Well-traversed though the coming-of-age genre may be, Jenny Gage’s documentary All This Panic, now at Tribeca, injects a much needed air of naturalism into depictions of the female adolescent experience, as it charts the ebbs and flows of middle-to-upper-class bohemian New Yorkers. Rather than zeroing in on generic milestones or flare-ups, Gage and her husband and d.p.Tom Betterton are far more concerned with the nature of time and its effects on relationships dynamics, as their protagonists—several teenage girls in Brooklyn—navigate the rocky transition from high school to college—or its alternative. I spoke to Gage about her entry point into her subjects’ experience, the malleability of chronology in documentary, and her expectations for the footage viz its outcomes.
We tried to construct the chronology of the film and the overall arc of the characters’ stories so that it really felt like the experience that the girls were going through. During the period we were filming them (and in fact, at any time in anyone’s life) they were experiencing this rush of moments and events that are not clearly part of a larger arc at that time. It’s only later that you can see what is important and what falls away. So even though we had the benefit of hindsight, we didn’t want to lay it out like: A happened and then B happened so that’s why C happened. We wanted the viewer the feel that rush of events happening almost too fast just like in life, and that the arc sort of appears out of the jumble and you suddenly realize you are being shown stories.
You continued to film a few of the girls into their college experience (or the equivalent thereof). When you began shooting, did you have a clear idea of how long you wanted to follow them for, or did it evolve as you amassed footage?
The only constant that we had was that we had a sense that each girl had a story to tell and that it would reveal itself to us. We didn’t know what it would be or how long it would take, but we were ready to be there until it did.
Although All This Panic deals with a single friend group, you’re able to capture a relatively wide range of experiences and backgrounds. “Casting” a documentary is probably not discussed as frequently as it should be, so what attracted you to each of the film’s protagonists? It’s perhaps of note that many of them studied acting and are likely drawn to the degree of performance the camera initiates…
We began with Ginger and Dusty. I was watching them as they were about to go through thier teen years and, as a new mother of a baby girl, I imagined their experience would somehow illuminate a connection between where my daughter was and where I am now. Through Ginger and Dusty I met their circle of friends and acquaintances; it was very important to us that it be a very organic process and we didn’t lead it, the girls took care of that. We filmed lots of girls who did not end up sticking with it, so the main trait was that they said yes and found value in sticking with it.
You and Tom Betterton have long worked in tandem in the field of photography. How did your working relationship differ on this project, if at all, with you directing, and him manning the camera?
I think we had a great advantage because we are so comfortable working together that the girls immediately picked up on that and relaxed around us. In our still photography we both take turns shooting and directing. But honestly, with the way Tom shot all hand-held, running after the girls was super physically demanding and I was happy for the division of labor on this one!
Sage has a particularly poignant line in which she notes that although the teenage female body is constantly sexualized, the teenage girl—and her brain—is readily dismissed. Although All This Panic leans heavily on the girls’ burgeoning sexuality, did you find yourself consciously rebuffing many of the more rote touchstones in the coming of age genre?
As the project came together, we made a conscious decision to move away from focusing on what have become the recognizable coming-of-age milestones. We felt that it was much more important to hear what these girls thought about what they were going through than to show say, prom or graduation. It’s all about allowing and empowering them to illuminate their world through their own words. Sage is amazing at that moment because she is talking about so much more than sex. She is really thinking deeply, and talking about power dynamics and the media and her own relationship to a world that doesn’t hold her in high regard because she happens to be a teenage girl. It goes to the original thesis of the film that if you really listen to people, they are going to find a way to amaze you.