We need to bring our attention here and be present in order to evoke presence in the other person.
When I first started making films, I really thought somehow the camera was stealing from the people.
The camera is not a stone.
I feel that my job as a filmmaker is to let the story tell me what to do.
Oh! I think this is very important. Story will also tell you crew size.
I think films always have some personal deep connection, even if you as a viewer don’t see that.
What I always look for is a multi-layered cake.
I really don’t believe they forgot the camera, I think they just included it.
If our subjects are feeling anxious or tense, that will make for bad films.
It’s this incredible reality check, that if you’re not really in the moment you’ve lost it.
In terms of depth, you need to put yourself on the line also.
And also, against all popular belief, anybody can shoot.
And it is really important, because you can not make a film without a point of view, otherwise you would film everything.
Just take the camera everywhere, film all the time, it’s just a toy.
I love shooting, but I really can not see it in the edit. I need to maintain distance. When I said Story
is God, Premise is also God.
As a so called artist, I am stealing all the time.
Animatrice: Bienvenue à la Cinémathèque québécoise. Pour commencer l’atelier autour du travail de Jennifer Fox, j’aimerais vous présenter Diane Poitras, qui est conservatrice télévision et cinéma à la Cinémathèque québécoise et également chargée de cours à l’Université du Québec à Montréal, ainsi que M. Paul Tana, qui est titulaire de la Chaire René-Malo.
Paul Tana: Bonjour tout le monde. Je suis très heureux de vous voir ici, à la Cinémathèque, et j’espère que ces rencontres vont se faire de plus en plus fréquemment grâce à la Chaire René-Malo, dont j’ai la responsabilité. Ce que l’on veut faire, avec cette chaire – en tout cas, pour sa section cinéma –, est un peu provocateur: soustraire la parole aux théoriciens et la donner aux cinéastes, aux créateurs, pour que l’on puisse comprendre, réfléchir le cinéma à partir des réflexions de ceux qui le font. Et je trouve que la Cinémathèque est un lieu formidable de rencontres et d’échanges entre des cinéastes du monde entier. Ce que j’entends par cinéastes, ce sont autant des documentaristes que des directeurs de la photographie, des monteurs, tous ceux qui au niveau de la création d’un film ont un rôle prépondérant. J’aimerais ainsi remercier Diane Poitras, qui a eu cette idée formidable d’inviter Jennifer Fox pour cette rencontre avec vous. Alors, je vous remercie d’être présents si nombreux. Cela démontre votre intérêt et aussi votre qualité. Merci.
Diane Poitras: Comme Paul l’a dit, cet atelier est organisé par la Chaire René-Malo, qui vise principalement vous les étudiants. L’idée était de montrer, de donner une idée de la variété des styles en documentaire. Ceux qui me connaissent savent que c’est une chose sur laquelle je reviens souvent. Le documentaire n’est pas figé, tout est possible en autant que ce soit fait avec rigueur. Et je trouvais que la démarche de Jennifer Fox illustre très bien cette variété possible d’approches du documentaire.
Jennifer Fox a exploré de manière originale la démarche documentaire, non pas pour l’effet, mais vraiment toujours dans une recherche de la meilleure adéquation possible entre la manière de faire et le propos. Ses films donnent un corpus qui n’est pas figé, mais dans lequel on voit quand même une cohérence à travers les années et à travers les œuvres. On reconnaît d’un film à l’autre une préoccupation et une façon de travailler avec les personnages.
Au cours de cette classe de maître, Jennifer nous parlera donc de la façon dont elle travaille le langage cinématographique en fonction des contraintes et des spécificités des films qu’elle tourne. On verra donc aujourd’hui des extraits de ses films depuis son premier long métrage Beirut: The Last Home Movie, un long métrage qu’elle a commencé à tourner en 1981 et qui s’est terminé en 1987. On verra aussi des extraits de An American Love Story, sorti en 1999, qui était au départ un projet de long métrage documentaire tourné à la manière du cinéma direct, et qui en cours de production a évolué vers une série télévisuelle. C’est donc une série de dix épisodes d’une heure qui a été diffusée d’abord à PBS, mais aussi sur ARTE, sur BBC et d’autres chaînes importantes à travers le monde. On va enfin s’attarder davantage à sa dernière production qui s’appelle Flying: Confession of a Free Woman. Cette série de six épisodes a été présentée une seule fois en Amérique du Nord, dans le cadre du Festival Sundance, et elle a été présentée aussi au festival IDFA d’Amsterdam, un important festival de documentaire.
Pour compléter le tableau, j’ajouterais que Jennifer Fox n’est pas seulement réalisatrice, mais elle a aussi été productrice sur plusieurs autres films, notamment en 1999, un film qui s’appelle On The Ropes de Nanette Burstein et Brett Morgen, qui est l’histoire de trois boxeurs dans un centre de boxe à Brooklyn. En 2002, elle a aussi produit une série qui s’appelle Love and Diane de Jennifer Dworkin, qui est une chronique d’une famille afro-américaine, qui a été tournée sur une période de douze ans. Et je soulignerais pour les cinéphiles, qui connaissent sûrement ce film-là, elle a été consultante sur plusieurs documentaires, mais entre autres sur un documentaire qui s’appelait Southern Comfort de Kate Davis en 2001, qui était l’histoire d’un couple transsexuel.
