Here are the five main questions that informed director Jennifer Fox's four-year journey across the globe, as well as her journey to the inner reserves of who she is as a woman "living this modern female life":
Do women have a special language?
Is there a red thread that connects women across the globe?
Why are women's real lives kept hidden?
Why is female sexuality taboo?
What is this strange modern female life we're living?
A few days before Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman's 4th of July debut, I spoke with Jennifer at a cafe next door to her Tribeca loft. We talked about her lengthy journey and the six-hour film that resulted from several years of filming herself, other women from around the world, and the women in her immediate family. The film is an extraordinarily personal portrait. But as with most tour de force works, it reveals universal truths about what it means to be a "free" woman in our times.
In true Flying fashion, our conversation became quite personal--two girlfriends sharing war stories and chatting intimately over cappucinos and cookies. Fox speaks slowly, deliberately and thoughtfully, about her life, her discoveries about relationships, the life of a female artist, and the triumphs, both large and small, in making this epic film.
Still in Motion (SIM): Things must be hectic right now leading up to the Film Forum debut next Wednesday.
Jennifer Fox (JF): Oh yeah, and we're doing a lot of work on the outreach.
SIM: I want to tell you, the web site is really amazing. It's really impressive. The content for the film, as well as for the outreach work, is so well done. I'm assuming there was an intention of the social action/outreach work being a vital component of this project from the beginning?
JF: I come from public television and social activism. And even though the film is so personal, I really wanted to start a dialogue about what it is to be a woman across America. That was my meta-goal. Of course, it has nothing to do with making the film, but my hope was to have a film that one could use that way, that it would provoke that discussion.
SIM: Was it your original intention to have it be this extensive of a piece?
JF: I didn't think it would be six hours; originally it was supposed to be a feature. But I'm very used to things growing. An American Love Story was supposed to be a feature and it ended up with a ten hour running time. I think stories find their form and their way if they're allowed to. I mean not everybody's lucky enough to be able to do that. The premise was always to mix my life with women I knew, with women around the world and the women in my family. And I couldn't do that in an hour.
SIM: I wouldn't think so.
JF: No, not in a story-telling way; one could do it in a didactic way.
SIM: I read an interview you gave on Divine Caroline, and you said that this film was as close to a fiction or narrative piece than you'd ever done before, and that a narrative film would be the next logical step in your filmmaking career. When I first read that, it kind of floored me a bit because this film is so autobiographical, so personal. What did you mean by that?
JF: Well, the process is straight documentary--I'm not acting, nor are any of the other women, at all. And the whole endeavor is to get us to be real. That's what passing the camera's about and it takes place over such a long span of time. But it's the storytelling that is close to the craft of fiction. We could turn this into fiction in a heartbeat. I'm sure of it. I'm not sure it would be quite as good.
SIM: Probably not. But I can see that this might be an actress's dream role to be able to do this kind of thing. And even though you're not "performing," it is a beautiful performance. You give so much, a tremendous amount. You made sure that there was real emotional depth in there. I was very moved several times, just by the sheer honesty of what you were trying to say and the way in which you were trying to portray things, the biggest question being, "Is there something truly wrong with me and the way I've chosen to live my life?" I'm very much in that company of women asking myself that very question almost daily, questioning my choices, questioning my attitude about things because they fall outside the "normal" arc of a woman's life.
JF: That was much of the impetus when I started filming. And also the shock that while I actually seemed so free, I was holding on to all these old messages of how a woman's life is supposed to play out.
SIM: What is the definition of a free woman to you now?
JF: You start with the realization that you're haunted by old roles that really haven't changed in our society. It's still good girls and bad girls, it's still "you get married and have kids" or, what? I would say the definition of being free is somehow accepting that those roles still exist but not having them run your life, to really deeply acknowledge that your life is not a failure if you don't get married, as we all have been taught to feel. It's not a failure if you don't have kids.
SIM: But didn't you feel that way before you made this film?
