It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire cultural change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.
This week’s Badass Activist is Therese Shechter. Therese is a documentary filmmaker, and her first documentary feature, I was a Teenage Feminist, was released in 2005. She has a degree in Film from Columbia College in Chicago, and prior to going back to school, she was working as a Graphic Designer. She is currently working on a new documentary, How to Lose your Virginity.
So without further ado, here she is!
You started out working in graphic design, and only went back to film school later. What inspired you to this career change? Was it an easy decision to make, or did you struggle with it? How do you feel about what you do today?
That’s such a great question that I rarely get asked. And it’s all about taking this very circuitous and mysterious path to figuring out what you really want.
I had just ended a long relationship and, in an attempt to make lemonade, asked myself what I wanted to do with my life now that I was ‘free.’ I loved my job at the Chicago Tribune, but knew I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life. I was a big film geek, so I decided to go to film school part-time while I worked full time. The day before my first class was the last day I experienced ‘free time.’
When I look back on it, it seems totally deranged! I quit a high-level high-paying job, moved from Chicago to New York for an unpaid internship at Tribeca Films, and then started working on documentaries without the slightest clue how to make one or even how to use a video camera. Luckily, I had some great supporters like filmmaker Macky Alston and Debbie Zimmerman of Women Make Movies. I think I just felt this moment of bravery and decided to seize it because who knows when I’d feel this way again.
On the minus side of this plan, I really have no free time and I struggle to stay positive when there’s no funding, no support and no end in sight. I think you have to be ridiculously passionate about a subject to stick with it for as long as it takes to make a film. I fantasize about having a day job that ends Friday at 6pm, but then I quickly snap out of it. Because on the plus side, I love the freedom I have now and I love making documentaries and screening with audiences, especially college students. And I’m lucky to have my marketable skill, graphic design, which provides freelance work to pay the bills.
Your most recent movie project was I was a Teenage Feminist, which is an exploration of your own feminism, as well as an exploration into what the term means to young women today. Can you tell us a little about the genesis of that project? What did you want to achieve with the movie, and how have you connected to your audience with it?
My films are very personal and they tend to grow out of something important happening in my life. I was approaching 40 and although I was living an exciting, creative and fun life, I felt like I had failed somehow. I wasn’t married, had no kids and didn’t look like a lingerie model – and I was upset that that was upsetting me. I felt like I had nowhere to turn to validate my own choices, and then I remembered being 13 watching “Free to Be…You and Me” and having my mind blown
I wondered what had happened to the force of feminism in my life and in the world around me and set out to find it again. I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a feminist and I encountered a lot of ‘I’m not a feminist, but…” responses from everyone around me. It led me to really investigate how feminism had been discredited and demonized since the day the movement was born and re-connect with a movement operating under the mass media radar.
There are still so many people who reject feminism as something for ‘hairy-legged lesbians’ or something from the past, so my main goal was to get people talking about the meaning and importance of feminism and how people can add their voice to what is still a huge political struggle. I spend so much of my life in very feminist spaces now, with so many incredibly smart and dedicated women and men, that it’s hard to remember how disconnected I was. But then I step onto any college campus, start talking to students, watch them form their own ‘aha’ moments and it all comes back to me.
You work primarily with first-person story telling. Did you know from the start that you wanted to do that, or has that been a process of trial and error for you? Why did you choose that mode and what are the challenges and rewards of working with it?
It just sort of developed that way. I was doing a lot of writing about film and the strongest pieces were first person, whether I was describing my own film geekery, or two weeks spent volunteering at Sundance. I tend to use my own struggles and questioning and journey as a path through big issues that would otherwise be overwhelming.
I Was A Teenage Feminist and my other doc How I Learned To Speak Turkish are both first person, and both use a lot of humor, some totally at my expense, to tell some challenging stories about female power and identity. I feel like a surrogate for the viewer; I can ask all the stupid questions that you’re not comfortable asking as we go on this journey together. I actually tried to do How to Lose Your Virginity as a third person film, but ultimately I felt like my own somewhat embarrassing, confusing and awkward virginity story was a great catalyst for what happens in the rest of the film.
It’s a really hard form to get right and takes a lot of trial and error. You have to walk a very fine line between expressing your authentic self and being totally self-indulgent. A good editor is a must, because they’ll challenge you whenever they hear something they don’t buy. You have to really work at the honesty and risk looking bad sometimes. I’m a huge fan of filmmakers like Ross McElwee and Judith Helfand, or an author like Marjane Satrapi, who are all so skilled at using intense personal stories to get at much larger issues.
Your current project is a film called How to Lose Your Virginity. What is that film about and what got you to start thinking about these questions? Virginity is a really hot topic for many people and groups, for various reasons. How do you deal with the challenges of addressing such a controversial topic?
The film looks at this concept of virginity, which is so embedded in our culture it affects our behaviors in ways we’re not even aware of. I really want to lift the veil on the myths and misconceptions around female virginity and the value we give it, and challenge how our culture portrays female sexuality.
I do that by telling the stories of several fascinating women across the sexuality spectrum, with some history and anatomy thrown in for good measure. I could talk about hymen myths and Vestal Virgins all day. I actually got engaged while I was making the film, so we shot a scene at a bridal salon. In it, I ask the manager if the big white dresses I was trying on made my ass look innocent. I was so uncomfortable there. I felt much more at ease hanging out with the actors on the set of a so-called ‘virgin’ porn film. I’m not sure what that says about me.
I do a virginity blog as well, and while I’m very critical of institutions that promote virginity in ways that are sexist and false (Abs-Only I’m looking at you) I have total respect for whatever choice an individual makes about their sex lives. So this project has become a landing spot for very broad constituency. My audience is everyone from religious older virgins to feminists and sexual health folks who want to do away with the concept of virginity altogether.
The goal is to allow everyone space to define it for themselves in a way that reflects their own needs and desires. Unfortunately, that makes it hard to make the really great jokes without stepping into some awful cliché I really should be trying to destroy. Our logo is two cherries. Enough said.
How can we help you with the film? You have a Kickstarter campaign to fund the movie. How can we contribute to that?
Thanks for asking! We’re nearing the end of a big Kickstarter campaign to raise $35,000 so we can finish the film this fall. We’ve already raised almost $19,000, which is mind-boggling to me, but we need to reach our goal by May 9th or forfeit all of it. It would be great if folks could check out the project today, watch our very entertaining trailer, and then pledge what they can. We have some great rewards like DVDs, signed books, cherry pendants, screenings and goody bags from Good Vibrations!
I’ve been working on this project on and off for 5 years, and it’s taken this long because we’ve had to keep stopping to raise money to continue production. There’s almost no funding for independent media – it’s all going to Reality TV right now. I can’t tell you how badly I want to get this film done and out there. Our whole crew is so incredibly passionate about this topic, and our audience keeps sending us amazing emails. But I won’t lie – I’m really scared we won’t reach our goal, so let me again make the pitch: please pledge what you can and tell two friends to do the same! Thanks to Rush Limbaugh and his cronies, the topic is timelier than ever.
Thank you for your time and your answers! We’ve got our fingers crossed for you that you will reach your Kickstarter goal.