US: Flying with Jennifer Fox

It took filmmaker Jennifer Fox four years, seventeen countries, and 1,600 hours of footage (which she whittled down to 6 hours of film) to fully cover the cross-cultural confusion of modern womanhood. The project didn't start out that high-minded; Jennifer was dating two men and not entirely happy with either, which led to an identity crisis that inspired her travels exploring what it means to be a woman today. The result is her sweeping, compelling tour de force Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman. Along her journey, there’s a lot of girl-talk over food and drinks, and in that way, Flying is a slow-moving and much smarter version of Sex and the City, where Carrie Bradshaw eschews the contrivance of writing a newspaper column and just addresses the camera directly. But at the same time, it’s a state of the union on the current female experience, covering everything from physical and sexual abuse, orgasm, sex trafficking, honor killing, female genital mutilation, in vitro fertilization, abortion, and marriage.

Her film (shown in two three-hour chunks) opens at SIFF Cinema tomorrow, and in conjunction, Jennifer will be giving two talks today, one at UW's Allen Auditorium in the Suzzallo-Allen Library at 3:30 p.m., and the other as part of a panel discussion at Antioch University at 7:30 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public. Additionally, she'll be at this weekend's SIFF Cinema screenings for Q&As (Part 1 on Friday night and Part 1 and Part 2 on Saturday and Sunday). Seattlest gave Jennifer a call in New York for a little Q&A of our own:

Do people feel like they know you after watching Flying? You put a lot of yourself out there.

I think they think so, but in some ways they do and in some ways they don’t. They’re able to know the private part of me that I made public. I didn’t put any bars on how I’d let the camera into my life, but if you meet me, you meet a different person, because I’m much more protective of my privacy, like I would be in business. So you won’t meet the person you see in the film, who is actually much more of who I really am, or at least the inside part of me. If you meet me, you meet less of an intimate person.

We watched all six hours of the documentary at once, and it’s been shown on European TV in six one-hour segments. Now, in theaters, it’s running in two three-hour blocks. What do you think is the best way to ingest this huge piece of work?

I don’t really have a preference. I think when people have the DVDs, they just watch it compulsively, like they can’t stop watching. And that’s probably the way that I would be, since I love series. If I have a box of Sex and the City or Lost, I’m going to watch three or four at a time. That’s just the way I am. But I think for some people, it’s very personal, and they like to ingest: take time, go away, come back, and think about it. For me, it’s kinda like the way you eat cookies. Do you want to eat the entire box at once, or do you want to have one at a time? The film is made to work both ways.

The unconventional filmmaking concept of "passing the camera," virgins and whores, and the one good thing about Paris Hilton after the jump.

Where did the idea come from to pass the camera? Is it just a way to make your subjects more comfortable with being filmed, or is it more than that?

Passing the camera is really the center of the film. The core idea of the film was "How do I make a film about the way women speak?" And one of the key obstacles to that is the minute you add the camera, people shut down. One of the things I wanted to investigate in the film is that women have this incredible intimacy. There’s an intimacy, there’s a free-flowingness, there’s a lack of hierarchy in the conversation. Usually the conversations are circular, they go on for hours, they’re not goal-oriented. So then I said, "Well, how do I bring a camera into this that will capture the essence of it?" I was very afraid that if a put a cameraperson in the room, even if it was a woman, the subjects would feel self-conscious and freeze up. Even a tripod makes people perform. And I was really trying to get away from performance and into capturing the essence of women’s conversations. I started experimenting—as the conversations are circular, what if we make the camera move in that way, from person to person? And that’s where the idea of passing the camera came from.

We never turned off the camera. It’s not like shooting a normal film. When you start a conversation, you turn the camera on, and you can pass for hours. All you have to do is change tape. The whole idea is to make the camera the talking stick and part of the natural flow. And what I’ve found in doing this is that the very simple horizontal movement of the camera totally changed the dynamics in the room. You don’t see a huge difference, but you really feel a qualitative difference in the sensitivity and intimacy of the conversation in Flying versus a normal interview. What happens is because it’s horizontal, everyone in the room is both subject and filmmaker, everyone has both the power to ask and the receptivity to answer. It creates a really special dynamic on film. Often people discover things using this technique instead of representing what they already know, which is what you usually get when you do an interview.

