to help us get a solid cut of the film. Our editor, Penelope Falk, was looking for what would make a great film, and Laura wanted to make sure that her story, her truth, came through. We first cut the physical journey – the significant events in the story – and then we interwove the emotional story. I think the end result is a film that is really true to Laura’s emotional and physical experience, and is also something people can connect with and feel inspired by.
“Maidentrip” will screen at Hot Docs in Toronto, Canada, April 28 and 30, and May 5, 2013. View a clip on Vimeo and learn more at www.maidentrip.com.
Her.Stories: McCarthy and Bullock, Palestine's first female director, women at Tribeca, mentoring directors and more
Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock defend women in comedy 'what cave do you live in?'
A plea from Palestine's first female director
at The Independent
Tribeca Film Festival to Honor Memory of Nora Ephron
at Reel Life with Jane
Spotlight on Women Directors at Tribeca Film Festival
at Reel Life with Jane
Girls on Film: Of course we need more female directors!
at The Week
Women of Influence: A director empowering women in film
at Portland Business Journal
Kathleen Kennedy Accepts 2013 Pioneer of the Year Award at CinemaCon
Malgorzata Szumowska's film about gay priest wins at International Women's Festival in Dortmund
at Polish Radio
Cannes Unveils 2013 Line Up With One Female Director in Main Competition
at Women and Hollywood
Only Two Percent of 2012's Top Films Were Shot by Women
TODAY: Support Women Artists Now (SWAN)
at Huffington Post
Visit the SWAN day calendar at WomenArts
Bringing Films and Their 'Extended Families' to the 2103 Women Deliver Cinema Corner
at Huffington Post
How Two Women Aim to Get More Female Directors Behind the Camera
It’s high time more women ran the arts
at The Telegraph
There are many inspirational women directors - they're just not rewarded in the same way men are
at the London Evening Standard
Arab women directors find acclaim worldwide
Film-maker Kim Longinotto: Uncovering a global crime
at the BBC
EVENT (April 12): Diablo Cody, Maya Rudolph, Nancy Meyers on Chapman Film School Women in Comedy Panel
at OC Weekly
VIDEO: Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy talking about Sex and Commodification of Women in Film
Her.Stories: WAM! Fest in Boston, Women-Hollywood-Financing, Arab women filmmakers, 'The Startup Kids' and more
WAM! (Women, Action and the Media) Boston Film Festival Starts Today
Why Women in Hollywood Can't Get Film Financing
at Bloomberg Businessweek
Filmmor Fest (in Turkey) starts with female directors
at Hurriyet Daily
Arab women and the ‘big screen’
at Al Arabiya
SheDocs Online Film Festival Runs to End of March
at Ms. Magazine
Backed By Kickstarter And Full Of Tech Cameos, ‘The Startup Kids’ Movie Debuts On iTunes
at Tech Crunch
WATCH THE TRAILER:
Light at the end of the tunnel (Review of First International Film Festival on Women - Afghanistan)
at The Hindu
Through Women's Eyes Film Festival Schedule Released
at Bradenton Patch
We’re scared people... won’t accept women-centric films: Seema Biswas
at the Hindustan Times
Women In Power Film Festival Launches in New York
at the Democrat and Chronicle
Filmmaking couple works to tell Bangladeshi woman's story
Cate Shortland: Building From the Details
at Under the Radar
Her.Stories: Afghanistan's first women's film fest, female Cuban filmmakers tour U.S., Tribeca, Zimbabwean 'women of peace,' all-woman crew make Kannada film
International Women's Day to be marked by film festival in Afghanistan (country's first women's film festival)
at Stars and Stripes
Top female Cuban filmmakers visit U.S. for three-city showcase
at the Los Angeles Times
Tribeca Film Festival Announces 2013 Lineup: Women Directors
at Women and Hollywood
Women filmmakers preach peace (at the International Images Film Festival for Women in Zimbabwe)
at News Day
All-woman crew set to make Kannada film
at The Hindu
Women writers/directors benefit from AFCOOP's Film 5 program
at The Chronicle Herald
AsiaLens focus on Korean women filmmakers
at Asia Society
The other side of the lens (women in Indian cinema)
at the Deccan Herald
Penelope Spheeris at POWfest (interview)
at Oregon Live
Vancouver International Women in Film Festival salutes producer, filmmaker for their contributions to the industry
at the Vancouver Sun
Asian Women’s Film Festival in town (India chapter)
at the Deccan Herald
by Kyna Morgan
A lyrical and haunting portrait of reindeer herding in the twilight expanses of the Lapland wilderness.
