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Praise Free Women and Pass the Camera: Jennifer Fox on 'Flying'

By Cathleen Rountree

Jennifer Fox, director/producer of Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman. Photo: Zohe Films

We are pulling this article from the archive to promote our upcoming Doc U: Shooting Overseas: Making Your Doc on Foreign Soil at the AFCI Locations Show at the L.A. Convention Center. On Friday, June 15, we are hosting a panel of doc filmmakers who have traveled the globe and film commissioners whose job it is to make filming in their countries as straightforward as possible. Register for the AFCI Locations Show and RSVP for this free Doc U today!


In our post-9/11 world, the phrase "fear of flying" has a very different meaning from the one championed by Erica Jong in her 1973 bra-burning manifesto of liberation. Jong's iconic Fear of Flying examined the female psyche (primarily hers) through the man-woman conundrum, sex, marriage, divorce, motherhood and that elusive Shangri-la, Freedom. And Jong modernized the quotidian sexual fantasy into a rousing "zipless fuck."

Fast-forward 34 years. For Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, director Jennifer Fox spent five years visiting 17 countries, making countless women friends, and shooting 1,700 hours of film in her search into the identity of contemporary women. Using her own life and loves as the film's central conceit, Fox sought not to create a film about herself, but to weave a connection with other women and their stories. The wingspan of this audacious and exhilarating six-part, six-hour series stretches from Phnom Penh to Islamabad, from Lapland to Capetown, and effectively employs flying metaphors throughout. Chapter titles include "Test Piloting," "Experiencing Turbulence," "Crash and Burn," "Walking Away from the Wreck" and "Breaking the Sound Barrier." Appropriately, Flying opens at the Film Forum in New York City on Independence Day and screens through July 17.

The editing of the massive amounts of footage Fox acquired was entrusted to the award-winning Danish editor Niels Pagh Andersen. The fact that the "confessional" aspect of the film does not deteriorate into a narcissistic, solipsistic mess no doubt owes a great deal to Andersen's skills. In an interview from the Danish film publication FILM, he observes, "The whole concept of the film is a central character who evolves when she is reflected in other women. It makes her smarter, it pushes her and makes her move on in life."

Fox, the award-winning director/producer of Beirut: The Last Home Movie (1987) and the groundbreaking 10-hour PBS television series An American Love Story (1999), developed a simple shooting technique she calls "passing the camera." Her goal was to mirror the way women speak normally when they are alone together. "I had noticed that women have these endless free-flowing circular conversations about any life topic for hours," she explains. However, she feared that introducing the camera would destroy the genuine intimacy among women. "I decided to try to use the camera in a way that mimicked the way women's conversations usually occur. So, rather than let the camera be in a third-person position, either on a tripod or with a cameraperson, I decided to pass the camera between myself and other women in a similar way to how women ‘pass the ball' back and forth in conversations," she describes. She discovered that women "loved this technique" and that it maintained the intimacy and presence that normally accompany female conversations.

Intimacy and presence permeate Fox's work and life: We met three times at this year's Sundance screening of Flying, and we have since spoken several times by phone as well as exchanged numerous e-mails. It's easy to see why women in the film, whom she's just met (no matter how different their cultural and ethnic heritage may be from hers), feel so relaxed in her company. Her warmth, caring and genuine concern energetically affect everyone within her radius.

In Flying, the "passing the camera" technique becomes the great equalizer, as no one person in the conversation has more power than the other. Both film each other, both can ask questions of the other, both people are equally on the line. "On top of that," Fox adds, "the whole question, ‘Can a layperson shoot with a camera?' is so obviously answered in the film. My camera instruction to each woman took about 30 seconds, and within 30 seconds they were filming me, often quite beautifully. This was true whether it be women in New York, Britain, India or Pakistan--virtually anywhere."