JF: No. The irony or complexity of it was that I wasn't married, I didn't have kids. But I never wanted to be married, for sure. I, at times, wanted to have children, but very late. But even though I never wanted those things, I still felt like a failure that I didn't have them. I didn't know how I would do it. There was the white picket fence idea that absolutely doesn't fit for me, but it's still in my mind as something to want or have.
SIM: Was that thought appealing in any way?
JF: As a fantasy. In reality, I could never live that life. That's what this journey has been, to accept who I am and the life that I'm living as a life. I have a girlfriend that used to say, "Oh, we're all living in that 'someday I'll have a life" mode." You know, someday I'll have a life when I get married and have kids.
SIM: Or something that looks like that, yeah--"settled." I hear that word a lot. That's a word that has very much of a double-edge. Settling, in our vocabulary, is perhaps settling for less than what you had hoped. And settling can also be something comfortable, "Oh, I have a life now."
JF: The thing is, I think that the journey of the film is this: that by talking to so many women, and seeing how my life fits, it sort of gave me a place in the world without those things. The camera also let me see that I actually have a nice life without marriage and kids. But before that I was so haunted, it was like I was blind to what I really had. So in viewing my life through the lens, I could say, "Gee, I have a nice loft." Or, "Gee, Patrick's a really nice guy!" "Gee, I have a lot of great friends!" It allowed me to appreciate what I have and not long for something I actually never even really wanted. And one of the things I learned was that my idea of a perfect relationship was twisted. I was choosing to be with men that, ultimately, wouldn"t make good partners. They were really good at passion. But if I had to live with them twenty-four seven, it wouldn't work. Maybe because they would never give me the freedom that I actually need. I'm not a white-picket fence kind of gal. I never will be. So the kind of man I need is someone who respects me, the way I lead my life. And I was going after men who would never accept that and I think that's mostly the story of Kye [Jennifer's secret married lover of three years who lived in South Africa]. We had a great connection, mentally, sexually, all those things. But, in reality, he could never accept my lifestyle. It freaked him out. I was too free for him. Whereas, this good guy, Patrick, could accept my lifestyle, it didn't freak him out. He could accept who I was and what I needed.
SIM: I really wonder how many men like Patrick are out there.
JF: Do you think there aren't many?
SIM: I would like to hope there would be, but just like we have our "shadow" women, I think guys have their "shadow" men to contend with. In other words, the type of woman they choose to be with has a lot to do with their own idea of what kind of man they're supposed to be. Patrick is breaking those molds, as well; he is insisting that he be a "free" man, released from all those strictures of what a 40-year-old man's life is supposed to be. He is remarkably open. Was he taught that kind of openness or is it something innate in his personality?
JF: Well, the whole issue of monogamy and the way he dealt with that, that's exceptional. Interestingly, he felt that it wasn't something that he wanted to talk about on film because he felt that men would see him as weak. But to me, it was so phenomenal, that he actually gave me hope for a future with him. The irony is that I'm actually quite monogamous; it just happened to be a moment in my life where I was breaking those rules. But the idea of forced monogamy for me is like a glass sitting on a shelf, so precarious, it could fall at any time, it's too dangerous, and is that what a relationship is? So, his openness made me believe in a future because I don't think love in a relationship depends on owning someone's sexuality. It may be a hard thing to deal with but I don't think it depends on that.
SIM: Yes, but a lot of the men I know and talk to about this are way too threatened by that. They're way too possessive of a woman's body, her physical being. And that's not to say that women do the same thing to men.
JF: That's a method of being in a relationship that can go from something very light to something heavy, but it's all the same thing.
SIM: Well, aside from the devastation of Kye's wife discovering your relationship, there was devastation about the way he treated you when there was a possibility that you two could be together, if you chose. I was shocked by his behavior, at his anger at you. You turned from his lover into a whore, in his eyes, in an instant.
