First I have to say again: I have never seen audiences like in Chicago. When the lights went up, people stayed planted in their seats asking question after question until I had to almost forcibly end the session. In retrospect, I wish I could have asked more back of the audiences: Who were they? What stories from their lives did the film touch? Why did so many men show up? Don’t get me wrong – I want woman watching the film, but I also want men to see it so that what happened in Chicago can happen everywhere – a dialogue between the sexes.
I spoke with so many women and men – there are two many conversations to recount. But there are two conversations that I want to mention: At the end of one screening a tall woman with blond hair, about my age, came up to me and presented me with a book – “THE BOOK OF PLEASURE” by Carol Gillian.
“This is what you are talking about in your film and I want you to have this,” she said.
The woman’s name, I later learned, was Anita Orlikoff. I felt really moved by her gesture. She said she would be back the next days with her mother to watch the rest of the film and she’d love to know what I thought. I shyly told her I would try to look at the book but not to expect too much because my time here was so pressed. But inside of me, I felt committed to look at least some of the book before the next time I would see her.
Later that night, I began to read and I was struck by one thing the author spoke about: During adolescence, Gillian wrote, girls go through a process where they disassociate from their authentic self – often never to be reclaimed. I didn’t get very far, but the idea kept nagging at the back of my mind all day. It was one of the main motivations to make FLYING in the first place and often audiences everywhere wanted to ask me about my disassociation during the film’s question and answer sessions:
Why was it that it was only in forties that I was able to face the issue of being a girl and a woman?
Why had it taken me so long to ‘wake up’?
How is it possible, after making political films all your life, that you still didn’t consider yourself a feminist…?
As hard as it has been to answer these questions, I always try to take my time and explain the strange path I have had to navigate from the time I was a girl to womanhood. Only in my forties did I begin to understand what had happened to me – but admittedly I was still struggling to understand it all. Reading Gillian’s book made me wonder about the societal forces that had pushed me – and I learned most women — out of our authentic selves as girls.
The next day I had an interview with a journalist named Jan Lisa Huttner who started a organization, called WITISWAN (Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists Now).
We had never met before but set a time to meet outside the theater before the show. Jan arrived in a bright pink jacket, her warm buoyant personality immediately engulfed me and put me at ease. She took me to a tea restaurant and we settled in to talk. She wanted to know about a comment I had made to her friend Bill Stamets, the lovely journalist who had interviewed me for a feature article in the Chicago Times. In the piece I had spoke about how recently when I showed the film in Romania where I was running a five day documentary course, the men and women had responded differently. Afterwards one of my female students had said to me: “Why are you surprised? As women, we have had to learn men’s language, but men have never had to learn women’s language….”
Jan brought up this comment and asked me to speak more about it. As is often the case when you are talking to someone like Jan – deep and inquisitive – I discovered new things about myself as I grappled to answer her. You see, I told her, in my struggle to survive as a girl in my family and in the world, I adopted men’s language. I knew I had to learn my father’s language – to convince him that I was capable enough to be able to leave the house. If I had acted like a girl – emotional – he would have felt that I was too weak to function away from the home. I remember distinctly being 14 years old and being conscious of having to mimic him – his tone, his body language, his breathing. It amazes to me to this day to remember just how conscious — and pragmatic – I was at such a young age of having to bury my true female self to get what I wanted from my father to survive. I knew I had to please him in male terms. And I remember even feeling a huge sadness afterwards – knowing that I was selling my soul in some way – but not feeling I had any choice. But after that moment in time, I buried it all and I adapted: I went on and continued to behave like a man. And I forgot that I had ever been any other way.
Then Jan asked me a question that I was embarrassed to try to answer – who were my female role models growing up? Sitting there in Chicago my mind went blank as it usually does when this subject comes up – because every journalist and Talk Show host asks you this question at some point. My normal response is: “I never had any female models”. My only models were men…not famous men, but men like my father, whom I idolized. It is strange — and even a bit scary — to have no memory of role models – did I raise myself out of the muck? How could that be possible?
Jan suggested I look at the film YENTEL by Barbara Streisand again – because that is the story of the film. It is the story of a girl who values male achievement so much so that she disguises herself as a boy to have the same advantage. Until one day Yentel sees a woman behaving with such lovely female qualities that begins to realize the value of her own female sex.
Jan suggested this was my story. I was a little overwhelmed. I remembered watching YENTEL but not associating it with myself – not even seeing the shift from celebrating male values to celebrating female values. I promised Jan I would watch the film again soon, and then I remembered something I had forgotten until recently. I told Jan that another Barbara Streisand film, FUNNY GIRL was my inspiration to become a filmmaker – and of course that film was about a woman. This was a memory that was buried for years until recently a journalist asked the question when did I decide to make films? — And the memory came back to me.
It was October 10th, 1968, my Aunt Shirley’s birthday, and for the occasion we were going out to the movies and dinner. I remember that my mother, gram and aunt were excited because Barbara Streisand was Jewish like us, with a big nose like many Jews, and had made it to the big screen. But these details meant nothing to me yet because I was only nine years old. I remember my mom making me wear a blue smocked dress, white gloves and black patent leather shoes with a strap with a pearl button. I hated these clothes, and normally we would have had a fight, but that night I kept quiet because of the thrill of going to the cinema. Later, I remember the feeling of sitting in the dark theater with the horse-hair seat covers tickling my bare legs. But I didn’t care; I remember the enormous emotion in me as I watched the story of Fanny Brice. I felt so much – but I don’t remember what caused the feeling. I only remember that it was so powerful that it made me say to myself that very evening: I want to make films. I want to move people that way. It’s strange, I would imagine that most young girls would have said that they wanted to become an actress like Barbara Streisand, but not me. I wanted to be the creator of emotion.
Now, thirty-eight years later, sitting with Jan – suddenly a new knowledge that I had dissociated from the whole story came back to me: FUNNY GIRL is the story of a woman who decides to have a career and to be independent. It is the story of a woman who has sexual desires, who chooses the man she will love — by herself and against everyone’s opinion. It is the story of a free woman. In fact FUNNY GIRL was the path I hoped to follow – as I said, not to be a performer, but to be a workingwoman. And all these years, I remembered seeing the film; I even remembered the decision that I wanted to make films in that dark theater at age nine. But I disassociated that Fanny Brice (Barbara Streisand) was a role model to be a workingwoman and that the story was a model for me of what I wanted to become. And like many early decisions a child makes. I do remember making a decision that day… it is only that until coming to Chicago I had forgotten why.
This is why I need to meet other women, this is why I need girlfriends – they are my mirrors to wake up to the world and to myself… I have been sleeping so long.