Interview: Therese Shechter, filmmaker

This week’s installment of the rapid-fire Q & A with women filmmakers focuses on the work of Therese Shechter, a widely recognized feminist filmmaker (woot!) who makes fascinating movies.  In particular, we focus on the topic of virginity and how she is making her newest documentary film How to Lose Your Virginity.  After I noticed she was following Her Film on Twitter I thought that would be a nice intro to asking her if she’d like to do a Q & A for the blog.  She was kind enough to say “yes” and I had a real ball reading her responses.  Here’s hoping you do, too!  Lots to learn from this important artist…

BIO: Therese Shechter is a filmmaker who uses humor-spiked, personal narrative to make award-winning documentaries including I Was A Teenage Feminist and How I Learned to Speak Turkish.   She writes about virginity and feminism for her blog The American Virgin and other blogs and publications.

After 10 years as a Chicago Tribune graphics editor, she gave it all up to work for Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Productions in New York, before going out on her own. She’s won coveted spots in the Doc Lab Master Class (Toronto Hot Docs 2008 Festival) and was one of 5 filmmakers selected for the Paley DocFest 2009 Pitch Workshop. Therese worked at Sundance through 7 festivals, where she was inspired by countless independent filmmakers. Therese is a stealth Canadian who is based in Brooklyn.

Learn more about Therese Shechter’s work:

KICKSTARTER page for Therese Shechter’s new film

The American Virgin blog

@TrixieFilms on Twitter

Trixie Films website

On to the Q & A…

Q: With the feature documentary film I Was a Teenage Feminist under your belt, you are now focusing on a new project, How to Lose Your Virginity, which is another feature doc.  Can you discuss how you came to concentrate your efforts on this topic and how your two films might relate?

A: I think all my films look at the world through a feminist lens. Of the two shorts I’ve done, How I Learned to Speak Turkish is about sexuality and power and Womanly Perfection is about body image. Taken along with I Was A Teenage Feminist, which I think is about finding a political and personal identity, they all feed into to the ideas I’m playing with in How to Lose your Virginity.  I also would say that the virginity project is similar stylistically to I Was a Teenage Feminist—it’s funny, there’s a lot of intimacy with subjects, and I use my personal experience to make universal points.

When my editor and I were cutting I Was A Teenage Feminist, we watched a lot of those old ‘Now You Are A Woman’ films from the 1950s. I was struck not only by how useless the information was, but also how they kept telling girls that the only way to avoid social and physical ruin was to be a ‘good’ girl (read: a girl who doesn’t have sex). The abstinence-until-marriage programs (which the government still funds, by the way) are really just a present-day extension of those ideas. I started to wonder what we were telling young women about their sexuality, especially given that pop culture is full of highly sexualized girls that seem to be the polar opposite of this ‘good girl’ expectation.

I realized that it all comes down to the same message: that women should model themselves on images of male desire. In trying to mold themselves into either virgin or whore (or an impossible combination of both), women are constantly working to fit someone else’s needs instead of pursuing their own sexual identities.

On a personal note, I was planning my own wedding at the time of the shooting, and was getting a little freaked out by all the chastity-based wedding rituals and coded wedding accessories. What would it mean for me to embrace the white dress, don a veil, and be ‘given away’?  What would that say about my own sexual autonomy and identity? It echoes the narration of I Was a Teenage Feminist where I refer to myself as “a woman who feels incredible pressure to conform to an ideal that I don’t even buy into. Is it possible to be who I want to be without judgment, or apology or compromise?”

Q: In American culture, virginity experiences a dichotomous treatment.  The social state of virginity is also binary in nature — you either are or you aren’t, at least socially.  What differences do you see between gender, age and sexual orientation when the topic of virginity is discussed?

A: Virginity is basically a complex social construct that’s always been more about female sexuality than male. There’s actually no medical definition, and our conventional concept of ‘losing your virginity’ through penis-in-vagina sex is incredibly narrow. Is a penis really the only way to turn a woman into a sexual person? How then do lesbians lose their virginity? Do we suddenly become sexual beings or is it gradual? When we lose our virginity, what specifically are we losing, if anything at all?

In queer communities, the concept of virginity loss is far more nuanced and individualistic because it doesn’t fit into established hetero understandings about sex. But although ideas about how a person loses his or her virginity might vary, there is still some point where most of us cross a threshold of sexual initiation. It may be a construct, but it’s still an important defining moment – however we define it.