JF: It was devastating. I was sleeping with the enemy. I didn't understand it; I couldn't believe it. He couldn't see how much I loved him or understand the depth of my feelings for him. He couldn't see how I'd given up this whole piece of my life to accept that the man I loved was married and that I wasn't putting any pressure on him. I mean, Patrick, in a way, was an accommodation to a love that I couldn't have. It wasn't a choice. I wasn't going to sit and cry every day that I couldn't be with him. I'm all about trying to go forward. But if I could have been with him, I would have absolutely committed to it. So, I was haunted by the fact that Kye didn't understand that. It undermined his belief that I loved him. It was so devastating for me. I thought I was dealing with a person, but I wasn't. I was dealing with thousands of years of male history, a culture, a period of time--it was like being hit by a tidal wave. And there was no way back. No way back. There was nothing I could say or do to convince him. Because he had decided that I was so sexual that I would always be a risk for him; clearly, I would never be committed.
SIM: Switching topics now, I want to talk about another very complex, hurtful relationship for you in the film, the relationships you have with the women in your immediate family, your mother and your grandmother. I have a 96-year-old granny. I come from a family of very strong, very long-lived women. And their lives are incredibly intermeshed. And I'm sort of a part of that, sort of not. I was enamored of your mother, I think because she's very similar to my mom. They've both played certain "roles" their whole lives. You and I haven't chosen what they did, perhaps due to the time into which we were born. What was her reaction to this film? Was she hurt by a lot of it?
JF: Yes, she is hurt. My mom, probably like yours, would kill herself trying to support me, even if it was against herself. So, it's this mix of being hurt and wanting to back me and believe in what I'm trying to do. And she's also an artist so she appreciates it. But she was raised, and raised me to believe, that you don't share your dirty laundry in public, and she did feel exposed. And she feels that that's not right. And, of course, my whole being is a reaction to that. I suffered a lot because of that rule. Everything was shrouded in secrecy growing up; it was like we were drowning in secrets. My mom didn't even tell me she was deaf in one ear because you don't share something like that even with your own children. That was private to her. It is very hard--I've exposed the negative side of her marriage, exposed some of the negative parts of her own mother.
SIM: That might be a bit schizophrenic for her because the film is a beautiful piece of work, and as a viewer, I love her for her honesty and her willingness to be exposed, knowing she's lived so much of her life totally against that. She must be so proud of you for creating this, on the one hand, but yet, that's her up there with all of her foibles and her "secrets." I admire her enormously for that.
JF: My mom is great. And, like a lot of us, she is schizophrenic. And she is brave. I can call her one day and she could say that she doesn't remember anything bad about her appearance in the piece, and then, I'll call her the next day and she'll be angry because something reminded her of something that I said about her as a mother. So, it's a really interesting talent she has to block things off like that. It's a survival skill. It works really well for her, obviously. I have it, too. I made a film about myself and didn't really think about an audience. I'm extremely schizophrenic. I mean to make a film like this, I had to cut off the idea of anyone seeing it, otherwise I would start censoring.
SIM: So it was a matter of practice, filming yourself to get to that place of being able to be totally unselfconscious?
JF: Yeah, I did practice. I basically worked at overloading myself to the point where I just filmed and filmed and filmed, knowing that a lot of it would be essentially unusable. I made it light, really unimportant and I was able to "separate" very well.
SIM: Do you think that's an essential skill for an artist, in general? I mean, the act of creating a piece like this, even if you're not in it physically, is at least an aspect of you. And all of it is hyper-personal whether you're filming, sculpting, painting, writing, whatever. Is that something you developed as an artist that got you to this point where you could film yourself for years like you did? Would you have been able to do this a few years ago?
JF: No. But it's complicated because the film was generated and driven by this middle aged, female crisis I was in. I didn't realize I was in a crisis before. I needed to film myself. I'd been in psychotherapy for 20 years and I was in a crisis. So I wasn't looking to that anymore. I needed to do something radical and it wasn't just filming myself, it was filming others. It's this combination of self and others. If it were just myself, I wouldn't have done it. It was the idea of mirroring against other women, of finding out how they were doing it, discovering new operating instructions. It was the reason I could film myself. I think the schizophrenia comes more in the construction of editing. I edited it as if it wasn't me. I was ruthless. I didn't hide, I didn't censor footage based on how I might have looked that day or what I might have said. I made the editor [Niels Pagh Andersen] put in things of which he was doubtful--not doubtful dramatically, but doubtful because he thought maybe it would be too exposing. In that sense, I was a storyteller. I don't know if that's a knack of an artist. I had a need to film myself, I had a need to tell this story. I have a need for an audience to see it. But what will happen now, I don't know. This type of exposure, I don't know what the fallout of that will be. It's one thing to make the film. It's another thing to have people review it, criticize it. And have it be my life.
