A Woman Apart: Talking to Feminist Filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin About Her First Feature, Now on Kickstarter

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In her twenty-year career, the Williamsburg-based feminist filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin has studied the intersection of politics and performance in Le Tigre videos, video installations, shorts and experimental documentaries, with subjects ranging from Shulamith Firestone and Francesca Woodman to lost Antonioni movies to creative block. Right now, she’s on Kickstarter raising postproduction funds for her first narrative feature, A Woman, A Part, starring TV’s Maggie Siff as an actress who walks out on a successful but creatively unfulfilling life in Hollywood and returns to her old haunts in North Brooklyn on a quest for self-knowledge.

As of this writing, the film’s Kickstarter campaign, which ends this Friday the 8th, is a bit more than $6,000 shy of its $40,000 goal. Over the Christmas holiday, Subrin answered via email a few of my questions about self-expression, fundraising and sexism in experimental and narrative film, gentrification, and who cares about actresses, and why.

In your director’s statement, you write that “actresses are the ultimate representation of women,” and this was your inspiration for taking on the film—but performance is a major element in your previous work inquiring into female personae. Say, the multi-layered reenactments of Shulie and Sweet Ruin—and maybe also the self-reflexive artists like Francesca Woodman, and the memoirist Cara Seymour plays in The Caretakers. Where does that interest in performance come from, and how does A Woman, A Part build on your previous work?

I’ve always been interested in acting, but I didn’t realize it until more recently as it was framed as performance in an art school context. Acting—the subject embodying another self—seems the perfect analogy for the elusive search for authenticity, in oneself and the world around you. Initially, my interest in performance drew from my desire to recreate and re-imagine moments in history (both personal & social/political), so I had to start, well, performing, which led to asking other people to perform in my films as well. If you’re interested in emotional, psychological and historical states, it’s hard to avoid creating characters, and having people play them. A Woman, A Part tells the story of an actress whose relationship to her own authenticity has been destroyed by having to perform the horribly limited and clichéd words of female characters, mostly written by men. She walks off the set of her LA show, and flies back to NYC to try to revisit, and even reinvent, her own past. The film’s narrative, like all my work, seeks to revisit, recreate, and, at times, interrogate her past—in order to find other truths there. In addition, each work I make (film, video, installation and photography) has in common a deeply intimate look at the internal life of a (usually female) character or subject, set against the backdrop of larger historical and social forces.

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You’ve lived in Williamsburg since the 1990s, and say this new film deals with gentrification in Brooklyn “as phenomenon and metaphor.” (As does your video Lost Tribes, Promised Lands.) I find that interesting in part because the process by which people change over time, and the processes by which neighborhoods change over time, are in some ways analogous, and in some ways not at all. How has your neighborhood changed in the time you’ve been living there—and how (if at all) has that affected the way you think about your life choices and changes.

That parallel of people and neighborhoods changing is very salient to me. Williamsburg’s transformation is well-documented, extreme, and depressing, probably far more for artists who have lived here (and/or left) since the 70s and‘80s, or even more for the more permanent communities who have lived here since far earlier—those who have not sold their buildings and left, or have been priced out. It’s disappearing every day. While Café Capris, one of my favorite haunts owned by first-generation Italians, managed to survive long enough for us to document it in A Woman, A Part, a month later, it was gone. But I don’t really have a right to feel nostalgic, because as an artist who moved here in the 90s, I’m part of what made this neighborhood change, along with rezoning, other Giuliani/Bloomberg policies, and an expanding NYC population.

The construction and manipulation of domestic spaces evokes the idea of building and constructing a self—or manufacturing an artificial one that hides (or protects us from) our authentic nature. I see the similarity in my own life. As I’ve become professionalized as a filmmaker and professor, I moved from an old rent-stabilized tiny railroad apartment to becoming a homeowner in the same neighborhood, so now I’m a gentrifier myself. I’ve made life choices that are undeniably bourgeois. The film explores how we change as we pursue our ambitions, how those ambitions change us, and the consequences of walking away from those goals. What happens if we try to rewrite our own journey? The end of the film reflects where I’m at with that question.

 

A number of your previous films have been funded by grants and institutions, so it’s interesting to see you on Kickstarter. How, if at all, has the process by which you pitch yourself and hustle up funding for your work changed over your career? Do you see crowdfunding as a potentially better model for supporting experimental or marginal work?

I think Kickstarter is an amazing tool for generating a relationship with an audience to support a vision and to create a community around it. As I’m going through the process right now, I’m finding it very rewarding in terms of creating interest and support, but also, as the writer and director of the project I do feel a little self-conscious about promoting a film that is still in progress out there to the world since I am looking to raise funds for postproduction. What you lose with crowd-funding, with “pre-awareness” in general, is the complete integrity of a work of art seen for the first time, rather than all these sneak previews through stills, videos, descriptions, etc. I’d like my film to stand on its own when it’s presented, rather than having to “sell” it (and myself) in advance of its completion. It takes a little bit of the magic out of the completed work. But I understand this is the state of things right now in the industry, given the shameful lack of support for independent filmmakers and film artists in the United States—and I’m extremely grateful to Kickstarter as a viable option to raise funds, engage audiences, and bring awareness to a project. I really don’t know how independent filmmakers would do it otherwise at this point.

