2019 was the year that the Berlin International Film Festival wanted us all to know that it takes gender parity seriously. Not only did the festival expand, in its 69th edition, the gender statistics it keeps on submissions, programming committees, chosen films, creative collaborators, juries, etc., but it staged the appropriate optics to accompany this new wave of transparency.1 Not only was Juliette Binoche the 19th female president of the Competition Jury (out of 64 presidents since 1956), but the Competition boasted its highest ever percentage (41%) of films directed by women.2 One of these women, German filmmaker Angela Schanelec, whose Berlin School oeuvre has too often been tucked away in the artistically rigorous Forum section, even managed to win the Silver Bear for Best Director for Ich war zu Hause, aber (I Was at Home, But). Finally. Her films have been good for a long time. 90 year-old Agnès Varda seemed to preside over the proceedings from the vantage point of her Berlinale Camera award and her documentary Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès), a reflection on her films and legacy. Actress Charlotte Rampling received an Honorary Golden Bear and was further fêted with a retrospective of her work. And the official festival Retrospective, often a Weimar boys club, gathered up the best of East/West German female directors from the 1960s through the 1990s in a program entitled, “Self-Determined. Perspectives of Women Filmmakers” – 30 years of output to generate one program. Still, one could see the wheels of #metoo, Time’s Up and Pro Quote Film turning, making inroads into the A-list festival circuit, and that’s progress.

2019 was also the year in which an American independent filmmaker, with a strong European following, premiered her first feature as a writer-director – Knives and Skin – in the Berlinale’s Generation section. Outspoken feminist and professor Jennifer Reeder not only runs the Art Department in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but she is also the prolific director of 15 short films as well as the for-hire romantic comedy Signature Move (2017). I first came across her shorts in a mini-retrospective at the Viennale in 2013 and was instantly struck by their unique, quirky, shifting and unstable portrayals of women and teen and adolescent girls. Reeder’s films have a way of probing the intricacies of female experience for which mainstream, commercial films rarely take the time. She might elevate the girlhood games of physical sensation (e.g. writing on someone’s back) to a moment of narrative pleasure and erotic tension. She might pause on the awkwardness of an adult woman in the midst of the minutiae of household divorce negotiations. She might reveal a grown woman’s vulnerability before a group of teenage girls. In fact, her films constantly remind us that coming-of-age is a permanent state of evolution, that girls not only become women, but continue to haunt their grown selves, to live inside their adult minds and bodies. In Reeder’s films, girls and women are allowed to be uncertain, to fall apart, come undone, change their minds, and, as one enthusiastic girl in the audience pointed out, “to ooze”. No sugar and spice here. These full-range female characters are strong because they can stretch in all directions.

Knives and Skin (Jennifer Reeder, 2019)
Still by Christopher Rejano © Newcity Chicago Film Project

Knives and Skin takes up many of Reeder’s preoccupations from her shorts but reconfigures them in a story of a girl named Carolyn Harper whose body mysteriously disappears after an episode of making out, cut short. Poised somewhere between genre play and realism, the film is as hard to locate as Carolyn. Its eerie score, lighting scheme of blues, reds, greens and magenta, and the iconography of certain shots recall the horror genre. At other moments, the rural-suburban, Midwestern high school setting and prevalence of cheerleading uniforms, letterman jackets and goth punk fashion can evoke the classic teen comedies, dramas and TV shows of the 1980s. Other devices, such as Reeder’s sublime use of a cappella pop songs to underscore complex emotions, verge on the musical genre, a world post-Glee. And a film about and for young people is, as in Reeder’s other work, also, uncomfortably, yet beautifully, a film about and for adults. This formal and narrative disjointedness is precisely what gives Knives and Skin and Reeder’s films generally their particular flavour. It is Reeder’s method for opening the doors of representation and rendering visible the invisible.

On 13 February, 2019, I sat down with Jennifer Reeder to talk about her feminist filmmaking.

Such an important aspect of your films is the Midwestern setting. What was the community like, where you grew up in Ohio? Rural? Suburban?

