Amidst a Vast Sea of Male Albatrosses, An Angry and Politicized Woman Soars

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

Jennifer Fox, documentary filmmaker: She is smiling here, but says her latest documentary "Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman" has politicized her for the first time in her life and made her "very angry at men" for the centuries of sexual abuse they have visited upon women.  She remains troubled by what she called the relentless "objectification of women" in societies around the world.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore)

March 5, 2008


Part One -- Part Two to come on Tuesday

When you ask Jennifer Fox, director of the six-hour documentary film "Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman" what it's like to be a free woman in America, she will give you a detailed answer.  The question itself is probably an unfair one, but it gives Ms. Fox -- a fit and agile 48-year-old world-traveled New Yorker who on this visit to San Francisco confessed that she'd like to live here -- a lot of food for thought.  Citing a domineering father who forged in her a strong confidence from day one and whose "real right-winger" politics made her a neutral in the Fox household, the director admitted that to save the close relationship with her father, "I never actually voiced a political opinion until my forties, or at least I thought I didn't." 

The director's "Flying" comes to the Bay Area with a one-week run this weekend in San Francisco and London, before continuing to Italy (this Sunday) and France at numerous film festivals in those countries.  Last year, on July 4, "Flying" began an exclusive theatrical two-week run in New York City at the Film Forum.  In early May "Flying" will air on the Sundance Channel cable television network in the U.S.  The film was bought by the channel just a day before its premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

The context of her father's strength and power is a marker in this particular conversation with Ms. Fox, an assured auteur whose exploration of womanhood in "Flying" isn't as detailed as she would like it to be, she admits.  Still, the film's six one-hour chapters cover aspects of women's lives that are not talked about often enough.  The day-to-day sexual exploitation of women by men, the ups and downs of male-female relations, sexual, spiritual, intellectual and otherwise; the effects of male violence against women on relationships, and numerous other issues that women face on a daily basis.  To hear her say it, early on in her development Ms. Fox had a intra-familial tug-of-war.  On the one hand she was told by her mother that a woman's place was in the home -- essentially barefoot, pregnant and married, while her father taught her that she could do and be anything in the world she wanted.

For the confident filmmaker that early methodology and framework of the dichotomy of "a woman's place" had defined Ms. Fox, but her new film has enabled her to have more acute senses and awareness on a political level where the sexes are concerned.

"I'm a lot more political (now) than I was when I started making "Flying".  "Flying" made me political," she reveals during this interaction.  Throughout, she repeats that she is not a political expert, but will weigh in on politics at a later juncture.

Jennifer Fox puts her own anguish, trials and tribulations on the screen in "Flying", where she turns the camera on herself at the most vulnerable and intimate times.  Ms. Fox is a survivor of sexual abuse, a harrowing and traumatic period of her life that she has detailed in a previous interview with The Popcorn Reel.  And those horrors of her teenage years have had a hand in shaping her as well. 

After a few minutes in response to the initial freedom question, Ms. Fox says: "I think freedom for a woman is first of all, reproductive rights.  And I couldn't be me without abortion rights because I would already have about five children.  And I'm not saying that that's a good thing that I don't have five children, but that I have the choice," she said in a soft, modest and pure voice, the same tone of voice she has in her documentary.  "That I was free enough to have sex is one thing, but not to have to also have children -- that for me, the right to choose for birth control, for abortion -- the right information.  Without that women aren't free, period.  Now people could say, 'oh that's so old.'  It is old, but we forget when we're up in a world of Republicans and right-wingers that are all pro-life anti-abortion -- that if they take that away from us basically you know, women are finished -- again.  Basically, there's just no way in hell."

The filmmaker put the choice for women as bluntly as it can be put where any overturn of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade was concerned: "either you're in some backroom being butchered or you have a child before you want a child . . . ".  Ms. Fox added childcare as a freedom for women.  " . . . without some childcare in society, how can women really be free?", she would wonder out loud later on.

"Flying", which chronicles among other things Ms. Fox's upbringing, her relationships as well as those of the women she visits on her global travels, begins for five days today at the Yerba Buena Center For The Arts in San Francisco.  The film will be shown in two three-hour blocks, with parts one through three showing tonight at 7pm, and parts four through six showing on Friday (March 7) at 7pm.  (Jennifer Fox is expected to be in attendance both today and on Friday.)  On Saturday (March 8) and Sunday (March 9), the entire film will be shown on both days, with the first three parts shown on each day beginning at 2pm, and the second three parts shown on each day starting at 7pm.

(Finland and Sweden have shown the entire film on television.  The film is also scheduled to be shown on BBC Television in the U.K. later on in the year, and the film was edited down from six hours to four hours for the BBC for reasons which will be made clear in part two of this conversation.)

For all of the grave concerns Ms. Fox has about gender and the state of women around the world, she cited some progress but opined that a contradictory dynamic in the lexicon of male and female persists.  "The issue of male and female relationships -- it can change externally -- and I think we've come a long way in the West, but I think internally almost everyone is still bound by gender as much as we are by race.  I mean, as you know, nobody forgets that you're a black man.  There's just no way in hell.  Nobody forgets that I'm a woman.  And every single intimate relationship is bound by some very old rules, so for me the real question is, 'how do you change the traditional gender roles inside of people so that you really can have equal relationships, so that you can see people making equal choices more?'" she said, again citing childcare and asserting that women are the ones giving up their careers once they are pregnant, while very few men ever do so when a woman is expecting.

As she speaks at this moment, Jennifer Fox stops herself and then:  "But I'm saying things that are so obvious that they're stupid." 

The comment inspires a laugh.

Shifting to the global perspective that travel (and her film) brings, Ms. Fox points out the similarities in rates of trafficking, pornography, sexual abuse and especially rape of women by men in the so-called Third World and in the United States.  "For me, I think for me that's why 'Flying' was so important to make -- was to kind of draw a thread between our Western so-called free women and our Third World so-called non-free women, and to say that there are degrees of freedom but we're on a spectrum."

With her political awakening, Ms. Fox reveals that she now sees everything in terms of gender, whereas before it wasn't something that even registered on her own personal Richter scale.  "In my family, because gender was such a big issue, if I aligned with being a girl then I would never do anything in the world, because girls don't.  Girls stay home.  Girls become nurses.  Girls have kids.  Girls can't walk on the street alone.  Girls can't travel alone.  All these things.  So I decided as a kid that gender didn't matter.  That boys and girls were the same.  That men and women were equal.  And I put on this blinder and said, 'this is the way it is and I'm going to live that way,'" said Ms. Fox, whose boyfriend Patrick Lindemeier is featured, albeit reluctantly, during several scenes in "Flying". 

Ms. Fox's philosophy about an equality in male and female relations was, she confessed, "a reaction to the fear of being put in this ghetto of femaleness.  And now that I've lived that way and I take off the blinders, I realize that I tricked myself.  Gender was everywhere.  And I was just pretending so that I could survive and not end up in the corner of the room shaking out of fear."

She recalls a very recent example of her "gender is everywhere" statement.  "I just went to a meeting where -- we were discussing the DVD rights for the film.  And it was a company in which the principal is an older man.  And he has three very smart women working for him.  And obviously I'm a woman.  I come in, and he brings his team to talk and every time one of the women says something, he interrupts them."

She bursts out in laughter.

"It's like, hello??!!??"

On Tuesday in part two of The Popcorn Reel conversation with "Flying" filmmaker Jennifer Fox, she reveals why she thinks it is better to be a black man than a white woman in America -- at least in so far as the current Democratic Presidential Primary races are concerned.  And lots more from the conversational campfire about men, women, anger and "Flying".

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.


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