Deborah Kampmeier is an award-winning filmmaker and theater director. Kampmeier’s first feature film, “Virgin,” won several awards and was nominated for two 2004 Independent Spirit Awards. Her subsequent film, “Hounddog,” was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Kampmeier is the founder of Full Moon Films, a company dedicated to the development and production of films by and about women. (Press materials)
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
DK: “SPLit” tells the story of Inanna (Amy Ferguson), a young actress working as a stripper who becomes obsessed with a mask maker (Morgan Spector). She sacrifices parts of herself, piece by piece, in order to win his love. The film depicts a mythic journey that blurs theater performance, dreams and real life as Inanna connects with other women’s experiences of trauma and repressed sexuality. This provocative and powerful confrontation frees Inanna as she is able to claim her rage and rise to her own independence.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
DK: “SPLit” was first inspired by a workshop I took with actress Olympia Dukakis based on the Sumerian myth “The Descent of Inanna,” which had a profound impact on me as a woman and as an artist. In that workshop, I was challenged to draw on my personal experience, express the pain and rage threatening to destroy me and discover parts of myself reflected back through other women. This allowed me to go back out into the world and claim it as my whole self. Similarly, “SPLit” is about reclaiming lost parts of the self that have been stolen or abandoned through abuse, rape, repression and exploitation.
I think of “SPLit” as the last part of a trilogy, building on the themes of my first two feature films, “Hounddog” and “Virgin,” but going even further in its raw portrayal of female sexuality and trauma.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
DK: One of my favorite lines of dialogue in the film is, “I don’t want my daughter to grow up pure: I want her to grow up whole.” Purity is about control — controlling girls and women, cutting them off from their sexuality and robbing them of their whole selves. We live in a paradigm that represses, exploits, commercializes, shames and abuses girls instead of educating them about their sexuality, and nurturing and nourishing it. There is rarely an acknowledgment of the harm that has been done.
I hope audiences see how important it is to create space for women to grieve, rage and process what has been lost. I hope that, as women, we are able to claim our sexuality as belonging to us, and are able to make choices and express our entire, integrated selves.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
DK: The film includes a significant amount of female and male full-body nudity, masturbation and on-screen portrayal of mastectomy and genital mutilation scars. “SPLit” features an intergenerational, multiracial cast with diverse body types — including several non-actors sharing personal stories — and is daring in its depiction of an older woman as the principal example of uninhibited rage and sexuality.
The biggest challenge, or the most important challenge and greatest honor for me, was to create and hold a space for the performers to feel safe in taking such huge risks to reveal themselves so deeply, personally and completely.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
DK: Funding this film was a challenge from the beginning. I tried for about eight years to get the film made at a much higher budget, then finally decided to cut the budget by more than 95% and make it on a shoestring. My husband, John, who is a gaffer and one of my producers, called in every favor in the book. I met an extraordinary woman who put in the first half of the budget, and another extraordinary woman who put in the final funds and the rest I pulled together through individual investments from my very generous friends and colleagues.
I also had a three-day Indiegogo campaign in the middle of production when we were backed into a corner. Through that we raised a little chunk of money to keep us moving forward. The story was important to so many people for so many reasons and they were all passionate about helping to get it made.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
DK: That I have an agenda when I set out to make my films. I don’t. I feel that the most beautiful art comes from a deeply personal place. I feel the more personal the work the more universal it is. That’s what I’m aiming to do — tell my personal stories and express myself as an artist.
I hope that as I dig deep into myself, other women see reflections of themselves there. But the fact that these stories are about the experience of being a woman in the world can make them feel political. Just making a film as a woman is a political act. When the number of women filmmakers hovers around 6% year after year, it’s impossible not to address the politics of being a woman filmmaker and telling women’s stories. There is a great need for women’s stories to be told! We have to keep telling them over and over until the world develops ears to hear us. But they are our stories! Not an agenda.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
DK: The best advice was when my daughter, Sophia, was five and we were shooting “Hounddog” and going through a really rough patch. She said to me, “Mom! No thing is wrong. No thing is right. You just have to focus your heart.” That is now engraved on my director’s viewfinder.
I just can’t remember the worst advice, to be honest. I have a ritual I do when I get negative, destructive or sabotaging feedback. I write it all on a piece of paper and either take it outside and piss on it, or put it in the fire and burn it. I guess all the rejection throughout my life put me through the fire and finally taught me not to grab tight to the things that will hurt me. And it taught me to trust my screaming gut and the whisper of my intuition.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
DK: Surround yourself with other women and support each other. There are groups of women filmmakers organizing everywhere. I was one of the original members of [women-director collective] Film Fatales when we were a handful of women meeting in Brooklyn and now we have chapters all over the world.
Also, hire other women. Almost all of the department heads and keys on “SPLit” were women. I had a woman director of photography, production designer, editor, line producer, assistant director, [women working in ] hair, makeup and wardrobe. I was even able to find couple of women grips and electrics. On a certain level, It relieved me of having to prove myself on a daily basis and I could just work and collaborate.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
DK: Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” because of it’s very female eye — the poetry and sensuality of the images. I also have to say Catherine Breillat’s “Fat Girl” has always haunted me with its brutally honest portrayal of adolescent sexuality from a fully female gaze.
But there’s also Susanne Bier, Agnès Varda, Allison Anders, Julie Taymor, Maya Deren, Kasi Lemmons, Mira Nair, Sally Potter, Claire Denis, Mary Harron, Kimberly Peirce, Chantal Akerman and on and on! Any film I watch by any of these women — any woman, actually — helps me understand myself more clearly and makes me feel less alone in the world.