Director Jennifer Fox‘s “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman” is a six hour-long film (divided into one hour episodes) that maps the world of female life and sexuality today–from the dramatic turns in her own life to the stories of women around the globe that shed light on the “universal issues all women face.” The film uses a “groundbreaking” camera technique, called “passing the camera,” creating a new type of documentary language and storytelling that mirrors the “special way” women communicate. The Sundance ’07 film opens at New York’s Film Forum on July 4th.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
It’s hard for me to talk about why I wanted to be a filmmaker without going back to my childhood and to my parents — as corny as it may sound. My mother was a professional musician before I was born. I grew up with her singing and playing the piano, organ or accordion almost daily. She refused to give me coloring books and had me painting and drawing on blank pieces of paper from the time I was two years old. She took us to everything she could get tickets to, whether it be children’s theater or Beethoven concerts or museum shows or movies. My dad was the opposite, he knew nothing about art but he was a great businessman, a passionate salesman. When he loved something it was infectious; and all us kids ended up worshipping him a bit. The one thing my parents did share was the belief in social action; they felt that we should all give something back to the world.
These forces seemed to come together in one kismet moment when I was seven and my mom chose to take us all to see “Funny Girl” with Barbara Streisand. I sat in the theater and watched the film in awe and full emotion–and I remember one clear [thing]: That day, sitting in the dark theater, I decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I didn’t want to be in films, no! I wanted to make films that could let people feel as much emotion as I did that day. I believed that with all this emotion, films would be the way to move people to action and change the world. Little did I know that I–the rebellious child–had become the perfect amalgam of my mother and father’s emphasis on art, business and social action!
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I started off studying fiction filmmaking and I always thought I would make feature films–and I thought I would make fiction. Then I accidentally got caught by what was happening to one friend in Beirut in 1981 and ended up making a film about her and her family called “Beirut: The Last Home Movie.” After that I was hooked on documentary. But I still wonder if I would enjoy fiction filmmaking, not the big Hollywood type of production, but the smaller, more cutting edge type of work. And I still hope I will get a chance to try my hand at it. For me the issue is always to combine the art of filmmaking with a social message. So if I make fiction, it has to be bigger than just a good story, it has to contribute to our lives. Story just for entertainment sake doesn’t interest me.
Please talk about how the idea for “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman” came about and evolved.
The idea for “Flying” started as a slow rumble underneath my daily life. I began to notice that my life was held together by conversations with my girlfriends. To most women this would be a no-brainer. But I had always run away from anything to do with being female. In fact in my twenties I would say the uppermost thing on my mind were men. I had close women friends–and one girlfriend, Pat and I even lived with for eight years! Yet our whole focus then was guys, so we just took our female relationships for granted.
By my thirties, things began to change and I slowly started to notice my friendships with women. I made a very close friend in London who was a bit older than me, named Caroline, and she sort of took me under her wing. Even though I only saw Caroline maybe once or twice a year, after a while I felt I couldn’t live without those conversations. And slowly, it dawned on me that they were particularly female. In fact I never got that intimate in conversation with men–unless we were in bed together. That’s when the idea of making a film about the way women talk began to boil in me. I wanted to explore the question: was women’s language universal beyond race, class and culture? But I was stumped, because the way women talk is not a story, and film needs a story.
Years passed and I continued to try to imagine how my new idea could be conceived. Meanwhile I entered my forties and a major love affair with a man who was supposed to be “my one and only” ended abruptly. When he bailed on me, all my ideas about relationships, love, the rules of life and even God fell apart. Suddenly I understood that I had been carrying around all these old values of what a woman should be like, while externally defying all those values. People thought of me as a “free” woman, but I knew inside I wasn’t free at all. I felt invisible because I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids–even though I had never wanted those things!
I had never filmed myself before. I had never wanted to put myself in a film, but now I picked up the camera, because it felt like the only way I figure out how to see myself in the world as a woman–literally place myself in my house, on the street, in a city. My need to find out who I was as a woman became the key to make a film about female life today and the way women speak. (And of course, I had to call it “Confessions of a Free Woman” because I had to laugh at my own slavery!)
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences as well as your overall goals for the project?
Whenever I think of a film idea, I try to find a visual language that can represent the story. For me aesthetic language is uniquely tied to the message of the film. That’s why if you look at the visual language of my various films they are all quite different. I think what all my films share is a struggle to achieve what I would call “presence” on film. What we don’t talk about enough as documentary filmmakers, is that reality often disappears when we bring out the camera and ironically people begin to “act” their lives. So for me the central issue of documentary is how to get people to authentically “show up” on film and be “present.”
