Interview by Emma Eden Ramos
All your films feature strong, resilient female leads. The women in your films generally have to fight being disregarded and oppressed by both the men and women in their lives. In Hounddog, Dakota Fanning’s character, Lewellen, is ignored by her father except for when she is willing to perform her “Elvis Dance” for him. In Virgin, Elizabeth Moss’s character, Jessie’s ‘s sister (Stephanie Gatschet), is quite religious and believes wholeheartedly in the Immaculate Conception. When Jessie tells her sister she is pregnant with the Christ child, however, she is immediately dismissed as being a liar. In SPLit, Inanna (Amy Ferguson) is initially only appreciated when she is dancing at a strip club. Women in our society, like the women in your films, constantly fight to be heard and believed. As a feminist filmmaker, do you believe it is important to have your female characters mirror women in society?
A deep need to be heard certainly resonates with me. I think it’s almost like an ancient need that exists in my very DNA. I think our voices, as women, our stories, and our lives have been silenced for so long. I think our experiences have been invalidated over and over again. The poet, Muriel Rukeyser, wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” I posted that quote over my desk while writing SPLit and thought about it every day. I think we women have to keep splitting the world open with our stories, with our voices and our truths, over and over again, until the world can finally hear us. I don’t know that I am ever trying to have my characters mirror women in society, but I am trying to tell the truth about my life. And I hope in doing so, another woman might see a reflection of her own experience, and that might give her courage and inspire her (as other women have inspired me) to speak the truth about her life.
Your forthcoming film, SPLit, is, and this may surprise many readers, the last of a trilogy. While Lewellen, the pre-teen from Hounddog, Jessie, the teenager from Virgin and Inanna, the dancer in her 20’s in SPLit are different women, they share what I’ve heard you describe as a “common spirit.” Can you tell us a little about that spirit?
Ah, well the common spirit is my spirit. I mean, the films are an artistic progression of my own spirit and my own psyche. They are a progression of the weaving of my experiences, my hopes and my dreams. I do see them as a trilogy, but only in retrospect. It’s only in looking back on them, though, that I see that. In the process of making them I was simply trying to wrestle my truths to the ground, and do my best to move my vision from inside of me out onto the screen.
In SPLit, Inanna works as a stripper. She is an aspiring actress who, unfortunately, must struggle to make ends meet in New York City. Many consider stripping to be as anti-feminist a job as there is. However, there is this wild and daring side to Inanna. She’s willing to take on a role—the role of Sumerian goddess Inanna who must descend into The Underworld—that demands sexual expression, but in a way that is liberating instead of demeaning. Would you classify SPLit as a feminist film?
You mentioned my being a feminist filmmaker earlier and now you are asking if SPLit is a feminist film. I certainly accept the definition of my work as feminist, and I take it as a compliment. I’m happy for anyone to define my films in a way that speaks to them. I would consider myself a feminist. But I also consider myself an artist, a mother, a wife, a lover, a teacher, independent, and so many other things. As a filmmaker I’m trying to express who I am, which is complex and complicated. I’m trying to express my experience of the world through the art of film. As I said before, I’m trying to speak my truth. So, I wouldn’t say I’m a feminist filmmaker. I don’t have an agenda in mind when I make my films. I do think that in a time when men are directing 94% of all films, the act of being a woman filmmaker is political. Speaking our truth is a political act. It makes sense to me that I would be called feminist filmmaker in that context. It makes sense that my films would be called feminist films, even though I have no such agenda.
I was just speaking to a friend the other day about how problematic it is that there seems to be this new expectation that as women filmmakers, we are supposed to create “strong female characters.” It’s just another way of limiting the range of our humanity as women, and of invalidating our full range of experiences. It’s the Madonna/whore split all over again. It’s the either/or. Either strong or weak. Either anti-feminist or feminist. Women are complex. That complexity is beautiful and it’s messy and it’s human.
As far as Inanna goes, she is caught in that very split. That good girl/bad girl split. It is only when she can face her own darkness, her own rage, her own sexuality, that she can be whole and healthy. In the strip club she is acting out an idea of her sexuality and, in acting it out, she becomes more disconnected from an authentic sexuality. The more disconnected she becomes, the more she acts out. It’s a self-denying cycle that I think a lot of women get caught in. Through her journey in the theater, Inanna is able to finally claim her rage, and a connected and authentic sexuality.
Inanna is a fascinating character, but I must admit my personal favorite character in SPLit is Anja. Can you tell us a little about Anja? Who is she? What’s her story?