Alors, devant ce bref parcours, on voit tout de suite qu’il y a deux constantes dans l’œuvre de Jennifer. Il y en a une qui tourne autour de toutes les questions de la famille et toutes ses déclinaisons dans le monde actuel, et l’autre qui appartient plus à sa démarche, c’est-à-dire une façon de travailler dans la durée avec les personnages. Je pense que cela démontre un véritable engagement envers son art, et là je m’arrête de parler et je lui laisse la parole, parce qu’elle va vous expliquer comment elle fonctionne plus nettement. Bienvenue Jennifer.
People have to show up!
Jennifer Fox: Thank you. I’m very happy to be here. It’s really nice to see your faces, exciting. Thank you to the school, to Diane and the Cinémathèque. It’s a wonderful experience. I want to talk today about a lot of things, so we have to hurry. But I want to talk a bit about the approach I’ve been taking for many years through my work and I’ll show you some clips to give you a taste of everything. Is it ok if I get up? You know I teach, so I’m used to moving around. Maybe without the mike. Can you hear me?
From the very beginning, I’ve been struggling with a few key ideas, and the first, and I think it’s the most important, is what I would call presence. Presence is something that we see, and see a lot in fiction, and we noted: “Oh, that is a good performance”, meaning it feels real. That is performance based. It looks like acting.
In documentary, we also have these two distinctions that we know, but that we never really articulate. And it’s often because in documentary, we ask people to act in their own lives. We say: “Can you tell me what happened?” or “Would you walk across the room for me like you usually do?”. Now, you are laughing, because when you ask a real person to walk across the room like they usually do, they automatically get like this (J.F. walks around like a puppet). And you can see it.
When you ask people to report on their life, they are not in their life. And it’s imperceptible, but you will see and you know emotionally when you see someone really being in a frame. The camera is so sensitive that it notes these things. But equally, I would say that we, as filmmakers, have a direct influence on what happens with our subjects. If we are distracted, I guarantee you, our subjects will be distracted. If we aren’t present, our subjects can’t be present.
I want to give you a little taste of this, because “presence” is kind of a floaty word. Just close your eyes for a minute and relax. I want you to bring your attention to the room, the sound of my voice, the feeling of your body on the chair, your feet on the floor. Really feel the room, the sound of the air-conditioner, and note how that feels when you’re in the room. Now, take another moment keeping your eyes closed and think about something that happened from your childhood. It can be an event, a conversation with a parent, a brother, a sister. Feel and see it. Keeping your eyes closed, come back to the room. Let go of the memory and come back to the room and just put all of your attention to your body and your chair, your feet on the floor, the sound of my voice. Stay here. And I want you to know how that feels like. Now, open your eyes. What did you feel? What’s the difference when you’re thinking about something in the past and when you’re present in the room?
Étudiante: I forget my body.
J. Fox: You forget your body! When you’re in the past, you leave. Your body is here but you forget it. What else?
Étudiante: When I’m in the past, I see images. But when I’m here, I don’t see images, it’s more sound.
J. Fox: More sounds than images. That’s really interesting. What else?
Étudiant: When I’m here, I’m more focused. It’s more perception, feeling the inside. J. Fox: There’s feeling of being in your body. En-bodied. Anything else?
Étudiant: There is more confusion when I think of the past than when I’m here.
J. Fox: The thing that is constant in all these reactions is that we are not here when we are in a memory, and that somehow when you are in your present, you’re in your body. I think the reason you have less images is probably because you are here. You are not imagining. I’m only giving you this little experiment in order to make you note the difference between being here and being in your mind or in your memory.
We spend most of our lives distracted. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s actually cultural, something we cultivate, like multitasking. We have to do so many things, so we are never really here. It’s a fine skill, but it’s a really bad skill for actually getting something good on screen. We need to bring our attention here and be present in order to evoke presence in the other person. And I really ask you to spend the day when you leave here, noticing when you are really in the room and when you are distracted, the different emotional feeling experiences of that. Because as filmmakers, we’re a little bit like social scientists, we have to note all these things. We have to know the difference in ourselves and we also have to be able to see it in the other person. Is the person that I’m filming really here? Or are they somewhere else? Because if they are somewhere else, I guarantee you’ll see it on the screen and it makes for bad filmmaking, because we are trying to capture reality. And to have reality, people have to show up!
The camera is not a stone
J. Fox: The other piece that we don’t talk about is how this thing (J.F. holds a camera) affects that issue of showing up. The minute you turn on a camera (J.F. turns on the camera), it has a huge effect on whether people are here or not. Does everybody feel that I just turned on the camera? Is it something you can perceive? You see I have a camera, but did it change you in some way? How do you feel now?