SIM: One of my favorite films is Agnes Varda's The Gleaners and I. Interestingly, and not planning it this way, I re-watched it last night and, while doing so, thought that it was such a great thing to see before I met and talked to you about your film. She turns the camera on herself, too.
And there's a scene where one of the characters, this young man she's been filming, says to her that he didn't like that so much, that he felt it was unnecessary for her to expose herself like that, it wasn't interesting to him, he didn't understand what that had to do with the piece, as a whole, this old woman putting herself under the microscopic lens of her own camera, something she herself calls "stroboscopic, narcissistic and even hyper-realistic." And I think that's brave of her, but there's also the feeling that she was compelled to do that, it was a choice made out of necessity as part of her exploration.
As you said about yourself, she needed to do that, to maintain that through-line of coming back to herself and her life in the context of telling these other stories. And how difficult it was to have someone be critical about that.
JF: I was just with a friend of mine, a novelist who's been writing novels for thirty years. And during lunch with her the other day, she was telling me about her writing schedule and when asked how many hours a day she devotes to writing, she responded that it was easier to say how many hours she wasn't writing. And she told me that she spent her days pursuing the truth; that's what she's interested in. And I think that an artist, by definition, is always in pursuit of the truth.
SIM: Watching your film, I felt that that was what your search was all about, in a very relentless way. That, however far you needed to go--literally, in the way you traversed the globe, and the journey inward--that was your mission, your purpose.
One of the most gorgeous shots in the film is when you're walking with that group of women in Pakistan, your heads covered and moving yourselves through a public place, staying close together, like a small herd or something, very protective of one another, as you clandestinely filmed. That spoke volumes about where you were willing to put yourself to really come to that ultimate understanding that you were after. "I am a part of this, I am not separate."
JF: Well, to me, that idea of "pursuing" is so not politically correct, which is to say that there is a relationship between me, a white, middle-class American woman and any other woman in the world. We may not be at the same extremes of suffering. Obviously, we're not. But there is a thread. That line between us is so important for me to investigate, to examine. I mean, my grandmother and mother could leave the house but they were as confined in their gender as these women in Pakistan were in theirs.
SIM: And there's intense anger erupting from that confinement. And that anger is targeted at their female children.
JF: Yes, that's universal. I mean, we're all products of the effects of that. When I was talking to those Somali women, there was the woman who told me, "I loved my father more. My mother was always trying to control us and tell us what to do and my dad came home and told me he loved me." But who was controlling the mother?
SIM: He had that luxury of treating his children like that.
JF: Exactly. He had the luxury of that freedom, to be generous and magnanimous towards his daughter. I lived through that with my own father. I was growing up as a middle-class child in Philadelphia and they were growing up in Somalia. It"s not those "horrible cultures." It's us.
SIM: What's going to change that, do you think? Can we hope it will ever change, perhaps in our lifetimes? As Western women, we have this notion we're as close to being like a man as we ever could be, in terms of our lifestyle, in terms of our choices, the way we conduct ourselves. But, in so many ways, that's not completely true.
JF: Yes, again, it's that haunting feeling of this double life. My guess is it's time. One morning, I woke very early and I started to think about this film. You know, maybe it's thirty, forty years of history, if that much, where women are living with this kind of freedom en masse. There were, of course, always exceptions. It's a teardrop in human history since women have any rights at all, really.
SIM: But don't you think we're living in a time where we can, perhaps, accelerate the process a bit. Yes, "history" moves glacially, in certain respects, but in my life, in my grandmother's life--she's almost 100 years old and I think of the things she's seen change since she was born and it's astounding. The acceleration of technological advances far surpasses our ability to keep up emotionally. We're like cavemen and women with very sophisticated toys. Could there be some universal push that could happen now where we can become more in alignment, make an evolutionary emotional leap?
