Monday, July 20, 2009

Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman

"I never wanted to be a girl. The way girls were supposed to be. I wanted to be like my father. I wanted to be free."

Flying is the autobiographical-documentary-mini-series by Jennifer Fox about-- to put it simply-- women. Alison and I have been watching weekly Sunday night installments at her place for the past month or so out of both interest and fear.

At the age of 45 Jennifer, a constantly traveling New Yorker who only wanted to be 'single and free' woke up to discover that she might want a baby. That she might need a commitment. That she might have misjudged what would actually make her happy all of these years.

She suddenly became deeply conflicted about marriage, about babies and about the affairs she was having with a married South African (Kai) and a Swiss cinematographer (Patrick).

Fox is a celebrated independent documentary filmmaker but for this project she quite bravely (and a bit indulgently?) turned the camera on herself and women around the world. She interviewed countless women about the experiences of being female, wherever they happened to be. Most of her own narratives involve lots of tears and sadness. They show her sitting at home or in a hotel room crying over Kai or crying over her potentially failed life. Its depressing, of course it is. But its also extremely enlightening.

Her subjects include Cambodian women forced into the sex trade, social activists in India and Pakistan, film making friends in Berlin and London, a darling Russian babushka, and her own family members. It's fascinating. Troubling, heartbreaking, and fascinating.

What struck me as the most odd in this film was that Fox doesn't shy away from her own issues even when talking with, say, sex slaves in Cambodian war zones. She keeps coming back to her lovers, her sexuality, her sudden need to have a child, her verbally abusive grandmother, her parents' marriage. It's beautiful in that she doesn't see a division between herself and these young girls dying of malnutrition and STD's, but at the same time... come on, Jennifer.

Al and I found ourselves screaming at the television as she repeatedly went back to her 'lover Kai' who was married with children at the time. For being such a strong, independent, awesome woman she was still flawed, still vulnerable, still had an INTENSE need to be loved. We wanted to shake her, but at the same time, we understood her.

Jennifer repeatedly came back to the same conclusion. All women fall into two categories: mothers and whores. It is a terrible realization to come to, especially for a woman who doesn't necessarily believe in marriage and who has been sexually active for over 20 years. But as each episode introduced a different culture of different women, the statement became all the more relevant.

In the most extreme situations, like in Pakistan, the label 'whore' could mean a death sentence without any hope for a husband and therefore income and food and basic needs. In the LEAST extreme, like our girl Jennifer here in New York, it means feeling like a failure. It means having to question your capabilities as a woman.

Alison made homemade pasta with red pepper sauce last night for the final installment. We watched Jennifer's very elderly Grandmother die. We watched her attempt IVF only to see a single line. We watched her cry some more. She told herself that she was going to stop crying and try to be happy. She made a commitment to PATRICK, thank goodness (we were rooting for him.) She moved to Switzerland for a while, which is awesome. She started smiling again.

The film ultimately made us talk about our own lives, as I'm sure it was meant to. Al and I along with all of our other girlfriends have had ongoing conversations since our first viewing about Jennifer and her 45 year old New York predicament-- being super successful professionally yet unmarried without children and suddenly feeling inadequate. I will graciously spare you the details of THOSE conversations, but I can tell you that this film was eye opening to say the least.

In a great Times article about this series, Fox says that life is like a layer cake: nonlinear, potentially messy and occasionally gravity-defying. It's a nice little metaphor for the film too-- a messy pastiche of different ingredients coming together for an indulgent common purpose. And it makes me crave cake.

Also: A special thank you to Annie Llewellyn who gave us these films. THANKS ANNALICIOUS!!!!

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