Étudiante: I feel the proximity, and for me it is really disturbing. I’m shy.
J. Fox: Anxiety. But did you feel the room change when I turned on the camera? I felt the room change. Maybe it’s just me. The minute I pick up the camera and turn it on, I feel something change. What about you, you’re shaking the head?
Étudiant: Yes, yes… (Everyone is laughing). You have the possibility to capture an image of us on camera, so it changes our perception of you.
J. Fox: Did you all wake up a little more?
Étudiant: I’m more aware.
J. Fox: It’s interesting that in a way, the camera evokes presence. I don’t know why, but somehow when you bring on the camera and you turn it on, people kind of go “Woaw!” (J.F. mimes someone waking up). Equally, when I pick up the camera, I wake up too. I show up. That’s very interesting because after all there is only two tools in filmmaking really: the camera and us. We are a huge tool to what is going to happen on the screen. Our presence is going to again affect the people in front of us, as well as the camera. So here we have our presence and the camera’s effect creating something.
This is something I began to notice a lot the more I made films: my effect on the people and the camera’s effect. We don’t usually note enough what the camera is making to us as filmmakers, or what the camera is doing to the other. When I first started making films, I really thought somehow the camera was stealing from the people. But as I’ve gone on in my work, I see that the camera gives something. One of the things it gives is this presence. Literally, it makes people arrive into a moment and therefore the moment becomes more precious and more full.
Now, I would like you to hold the camera for a minute and see how your feeling state changes. If somebody is holding the camera and pointing at you, see how you feel. And then, experiment like this (J.F. turns the camera LCD screen towards her). See how you feel when you are filming yourself. So it’s three examinations: How do I feel when I’m holding the camera? What is it doing to my state? What does it do when the camera is pointed at me? And what does it do when I’m filming myself? Being a filmmaker is a constant investigation of how were inter-affecting both ourselves, the camera and the people in front of us. And the only thing I would ask you at the end of these two hours is that you become more aware of that. The camera is not a stone. We tend to treat it like this dead thing. The camera is influencing and, maybe because it’s electronic, maybe because we know it’s capturing images, it’s actually doing a lot more than we think. So we can just start here and you can just pass it. But hold it for a few minutes, enough to take note of your feelings.
Beirut: Story is God
J. Fox: If you look at my films, I’m working a lot with this question of presence. How do I get people to show up on the screen? The other thing that’s been really key to my work is something that I would say: Story is God. I feel that my job as a filmmaker is to let the story tell me what to do. That’s a very complicated thing because as documentary filmmaker we often don’t know the whole story. Maybe we see a tiny little bit of it at the time but we have to use that tiny bit to be able to give us indication of how to move forward. Story will tell you language or aesthetics, story will tell you length, story will tell you approach, it will even tell you distribution often. Sometimes it takes me two or three years to let the story inform me. It’s a process of understanding. But I feel like I’m in service of the story. And of course, story ends up being a combination of me and what’s in front of me. I don’t want to say that I’m neutral. I’m not a neutral influence. I’m interpreting subjectively everything. But I’m really trying to investigate what is best.
In some of my films, it’s something that I understood very quickly. Beirut is a film that I knew the body of the story almost whole because I knew a member of the family I was going to film. Gabby Boutros was a friend of mine in film school, we worked together. One day she called me up and she said (she was Lebanese, this was in 1981, there was a civil war in Lebanon)… She said: “There was a front page article in the Washington Post and my family’s home has been hit by seventeen shells and I want to go back to Lebanon, they’re crazy, I want to get them out…”. And she left. I didn’t hear from her while the war was going on. Six months later, she came back to New York and said: “I loved it, I never want to leave Lebanon again”.
Here’s a woman who went from wanting to get her family out of the war and within six months was totally seduced by this environment. I went over to her house and she was packing to get back to Beirut. She told me this incredible story about her family being the end of an aristocracy, they lived in a palace in the middle of the war. So you’re hearing immediately really strong drama: a war, a palace, a family. It sounds quite fiction like, doesn’t it? Three sisters – she’s one of three sisters –, and her younger brother was about to get married. She told me this and showed me some photos. I left and I was walking down the street. I was about to go to my second year in film school and I thought: “Oh man, we have to make a film about this.” I called her up and said: “I want to make a film about your family”. And she said: “Come over!”. We talked more and six weeks later I was in Beirut. It was an interesting project. Because of her, I knew everything that she knew about her family very quickly. This has never happened to me after, that I knew so much going into a story. It was very easy to have some very clear story principles without even going there. It sounded like fiction, it should be a theatrical fiction, it should look beautiful, it should be shot like fiction. We actually shot in 16mm. We spent about two and a half months in Lebanon shooting.
