INTERVIEW: Therese Shechter, director of How to Lose Your Virginity

Director Therese Shechter (Photo courtesy of Trixie Films)

BIOGRAPHY

Therese Shechter deftly uses humor-spiked, personal narrative to chronicle feminism and sexuality, and is proud to have been labeled a “Brazen Advocate of Slut Culture” by conservative bloggers. Her first documentary I Was A Teenage Feminist has screened from Stockholm to Delhi to Rio and at Serbia’s first-ever Women’s Film Festival. Therese has created videos and written about virginity and feminism on the film’s blog and in the Chicago Tribune, the Bitch Magazine blog, Adios Barbie and Women & Hollywood. She was recently a featured panelist at Harvard University’s “Rethinking Virginity” Conference and at MomentumCon: Feminism, Sexuality and Relationships in Washington. Therese’s short documentary How I Learned to Speak Turkish has screened internationally and her production company Trixie Films is based in Brooklyn and sometimes at a little cafe in Istanbul.

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“I won’t tell you how to have sex for the first time, but I do want to know why we’re so obsessed with female virginity.”

The US government has spent 1.5 billion dollars promoting it. It has fetched tens of thousands of dollars at auction. And 50 years after the sexual revolution, it continues to define a young woman’s morality and self-worth. Using her own path out of ‘virginity’ to guide the narrative, filmmaker Therese Shechter creates a far-reaching and very personal dialogue with women along the sexuality spectrum, revealing the myths and misconceptions behind this so-called precious gift.

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Her Film:  You’ve been working on your documentary How to Lose Your Virginity for the past several years.  Can you update us on the film?

Therese Shechter: We’re almost done editing the film, which is very exciting. This is the most challenging part because this film’s subject is complicated, and there are a lot of moving pieces. I really like tackling big concepts like feminism and virginity by getting at them through very personal stories, both my subjects’ and mine. Then we’ll be working with our composer and animator to add the finishing touches. By the time we’re clearing footage and correcting color and mixing sound, I’ll be in heaven because the heavy lifting will be behind us. Frankly, I’m exhausted.

Needless to say, this all costs a lot of money, so this Kickstarter is really crucial. I’m so psyched to finish it and get it out in the world. We just did a great little sneak preview at the Momentum conference for many of the top folks in feminism and sexuality. I get contacted by distributors, film festivals and college professors all the time asking “Is it done? Is it done?” and I really can’t wait to say “Yes! Here it is!”

Courtesy of Trixie Films

HF:  How are you building your audience?

TS:  We’ve been building our audience almost from the very beginning through our blog. Some people do blogs to track their filmmaking process, but I was a lot more interested in the topic of virginity itself. I initially wrote posts that called out a lot of the sexism and bad science around abstinence-until-marriage programs, and the disturbing outbreak of virginity auctions all over the world.  Then I branched out into pop culture as well as creating a space for our audience to talk about their own personal experiences with virginity culture.

Plus there’s the constant back and forth of Facebook and Twitter posts, sharing little bits of video online, supporting other writers and filmmakers doing sexuality-related work, and writing for other publications on the topic. I recently did something about virginity loss myths for a great site called Adios Barbie, and did a breakdown of the virginity loss stereotypes in an episode of “Glee” for Women & Hollywood. I think you have to create a good balance between interesting information and dialogue with your audience if you want to build that anticipation and goodwill. We can see it with the response to our fundraising campaign, with so many people supporting a project they already feel invested in personally.

Courtesy of Trixie Films

HF:  I’ve taken a few looks at the blog you have to support the storytelling and sharing around the topic of virginity, and you include many first-person pieces.  It’s amazing and inspiring to see how many people are willing to share information about something so personal as their virginity and sexuality.  What inspired you to introduce this type of “confessional-style” blog post? 