The filmmaker traveled alone through what are often considered some of the most dangerous regions on the planet, but because of the nature of her project, she always made advance arrangements with the women she planned to meet. "And being under the care and guidance of a local woman meant that I was much safer than I would have been had I been on my own," she concedes.

For example, arriving in India, she met with Paromita, a 32-year-old activist, and was "amazed" at how few people bothered her on the street because Paromita served as a guardian of sorts. Fox had traveled in India many times as a single woman and had been "constantly harassed and even got into some pretty awful situations." Thanks to Paromita, Fox was able to integrate into Indian culture "in a really wonderful and seamless manner. This vision of another culture was great for the film, but it was also great for me personally because I had the best experience of India that I ever had."

As a filmmaker working on her own, there were built-in restrictions and limitations in terms of equipment. Fox decided to use only natural light and rarely a tripod. She traveled with her Sony PDX10 PAL DVCam--the smallest broadcast-level widescreen camera available. She purchased a Seinheiser ME80 short shotgun mic, which she mounted on top of the camera and then "gerry-rigged a second mic, an electrosonic lavelier, on the back of the microphone to get the voice of the person holding the camera." She carried five or six long-lasting batteries to assure full days of shooting. Fox also had two electrosonic radio mics for situations where it was better to radio mic someone, or herself, depending on the situation. "I think this kit is pretty much the bare minimum of a solo filmmaking kit," she says. And she never left home with fewer than 60 of the expensive Sony PDVM 40-minute DVCam Professional tapes.

Although she shot on PAL, the requirements for Sundance warranted something different. Fox explains, "We shot the entire film in PAL DVCam for two reasons: The film is a Danish co-production, so we knew we would be doing most of the post-production in Europe, where PAL is the main format. But the main reason I wanted to shoot in PAL is that it's such a higher quality video format compared to NTSC." But because PAL has a different frame rate than NTSC, shooting in that format caused technical problems when converting the final film back to NTSC.

While looking for a producing partner that would inspire the language of the film she was planning, Fox felt the documentary film work coming out of Denmark was closest to her "aspirations for this new language I wanted to work in for Flying." So she partnered with a Danish producer, Easy Film, and together funded the film through a grant from the Danish Film Institute (similar to the National Endowment for the Arts in the US). As a Danish co-production, the key personnel were required to be Danish, including the editor. "This meant that the film was an artistic collaboration between an American and Danish sensibility," says Fox. She believes the project benefited tremendously from that fusion.

The film was also funded through pre-sales to seven international broadcasters. "It began as a feature film and most of these broadcasters were able to switch to purchase it as a series," she explains. "However, our American broadcaster, HBO, doesn't broadcast limited series and initially had to pass on it." Once completed, the film was purchased for American broadcast by the Sundance Channel, which will air the six-episode series in 2008. An additional source of support came from Creative Capital, a New York-based foundation, which, Fox points out, "really follows the artist through all stages of production and distribution. I felt very privileged to have such backing."

In terms of advice to filmmakers, Fox stresses the importance of understanding the right type of funding for one's film. A film might be suitable for an American foundation, public television, commercial television or international pre-sales. "It is rare that a film is fundable from every avenue," she states. "The key for independent filmmakers is not to be afraid of business and to educate themselves in as wide and diverse types of funding and distribution possibilities as they can."

For self-preservation, she believes, an independent filmmaker cannot stay in the dark about the complexities of the film business. "I think that we should educate ourselves on the world market--not just television markets but also DVD and Internet markets." Fox enjoys the business side of filmmaking and finds it interesting and exciting, but also a necessity to survive. "The world market keeps changing," she warns. "As filmmakers, we need to evolve with the marketplace; otherwise we won't survive. For me, survival is in itself success."


Cathleen Rountree is a film journalist and author of nine books, including The Movie Lovers' Club. She writes extensively about films, film festivals and filmmakers for various venues, including Documentary magazine, Release Print and Greencine. She teaches writing and multicultural studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.