Oh! I think this is very important. Story will also tell you crew size. There are all these rules about who should shoot and how to shoot. But I think that even crew depends on your story. Some stories, if you have a real crew, you’ll destroy the story because the impact is too big. In this film, we took a proper crew. I took a camera person, a sound person and me. That’s a three person crew. That is actually the biggest crew I’ve ever worked with. In An American Love Story, we had a two person crew. I shot it and a sound woman. Flying is a one person crew. It’s me and the rest of the world as you will see.
This film has some very obvious strategies. It’s shot very beautifully. There is incredible attention to detail. It’s a story about a family holding on to a house and a past and a tradition in the face of war. It’s a story about people holding on to objects. So we made some very quick story cinema aesthetic decisions right there. We tended to shoot with a longer lens when possible. We were kind of always trying to spy on them versus a wide angle lens which is what we tend to think of in sitcoms and television and documentary. We’re using a lot of tripods. We’re really breaking the world down into its pieces. It’s a fragmented world, this world of war.
If you go on and look at the film, the drama of the story is actually all based into interviews, because nothing really happens in the whole film. My purpose was to understand why these people who could afford to leave stayed in this neighborhood in the middle of the war and in a sense, what they got from the war. I didn’t need anything to happen in the story. The only event that takes place is the brother gets married and that in itself is a symbolic way of going against destruction. But the film is about an interview driven unravelling of why they stay. It is absolutely not a “vérité” film. It’s a highly constructed, highly objectified world. The interviews are really the heart. What I was working with is how to get an interview to be so present that it’s like a scene. Sometimes we achieved that and sometimes we didn’t.
An american love story: a multi-layered cake
J. Fox: I think films always have some personal deep connection, even if you as a viewer don’t see that. An American Love Story came about because I was in an interracial relationship, I was already thirty at the time and I thought: “Gee…race. There is no racial problems in America. We’re a liberal country. It’s the nineties, everything is fine.” As soon as I fell in love with this black man, my world turned upside down. I saw through his eyes how much he suffered because he was Afro-American. Our relationship suffered also from the strain of the racial problems, and I really wanted to do a film about race and love in America.
Immediately, you see a completely different entrance to a film. Beirut, I knew the whole story going in because Gabby told me it. It was a complete sort of entrance. But An American Love Story, I just had this idea. It is totally opposite in terms of language. And in terms of investigation, it was a film about family again. But it’s about a very ordinary family, living in a very ordinary environment – a two bedroom apartment outside of New York City in Queens.
I want to read you something. It’s an interview with screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise) and she says: “How does the process of trying to figure out a story work? I have a couple of theories about story. One is, stories are whole things like people, you find a story and you have to start digging to uncover it. You may only find one little part at a time but if it’s really a story, all the pieces will be attached. When other people start to get involved sometimes they’ll say: “Well here’s an arm. Why don’t you hang that on here and use this head.” And you will end up with a Frankenstein monster of a story instead of a living breathing story on it’s own. We see a lot of those kind of stories in the movie theatres today. Stories that are patched together by comedy and that on their own don’t really sustain life: cannot breathe, cannot impart you any kind of truth other than it’s all bullshit.”
This applies, of course, to documentary. (J.F starts writing and drawing on the note pad) Beirut, I knew the story, and I then just had to find a way to capture it. I took a direction, and the direction was “Why did they stay?”. That’s what told me what to film and to interview on. But in Love Story, I had a question. I didn’t have characters, I didn’t have the body, I only had the question: “How do people survive love and race in America?”. That question led me on a process to find a story that would be an investigation of that. I was very interested at that point in my life in telling a positive story. I wasn’t interested in just saying: “Oh, I want to see people who can survive love and race in America.” I wanted to find a positive story for very personal reasons, because I wanted the answers.
I went about looking for a couple who I could film that would help me find answers to that. And I said: “ Ok, how people survive love and race? And I want to follow them over time. Ok, I’m going to follow a family for a year.” So I had to find the right people to follow and, of course, that’s when you get into this whole concept called casting. Sort of what makes a good subject and what makes a good character. What I always look for is a multi-layered cake. It means there are multiple things that can be investigated even just at the get go.
In An American Love Story, I found a couple who had been together since the sixties. In fact, they had met in 1967, which was a key year in the miscegenation laws in America – the laws against black and white people being able to have sex and marry. They met in these years where these laws were over turned. It’s the same year where Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner came out. They were not from the East coast or the West coast, they were from the Midwest, so I liked that. They faced enormous racism as a couple. The mother Karen’s white town turned against her when she began to befriend with this black man. So they had a great past story. It was now the nineties, so they lived through three
decades of love and race in America and they were still together. They had two children, and Bill, the husband, had two children from when he was a teenager. The kids were very different ages: the older daughter was in college when the younger daughter was 11. They were middle-class also. And there was role reversal in the family: the mom had the heavy-duty day job, and the dad was a musician. So issues of time, class, gender roles, racism. I felt like the cake was very rich (J.F. draws a layered cake on the pad).