JF: I don't know. In the context of what you're saying, I'm thinking about racism in America. We've changed the external to a certain extent, but the internal lags far, far behind. But I suspect, if we don't slip back, we have a chance. If we can keep certain rights we've fought for alive--a woman's right to have an abortion foremost--it can seep down and fertilize new ground for us. I suspect it will. It's complicated and I think our problem is that you and I want this enlightenment to be exponentially changing, but I see a circular pattern of change and hopefully, in an upward spiral. But, you see all the sexual posturing in young girls today and it's actually very retro. Some of the most-watched series on television today have to do with a man and more than one woman. Hugh Hefner and his three girlfriends, the show with the Mormon man and his three wives. Hugh Hefner and the Mormon show are identical! It's a man and three women. Those shows would never have played in my 60s and 70s childhood, never in a million years. I mean, I grew up on The Mod Squad. That's what we were dreaming of. So, okay, there are some backward movements, but then we inch forward a bit past those things.
For me, the shock is abortion rights. I mean, I am so stupid that I thought that that was a done deal! That it was just a given. There can be no modern society without abortion rights. It's impossible! That's the way I feel. We can't survive if we are obligated to give birth when we get pregnant. That's the end of feminism, the end of everything we've fought for. So, if we get rid of abortion rights, we could absolutely go backward. We could lose everything.
SIM: Do you feel more hopefulness or more hopelessness, in that regard, in the populations of women with which you've come into contact? I mean, for large populations of females, even the notion of masturbating or having any kind of sexual pleasure is foreign, let alone having a choice whether or not they need or want to carry a pregnancy to term, whether they've been raped, have no means of supporting another child, etc.
JF: I can't speak about the fundamental societies like the Islamic world because that's not something in which I can make predictions on what will happen in the future. But, I can say that in the industrializing nations, like China, I think we will see greater sexual freedom. The workplace demands it. We do get some benefits from capitalism--weirdly, we do get some benefits from living in a nation with a growing economy. It's a world with an increasingly urban population.
SIM: The financial freedom that makes it possible to stand on your own.
JF: This is the age-old question of women's rights: the chicken and egg question of economic freedom and sexual freedom--which comes first? Because I grew up as a middle-class woman, I focused on sexual freedom. That was something I didn't have. But the idea that I would work wasn't a given.
JF: No, because when I was a child, we were told you could be a teacher or a nurse. Oh, or a librarian. You couldn't travel alone, you had to be married, had to have kids. Otherwise, you'd be a spinster. I was raised on that stuff.
The work and the sexuality go hand in hand. Can you be sexually free if you're not financially free? No. Can you not be sexually free even though you have financial freedom? That's also hard.
SIM: Well, there's where the moral divide of good girl versus bad girl comes into play. So yes, I think one can be financially independent and still not be able to be sexually free without suffering certain consequences. If you are sexually precocious or sexually active at a young age or as a young woman, you're a bad girl.
You talk about your own, I guess we could call it a '"sexual awakening," at the age of 13 with a man who was a respected adult in your life, someone who had great influence over you. You don't even call it abuse until much later in your life when you realize what the fallout of that relationship has done to you emotionally and psychologically, one of the major things contributing to this crisis that was the impetus for making this film.
You were tricked into a trap. And, in a way, you've been trying to gnaw off your own leg to free yourself from that trap--whatever it takes to be free from that, to release yourself. That, to me, is the depth of what you sacrificed from that encounter. The shock of that betrayal was so deep, it took decades for you to come to terms with that. I was so moved to see that transformation for you, when you acknowledge how much that impacted your life.
JF: I didn't ever acknowledge it, no.
SIM: It was one more secret. What kind of reaction did your parents have about all this?
