Flying takes documentary form to new heights
August 27, 2009
Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman is an amazing six-hour, six-part, documentary of epic proportions by Jennifer Fox in which we follow the filmmaker as she travels around the world asking her women friends how they construct and imagine their lives as she struggles to figure out her own. In her attempt to capture how women talk, Fox filmed her conversations with friends using a technique she calls “passing the camera,” rather than having a third person operate the camera or working with a traditional interview structure. Fox developed the technique in order to “capture the way women really speak when men are not around.” She realized that women, “tend to sit around and have long conversations about our lives that are not necessarily solution oriented, these conversations are open ended and circular and often go on for hours and are continued over days and years. Subjects are returned to over and over again and somehow through this continual hashing and rehashing things are worked out.”
Flying investigates these conversations, in a manner that is, in Fox’s words, “intensely interested in the two-way conversation women have and the horizontal nature of it. I had decide that I couldn’t ask other women to be intimate if I was willing to share and put myself on the line equally.” And thus she began to experiment with “passing the camera” back and forth with her friends, “almost like a traditional talk stick, except the person talking didn’t have the camera, the person being the witness held the camera [...] we just ‘passed the camera’ back and forth in conversation.”
Fox found that the technique created some powerful effects in the people involved in the process, “it seemed to immediately make people relax because they were not put on the spot alone, but also the technique is so simple and the camera so small [that the] camera actually becomes part of the conversation.” Flying is highly personal, however, it did not start out that way. Through the process of making the film, Fox realized she has to put more of herself into the film, “as filmmakers, we cut interesting stories that occur between the filmmaker and the subjects out, or we don’t film those moments.” But she could not do that in this film, knowing that, “in order to make a film about women’s intimate lives, I couldn’t pretend that I was not in the picture, I couldn’t pretend that I knew nothing about the subject, how could I ask women to tell me about their intimate life if I wasn’t willing to put my own private life on the line?”
Fox began shooting Flying in 2002 and ended up with 1,600 hours of video, which took an additional year and a half to edit. The result is a personal journey to discover what it means to be a woman today. It’s nice to watch a documentary that is as long as it needs to be, rather than shoehorned into a standard broadcast slot of 60, 90, or 120 minutes. Flying provides a depth of experience that is very rare in documentary cinema. I watched the film when it first came out and recently recommended it to my documentary students (since I only had time to show a short clip in class). The response of those who watched it was resoundingly positive. I hope more documentary filmmakers will consider breaking the boundaries of traditional broadcast time slots and make documentaries as long as they need to be. Flying proves that there’s a place for long form documentary in our increasingly diverse media ecology.
Note: The quotes in this post are from an interview with Jennifer Fox by Alice Apley and I conducted at MassArt in Boston on April 18, 2008 when Fox was in town for a screening of Flying at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image Credits: 1. Photo by David Tames, 2. Photo courtesy of Zohe Film Productions.