The next thing in terms of casting is, of course, their openness and availability and their ability to be present in front of the camera. Back when I made Beirut, I was doing my initial work with just an audio recorder. Now, I take my camera and I film people immediately to see how they are and how they respond to the camera and how they appear. So, I found this family, a middle class family, and I began to film them. The question then is what language appears to you, what is the way to approach? I want to film for a year, and they are a middle class family living in a small apartment, what approach can I take? And I chose what I would call a very in your face look. It was a film that I ended up shooting. I knew we could only have a small crew because it was a tiny apartment in Queens and part of the strategy is that I could sleep on their floor. And I lived with them on and off for a year and a half. Even three people would be too much. At that point, I thought two people would work. I was picking a kind of “cinema vérité” strategy because I wanted to see how they dealt with race and family and love over time.
That meant sound would be very important and I really thought it was important to have a good sound recorder. In this case, it was somebody that I trained to do sound. She never had done sound before. We lived together with this family for a year and a half. It was supposed to be a feature length film and in the course of the shooting, I felt it looked like serial drama: the family would have these little problems, they would bound together to get over it, they would dissipate and life would go on. About three months into the shooting, I thought: “Ok, this is serious”. Of course, nobody else thought it was as serious, but that’s another story. It took a long time to get broadcasters on board that way. In the mean time, we shot the film.
The biggest strategy of An American Love Story was time. We built a relationship over time. We spent thousands of hours together. I practically lived with them for a year and a half. That is what allowed them to relax and become more present. There’s an incredible transparency with the camera. I really don’t believe they forgot the camera, I think they just included it. And somehow Jennifer and camera was synonymous, and I was like the dog in the family: “Oh we’re going, let’s take Jennifer with us.” And we liked each other, and I think that’s really important because you could not make a film like this of such a longitudinal study if you didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be there everyday. They were fun. We had fun together in that sense. But it still had some of the traditional subject – filmmaker relationship. When I was there, it was not about my life, it was about their life. I was really there to be present and witness their life. When you spend that much time together, of course, you do talk about yourself. They wanted to know things about me, but to a degree. The primary thing was them and a lot of my strategy was simply to be present for them. In my interviewing strategy, I tend to take a very non judgmental approach. I am here to witness, to hear, to accept whatever you are going to tell me, but not to judge it, not to tell you what Jennifer Fox really thinks.
Collaborate with the camera
J. Fox: How is that camera passing going? Did you notice anything so far about how you feel when you’re holding the camera, when you’re filming yourself? Not everybody has done it, I’m just checking in! Just to see if you still here. Any comments?
Étudiant: It seems like you’re more conscious of yourself when you have the camera and a little less of what is happening. Concentration on getting the right frame. When you’re filming yourself, your kind of “Oh, no no no!” (Everyone’s laughing). You’re more conscientious about your body movements, so you forget about the camera.
J. Fox: It sounds very close to the feeling I have. Any other comments?
Étudiant: I have noticed that you feel really different, especially when you are getting filmed. I get this feeling of urgency, like something is aiming at you. Kind of an animal reaction, tension. It’s hard to connect with yourself when you’re getting filmed. And when you’re filming yourself, it’s more narcissist, you know you’re filming yourself and you are acting for yourself.
J. Fox: What about you?
Étudiant: When I hold the camera, I feel powerful. But when someone is capturing images of me, I feel more fragile. I don’t have the power of choosing the frame or control what it will show of me. When I’m filming myself, it’s like “Me by me”. The power returns to myself and I feel confident about what I’m capturing. I have the power to capture what I want.
J. Fox: All these things are so interesting. If we feel that, and we are filmmakers, then our subjects must feel that. The issue then becomes, if our subjects are feeling anxious or tense, that will make for bad films. So the whole issue is how to find ways in which the subjects can collaborate with the camera, how can it be a benefit to them, how do we use the camera in a way that people find a better place in themselves.
I’ve had a progression of this idea. I didn’t film Beirut, so I didn’t understand this camera thing. But I really felt like I’m going in there and I will get their story, run away and take it home. It had this feeling of stealing. They were very comfortable with the camera and I think it had to do luckily because they were in aristocracy, they were used to being watched, they were used to having servants around. People at the time used to say to me: “How did you find such great actors?”. However, even within them, I think the narrator Gabby is always acting for the camera, posing and posturing. Her older sister Mona is actually the only real character in the film. Without Mona, who has a kind of totality, I wouldn’t have a film. It’s interesting if you look at it, you only need one good character.