JF: My parents knew about it a long time ago. I told my mom when I was about 19 or 20. She wanted to kill him. She still wants to kill him. The complication comes from me feeling that I was more damaged from my family than I was from my relationship with him. I still don't really know what the damage is from him. I couldn't tell you.
SIM: Do you feel those things are inextricably linked, in a way--the abuse you suffered at the hands of your family and with him? It was all about pleasing that male figure in your life.
JF: That, and running away from the control of women. It was the two things, you know? The women were so controlling. They would have locked me up and thrown away the key. And attaching myself to a man in that way was my way out. It didn't really matter. I didn't know what sex was or what it meant. I didn't really care. It felt like a sort of love, a sort of acceptance. It's so multi-layered, so complicated. So yeah, it felt like love, it felt like adulthood. If I could have grown up in three seconds, I would have chosen that route, because adulthood was freedom. I wanted to grow up so badly so that those women couldn't tell me what to do anymore. It felt like being special. It felt like abuse, also. Back then, I would have said that I had "a relationship" with a man when I was 13; it was only in my forties that I started to call it abuse. But abuse implies that you're a victim. But that word doesn't begin to account for those other feelings I experienced. But to have thought about myself as a victim then would have destroyed me somehow. I would never have recovered. If it had been made public, if he had been prosecuted and I would have been an object of pity, I would have committed suicide.
Now I see why I could never see it like that. Kids are born with different characters and some are survivors and some are not survivors. And I have no idea how that happens. But I was going to survive. I was going to survive my family, and I was going to survive all the fucking men. Because he was not the only man, there were others. And to me, that was the way men worked. That's the way men are. It was like a dog is a dog is a dog. In a way, I exchanged sexuality for something else. There was an opportunity to have some other sense of myself other than being this imprisoned child.
SIM: Something that was your own, something your mother or your grandmother couldn't control, even if they wanted to.
JF: Exactly. It was mine. I felt special. And I know now that it was a total manipulation of power. The right thing to do would have been to have mentored me and loved me without crossing that boundary. When another girlfriend told me that, as a child, she had been verbally abused by a man, in a sexual way, my initial reaction was, "Get used to it! This is the way men are. He didn't touch you, how lucky you are." I mean, that's kind of sick.
SIM: No, not sick but you have to realize, maybe, that even that non-tactile kind of intrusion can go just as deep. I can say that that's true. It messes with your sense of how you're supposed to act and the way you want to be. It took me a long time--I'm still learning--how to be a woman and not compromise in any way because I'm afraid of invoking a certain reaction from a man. And from other women, too. It works both ways. It's inhibiting to say the least.
In a way, watching your life, watching how you play things out, makes me proud to be female. Which I usually am, but somehow being able to watch you unflinchingly self-examine, answers a lot of my own questions about what I think about all these things without getting bogged down in the emotionality of dealing with my own life. You teach me that if we are to evolve, we might have to be that relentless in trying to learn about ourselves in this way without necessarily being on the analyst's couch. I'm of the mind actually, that if one is in therapy for a really long time, um, it's not working, you know? Maybe one should try something else. (laughter)
So, where are you and Patrick now?
JF: We're still together. It's really amazing.
SIM: That makes me happy. I think he's a very brave man. I could tell from the very beginning how much he cared for you.
JF: I couldn't see it. But the film helped me to see it.
SIM: It's a beautiful portrait of how two people not only come together, but stay together, and the relationship speaks volumes about the possibility of what could exist between a man and a woman. That's one of the best things I took away from seeing this film.
JF: Me too. (laughs) It's such an anti-Cinderella story. It's such an anti-Prince Charming story. We've all been kind of brainwashed by all that. In the film, Paromita [a 34-year-old single Indian woman, civil rights lawyer and activist who has a long-time secret lover and rejects traditional Indian marriage values] says to me at one point, "You don't know anything about love." And I really took note. I knew she was right. I did know about passion but I didn't know anything about love and she was saying that love is the work. For me, the process of the journey in talking to other women helped me in this relationship.
