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.
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”