TS: I love First Person, and since we launched it in 2009, it’s become the most popular thing on the blog. I was inspired by fellow virginity geek Kate Monro who writes a blog called The Virginity Project in the UK. Aside from her work, most everything else I found was very mainstream and almost nothing outside of religious sites addressed people who weren’t sexually active. I could tell from our blog comments I had a lot of folks out there whose experiences–and even definitions of virginity–didn’t conform to the black-and-white stereotypes of pop culture. So I started building this collection of what I like to call “sexual debuts and deferrals.”

We’ve run stories from a woman who lost her straight, gay and three-way virginity in one night (hey, it worked for her); a Mormon college student who first wrote about being a virgin and then did an update after she had forbidden pre-marital sex (verdict: meh); and we get quite a few submissions from guys in their 30s and 40s who talk about what it’s like to be an older male virgin (not good). We’ve also run several First Persons by women who had intercourse for the first time because of sexual assault, and they want to share their experiences and recovery with others. My favorites are the “update” First Persons that I get when a previous poster starts having sex. One woman said the first three people she told were her roommate, her best friend and me for the blog. I kind of love that.

There’s a lot of silence around how and why and if we become sexual and I think these stories really help us all feel less weird and alone. I really could have used this when I felt like the very last virgin in art school.

Courtesy of Trixie Films

HF: Are there differences in what you’ve learned through the actual filming of the documentary and the interactions you have with people online through your blog or twitter, for example?

TS:  When I started working on the film, I was really focusing on young women being shamed for being sexual and the value that’s place on virginity. It was in the zeitgeist and was getting all the attention. But when I started getting the First Persons, I was surprised at how many were coming from people in their 20’s who were ashamed of not being sexually active and that became a much bigger part of my film and the blog.

I think it goes without saying that it’s far, far easier to get candid stories from anonymous writers than getting people to talk about the same things on camera. I’m really grateful to the people agreed to be filmed. They’re very smart and thoughtful about their intimate lives, and they provide an antidote to the way we usually hear stories about sex: Reality TV and porn.

HF:  Can you talk about your current crowdfunding campaign and the phases of your financing for the film (where the money goes)?  In a message to me earlier this year on twitter, you said you’d “love to mention how much ‘low budget’ docs cost, because some backers don’t know why $13K didn’t cover all our costs.”  Any challenges in dealing with financial backers that you’d like to talk about?

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WATCH THE TRAILER FOR How To Lose Your Virginity

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TS: Since 2008, almost every independent documentary filmmaker has been struggling to find financing for their projects. Not that it was so easy before, but now foundations have even smaller endowments than ever and many TV networks are either only looking at finished films or have abandoned documentaries altogether in favor of reality shows.

We’re currently doing a Kickstarter to raise $35,000 to pay for the rest of our edit, our composer and our animator. If we don’t meet our goal I’m really not sure how we’re going to finish the film. We got through production thanks to an amazing group of DPs and producers who worked for free or lowered fees, lots of interns doing the research and one very small fundraiser. Then we had our first Kickstarter and raised $13,000 which paid for about five weeks of editing. For the rest of it I’ve had to beg, borrow and reach very deep into my own pockets to keep things going.

The average documentary you see on TV will cost half a million to a million dollars to complete, and that often means hundreds of thousands of dollars of free labor by the filmmakers. A lot of our non-filmmaker backers have no idea, and really why should they? We have to keep educating them on what things cost and the fact that you really do have to pay your full-time editor a salary for at least several months. And also about how it takes so incredibly long to finish something because you have to keep stopping to raise (or earn) more money.

I think that once people understand what goes into a documentary, they’re amazingly supportive. I’m been blown away by the support we’re getting for this campaign and the abundant generosity of complete strangers. We can’t relax until May 9th, though. If we don’t meet our $35,000 goal by then, we don’t get anything, so it’s going to be a little intense until then.

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Read a recent article at the Huffington Post on female sexuality which discusses Shechter’s new film:  “Virgins, Bondage and a Shameful Media Fail” by Soraya Chemaly.

