Interview with Therese Shechter, Director, Writer, and Producer of My So-Called Selfish Life
Interview by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Edited and Posted by Iliana Cosme-Brooks
I really enjoyed how you weave your personal story as a woman who always knew she didn’t want children into the stories of women who similarly decided not to become mothers in My So-Called Selfish Life. How did you come up with the idea for this documentary, and what was your approach to selecting the women whose voices you intertwine with your own?
I’ve always known I didn’t want to have children, but it wasn’t something I discussed, let alone had any language for. In 2009, Anne Kingston (a journalist and dear friend, who was always fearless about her topics) wrote a magazine article about the childfree choice and together we marveled at the intense vitriol in the responses she got to the story. Anne reads some of her hate out loud in the film and it’s quite amusing. I mean, why do people care so much about what others were doing with their reproductive organs (what a hilarious and horrible question that is). That was really my first indication that this was something worth investigating.
In 2015, I was thinking about my next film when I noticed an explosion of conversations around this topic all over social media. All I really knew was my own story, so the first thing I did was create a survey asking about people’s experiences not having children (by choice or circumstance). It went viral! I got 1,900 responses in one week, with many people aching for more conversation on this topic. So, I thought, “Huh, this might make a good film!” Anne was the first person I interviewed and was always a touchstone in the film’s journey. She passed away in 2020 and never got to see the final film, but it’s dedicated to her and exists because of her gentle yet relentless nagging.
I learned a lot from that survey about the diversity of people making the choice not to have children, and I selected my subjects to reflect that. People who don’t want children are hardly a monolith, even though they’re portrayed that way. Some subjects I feature are experts whose work I admire, others I met on Facebook groups for the childfree, others are friends of friends, and one couple I found by reading about them in a magazine article.
I also wanted to represent a diversity of ages, sexuality and gender identity, and race. The childfree space has been dominated by white middle class voices, and the stories shared by Black women and women of color haven’t received enough attention. Without those voices, we get an incomplete picture. I’m very glad to have worked with a number of women who could speak to how their own experiences (and the experiences of their communities) were affected by the US’s history of reproductive oppression through enslavement, eugenics, and white supremacy.
There were also many people I approached who didn’t want to be public about their lives, mostly because they hadn’t told their families they didn’t want children and had no plans to ever do so. There are so many cultural and religious taboos around this issue, so I understand their apprehension.
The film expertly blends interviews with decades of film and TV clips in which women are confronted with the expectation that they become mothers, not only for their own self-fulfillment but also to perform their duty to society. What role do you think the media plays in pushing women toward motherhood and what was your process for selecting the clever kaleidoscope of scenes you feature?
I don’t really have a process for finding and selecting all these weird and wonderful archival clips. I just do these long research sessions, throwing in random keywords to see what pops up, spending hours going down rabbit holes. It’s not for everyone—I think it’s something you have to love doing. I’ve worked with some very creative interns who unearthed spectacular things and clearly shared this love of rabbit holes with me.
The closest thing to a process might be that we’re always looking, and if we find a piece of archival footage that’s better than what we have, we replace it. We put clips in, take them out, replace them when we find something better. Sometimes we don’t even know what we want till we find them, like the black-and-white clip of women dancing around dressed as clocks, hitting themselves on the head. That was unearthed by one of our interns, and we dropped it right into the biological clock section.
I do devote a large chunk of time searching for media that shows the kind of toxic messaging around who we should be, how we should look and act. We grow up in this pop culture soup and so much of it seems innocuous at first glance. Like the pregnancy test commercials that never show anyone happy to NOT be pregnant (which I firmly believe is the reason most people take pregnancy tests!). It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so horrifying. We really should be teaching kids media criticism.
I loved your mother’s role in the film. She’s witty and confident and seems to accept you as you are, and that’s the kind of acceptance so many of us daughters long desperately for. What was your collaboration with her like, and how did she react to the finished product?
My sister and I were raised by a feminist mother and her ideas about women’s roles and motherhood influenced me from a young age. In many ways, she gave me permission to question everything and discard what I didn’t think made sense. My scenes with her are both moving and funny in ways I didn’t really understand when we were filming. But in the context of the larger film, our conversations are really powerful. She’s now been in two of my films, and for a woman who doesn’t like to be the center of attention, she’s been incredibly generous. We filmed her playing some of my favorite pieces on the piano and they are now part of our score.
So how did she react to the finished product? She’s my mother and loves everything I do, as does my father; however, I think in this case they both genuinely love the film, and my mother seems flattered that her daughter is interested enough in her thoughts on being a mother to share them with the world.
Independent filmmaking is a long and arduous endeavor, but we keep returning to it because in the midst of the frustrations, there are moments that spark as brightly as anything else in our lives. What were some of the most magical moments as you were filming and editing Life?
Filming at Queer Prom with Shanna and Leo was really magical. My cinematographer and I loved spending time with a group of queer teens who were having so much fun, in a rare moment when they could be fully themselves.