As I developed and I went into An American Love Story, I didn’t want to do that again. I began to think of the idea of collaborating with the subject, that somehow we had to find a mutual way to include the camera in our lives. They had control, they could say “I don’t want you to film that”. So the whole film is based on collaboration. They had a final approval on the film (which by the way the people in Beirut had also), but that approval is speaking to collaboration. We are going to make a film that you can live with as well as me. So my ideas were shifting. And this is the first real film I ever shot and I begin to notice the effect of the camera on me. When I picked up the camera, I all of a sudden arrived. If you don’t shoot your own films, I would do some experiment with the camera, because when you’re shooting, if you get distracted, you miss the moment. It’s this incredible reality check, that if you’re not really in the moment you’ve lost it. It forces you to be present. And that presence really influences what is happening around you.
Anybody can shoot
J. Fox: Now, if I want to come to the film Flying, my newest work, it has a very strange evolution but it is a continuation of how to find presence on film. While I was making Love Story, I was in my thirties and I noticed that, contrary to what I was taught, my life was depending on my conversations with my girlfriends. I have girlfriends all over the world. So if I was in London, I would stop and see one friend. If I was in Berlin or in New York, I would stop and see another one. These conversations somehow where knitting my life together. Now, I’m quite a bit older than all of you. But I was raised that the centre of my life would be a man. I don’t think that has changed much. How many women here were raised that man should be the most important thing? (Everyone is laughing. Some students say yes, others no.)
Étudiante: Not the most important, but the centre for sure.
J. Fox: How many of you were raised that you should get married and have children? Étudiant: Just the girls? (Everyone is laughing.)
J. Fox: Well, men too are raised that way, of course. I’m just curious because we have an age difference here. (J.F. is looking at the hands up) So it’s about 50 – 50. Well, anyway. I began to think about these ideas. I wanted to film these female conversations which to me seemed very different from conversations that men had. They were intimate, they were analyst. They were circular in nature, they weren’t goal oriented. So I began to struggle with this idea of the conversations between women. As you can see, there is no story here, just an idea.
Another thing happened. I travel a lot and I happened to be in South Africa teaching a film series developing program on HIV and AIDS in the early millennium. I met two South African women who were in their twenties and we immediately bonded and started talks about sex…We had the identical conversation that I would have had with any of my girlfriends in New York. I was really struck because they were from different classes, they were from a different culture.
So I began to think: “Is there a real tread through all female life?”. And of course, I was thinking of making a film, so I was trying to figure out: “Ok, I want to make the film about the way women talk, I want to make a film about women around the world. I have no story, really, this is not a story, these are ideas.” So like all good filmmakers, I wrote a treatment about three hypothetical women: “I’m going to make a film about three people of different classes and cultures and their experience of life…”. I wrote it and it was just crap! I just wrote it for myself, so I’m going on thinking: “How am I going to do this?”. So I’m still struggling with this issue of gender and I realize that it would be a lie to make a film about women and leave me out of the equation. I had to admit that I was a woman too in a story about women. And on top of it, I felt like I was in a crisis in my life. It was a crisis of reflection. I was at that time in my early forties, and I wasn’t married, I didn’t have children. I had always been in relationship with men and never wanted to get married and have children. So, it wasn’t that. But the fact that I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids meant that there was no way to put myself into society. And I couldn’t find a mirror for my life. And it sort of very sampled it. I could not put photos of my life on the wall, in a way. If you are in a couple and have children, you mark your life through the changes of the couple and the children. But I couldn’t put ten men on the wall. It was a real problem. So I thought: “I need to find a reflection, I need to fill my life.” And I decided to put myself in this story. I had a very strong need, and the need was real. This was not a filmmaker’s concept: “Oh, I want to make a film about women….”. It was: “I need to see my life, I cannot figure it out, it is a true need.” I think that is very important to make personal films. Often the filmmaker actually pretends to have a need and the filmmaker avoids revealing himself. I really object to that. In terms of depth, you need to put yourself on the line also. I’ve obviously asked my girlfriends to put their lives on the line, I expect that I would do the same.
Then I had another problem: “How am I going to film this?. If I put a camera on a tripod and have the conversation with my girlfriends, we will all freeze up. All the intimacy will fall apart. We will begin to act.” And it didn’t matter to me if there was a person in the room or simply if the camera was in a third position. We would still feel like we were pretending. The big question for me was how to achieve this quality of intimacy that women really have. What if we pass the camera between us? And passing really seems similar to the circular way women speak. I began to experiment with my girlfriends and it worked! I saw that by passing the camera we got to this incredibly intimate conversations. And also, against all popular belief, anybody can shoot. And that was really interesting to me.
So I was going to pass the camera and I decided that I would film my life, my girlfriends both in New York and around the world, the women in my family and the strangers I would meet around the world. Because ultimately my point of view was this: “Did my life have anything to do with a woman from Pakistan, a woman in Russia, a woman in Berlin, a woman in Canada… Is there a real tread? Do I fit in this world of gender or is gender not important?”. That was sort of my premise. And it is really important, because you cannot make a film without a point of view, otherwise you would film everything. This told me what I should film and how to create a story about “Is there a tread to female life?”.