To connect with this filmmaker, support her film and to learn more about her work, check out these links:

Crowdfunding: Kickstarter (15 days to go with $35,000 campaign goal.  As of this blog post, $16,682 has been raised)

Her Film Interview from June 21, 2010: Click here.

How to Lose Your Virginity Blog: www.virginitymovie.com

Trixie Films (production co.): www.TrixieFilms.com

Twitter: @trixiefilms

Facebook: /The-American-Virgin

Screening to Benefit BIG VOICE Musical Doc

The team behind the musical feature documentary Big Voice about the top-singing students of the Santa Monica High School Choir and its visionary choir director will be holding a special screening of the documentary First Position in Los Angeles.  Proceeds will help support the post-production phase of Big Voice, directed by award-winning filmmaker Varda Hardy.

See below for details and links, or click here to buy tickets.  To read more about this amazing film, click here.

What: Screening of First Position documentary to benefit Big Voice musical documentary

When: April 29, 2012 at 6:00 p.m.

Where: MiMoDa Studio, 5774 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90019

Tickets: Buy now through BrownPaperTickets.

SPOTLIGHT: Small Small Thing

Writer-director Jessica Vale, with producer Nika Offenbac, are making a powerful documentary film called Small Small Thing about the epidemic of rape in Liberia, focusing on the story of a mother working for justice after her young daughter is raped.  Today, rape is the #1 crime in Liberia.  Vale and Offenbac (with co-producer Barnie Jones) have spent the last three years making this film which is currently in post-production and raising funds through Kickstarter.  Together, Vale and Offenbac are founders of the Take My Picture LLC production company in New York City dedicated to the pursuit of long form non-fiction works.

Trailer and Pitch:

SMALLSMALL THING

Crowdfunding through: Kickstarter

Campaign goal: $25,000

Days left on campaign:  Less than a day (28 hours / deadline April 8)

Logline

Caught between tribalism and democracy, a Liberian mother is at odds with her country after the brutal rape of her six-year old daughter.

Olivia (Photo courtesy of J. Vale)

About Olivia:

“As we were there, we had to navigate the same channels that she and her mother were also trying to navigate to find out their own answers.”

– Jessica Vale, director

“If this were to happen here in the United States, maybe she could get therapy.  There’s no such thing as therapy in Liberia…. [S]he represents thousands of little girls behind her that we haven’t met; we haven’t heard their stories.”

– Barnie Jones, co-producer

Synopsis

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in women’s issues. Yet according to U.N. statistics in 2012, rape is still the #1 crime in Liberia, and the majority of the victims are children.  Médecins Sans Frontières in Liberia reports their youngest survivor at 21 months old.

Olivia (Photo courtesy of N. Offenbac)

Small Small Thing begins at JFK Hospital in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, and urban center of this West African country.  Olivia is 9 years old, severely malnourished and handicapped. Her condition is life threatening. Believing her injuries to be the result of witchcraft, Olivia’s mother had been hiding her for years.  The doctors conclude her condition is the result of a brutal rape that took place when Olivia was 7 years old. When pressured to reveal her rapist, Olivia names her cousin.

Olivia's mother Bendu (Photo courtesy of N. Offenbac)

This diagnosis has severe consequences. Originally from deep in the Liberian jungle, Olivia and her mother are shunned from their tribe for seeking outside help.  They are left stranded in Monrovia at the mercy of President Sirleaf’s government, facing the most difficult decision of all. What price are they willing to pay for justice?

Photo courtesy of J. Vale

Credits

Jessica Vale (Writer/Director)
Nika Offenbac and Jessica Vale (Producers)
Barnie Jones (Co-producer)

Connect with this filmmaker and learn more about this new film:

Facebook: /SmallSmallThing

Twitter: @Smallsmallfilm

Website:  www.smallsmallthing.com
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Do you have a film you are trying to finance that you would like to feature here?  Send us an email with a website and social media page(s) for your film.