Everything to do with my mother.
Working with our animator Luke Murphy, who has a great mind and a wicked sense of humor. I’ve worked with him on three films now, and I can’t tell you how many times I opened the first draft of an animated clip and laughed out loud. This film is full of tiny details Luke dropped in here and there that might not even register on first viewing. Look for the running woman who shows up in three different contexts during the film—she delights me every time I see her.
As the film ends and audiences walk away, what are you hoping will resonate with them about the story and the way women who choose not to be mothers are treated?
First of all, I’d like people to walk away with a sense of possibility. Life cannot be one pre-ordained path, especially when it only serves the needs of others. That all choices should be valued, that having a uterus doesn’t mean we owe anyone babies, that no one should ever, ever, ever be forced to have a child.
By the same token, I want people to have an understanding of the forces that make this reproductive freedom so difficult to attain for so many. While they may not use this language, I do want them to think about the possibility that there is a giant pronatalist system at work, constructed to serve the needs of capitalism, patriarchy, and nationalism. Being able to see our world with different eyes can be a gift.
You directed, produced, and wrote the film, and since it’s a personal story, you also spend time on screen and work as our engaging narrator. How many years did it take you to make the film, and how did you juggle playing so many complex roles?
We started research and shooting in 2016, and it took about 5 years to make the film, stopping and starting as we ran out of money, and then raised money, and then ran out again. Thanks to a combination of Kickstarter, individual donors, two arts grants, and whatever was in my pocket, we finished a rough cut in early 2020. The pandemic impacted the completion date because it turns out that editing remotely takes twice as long—especially with the kind of film that requires near constant collaboration between me and the editor. Luckily, I was working with Siobhan Dunne, who is not only a wonderful editor, but is also as passionate about this subject as I am. Largely fueled by donuts, we finished everything in spring of this year and then premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival in September.
Juggling a variety of complex roles is less by design than by necessity. It’s a personal film, so writing and directing go hand in hand. And I assumed the role of producer because, frankly, there was no one else to do it! I’m good at navigating both the practical and creative elements of filmmaking, and it’s a nice break to not have to be creative and just make a bunch of spreadsheets. I also occasionally jumped in as DP, usually because some shooting opportunity came up unexpectedly and I didn’t have the time to pull things together, or sometimes because I just didn’t have the budget. You know. All of us indie filmmakers have to do way too many jobs to move our projects forward, including the endlessly hungry monster of social media. Now that the film is done I’m working with an outreach producer and a publicist, and it’s lovely collaborating with such smart people to get the messages of the film out there.
I was thrilled to see as the credits rolled that many of your crew members were women. Do you think it’s important as a woman director and producer to hire women, and if so, what do you value about their contributions to the set and the creative process?
Not only do I consider it a responsibility as a woman filmmaker to include more women on sets (due to their underrepresentation), but I found that it was crucial to work with women due to the film’s subject matter. I’m happy to say that of our five cinematographers, four are women. I found that hiring women (especially when our mission is so focused on challenging the social expectations of women) added an even deeper layer of meaning; the women I worked with didn’t just see it as a job, but as being a part of a movement.
The film’s editor Siobhan Dunne was as passionate as I was about the themes of the film. Being childfree ourselves, we were very tired of explaining our lives to other people, and we decided our subjects didn’t owe anyone any explanations either. Instead, we had long conversations about the joy of being able to follow your own path as a woman—and how to imbue the film with the same sense of joy and possibility.
You have built a strong social media following for the film. What have been some of the most rewarding interactions you’ve had on social media around the topic, and what advice do you have for fellow filmmakers hoping to build their and their projects’ social media presence?
When I first decided to make the film, I created a Facebook page and began interacting with people who joined, listening to their stories and frustrations and victories (it now has over ten thousand followers). So, talking to people on social media became an integral part of the production process, and I now also post to Instagram and Twitter. Haven’t made it to TikTok yet, but they have a really creative childfree community there. Not only did we find a lot of support for the film through social media (we raised close to $46,000 dollars on Kickstarter), but it’s become an ongoing and validating conversation, often now peppered with “Where can I see the film??”
Congratulations on premiering the film at Woodstock Film Festival. What other plans do you have for its release, and how can audiences engage with it in the months to come?
We are doing more festivals this fall, and since they all have virtual components, the film is going to show up online in various US locations for the length of the festival’s run.
I’m especially excited about the virtual events we are creating for universities, conferences, professional women’s groups, and larger organizations using the film and a post-screening discussion with me and others. These are private events for members, students, or employees, and I think they will have a lot of impact on the issues closest to our hearts, not the least of which is reproductive justice.
The film will have its public release some time in 2022, but we don’t have that timetable yet. In the meantime, we’re planning some virtual events for our audiences, featuring themed conversations and peeks at some of the scenes from the film. Our first event will be happening in early December, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
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Learn more about Life by visiting its website, Facebook, or Instagram. Find Therese on her website, Instagram, and Twitter. Connect with Alexandra by visiting her profile.