You can see how important it is when you speak to older virgins who for whatever reason haven’t yet had sex. I hear from a lot of them through my blog The American Virgin, and there’s a lot of shame and secrecy around being an older virgin (which I think can begin as young as your early 20s). Everyone thinks everyone else is having sex but them, but it’s just not true.

In the same way that the blog offers young women the space to be sexual beings on their own terms, it tells people who don’t feel ready for sex (or aren’t into it at all) that they’re not freaks. I get a lot of letters along the lines of: “I generally feel like I’m harboring a shameful secret, and before I found your blog was pretty convinced that I was the only woman in her mid-twenties who had never had sex.” Speaking as someone who became sexually active only after college, I can really relate. I hope to make that perspective a dynamic part of the film.

Q: I hear from filmmakers over and over that people don’t give money to films, they give money to people.  How do you approach potential financial supporters of your film when dealing with what is seen by many as an extraordinarily private topic?  How do you sell the story?  (Feel free to plug away!)

A: You know, it was hard enough to fundraise for a film about feminism. Some people had such negative reactions to even just the word. But imagine a film that uses “penis,” “vagina” and ‘anal sex’ liberally. With older people especially, the pitch and the trailer can get uncomfortable. And I’m pretty sure that my parents, while being personally supportive, are not bragging about it to their friends.

On the other hand, I Was A Teenage Feminist is really well known in the feminist community, so I come with some good references and a sort of anticipation for what I’ll do next.

Unfortunately, there’s also very little money in this community, so with our current fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, we’re relying on a lot of small contributions adding up to a large goal. We’ve raised almost $7000 this way, but we still need another $3000 to meet our July 1 deadline.  Kickstarter is a great new way for creative projects to get funding, but it comes with a catch: if you don’t meet your goal, you don’t get a cent. We’re all working really hard to get the word out to as many people as possible. Even a $10 donation makes a difference.  Plus, if people give more, we give them cool rewards. We’re like public television, but without the tote bags.

Q: Please talk a bit about your experiences with interviewees… [and] tell us a bit about your production team and how you work with a crew when dealing with people’s (interviewees’) deeply personal experiences?

A: When I interview someone, I want it to be as casual and as intimate as possible. I want them to talk right to the audience, so they look directly at the camera, not off to the side. And I like to shoot them in their natural environments as much as possible. We have a tiny crew.  Sometimes it’s just me, and at most it’s my DP and one PA and minimal if any lights. We give up on some of the beauty, but like I said, I want it to be intimate so subjects can talk about really personal things and feel safe doing it. I’m always humbled by the things they’re willing to share. Of course, the more they are able to share, the more likely it is someone in the audience might find something to relate to.

I’m also very open with them about my own experiences during the interview. I figure I should be just as willing to talk about whatever I’m asking of them. It helps to have a blog I can point to so they can see my approach to the topic. Of course, that backfires when you’re trying to get the Purity Ball people on camera. It doesn’t take much of a Google search to find out I’m not a fan of their philosophy, but I’m not going to misrepresent myself to get an interview. So that’s an ongoing challenge.

Another challenge has been finding older virgins who are willing to be on camera. If they’re religious and are waiting until marriage, they’re more comfortable with talking about it. But people who are virgins of circumstance are often too embarrassed to be on camera, even in shadow. So, I’m currently in search of more subjects who are older virgins, especially people of color and members of queer or trans communities. People should definitely contact me if they’re interested.

Q: How long have you spent thus far on How to Lose Your Virginity and what have you personally taken away from it?

A: I first started researching the topic four years ago. But in terms of more concentrated work, it’s been about three years on and off. You know how it is–you work in spurts when there’s funding and when there’s inspiration. When the economy tanked I had to focus on paid work, so it went on the back burner. Since last fall it’s been a priority again. We were part of the Paley Docfest Pitch Workshop late last year, which prompted me to cut a new trailer. The audience and panel response was so great that I knew I had to get the thing done as soon as I could.

Personally, it’s been an interesting way to look at my own sexual history and see if and how it defines me. I started late, but then really made up for lost time, as they say. The abstinence people claim a lot of casual pre-marital sex will doom my marriage, so I’m waiting to see how that goes. And now people refer to me as a sex blogger, which I find sort of hilarious, even though I guess they’re more or less right.