It’s the passing, but it’s also that there’s no one judging the conversation. Normally a filmmaker turns on and off the camera, but in this case we’re recording everything. So it’s all interesting, it’s all good, and yes, we’re going to pick some parts for the film, but in the process, it’s all important. Also, we don’t know what’s going to come up, and that’s what you’re really looking for: the surprises and the magic of the moment.

Something that comes up in the film a lot is the dearth of modern female role models. You felt that the women who raised you (your mother, aunt, and grandmother) didn’t serve as feminist role models, because they didn’t live your free experience of being a woman. So then what of young American women growing up today who look to someone like Paris Hilton as their female prototype?

Of course we feel negative things about Paris Hilton, but we must remember that there’s also powerful things about Paris Hilton. She does have agency in her life, she is noticed and represented, she can make decisions to make a film or not make a film, to go here or go there, so it isn’t just about fame and sexiness and triviality.

I’m not of the age that I would really know what people see in Paris Hilton, but there are some positive things about her. She has power, and power is something most women don’t have, and even if we don’t agree in how she throws it around, she still has choice. We have to remember that up till the last thirty years, almost no women had any choice, even starlets were so controlled.

Meanwhile, there’s the cross-cultural idea you encountered that there are good girls and bad girls, there’s the mother and the whore. Why do women still continue to buy into this idea?

It’s complicated. Whether we like it or not, we think we’re so free in the West, and we can do anything. The reality is that in almost every area of life, men are still running the show. I’m not saying, "Oh, poor women, we’re victims." But we have to remember that the fight is only at the beginning. That means that if the bosses are men (whether in our private life in marriages or our public life in work), we become the prisonkeepers of ourselves, that’s historically been the case. So women buy into the concepts of women created by men, because we’re still trying to satisfy men.

The concept is age-old. Where does the idea of good girls and bad girls come from? Originally, it comes from men wanting to know who their children were and how to pass their property on. If you’re with a woman who slept with ten men, how do you know your baby is hers? And therefore how do you continue? Women were objects and owned, and if you own something, you certainly don’t want anybody else to touch it. I think the roots are in the patriarchy, but we carry them out, because we’re still not free.

Were you surprised that the concept of female pleasure was so strange and foreign to many of your subjects in other countries? Who knew it was such a Western idea?

Not just Western, it’s just 40 years old in the West, really. The first concept of female pleasure as a mass idea was in the ’60s. My mother wasn’t taught about pleasure, my grandmother wasn’t taught about pleasure, and I wasn’t taught about pleasure, so I had to fight for it and get it myself. We’re just barely out of the oven, in terms of the concept of pleasure. We think that it’s an age-old idea, but it’s actually a very new idea that women have a right to pleasure. And women in Pakistan and India and Cambodia and the Third World, they’re a generation or two behind us in their rights. The right to pleasure is essential to freedom, because if you don’t own your body, you don’t own your mind either. But the other thing is that we have to be careful that we don’t make sexuality (and the right to pleasure) something that is then devoid of feeling and love. It’s like how often women in the workforce, in order to compete, have to become like men. In the sexual arena, sometimes we become more like men and less like ourselves. For most women still, relationship and love and connection are really important elements, not just sex, and we have to be careful that we don’t lose ourselves in the process of gaining our freedom.

I’m always a bit embarrassed, because the film is a story and it’s a journey, but when you talk to me now, I’ve become so political. The film doesn’t have the politics, like I’m talking now, you just get it from the stories. What’s amazing about Flying is that it is all these stories and it’s not a didactic look at feminism now, at women now, but you can learn things by enjoying the drama. Of course as I made the film, I became more and more political, so now I talk differently than I would’ve talked to you six years ago. The film’s a pleasurable experience, that’s the main thing.

SOURCE: Seattlest

URL: Click here

DATE: 06/04/2008

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