I want to go back to what we were talking about before, about this dance that we do as we work ourselves from girlhood to womanhood and the land mines along the way. It's not really explained in this film, but I'd like to do it in another film. I use the terms "thin" and "thick" to describe stories. A thick story has many strands. And the dance that we do is so thick and so hard to understand.
SIM: And hard to distill without seeming didactic, a word you used before. Going back to the beginning of the conversation when you talk about your need to probably do a narrative project next, I can see you being able to successfully fictionalize something like that. It removes itself a bit from "real life" or a "real person," and you would be able to create that thickness in your characters.
JF: I really want to be able to tell a child abuse story in a film. And illustrate that thickness successfully. But I keep wondering or worrying about what the message might be. If we say that what goes on in this kind of exchange is so complex, isn't that a "bad" message? That's why we always do reduce it to "bad" and "good." Because it stops at saying what the child gets in the exchange, not just what's taken away.
SIM: Yeah, it would be dicey territory.
JF: Well, the tricky part would be to avoid making something positive that absolutely is not, in any sense.
SIM: Okay, but you also talked about being a survivor versus a non-survivor. As a species, just like any other, that's what we're here to do. That is really the triumph. There are plenty who don't survive. Some are still living.
It's always a choice. I'm sorry, as a woman alone, I think about those things all the time. Even going out of the house--is it night, is it day, am I dressed so that I'm going to provoke something? What's going to happen? There can always be the feeling of risk.
JF: Just because you're a woman. I agree with you.
SIM: So yes, something horrible happens and as a child you can't necessarily understand what's happened intellectually but something innate in you did understand it. And it's not that the abuse "gave" you something, because it's something you already had. That experience allowed you to discover that you had that survival skill. It's so easy to be the victim; this victim mentality we have running rampant in our culture pisses me off.
JF: It's so difficult to get this just right. Because if we start acknowledging all this, that our gender puts us at risk every moment of the day, then people will accuse us of being victims.
SIM: Well, there needs to be a way to say that so that what we're talking about isn't misconstrued as one big, fat contradiction. If you don't survive, if you don't triumph, then yes, you are a victim.
I think your film is a really important step in this ongoing exploration. You must be excited about the opening in your adopted hometown.
JF: It's taking a lot of energy right now, yes. I spent eight months in Zurich last year [with Patrick]. Patrick's moving here this year. I mean he's actually here now, but he's been going back and forth. He really wants to renovate the loft as a predecessor to having children so we're renovating in the fall. [The last chapter of the movie concentrates on Patrick and Jennifer's relationship as they realize that time is running out to have a child.] It's so ironic because I don't care about that stuff. I like space but I could live in a shoe the rest of my life and be fine with that. But he has to have a nice space, so we're doing that. It's a very feminine quality--he's nesting. So, the next step for me is that I'm thinking more and more about adoption. We talked about donor eggs [In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) was, ultimately, unsuccessful.] I have to say the whole idea of that kind of frightens me--the tax on your body, the drugs, turning yourself into an egg-making machine and the toll that takes on your organs. And I love the idea of adoption. So that's the next step.
But I have so many films in my head right now, you wouldn't believe. So I have this question about having a child and I waver. I need to have a little more space. I mean that in the sense of having more time, free time. I haven't had a break in a few years. And I know when that space opens up, I'm sure the desire to adopt will rise.
I think there's a piece of loving and giving that is unused. And I think that's exactly what children are for parents--the opportunity to love in a way you haven't loved.
SIM: One of the most touching scenes in the movie was with that woman who married, who found her mate, after she adopted a child on her own. She said that being able to love that child made it possible for her to love a man. As if to say, before that, it would have been impossible.
JF: And another woman says it, too. Caroline's friend, Marjorie. [Caroline is a 52-year-old woman who is separated with two grown children. She lives in a communal household in Berlin and, ironically, shortly after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she finds a new love.] She adopted as a single woman. And right after she adopted, this guy called her up from her past wanting to get together! And she also said that if she hadn't loved this child first--an adopted child--she never could have loved him. I understand that.
SIM: I do, too. I understood it the minute she said it but . . .
JF: It's not the way the story's supposed to go.