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A heartfelt thank you to Therese Shechter for doing this Q & A and helping to support Her Film!

NOTES: Some pieces by and about Therese Shechter are linked below, but this is by no means a comprehensive list!

“The Difficulty in Defining Virginity: A Conversation that Continues”

“Rave On: Filmmaker Therese Shechter on Woman: An Intimate Geography”

“The Doc Doctor’s Anatomy of a Film: ‘I Was a Teenage Feminist'”

“How Funders are like Crushes and Other Sundance Morsels”

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Understanding Merata…

As you may know, the filmmaker Merata Mita, passed away at the end of May in Auckland, New Zealand.  Earlier this month I posted a number of links to more information about her — I read all the pages in an attempt to understand exactly who she was as a filmmaker (insofar as you can by simply reading about her) and what she meant to so many people.  It’s joyously evident by the outpouring of tributes, announcements and videos posted about Mita’s work that she was greatly admired, loved, respected and recognized as a vital part of not only Maori film, but also women’s film and the New Zealand and global film industry.  Merata Mita was a New Zealand Maori woman filmmaker and her work reflected her identity.

Writer and filmmaker, Marian Evans, of Wellywoodwoman (of which Her Film is a sister blog), wrote a piece with writer and curator, Cushla Parekowhai, on Merata Mita last week which delves into not only her long-time passion of turning New Zealand author Patricia Grace’s novel Cousins into a feature film, but also her stunningly long list of accomplishments and involvement in film and her philosophy about Maori film and its place within New Zealand and world cinema.

Her Film, as I’ve written before, is meant to be a place for, about and by aspirant, working and experienced women filmmakers to share and reflect on their experiences in making films.  Marian Evans and Cushla Parekowhai’s piece, Duet for Merata Mita 1942-2010, accomplishes that beautifully in this excerpt, albeit more about Mita’s family’s experiences:

Merata was fearless. I read this week that she once said  “Swimming against the tide becomes an exhilarating experience. It makes you strong. I am completely without fear now”. And she needed to be. In Rangatira: Making Waves—a documentary that Hinewehi Mohi made about and with Merata in 1998—one of Merata’s children talks about the cost of her work to their family; it kept them in poverty and caused frequent separations. Another tells how they were unsafe at home because of her filmmaking. The family lived with verbal abuse, state surveillance, and death threats while Merata made Patu! about New Zealand’s civil unrest during the 1981 Springbok rugby Tour, the culmination of many years’ protest about sporting contact with South Africa, then living under apartheid rule.

(excerpted from Duet for Merata Mita 1942-2010 on Wellywoodwoman)

I’m woefully inadequate to speak much on Merata Mita when I’ve not been able to see her work as I would have liked.  I haven’t carved out the time in my day to google and buy her work, though on the NZ On Screen site you can watch her film Patu! I’m blocking off time this weekend to watch it in its entirety.  Suffice it to say, that even in this day and age of instant viewing and DVD by mail services, Mita’s work is not ubiquitously available.  I can only hope the situation in New Zealand is different!  But I can only speak as a reader of Marian & Cushla’s piece, and I am inspired and in a sense, empowered, as an aspiring filmmaker, film researcher and film-lover, by Merata Mita’s bold vision, sustained passion and uncompromising work.  To that point, I’ll leave you with another brief excerpt from Marian & Cushla’s Duet for Merata Mita 1942-2010 which I HIGHLY recommend reading.  Two informative and inspiring videos (one in Hawai’ian and one in Maori) can be found toward the end of their tribute, well worth a watch!

A Broadsheet review criticized Patu! which Merata made to communicate  with “PEOPLE rather than to reach factions…I don’t like…a kind of ghetto thing where you forget that you’re part of the broader family of humanity

(excerpted from Duet for Merata Mita 1942-2010 on Wellywoodwoman)

Note: I have taken the liberty to link certain words and topics in the excerpts.

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Many thanks to Marian Evans for being willing to have Her Film be a sister blog to Wellywoodwoman!

Interview: Stephanie Law, screenwriter

We’re kicking off a “rapid-fire” interview series this week with Stephanie Law, a young screenwriter whom I met while at the Summer Institute of Film and Television of the Canadian Screen Training Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in spring of 2009.  Sadly, SIFT/CSTC has since closed down due to major funding problems in a very tough Canadian economy.