Congratulations on having your film Reindeer selected for the Sundance Film Festival this year in the New Frontier category! What did you find most interesting about this subject, the reindeer or the herders, or both?
I was always fascinated by the idea of going to Lapland, and seeing reindeer and Northern Lights, so when Nowness approached me about making a film about reindeer in Lapland in the run-up to Christmas 2011 I jumped at the chance (albeit, I never managed to see any Northern Lights, but I did see plenty of reindeer). The original idea was to make a film about reindeer racing. Unfortunately, a couple of days before we were due to travel, we discovered that the racing hadn't started due to recent weather conditions. When we traveled there in early December, it was unusually warm, temperatures were around 5 to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, which meant the herding of the reindeer had been delayed but also there was not enough snow to seriously start training the reindeer for racing, let alone for the racing to take place.
Once I got to Karigasniemi, we therefore had to re-group and explored our surroundings. I realised very quickly that I wanted to to film at the herding pen where the reindeer are corralled and then separated coming down from the mountains. We visited the pen on our first day, and I was fascinated by the place, it had a very distinct atmosphere, even completely deserted. I wanted to capture the eerie isolation of the Artic landscape and capture the sheer adrenaline rush and excitement of the herding.
The reindeer really do make the most incredible noises, and this something I never even considered or thought about before going there. You can literally hear them from a long distance, and it is beautiful. I also was amazed how small they actually are, even compared to deer. Once you are in the herding pen, their energy is incredible; I will never forget standing in the middle of the animals frantically running around us in circles as they were being separated. What was amazing, was standing in the path of the running reindeer and barely being brushed by them. At the incredible speed they move and with those antlers it's amazing how they manage to avoid obstacles in their path.
WATCH the film on YouTube:
You filmed this in the Arctic Circle in the Lapland region. What did you find most challenging about the production process, including the extreme cold weather?
The biggest challenge was really working with the limited amount of daylight available to us, but also in the subzero temperatures. Knowing we only had three days to film this, we had to make the most of our time, and were often filming until late at night. Yet, whilst it was unseasonable warm when we were filming, it was still very cold, making it very hard for us to work long hours but also impacting on the equipment we were using. We had to make sure cameras and lenses were not fogging up due to the cold; and our sound equipment actually failed due to the weather conditions, luckily we had a back-up system on the camera. It really was a very tough shoot.
Traveling wise, we flew from London to the most Northern airport in Finland (Ivalo) via Helsinki. From there we picked up a hire car and travelled the final 2 hours along some very daunting ice covered roads to Karigasniemi. (I can tell you there were some extremely close calls with reindeer on the road! Karigasniemi is a tiny village on the border between Finland and Norway, it is pretty much as far North as you can (or want to) go in Finland and there is not a lot before you hit the Barents sea.
The New Frontier category is reserved for work that celebrates "innovation in filmmaking," and Sundance calls your film "a haunting portrait of reindeer herding." What does this mean to you as a filmmaker? Did you set out to be innovative with your film?
I am thrilled that my film will be screening as part of the New Frontier category. I think it is such an exciting section of the program. In the past, my films have been shown both in festivals and art galleries, and I enjoy seeing them in these different contexts and experiencing the different ways audiences react to them.
Eva's film screened on January 18, 19 and 21, and will screen again in Park City on January 26. Read more about the film and see the screening schedule in the Sundance Festival Program.
About the filmmaker
Originally from Germany, Eva Weber is a London-based filmmaker working in both documentary and fiction. Her award-winning films have screened at numerous international film festivals, amongst others, at Sundance, Edinburgh, SXSW, BFI London and Telluride. Her films have also been broadcast on UK and international television, and shown at art exhibitions and museums. Her film The Solitary Life of Cranes was described as “one of the most absorbing documentaries of the year” by The Observer newspaper in the UK. Eva is currently developing a number of feature projects, including the fiction/documentary hybrid Ghost Wives. Together with Vendela Vida, she is also taking part in the 2013 Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab with the feature film Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name.
by Kyna Morgan
The use of oil painted animation brings to life the stories of three powerful women in post conflict Sierra Leone; revealing the violence and corruption women face as they fight for fairer representation in the governance of their country.
Congratulations on having your film 30% (Women and Politics in Sierra Leone) selected for the Documentary Shorts program at Sundance this year! As many people reading this may already know, Sierra Leone has been through years of bloody conflict. What drove you to focus specifically on the women and the political system, especially in light of the country's ongoing process of recovery?