I don’t know if it’s a better way to raise money for “marginal or experimental work.” Compared to the work and film worlds I’ve moved in, A Woman, A Part is not explicitly experimental or particularly marginal, other than it’s impossible to get financing for a first feature, especially if directed by a woman—even with a track record of award-winning, critically acclaimed work. It has a pretty traditional narrative and scripted trajectory, where the art and experiments are far more subtly buried in layers of meaning than an experimental “style.” I guess you could call it marginal because it’s written and directed by a woman artist, and focused on a woman’s journey, but that’s more about the sad state of the film industry, and the world, than about my work.

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Given that A Woman, A Part addresses the role of women in the film industry through its depiction of a creatively frustrated actress, and given that you’ve worked mostly in the shadow of the Hollywood mainstream, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the current discourse about sexism in the American film industry. It’s a hell of an oversimplication, but do you see, for instance, the opportunity to direct Marvel movies as an ideal proxy for the opportunities available to women in the arts, or as a red herring distracting from other, alternative opportunities for expression? For that matter, does the collective tone of the testimonials on “Shit People Say to Women Directors” ring equally true to you and your experiences in your sector of the art world?

The easiest answer would be to read my blog, Who Cares AboutActresseswhich is an irreverent, expansive take on actresses, cinema, art & representation. My manifesto addresses how the roles actresses play tell the world what a woman is. Therefore, the representation of women is a political act, and actresses are the emissaries.  The blog constantly addresses the experiences of female directors as well. I launched it in November, 2014, before this new explosion of public dialogue and actions around industry sexism, and all the A-list actresses speaking out last awards season.

As for whether directing Marvel movies is the antidote for the potentially illegal blockading of women directors in the industry is debatable. Women filmmakers have diverse goals, just as male filmmakers do. I don’t see it as an either/or question. There needs to be space for women filmmakers to do what they want to do in every arena, just as men do. I wouldn’t say that the avant-garde film world or the art world is dramatically more inclusive, in terms of gender or race, though we like to think so.

I make feminist art, and, being realistic about our culture, I always knew that would marginalize me. Given sexism in the film industry and art world, I’ve actually been quite lucky in terms of getting to show my work and receiving support for it. But my background in avant-garde film further prepared me to never have any of the expectations, that, say, visual artists have when they get out of art school—i.e. to sell their work—or that an mainstream film student would expect. I could kick and scream and wish that it was different, but I’d rather make the work I want to make than try to accommodate the marketplace or the industry. The best way to change the industry is to do it yourself, which is what I did with A Woman, A Part. We had a primarily female cast, over 50% female crew, and a racially diverse cast and crew as well. Even with a very low budget, we treated everyone with love and support, and as a result there was an amazing vibe on set. In addition to the production strategy, the film explicitly addresses the industry, while not compromising my formal and conceptual concerns. To me, setting an uncompromised example is the best way to make a difference. Personally, I couldn’t care less about blockbuster franchises, so that is not something I strive towards.

When you’re casting, given your background doing more installation and conceptual work—when you’re looking for an actress to embody all the film’s ideas about female identity and the self through the passage of time—how much are you looking for an intellectual soul mate who you can think through the project with, versus the more traditional things that come up in casting? Did the project, and the conception of the central character, change at all once you began working with your star, Maggie Siff?

Probably before I started making narrative films, and taking acting/directing workshops, I would have imagined that I’d want a complete creative and intellectual fusion with my actors, but I soon realized that would not be a productive way to work. We have different jobs. I’m the writer and the director, and she’s the actor, and those distinctions and boundaries are healthy for the process. That being said, of course I wanted to work with an actress that could embody all the qualities of the character, and that would require really understanding the character, as well as the intellectual and conceptual underpinnings of the script and my vision for it. Also, in this case, since it’s an actress playing an actress, it was important to work with someone who really understood my critique of the industry. I needed a really smart actress, who would work against actress cliches. Maggie seemed to have the intelligence and intensity to take on a very difficult role – that of an unhappy actress. We talked about the project a lot and her insights about the industry and the experience of being an actor were utterly invaluable. I don’t really visualize actors when I write, so the core of the character concept did not change very much once she was cast. However, Maggie really pushed for the character to be more complex, more difficult, actually—she felt I was protecting the protagonist a bit—and I credit her for pushing to make her character, if anything, less likable. That’s a remarkable thing for an actress to do.

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