Stephanie was taking a writing workshop while I took a producing workshop.  I think we both agree that SIFT was an amazing program that allowed us to learn so much from the working professionals in film and television who taught the workshops.  It was also a great opportunity to meet interesting people in film/TV taking the workshops alongside us!  It had a prestige all its own and many connections with, and support from, renowned filmmakers and show runners.  The late filmmaker, Anthony Minghella, in particular, was an early and active champion of SIFT and also taught on the program.

Stephanie Law was kind enough to do this interview via facebook email!

On to the interview…

BIO: Stephanie Law is a Toronto-based newbie screenwriter, ex-serial intern, eternal optimist/ cynic, and recent participant in the CFTPA’s National Mentorship Program. You can find her rants on her mini-blog ImagineStories, or even more mini rants on Twitter @sphinxmagic.

Q: What are your thoughts on the state of Canadian film and TV today?

A: Not good! The English feature film business in Canada (Quebec is a whole other ball game) is tough. The process is slow (there are no big studios, just independent producers that tap into funds, tax credits), and when you factor in all those years spent developing a film—keeping into account that it may never be made—the writer makes very little, and certainly for the majority, not enough to live on. Hence, the day job! In addition, films need a great first weekend to keep their theatrical run alive. If nobody goes to see it, it’s gone (until the DVD comes out). One of the big problems for finding an audience is publicity and marketing—big American films spend millions (sometimes even more than the production budget of the film itself)—but in Canada, we just don’t have the money.

The TV industry is complicated, and I have less experience with it. I will defer to veteran TV writer Denis McGrath’s excellent blog Deadthingsonsticks.

Another great resource for all things industry and writing-related is the amazing Ink Canada (on Facebook) [and Twitter], an online writing community led by screenwriter Karen Walton.

Q: What is the single best thing, and the single worst thing, of being a screenwriter?

A: The best and worst thing of being a screenwriter is one in the same: you. You depend on you. It can be marvellous and freeing because all you need to do your craft is your brain, a piece of paper, and a pencil. Okay, screenwriting software helps. But it can also be frightening and anxiety-inducing because you have to the discipline to push yourself, to face yourself, your doubts, your fears. If you don’t write, it’s on you.

Q: If you could decide your own fate as a writer, what would your career trajectory look like?

A: Muhahaha… I would love to end up on the staff of a TV show before I hit 30. Ambitious, yeah. At the height of my career, I’d love to be co-run a series—but that necessitates finding the perfect creative partner (because it would be that much more fun). I haven’t found that person yet, but just you wait, we will rule the world! I also have a soft spot for features, but short of going to the U.S., I don’t see much of a future here for the big budget stuff I write (hey, I grew up on Disney and blockbusters).

Q: What films, TV shows, webseries inspire you (the good, bad and the ugly) and why?

A: Stories with heart inspire me. Not that I don’t love technical and plot-driven stories– but if they don’t have characters that I care about, then forget it. I end up feeling hollow even after surrounded by the latest, greatest special effects, or whatever. It’s like watching a product, or feeling the plastic around the box. Yuck. Pixar is great at transcending the blockbuster status and money-making of their animated films, because at the heart of it, they care about story and collaboration. I’d bet my money on those two things anytime.

Q: Why will you make it as a screenwriter?

A: In all honesty, you have to believe you will succeed beyond all reason and logic. Because the smart thing to do would be to get a full-time, 9 to 5 day job with benefits and job stability. But I am a stubborn person. If I set my mind to it, I won’t stop until I figure out the solution, or figure out that it’s beyond me. For instance, when I was in high school, I wasn’t the best at math, but I spent hours trying to solve sometimes just one problem (be it physics or calculus), trying to understand. Sometimes I just didn’t have the knowledge or the skills yet to solve the problem (maybe the advanced material was to be covered in the next unit), but I kept at it. And because of that, I did well. That’s the stubborn perseverance that I hope will allow me to succeed and become a professional screenwriter.

Oh, I still hate math.

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Many thanks to Stephanie for doing this interview!

-Kyna (Her Film creator)

Merata Mita

I’d be remiss if I didn’t post something about the late filmmaker, Merata Mita, a true pioneer, a force within the New Zealand film industry and the second Maori woman to direct a feature.  She died on May 31, 2010, in Auckland, New Zealand.  Mita was co-producer of the recently released film, Boy (Taika Waititi, dir.), the highest-grossing New Zealand film to date.  It played at Sundance 2010.