Pathways of Women’s Empowerment invited competitive entries to make a film about women and politics in Sierra Leone. Pathways is an “international research and communications programme established in 2006 which links academics with activists and practitioners to find out what works to enhance women’s empowerment. We are identifying where women are achieving real gains and discovering the positive and negative factors which have influenced their journey.”
I am a visual artist not a trained or experienced film maker. I like to concentrate on making art about things that ‘matter’ in the world.
When an email arrived into my inbox inviting proposals from film makers to make a short film about women and politics in Sierra Leone I knew that, although the subject was one I welcomed, I did not consider that I had enough experience myself to put forward a solo proposal - however I knew two women with whom I could collaborate and together we made a unique team.
Jenny Cuffe is an incredibly experienced award winning BBC radio journalist who has worked solo in The Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe and Em Cooper is a brilliant animator who also has experience of working as a documentary film maker. The idea of working with them on such an important subject seemed an exciting idea - and they thought so too.
Tessa Lewin and Andrea Cornwall (the executive producers) and Hussainatu Abdullah, a Sierra Leonean researcher for Pathways, worked with us to find three women from diverse backgrounds whose life in politics could, and should, be celebrated.
Women worked so hard to establish peace in Sierra Leone and yet they have been sidelined by the political system in the eleven years since the civil war, we set out to make a film about their struggle.
You collaborated on this film with Em Cooper who provided oil painted animation which adds a kind of dreamy or impressionistic tone to the film (based on what I've seen in the trailer). How did you come to form this collaboration, and what role did you feel her animation would play in the film as a whole?
Important subjects (things which matter) can be challenging to present as films which will appeal to a wide audience. I am keen to find a way in which to make films about this kind of subject into compelling viewing.
I already knew Em, and whilst she was a student she did some camera work for me on a project with a disabled young woman who could not speak. I found her ethical commitment to ‘things that matter’ was refreshing. After her time at the Royal College of Art, it became clear that she had become brilliant at her very own method of animation - oil paint on glass.
There are anecdotes and stories which cannot be filmed and of course the sense of horror in relation to the atrocities of the war itself in Sierra Leone cannot be portrayed. Animation is a wonderful tool in this respect. I hope that when you see the film in its entirety you will change your mind about the ‘dreamy impressionistic tone’! If you are watching online put your headphones on and turn the volume up loud! The audio makes the animation extremely emotional and gives a gut wrenching reality to the ‘impressionistic’ images.
I sincerely hope that the time, effort and finance required to animate our short film 30% gives credence to our belief in the women and what they wish to contribute to their country.
What are your hopes for both the women and political system in Sierra Leone and your film? Can you update us on the women?
Equality of opportunity surely has to be the ‘given’ in our aspirations for women all over the world. The three women in this film are socially, religiously and ethnically diverse yet support each other in women’s struggle for a voice in a predominantly patriarchal society. Our film, 30%, aims to give witness to those women fighting for the right to have a voice. But for change to really happen, fundamental attitudes within society need to change - for example, as Barbara tells us in the film, there is a commonly held belief in Sierra Leone, that a woman who works in politics must be a prostitute.
The bill which the women speak about in the film calls for 30% female representation in parliament and had been given public support by the president himself. Since we made the film it was cleverly blocked until after the 2012 election.
The great news is that Bernadette Lahai has been re-elected and is now the leader of the opposition so will be in a stronger position to promote the bill. Sadly, Salamatu Kamara did not manage to stand for election as councillor or as member of parliament but continues at University and working as the head of a primary school in Waterloo, near Freetown.
And finally congratulations to Barbara who has remarried and is living in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire. She will be sorely missed as the National Coordinator for the Women’s Solidarity Support Group but I don’t suppose for a moment that she will stop fighting for the rights of women across Africa.
Read more about Anna's film in the Sundance Festival Guide.
About the Filmmaker
Anna Cady was born in the UK and went to art school to study visual art after a career in textiles, achieving a first class honours at Winchester School of Art and an MA at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Anna has made short artist films and exhibited photography and films as installations in the UK and India. She makes work in collaboration with others who are often not artists or film makers themselves, e.g. a disabled young woman, a child, refugees, a friend with a life threatening illness...
Films have been screened at International festivals in the UK and Australia, and at Tate Modern in London.
Jacqueline Lee Katz