I knew if I had a cameraperson observing women talking that they/we would become self-conscious and the very intimacy I wanted to capture would disappear. So I had to find a way to bring the camera into a conversation in a way that would be part of the intimacy, so I came up with this technique which I call “passing the camera.” It’s very simple: the camera is just passed back and forth in the conversation. There is no filmmaker and subject, we are both equal. This equality means that I (the official filmmaker) can be asked any question the other person (the official subject) feels like asking me. And the quality of the conversation depends on me “showing up,” sharing, and risking as much as the so-called subject. The camera becomes a tool of intimacy, rather than a tool to record. Strangely, “passing the camera” mimics the way women really speak when they are alone–there is this circular, endless quality of the conversation. So, “passing the camera” became the central tool and even the central aesthetic to capture and represent real women’s conversation in “Flying.”
Because “Flying” was such a wide open premise about the nature of modern female life around the world, I stole from the Danish Dogma tradition, the idea of making rules to contain the work and give it structure. My rules were very simple: 1. The camera must be passed at all times; 2. Everyone in the room must agree to be on film or leave the room; 3. No tripods; 4. No lights; 5. No radio mics; mic on camera only; and 6. No additional camera people.
The technical limitations were a means of lightening the process and getting around the critical mind, both my own and that of the other woman. I wanted to force myself to work fast and light; I wanted to throw the camera on a table, a basin or a countertop. It should all have the feeling of: “oh we’re just fooling around and having fun!” Equally, I decided that I would allow myself to film enormous amounts of footage (we ended up with 1600 hours) knowing that I would only use a small portion of the footage in the film. I accepted that a lot of the footage would be crap, but I knew by lessening the importance of any given shooting day, I would relax and overall I would get those few authentic moments in return.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project?
The project was originally pitched as a feature film and was pre-funded by seven international broadcasters and the Danish Film Institute. Midway through the filming, we had just about raised enough to edit a feature on a very tight budget. But during the shooting I realized that if I wanted to tell this multicultural story, shot around the world in a narrative way, meaning not just talking heads, it would have to be longer then a feature. If we kept the film a feature, we would have to reduce it to my personal story and I didn’t want that at all.
I met with my Danish co-producer, Claus Ladagaard and my Danish editor, Niels Pagh Anderson, and we discussed what to do. We all agreed it should be a bigger film, somewhere between 4 and 8 hours. So then we had to go back to our broadcasters and tell them we wanted to expand the project. Of course, they all rejected the idea! But our team was so convinced we were right, that when we started to edit we took the risk and cut a pilot of two episodes to show broadcasters how it might work. Luckily Nick Fraser of the BBC, who is a very forward thinking commissioning editor, really understood what we were trying to do and agreed to take the longer film. Later others followed suit, but because it was originally budgeted as a feature, we only got small additional fees to make it into a series, causing it to be extremely under funded. Right before it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, we had the great fortune to sell it to the Sundance Channel here in the States, which is the perfect home for it. But it has been a hard road upward–like most films!
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker, and what is your next project?
I have two projects coming down the pipeline. One is a feature length documentary that I have been shooting for the last 15 years about my own Tibetan Buddhist teacher (I have studied Tibetan Buddhism since 1985), called “How I Learned to Swim.” Dutch Buddhist television and the Hartley Foundation initially funded this film that we are now about to start editing. The second project is my first fiction film, which I am in the early stages of development. I’d rather not say the story yet, because these things are very fragile in the beginning and I always feel I have to protect my creativity, which is always in danger of running shy and disappearing! But like “Flying,” which uses a combination of cutting edge documentary language and fiction storytelling techniques, this new film will uniquely mix documentary and narrative strategies in a fiction film. For me it is always important that I try to work with a form and language that is challenging and exciting as well as interesting content.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
I think there are two things that are really important to discuss with young filmmakers. The first is to say: believe in your process. Filmmaking is a strange complex art that requires lots of creative ideas and forms coming together. It requires a lot of faith that when you have a first idea, the rest will come together. For me, creativity is like trying to remember a dream after you wake up. I have the feeling of a trace of something important, but I have to sit still long enough to let the bits arise that will give it flesh and form till I can say, “oh that’s what it was I imagined! If we try to force our ideas or run after them, they often disappear. Because we are dealing with timelines and budgets that’s when we fall back into old, well known responses, techniques and ideas. And true creativity dies.
The second is to make stories that are close to the heart. Often today people want to be famous, so they say, “I am going to make the next ‘fill in last big hit…’ film.” But of course it never works. Making an original authentic story is what works; a story that the filmmaker knows intimately in all of its original details. No one has to know why a story is important to you–and you surely don’t have to put yourself on screen like I did. But the story should burn in you; you should have to make that film or die. This will give you the tenacity to make it and go through the endless struggle and obstacles required, but also it will mean that your desire, your need will show up on screen. It is important that the filmmaker be on a quest–albeit secret–inside the filmmaking process. He/she has to need that film because if you don’t there will be no power in it.