Biography by NZ On Screen

Patu! (documentary by Merata Mita – watch online)

Boy

One filmmaker’s homage on Horiwood

Tributes in the NZ Herald

Tribute on Ophelia Thinks Hard

TangataWhenua.com – Maori News & Indigenous Views

IMDb

Women Film Pioneers

On Tuesday, June 1, the Women Film Pioneers Project announced that its original plan to publish the first volume of a set of sourcebooks about women  in film history has been changed to what will be a digital digest online through the Center for Digital Research & Scholarship at Columbia University.  This should be good news to those interested in women’s accomplishments in the film industry since its inception, or just interested in film history in general.  The first effort in this new digital collection will focus on the United States and Latin America, with other areas to follow such as the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia, etc.

The sourcebook is a collection of entries and essays on individual women who played some role in film, mainly as writers, directors and producers.  This is a collection about pioneers in the true sense of the word, women who blazed trails for those who came after them, dedicating themselves to cinema, a new and innovative artform the effects and widespread influence of which they did not yet fully observe, but I suspect may have predicted.  We are still amazed at how people are affected by film, 115 years (more or less) after the invention of the cinema.  While the WFP Project’s website is no longer up and running, the listserv is, for anyone interested in this topic.

During a self-directed research project, which is ongoing, that I began about five years ago on the two earliest known (to date) African American women filmmakers, I was invited to submit an article for inclusion in the sourcebook.  I accepted, then expanded my research (given a list of filmmakers by the editor to focus upon) to include three other African American women filmmakers, all who worked during the silent era or at the very beginnings of sound.

My research began, though, after being inspired by a brief presentation I did in a film studies class.  My presentation focused on Lois Weber, a widely recognized American female filmmaker in early cinema who made films about social issues and moral dilemmas, even on topics still incendiary today, such as abortion.  Out of that grew my interest in little known (or forgotten) women filmmakers, and I stumbled upon Dr. Yvonne Welbon’s site Sisters In Cinema which is a shining resource in the midst of such a glaring lack of information on African American women filmmakers.  I latched onto some names and began my research utilizing various resources, the library at Indiana University South Bend, online bookstores, countless Google searches, the New York University Digital Gallery, and exchanging emails with archivists, professors, librarians, film preservation groups, early film scholars…

Since I began the research, one filmmaker has stood out in my mind as the most interesting in terms of her background (not much is known), her location at the time (mid-America), her one film she produced and starred in (if not also directed!) and her life outside film as an activist within the African American community.  For those reasons, I have concentrated the bulk of my efforts since writing the essay in continuing to research Maria P. Williams from Kansas City, Missouri, who is to date the earliest known African American woman film producer.  Her one known film of which only one frame is known to be extant (located at the UCLA Library), is Flames of Wrath which she made in 1923, though some sources say 1922.  The film focuses on a theft and a trial, and synopses show that it was during the trial scenes that Maria P. Williams herself appeared in an acting role.  She and her husband, Jesse, owned a production company in Kansas City for a time.

I’m looking forward to seeing my essay included in this massive and profoundly important collection about women film pioneers.  It should be online later this year, and this first “set” is edited by Jane Gaines (renowned early cinema & feminist film scholar), Radha Vatsal and Monica Dall’asta.

The Women Film Pioneers Project was created at Duke University by Dr. Jane Gaines (now located at Columbia in New York City), and the project also has special groups which meet at the annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

For those who’d like to know more about African American filmmakers or Black (or “Race”) films, the following list is a good way to start, though what is listed is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to available resources:

Blacks in Black and White: A Sourcebook on Black Films

by Henry T. Sampson

(probably best accessed directly through a university library or through inter-library loan)
Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era
by Jane Gaines

Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University

Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films
by Donald Bogle

Sisters In Cinema: A Resource Guide for and About African American Women Feature Filmmakers
(an important site run by Dr. Yvonne Welbon, a filmmaker, professor and widely known scholar on African American women filmmakers, and someone who gave me helpful suggestions on how to further my research)

Black Classic Movies

A Cinema Apart
(an informational site and store run by the late Larry Richards, a lovely man who offered me invaluable help with my research. Fortunately, his family still runs the site/store.)

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