SUNDANCE: days 9-11

The Sundance Film Festival officially ends today, and awards were given out last night.  I’m encouraged that so many women received such international recognition for their films — see below for the list of winning films by women (as directors and writers).

Days 9-11

SUNDANCE AWARDS

Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic & Excellence in Cinematography – U.S. Dramatic

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (co-writer Lucy Alibar)*

U.S. Directing Award: Documentary

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (director Lauren Greenfield)*

U.S. Directing Award: Dramatic

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (writer-director Ava DuVernay)*

World Cinema Screenwriting Award

YOUNG & WILD (director & co-writer Marialy Rivas)

U.S. Documentary Editing Award

DETROPIA (directors Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady)

World Cinema Documentary Editing Award

INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE (directors & editors Lisanne Pajot & James Swirsky)*

World Cinema: Documentary Special Jury Prize

AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY (director Alison Klayman)

World Cinema Cinematography Award: Dramatic

MY BROTHER THE DEVIL (writer-director Sally El Hosaini; cinematographer David Raedeker)

U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Independent Film Producing

NOBODY WALKS (director & co-writer Ry Russo-Young; co-writer Lena Dunham; producers Jonathan Schwartz, Andrea Sperling, Alicia Van Couvering)*

World Cinema Cinematography Award: Documentary

PUTIN’S KISS (director Lise Birk Pedersen; cinematographer Lars Skree)*

U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Independent Film Producing

SMASHED (co-writer Susan Burke; producers Jennifer Cochis, Jonathan Schwartz, Andrew Sperling)

See the slideshow of all winning titles on the Sundance Channel website.

*Films have been picked up during the festival for theatrical or VOD distribution, except Indie Game which will be adapted into a fictional half-hour series for HBO.

Acquisitions

Writer-director Julie Delpy’s film 2 Days in New York has been picked up by Magnolia Pictures.  Delpy also stars in the film opposite Chris Rock.  Magnolia will release the film via VOD (Video On Demand) as well as in theatres.  No word yet on which territories this covers (I’m assuming at least North America), or a firm release date.  Read the story over at Nikkie Finke’s Deadline Hollywood.

Magnolia has also picked up director & co-writer Ry Russo-Young’s feature film Nobody Walks which she co-wrote with Lena Dunham (most well-known for her film Tiny Furniture and her upcoming HBO series “Girls” which will premiere at SXSW in March, then on HBO in April).  Check out the story over at Reuters (incl. information on 2 Days in New York).

Check out all the distributors that picked up films at Sundance this year in this indieWIRE story.

I’m expecting more acquisitions to happen in the next few days and weeks and will try to update the Sundance film acquisitions list to include those titles.

AMERICAN BEAR: Q&A with filmmaker Sarah Sellman

BIOGRAPHY

Sarah Sellman grew up in a Bed and Breakfast in a desert valley in rural Alamosa, Colorado. Her experiences at the Bed and Breakfast made her a strange sort of six year old—she has always loved talking to strangers. Her experiences in Colorado fostered her need for adventure and her ability to tell stories. So she ventured off to New York City where she attended film school at NYU.

Filmmaker Sarah Sellman (photo courtesy of S. Sellman)

Sarah loves telling stories about people, textures and beautiful landscapes—sometimes with a hint of the surreal or fantastical and always about love and fortuity (her mother was always a fan of romantic comedies and her dad had her watching sci-fi since she could speak).  American Bear turned Sarah’s hypothetical trust in all people to an actual one and has been one of the greatest learning experiences of her life. Sarah is detail oriented, texture obsessed and curious about everything. Oh, and she really likes pie. And Greg. And probably you!