SIM: It's just that biologically, and in every other way, it's just so backwards! But it does make sense.
JF: It's not the story we were told. I mean, I wish I wasn't so stuck on this traditional story because I would have thought about being a single mom in my thirties. But I never considered it. It wasn't possible. It wasn't until I was in my forties that I thought I could be a single mom. You see that in the film.
SIM: But then, biologically, by that time . . . . That's kind of a bit of a knife in the heart. That's another old message we've heard--that mothering and your sexuality as a woman are interconnected. And it could be another false perception about how things are supposed to be.
JF: Absolutely. What changed during the course of making this film is that I could care less now about those messages. And I could have children in a number of ways and not even necessarily have a male mate to do it with; I could do it alone or with a girlfriend. And that's why even during that whole period with Kye, if I had gotten pregnant by him, I would have kept the child. There's no doubt in my mind. If Patrick wanted to come along with that, that would have been fine, too. Things loosened.
SIM: I think Patrick would have been fine with it and would raise that child as his own, just like Theresa's man did. [In the film, a man chooses to be with Theresa, even though, at the start of their relationship, she is three months pregnant with another man's child. They have since married and are trying to have another child together.] I'm curious to know how men like him are mothered.
JF: You know, my mom was kind of defeated as a person in our family. But Patrick's mother [who has been dead a long time] was celebrated and had equal power, even though she was a full-time mom. Patrick's mom had five kids, my mom had five kids, and his mom was also critical like mine, but she was acknowledged. And all three of his brothers have married very strong women.
SIM: I'm hoping that men will discover a lot of things about themselves watching this film. They have their own set of fears about their identities as men. But your film presents so many possibilities, that the possibilities are endless in terms of living our lives as individuals, as couples and as communities--it's very hopeful.
JF: Did it make you feel like maybe you could get out of that traditional box in your mind?
SIM: With a lot of vigilance, very much so. I have a deep appreciation for people who make films such as yours. We want to see our stories, we want to see our lives up there on the movie screen and learn that there might be other ways of dealing.
JF: The irony is that we have so much freedom in the West but actually we're so imprisoned.
SIM: But you have the word "free" in the title of your movie. And that freedom you sought came from breaking down, painful bit by painful bit, all that impacted garbage that built up over a lifetime. And when that rock breaks down and starts to pass through, it can be excruciating, like passing a kidney stone or something! Or like birthing a child, for that matter. There are so many people who won"t do that.
Your film goes beyond a documentary film. It's a social testament to what it's like for some of us to live now.
JF: You asked if I had a mission when I started this project. In my thirties, I kind of woke up and realized that the way I was talking to my girlfriends was holding my life together, that the way women talk together was unique to our gender; it's healing. Just like this conversation has had healing involved (laughs). So that came before I decided to start filming my own life. I knew I wanted to make a film about the way women speak. But I didn't have a story. And it was only when I realized I was in a crisis that I said, "Okay, now I have a story. I don't know what it will be, but I know it will have a movement."
SIM: You've called this partly a "survey" film. But, to me, it doesn't really seem like one. Because you, Jennifer, are taking the individuals who will watch this film by the hand and saying to them, "Come with me down this rabbit hole and let me show you, and share with you, what I've discovered."
JF: But I did have this idea that somehow this piece could start a dialogue about our real lives. That would be the social movement I'm after. I want to take this film to college campuses, I want to say, "Let's have a real conversation; not a fake conversation." Which sounds funny in a "free" society, but we're so used to lying. Let's have a complex conversation. That was the social impetus. So I'm working on ways I can take this film across the country, a kind of "road show." Not for fame and glory--which will never come anyway, that's not the point--but it's for a dialogue, especially with young women. I think it should be a multi-generational dialogue, too, more importantly. That's why there's such an age range in the film.
SIM: Well, aside from having a lot of personal reverberations for me, I appreciated it in all its aspects. It was very clear what you were doing, what you were after, and it was easy to stay by you through every moment because it was authentic and true. You can't say that about a lot of things, including documentary films.
Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman plays at New York's Film Forum July 4 - July 18.