In 1991, Jennifer Fox started looking for subjects for what she had conceived as a one-hour documentary about three interracial couples. The project metamorphosed over the course of nearly a decade into An American Love Story, a 10-part television series (currently screening at Film Forum). Fox, a white Jewish woman, had fallen in love with a black man and she was confronting racism directly for the first time in her life. “I was 30 and I didn’t think of myself as naive, but I was shocked at the responses of people, of my own family. And I realized that of course I don’t see racism, I’m white. That’s a simple thing to say, but it’s such a radical concept. And so I wanted to see how people survive the enormous social pressure to split apart. And on top of that, I was interested in how any couple created a long-term relationship and a positive family.”
Although Fox had directed the acclaimed documentary Beirut: The Last Home Movie (1988), she had difficulty finding funds for this new project. Since she didn’t have the money to hire a camera person, she gave herself the job. She started videotaping one of the families she’d selected: Karen Wilson, Bill Sims, and their daughters, Cicily and Chaney. Karen, who’s white, and Bill, who’s black, met in 1967 when they were still in their teens and married 12 years later, six years after their older daughter was born. When Fox discovered them they were living in Queens, a more benign environment to raise biracial children than the small Ohio towns where they grew up.
“It was a very slow process,” says Fox. “First, it was just me with my camera and they were going to be one of three families. And then, it was going to be a one-hour film just about them. We clicked on a lot of levels; we had a lot of fun. We added a sound person, Jennifer Fleming, and they really liked her. About three months in, I realized that the nature of their lives was like episodic television. Something would come up, they’d solve it, and then go on to the next thing. So the idea of making a series came from their life. It grew on us. I don’t know whether it would have worked out if I had come to them at the beginning and said, ‘I want to do a 10-part series about you.”‘
Fox shot a thousand hours of videotape over a period of 18 months, living with the family on and off. She also taped 400 hours of audio interviews. The interviews are used as voice-overs, functioning as interior monologues do in novels.
“I’m very interested in subtext. That’s why I always do these long interviews that are very private; hopefully, you create a sacred space and the person learns something about themselves that they didn’t know and you didn’t either. My feeling is that by using these interviews you can suggest a more complex character than you can with just pure vérité. I find vérité alone very limited and very distancing. You end up with cold portraits of people without any sense of their interior lives.”
Fox admits to being “very interested” in fiction. “I don’t make a distinction between fiction and documentary,” she says. “We’re using narrative techniques to get across some hopefully essential truth about real people. The irony is that this is a representation of the
Wilson-Sims family. The concept that we’re doing anything other than representation as documentary filmmakers is completely false. I know these people. I know what you don’t see. This is one millionth of who they really are. We made a 10-hour series, and all I can think about is what isn’t in there.”
Fox eventually got the funding she needed from American Playhouse, the BBC, and the European company ARTE. An American Love Story airs on PBS in September, but Fox was allowed a small window for theatrical release. At Film Forum, the series is playing as three separate three-hour programs. Fox says that it’s very important for her to see it with an audience.
“It’s a necessary rite of passage, so you can let go. Television is just this blind thing. It goes out to so many people, but there’s no feedback. It was eight years of my life and of the family’s life. How would they ever know what it meant without the audience response? They went to Sundance and Berlin with me. And although we’ve had a few negative reactions, so many people have come up to them and been so grateful and given them flowers and said thank you. And it’s kind of miraculous to me that they’re happy with it. When you get to the end of the road and they say they feel good, for me, that’s the biggest thing.”
Miranda July also lives with cameras 24-7. Not real cameras, but imaginary ones that watch her from multiple angles. The peculiar experience shared by many women of being split between the person who acts and the person who observes herself acting (silently describing her actions to herself, as if she were watching herself in a movie) is at the center of her oeuvre—her “Big Miss Moviola” chain letters; her strangely compelling video, The Amateurist; her CDs The Binet-Simon Test and 10 Million Hours a Mile, which sound like radio plays from beyond the twilight zone channeled through July’s sometimes whiny, sometimes incantatory voice; and her most ambitious work, Love Diamond, a multimedia performance piece that closes the New York Video Festival on July 22.
Feeling somewhat isolated when she first moved to Portland, Oregon from Berkeley in the mid ’90s, July started the “Big Miss Moviola” chain letter. She invited women to send her their “lady-made movies,” which she compiled on video and sold through the mail for $15 each. “For me, making a space where I felt that I could do anything I wanted meant that I didn’t have to be thinking about fitting into other systems. But I’m not completely self-propelling; I want to be part of something.” There are now five chain letters—each consisting of 10 movies—and the series has spawned the slightly less underground collection (you can find it at video stores) Joanie 4 Jackie 4Ever, comprising seven “Big Miss Moviola” pieces, including July’s The Amateurist.
July’s performing persona—a puzzled but plucky stranger on earth, with a fondness for bubble wigs—is a throwback to the young Cindy Sherman and Laurie Anderson. Similarly, the split role she’s taken on of organizer-curator and individual artist is not unprecedented within the feminist history of avant-garde film and performance. Filmmakers Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, and Barbara Rubin, and performance artist Martha Wilson expended at least as much energy in creating a community and getting other people’s work out as they did in making their own. Appearing on a recent installment of Split Screen, John Pierson’s IFC indie magazine show, July was nothing short of inspiring, making it seem as if there was a place for a specifically female sensibility in the Amerindie boys’ club.
Until this year, the world the 25-year-old July inhabited was more subterranean than the hype-heavy indie film scene. But having played a small role in Alison Maclean’s upcoming feature Jesus’ Son and with Love Diamond now bringing her smack into New York’s performance art scene, she says she’s already feeling pressure to define herself in terms of a specific medium. Still, the ingenious Love Diamond is a poverty-row hybrid. Because July can’t afford a tech crew, she carries a bunch of remotes onstage and cues the slides and videos herself. “I didn’t realize how hard it would be to perform all these different characters while keeping track of all the visual changes.” Sounds like just another variation on her trademark personality splits.