Since in this premise there really isn’t a story and it’s very wide, I was trying to give myself some more parameters. I made rules for myself: the camera must be passed, no director of photography, no tripod, and also no radio mikes. Of course, I broke these things later. But it was just to limit the world a bit. Everyone in the room must agree to be in the film. There is no observer in this process. If you don’t agree to be in the film, get out of the room. I think that was all the main rules, it’s quite simple.
Flying: big on rules
J. Fox: I did a lot of work to be able to include, to accept the camera in my work, to film myself, be real and not act. I really wanted to do it, but how to be real? This is simplistic but there’s sort of two parts of our brain: the critical mind and the creative mind I would say. And both parts are really important. There’s nothing wrong with the critical mind at all. We need it as director. But to put myself in front of the camera, I really had to diminish this (J.F. crossing the word critical she just wrote on the pad) and allow, accept and relax. So to diminish the critical mind I made a lot of tricks for myself and also some rules. I was really big on rules.
1 – I couldn’t prepare for the camera. That means no makeup, no nice clothes, nothing.
2 – I would film all the time. I took the camera into the bedroom, I took it into the bathroom. I took it everywhere, I filmed all the time.
3 – I filmed really fast, and I filmed a lot. I filmed a lot of footage because I thought if I’m careful about how much I’m filming, then I would start to control. The amount of footage actually is a key here. I figured, if I film all the time, one out of every hundred shot will be good and will work. So everyday I was filming and I was filming really fast, that’s why the rule about no tripods. I would put the camera on the table, in the bathroom. I didn’t want that feeling of set-up. Now, this is contradictory to what we learn in film school and that has, of course, a place for certain kind of shooting. Just take the camera everywhere, film all the time, it’s just a toy. This is just part of our life, this is what Jennifer is doing now.
J. Fox: Another thing about self shooting is you cannot look at tapes, or I couldn’t. When I was forced to look at tapes for the business of raising money, it often took me a few weeks to recover. I needed to get rid of the feeling that people were observing me. When I was shooting, I was not thinking that somebody was looking at it. It was using the camera as a tool to become more aware of my life and the life of my girlfriend.
Étudiante: When you are filming in those more intimate moments, did you have to do some staging afterward because you needed some shots that you didn’t have?
J. Fox: There is no staging in it. There is just a lot of filming. And because the amount of filming became really important, I did diaries every day. Now, I don’t like diaries as a filmmaker and usually they are crap. But I made myself as a practice filmed diary to camera, just to get used to reporting on my life and also to make sure in the edit I could go back and see what I was really thinking and feeling. This film ended up being a Danish co-production. I was very inspired by the work coming out of Denmark. The rule idea is coming out of Dogma. And if you look, they do a lot of diaries but they cut out the words. So what you are actually getting is the pauses in your speech. If you look at the opening of Flying, it ends on a shot where I’ve found out I’m pregnant. I’m sitting at a table and I’m just looking into space. That is actually a diary that I did right after I saw the pregnancy thing, and I was really upset that I was pregnant. The words are ridiculous, but the look adds a lot of presence and really captures the emotion. So the strategy I would use in the editing room is very different than the strategy I used with myself in the shooting, where I wasn’t thinking about an audience. I was simply thinking that I need to film my life because I could not figure it out. And I filmed my life for about four years. You can imagine that in four years there is enough drama, especially if you have a married lover and you take a boyfriend. There’s some nice things that happened there. Meanwhile in those four years, I filmed my girlfriends, my mother, my aunt, my father and I filmed women around the world.
One of the keys here, which is very different than the Beirut film and the An American Love Story, is I met strangers with the camera rolling. As soon as I walked into a scene, I was already filming and I immediately said to them: “Here, you film me. See how easy it is!”. Again, diminishing the importance of this object. People always asked me: “Well, how much instruction did you give?”. It was maybe a one to three minutes. I did tell them about zooming, everything is on automatic. So I would say: “Here is the camera. Just point it at whoever is speaking.” And very much people can shoot. And they can shoot all over the world because we have to remember people are so television literate.
I had another rule besides filming from the moment I met a person. Whenever I would go to meet somebody or go to a foreign country, I had to stay in the people’s house. So I was immediately there and I was immediately integrated. I became part of the intimate life of the person. I was filming from the moment we woke up to the moment we went to bed.
It’s also this issue of finding a reliable guide, someone who will basically tell the people around that you are reliable. If I came in cold I could never have had these conversations. It’s because they trusted that guide that I was trustworthy. When I went to India, it was through a friend of a friend. So a friend of mine knew Paramita and said: ”Oh you must meet her.” She actually was in New York and she came to my house once. Afterward, she invited me to India and I showed up in this village. It’s high risk filmmaking, because it’s based on being able to quickly make a intimate connection. And I had never done that before. So it works in different degrees depending on this connection you’re making.
Premise is also God
Étudiante: How many hours did you get at the end?