Anja is a mother and a stripper who is studying to get her degree in child psychology. She will stop dancing once she has completed her degree and has started her therapy practice. This decision is not based on whether or not a man likes or doesn’t like it. She is also a passionate advocate for sex workers. She feels that no woman is safe or free until you can convict a man for raping a sex worker. A lot of this information was exposition that was cut out of the film when we were editing. I think you still sense all of it, though. I think you feel that Anja is the healthiest woman in the film. She is in a healthy, loving, imperfect relationship with a somewhat evolved man. She is not perfect but she is conscious and alive and passionate. She is the woman in the film that has healed the most, who is closest to being whole.
I had the sense, watching SPLit and knowing a little about you, that Anja is the character you most identify with. I noticed that your own daughter plays Anja’s daughter in the film. Am I right in thinking that you have a special connection with Anja? Why not make her the center of the film?
Ha! Well, Anja is who I would love to evolve into one day. She’s very sexy and wise! But she’s already made the journey. The film is about the journey that must be taken to get where Anja gets. She’s where Inanna is headed, if Inanna can find the courage to take the journey, to face her own darkness and rage.
My favorite line is one that Anja says about her daughter. She says, “I don’t want her to grow up pure, I want her to grow up whole.” What does that mean? Why not want your daughter to grow up pure?
Anja goes on to say that rape and repression are two sides of the same coin. When you rape a girl, the problem isn’t that you are taking away her purity, it’s that you are taking away her wholeness. Trying to keep her pure, which is about repressing and controlling her sexuality, also takes away her wholeness. I think we live in a culture that doesn’t nurture, nourish, and develop women’s sexuality. It’s a culture that doesn’t honor female sexuality for the beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring gift that it is. Instead, women’s sexuality is something that is exploited, commercialized, repressed, shamed, and abused. When you cut a woman off from her sexuality, in whatever form, you rob her of a huge chunk of her soul.
As well as being a screenwriter and director, you are a seasoned actor. I believe you began your career as an actor? Do you think your years of acting have helped you bring out some of the outstanding performances we have seen in your films?
I love acting and I love actors. Acting profoundly changed me as an artist and a human being, so I have the greatest respect for it, and for actors. I understand how delicate and ferocious the process of acting is. I feel that having studied and pursued acting for a very long time, without the initial agenda of becoming a director, gives me an ability to hold the space for actors to do their best work. I give them space to reveal the deepest parts of themselves.
You are an original member of the Film Fatales of New York. Can you tell us who the Film Fatales are and what they do?
Film Fatales is a collective of female feature film directors who meet monthly to provide each other with mentorship, peer-networking and community support. Leah Meyerhoff had the vision to start this group, a group that I had been longing for, for years. We started with five or six of us sitting around Leah’s dining room table in Brooklyn. We have now expanded to include hundreds of members in more than two dozen chapters all over the world. It’s incredible to move from feeling very isolated and alone in this male-dominated industry to feeling connected with so many other women who are also making films.
I recently read an article on Mediascape about how it is harder for female filmmakers to get their second and third films made.Is this something you experienced with Hounddog and SPLit? Was it harder to get those films in front of audiences than it was to bring Virgin into the world?
Yes, I’ve heard that many times over the years, from many sources. I believe it’s true. If it isn’t harder, it’s at least as hard. I think it gets harder partly because there is an expectation one has that after the success of your first film, you will be able to make bigger films as you continue to grow. You see that happen with men. You will see, time and again, a man jump from a low budget indie film to a big budget Hollywood film. You don’t see that happen with women. I have been a DIY filmmaker from the beginning, not out of choice, but out of necessity. I raised $65,000 to make my first film, which was hard. I raised $3.5 million to make my second, which was brutal. I expected my third feature to be… oh… a $5 million to $8 million film. At a certain point (with the help of Film Fatales, particularly Leah, prodding me along) I realized I couldn’t wait for that to happen – I had to go back to a micro-budget in order to get my next film made. That was hard to accept. SPLit was still difficult to raise money for, even with a low budget, and with two award-winning features under my belt. But I decided it was more important to make the film than to wait for the level of financing I felt I had earned.
SPLit marks the end of a trilogy. What’s next?
I have several projects in the works. UNTAMED is based on an amazing book by Will Harlan. It’s a true story about this wild woman saving sea turtles and the wilderness on Cumberland Island. I’m working on Crazy Head Space, which is based on a dear friend who has wrestled with mental illness her whole life. It’s about how badly we treat our mentally ill population, and how we are all pretty much somewhere on the spectrum. Finally, I am working on a piece called Persephone, which is a road movie through the sex trafficking industry in the U.S.
When will SPLit be available for audiences to view?
We are currently looking for our festival premiere. I can’t wait!