About the film:  American Bear: An Adventure In The Kindness Of Strangers is an inspiring exploration of our country through trust, fear, and hospitality, across America and between Americans. (From the film’s website at americanbearfilm.com)

Filmmakers: Sarah Sellman and Greg Grano

(image courtesy of S. Sellman)

Her Film:  Your first day’s interview subject talked about how you and Greg [Grano] are “living the American Dream.”  (Seen in the trailer.) You actually kind of lived my personal dream by making this film!  Can you describe the balance between being filmmakers who are making a documentary and actually having to experience intense emotions and varying situations as two of the subjects of your own film?

Sarah Sellman: It was an interesting balance to negotiate, that’s for sure. Every part of our journey we wanted to experience organically. We wanted to be adventurous! But we also had to be aware of making sure to film the experiences. The weirdest part I think was that often the camera added a lot of pressure. Pressure to act naturally, to be nicer to each other, to film each encounter well. Eventually Greg had a bit of a break down from all the stress (I might have, too, if he didn’t first) because it is stressful. The journey is amazing and perhaps a tad stressful on its own, but the second you start filming, it becomes much more challenging. In the end though, I think it’s worth it, because now we have a great film, and all of our memories are on tape! We did feel like we were living our dreams — especially because the idea of American Bear came from Greg talking in his sleep. America is a pretty cool place, and the people are amazingly generous!

Still shot from American Bear courtesy of S. Sellman

HF:  You talk on your website about your experiences, emotions, etc.  What feelings did you experience that you hadn’t before, or that surprised you the most, either as an individual or as a filmmaker?

SS:  Well — the emotions were much more complex. Connecting with people so quickly and then having to leave the next morning was often challenging. I wanted to get to know people better, to spend more time talking.  Also, when we got into our car accident — that was a new emotion for sure. I was so in love with Greg and I felt so guilty because the car that hit us, hit him. Not me, him. If it had been any worse I probably would have been fine, and he might not have. In the end, no one was hurt. But it makes you think really hard about being in a car. And about the person you love.

But I think the biggest new feeling was trust and confidence. In people. We walked into American Bear with sort of hypothetical trust in humanity —  and walked out of it with an actual one. I love people!

Shot from American Bear (photo courtesy of S. Sellman)

Shot from American Bear (photo courtesy of S. Sellman)

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For a lot more photos, and to see the strangers that Sarah and Greg met on theirtravels, visit the American Bear website and check out the photos page.

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Shot from American Bear (photo courtesy of S. Sellman)

Shot from American Bear (photo courtesy of S. Sellman)

HF:  I have a close friend who is, without fail, always able to start and maintain a conversation with strangers and it awes me.  Me, I love doing that, but it often ends with me hearing crickets.  What have you found that it takes to create or find a connection with people?  Did you ever have a bad experience that just didn’t work out at all, and how did you deal with that?

SS: You know what’s strange, since making American Bear I have developed a new kind of social anxiety. I think because connecting on the road was so easy and sometimes here it isn’t. The big thing for us is asking questions; people love to tell their stories and everyone has a story to tell. So if you ask questions, things seem so much easier. It’s more difficult for me, I think, to answer questions than it is to ask them. So my advice then — ask questions, be curious, even a little pushy. I think we are worried about people’s comfort zones a lot and it turns out that actually people like answering the harder questions. So maybe my problem after American Bear is mostly making sure I ask better questions?

Filmmakers Sarah Sellman and Greg Grano courtesy of S. Sellman

In terms of bad experiences — yes, we had them. haha! A couple times we had people invite us to stay with them and then drop out at the last minute. That was challenging. Mostly because we didn’t find out till very late at night.  Even if we had a back up plan, calling someone at 10pm to say, “hey, we actually do need help after all” — it can come off as a little scary. So in those times, communication was tricky and connection was even trickier.

Learn more about American Bear, help fund it or connect with the filmmakers:

KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN (7 days left with $1,400 left to raise)

Twitter: @RelyOnStrangers

Facebook: /BearDocumentary

Website:  americanbearfilm.com

YouTube:  AmericanBearFilm