Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Jennifer Siebel Newsom--'Miss Representation'

Editor's Note: Miss Representation airs October 20 on OWN. The following interview with director/producer/writer Jennifer Siebel Newsom was published during the film's run at IDA's DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase.

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 12 through September 1 in New York City and August 19 through September 8 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Jennifer Siebel Newsom, director/ producer/writer of Miss Representation.

Synopsis: Like drawing back a curtain to let bright light stream in, Miss Representation uncovers a glaring reality we live with every day, but fail to see. It's clear the mainstream media objectifies women, but what most people don't realize is the magnitude of that phenomenon and the way objectification gets internalized-a symbolic annihilation of self-worth-and impedes girls and women from realizing their full potential. In a society where media is the most
persuasive force shaping cultural norms, the collective message that a woman's value and power lie only in her youth, beauty and sexuality is pervasive.                    
- Caroline Libresco/Sundance Film Festival


Miss Representation


IDA:  How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom: I have always loved films with social meaning and significance. In particular, I wanted to shed light on an issue that I felt was damaging our youth and our culture and that was being ignored or treated as the norm in our society.  After consulting with various documentary filmmakers, they all suggested, based on my passion for the subject matter,
that I make the film myself.  That's how I got started. Now I would like to make more films.


IDA: What inspired you to make Miss Representation?

JSN: I was inspired to make Miss Representation for several reasons. First, I witnessed an injustice towards women in the media that has worsened over time with the 24-7 news cycle and the advent of infotainment and reality television. Today's media is sending a very dangerous message to young people in particular that women's value lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality, and not in their capacity as leaders. 

Second, I realized that despite the assumption in America that men and women are equal (well, Hilary Clinton ran for president after all...), women's leadership seems to peak at 17 percent representation--only 17 percent of Congress are women, 3 percent of media clout (or decision-making) positions are women, and 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.  These numbers are abysmal. Women still make around 75 cents on the man's dollar, and there are so few corporations in America that actually provide flex time or paid family leave so that women can continue on their career paths while raising young families. 

Finally, and closest to home, I was compelled to make this documentary because I was horrified by the thought of raising a daughter in a culture that demeans, degrades and disrespects women on a regular basis. Miss Representation is my attempt to right this wrong and put our culture on a path that recognizes and empowers women and girls.  Women can no longer be portrayed as second-class citizens, but rather as equals to men, with equal opportunities to succeed in life.

Thanks to a lot of hustle, persistence and women supporting women, we got family and friends and friends of friends to tell each other about the project and convince our interviewees that we weren't going to play gotcha. We just wanted to hear their stories and make this really important
film for the world, and that they needed to be a part of it. That's how it happened.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

JSN: Let's just say I asked a lot of questions, learned to trust my gut, and surrounded myself with people who were not only talented, but very supportive. I have to admit, though, I had no idea that making a documentary film could really take over two years. I am a rather impatient person and am proud I stuck it out, as I had to overcome many obstacles and hurdles in the making of the film. Fundraising was by no means easy initially; I was picked apart as director/narrator; I felt very alone throughout much of the process--until I found my editor, Jessica Congdon, who is a total collaborator, so smart and such a star. Moreover, I had to deal with ugly energy every day in our research, and it was at times too much for me, as a sensitive person. It got to the point, where I'd walk into the room and my husband had the TV on and I had to walk out as he was watching the news and it would cut to a reality show or a commercial and I couldn't help but cringe at the messages being communicated about what it is to be a woman or a man in our culture. It really saddened me. Not only that, but you know how when advertisements come on TV and the volume rises? I would be incensed. 

In addition to the challenges of the filmmaking process, my editor Jess and I both had daughters about the same time soon after she started working with me. Being that this was my first child and I didn't take maternity leave, I was exhausted and overwhelmed. However, with such an amazing team of women behind Miss Representation, our triumphs far outnumbered the obstacles, and I believe I learned from all of the challenges.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

JSN: Miss Representation started as a conversation between various friends and myself around the injustices towards women in the media and therefore in our culture. And ultimately, it grew into a cause-oriented film and movement, where we are fortunate enough to have
partnerships with the likes of Common Sense Media, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Step Up Women's Network, Girls Inc., Girls for a Change, The White House Project, Women's Media Center and the International Museum of Women. 

One of the most inspiring things I learned while making this film is that people do care and they do want to see change. Thanks to all of our partner organizations and academics and their incredible advocacy, activism and research, we now have the tools to question the media that perpetrates violence and degradation towards women. This gives me tremendous hope and confidence that we will have an impact.

All of the women and men we interviewed struck a chord with me. And the youth were particularly moving. If I had to pick just one interviewee, though, who really impressed me, perhaps it would be Rachel Maddow, who deals with sexism on a regular basis with humor and grace. We can all learn something from that.


IDA: As you've screened Miss Representation--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

JSN: I've been overwhelmed by the reaction thus far. When we premiered at Sundance, the film was immediately picked up by the Oprah Winfrey Network (and will be aired nationally October 20), but more importantly, I had people coming up to me saying how powerful it was, how they were surprised, shaken and moved to do something after seeing it. Our Facebook and Twitter pages are constantly flooded with positive reactions --and not just from women, either. We have men and boys telling us how shocked they were, or how much they learned from watching the film and how they want to be better men because of it. And that really was the point of making Miss Representation in the first place--to educate, inspire, motivate and entertain. I've always wanted audience members to feel compelled to talk about the subject matter, tell others to go see it, and share information from the documentary with their loved ones and colleagues--the goal being to make them feel empowered that they can do something about media injustices and they can affect change. It's critical that viewers think more critically about the subtleties of sexism that we've come to accept in our culture. Ultimately, I want our audience to leave motivated to join our social action campaign to affect change for women and girls.

And, while I think we've been able to accomplish some of this already, it's only the beginning, and I can't tell you how excited I am to see where things go from here.


IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

JSN: Michael Moore has continued to influence and inspire me with his commitment to making films that seek to address major problems in our society. I have also been inspired and
influenced by the films of my professor at Stanford Business School, Bill Guttentag. My favorite doc of years past was The Cove; I loved the suspense of it. And finally, my friend Darryl Roberts directed America the Beautiful, and I was very inspired by his passion for the subject matter and getting the film out.    


Miss Representation will be screening August 12 through 18 at the IFC Center in New York City, and August 26 through September 1 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles

For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2011 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Miss Representation in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for Miss Representation in Los Angeles, click here.