J. Fox: Passing the camera requires that you shoot a lot of footage. You turn on the camera and an hour and a half later, you turn it off. The moment with Mindy, where she’s talking about her abortion, is a good passing the camera scene. That was an hour and a half, two hours conversation. But most of the footage will never be used. So not to scare you, we shot sixteen hundred hours of video. That requires enormous amount of preparation for the editing. The whole key of shooting lots of footage is logging and really creating a database. We shot a thousand hours in American Love Story, so I had some experience. If you log properly, it is not scary. If you haven’t logged properly, forget it! It’s just really approach.
Étudiante: Did you edit the film by yourself?
J. Fox: No. I love shooting, but I really cannot see it in the edit. I need to maintain distance. This is me. I know some very good director-editor. But while I was still shooting, I had people in New York, a team of men and women, logging. And it was a Danish co-production with a Danish editor, a man. We never had worked together before, but we had a very good relationship.
Étudiante: Did you do some editing in those four years or you waited until the end?
J. Fox: We had to edit a sample tape to raise money because when I pitched the idea on paper (my life, the life of my friends, my family, women around the world and passing the camera…), nobody thought it would work. It’s really an hybrid form. It’s a personal film and it’s a survey. In fiction you would call it an ensemble cast of characters. But they didn’t believe it so, what is quite common today, we ended cutting a sample tape after I had shot about a hundred and twenty tapes of what I would call research. We then showed it to the broadcasters and they understood: “Oh passing the camera is not a problem”. Other people had to say: “We like you as a character.” I can’t really judge that.
About midway through the shooting, I had a meeting with my Danish co-producer and the editor Nils Pagh Anderson in NY. At that point, I still haven’t shot a lot of strangers and we still thought it was a feature film. I think I only had been to Russia and my co- producer really didn’t think it was going to work with strangers. Everybody was really excited about what they saw with people I knew and they said that the other won’t work. But part of the premise, I was really arguing, I had to go to the third world and I had to go to women I didn’t know.
So I was organizing and saw a lot of what you see in episode one. This kind of ensemble cast reminded me a lot of Sex and the City. Not that we are glamorous and beautiful or anything like that. It just reminded me of this multiple characters that repeat and you follow over time. And I’m always looking for keys, formal keys. For Beirut, we knew immediately, fiction feature theatrical. An American Love Story, also during the shooting, it reminded me of a family sitcom, so that became the form. This reminded me of Sex and the City in the middle of the shooting. I pitched it to my Danish co-producer and the editor and they really got it. We then thought it was a series and, of course, we went to the broadcasters and they said no. It took a really long time to convince them about the series idea. But the main reason for the series was a feature would remain too much in my personal story. I couldn’t get the width into a feature and that was really my problem. It’s really a question of your story premise. When I said Story is God, Premise is also God. What are you setting out to do? The key for me was “Is there a real tread across class and culture in female life? Are we sharing more than we think? Or not!”.
And in order to fulfill the premise it had to become a series, with the language that it was in, the passing the camera and everything. That’s what I argued really strongly, otherwise it would just be me and my NY girlfriends and I didn’t want that. I found that absurd. It’s fun in an episode, but it had to go further than that. Instead, in the second hour we added Europe and Africa, in the third hour we added India, in the fourth hour we added Russia and Cambodia, in the fifth hour we added Pakistan and the Mali woman and then the sixth hour kind of end up back in my American world. The film gets deeper as it goes along, even if it starts up very light. That’s the other thing we stole (and I’m all into stealing) from Sex and the City: the lightness tone and narrative tone. It came more into my own tone, but originally we were very “sex and the cityish”, and it’s still a bit there. As a so called artist, I am stealing all the time. I am stealing from Dogma. I am stealing from Sex and the City. Then, of course, I add myself into the mix. That is how it morphed into a series.
Last questions? Feelings? Words? Well I really enjoyed meeting you.
Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, 353 minutes, 6 épisodes, Danemark / États-Unis, Anglais, Couleurs, 2007.
An American Love Story, 600 minutes, 10 épisodes, États-Unis, Anglais, Couleurs, 1999. Beirut: The Last Home Movie, 123 minutes, États-Unis, Anglais, Couleurs, 1987. Productrice
Absolutely Safe, États-Unis, Anglais, Couleurs, 2007.
Réalisation: Carol Ciancutti-Leyva.
Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, 353 minutes, 6 épisodes, Danemark / États-Unis, Anglais, Couleurs, 2007.
Independent Lens: Double Exposure, États-Unis, Couleurs, 2004. Réalisation: Kit-Yin Snyder.
Mix, 52 minutes, Afrique du Sud, Anglais, Couleurs, 2004.
Love & Diane, 155 minutes, États-Unis / France, Couleur / Noir & blanc, 2002.
Réalisation: Jennifer Dworkin.
An American Love Story, 300 minutes, 5 épisodes, États-Unis, Anglais, Couleurs, 1999.
On the Ropes, 94 minutes, États-Unis, Anglais, Couleurs, 1999. Réalisation: Nanette Burstein et Brett Morgen.