I was sort of from neither. I was living in a normal middle-class neighbourhood but kind of on the edge of Ohio State’s campus [in Columbus]. The main campus drag was a destination in high school because it’s where all the record stores were. And the weird bookstores. And the vintage clothing stores. It was a location near my house that told me, “The world is much bigger than what you are experiencing.” But in Central Ohio, you drive ten minutes, and you’re in the middle of the countryside. So that robustly unremarkable, flat landscape, which I also find astonishing and so cinematic, was always at your back door.

Your films highlight adolescence and the teen years – not just the age itself, but the specific time period when you were young. What did it mean to be a teenager in that place in the 1980s? If we take away the Internet . . .

No cell phones, no Internet, no e-mail, etc. It was the Reagan era. Only when I look back as an adult, do I understand how that could have influenced culture and music and a kind of rebellion in what I was seeking out. In the books I was reading. In the music I was listening to. I grew up in a very liberal household. So unlike so many of the girls in my films, I wasn’t fighting with my mother on a daily basis. My mother was not a bed-ridden depressive. My father was not some detached dumbbell. It was actually a pretty normal, lovely household, and I was the youngest of five, who was also allowed to be as weird as I wanted to be. I grew up in a matriarchy. I was raised in a house with a lady boss and a feminist dad.

The music and films that I absorbed as a teenager were all fringe. And my friends were all doing fringe activities. We weren’t lawless. I mean, I was a ballet dancer and a good student. But a kind of lawlessness existed in music that wasn’t on the radio, literature that wasn’t being presented in school, films that were screening at the arthouse cinema on campus. Which is where I saw Blue Velvet (1986). That was a pretty life-changing moment. To see a film like that and realise that those stories were possible, that that world existed cinematically and otherwise. So much of that 1980s stuff gets injected into my films now. In Knives and Skin, all the songs the girls are singing come right out of my personal playlist in high school. I was more alternative, progressive pop than Dead Kennedys. And I ran around with packs of skater boys who consumed Fugazi, but I was just as interested in Siouxsie and the Banshees. And, slightly later, Bikini Kill became really important in early 1990s Third Wave Riot Grrrl feminism. But I was set up for that. It wasn’t a smack in the face. It’s what was pulling me in.

Today we take it for granted that young people can go on the Internet. If they don’t see what they need in their surroundings, they can just type a few words into Google and find it. And get the reinforcement of “Yeah, there are people like me out there.” It sounds like you and your friends were hungry. Like, ravenous.

Ravenously hungry. You did that analogue thing, where you’d make each other mixed tapes. And you’d stay up late to watch MTV’s 120 Minutes on Sunday night, which was two hours of amazing, alt, super-indie music videos. And you exchanged books. You got advice from the weird uncle living in California – what should I be reading? It was all word-of-mouth. So what now is Snapchat was kind of an analogue Snapchat then.

The Midwest can be so surprising, so unexpected in terms of the experiences it offers . . . It’s so weird when you live outside the U.S., and people are constantly asking what is going on in the Trump era. What this mess is that’s being made of the idea of America? These questions remind me of how difficult it is even for Americans outside the Midwest to grasp how diverse and complex it can be there. And then you go a step beyond that, to the perspective of another country, and everyone tends to rely on clichés of heartland homogeneity. So, it’s interesting that you both come from the Midwest and continue to work and set films there, infusing the place with nuance.

In Columbus, I went to a really diverse high school. So, I was surrounded by lots of friends of colour, and that’s important to how I cast now. I live outside Chicago, in Northwest Indiana, and it’s radically diverse. My white sons are the minority in their schools, which are densely African American and densely Latinx with a strong South Asian contingency. Whereas some of that 1980s punk movement has been criticised for its whiteness, some of that Third Wave Riot Grrrl feminism has been criticised for its whiteness and inclusivity, my high school in Central Ohio was really racially mixed. Fast-forward to my own films and also my own feminism, and it made me understand the importance of inclusivity and how language shifts around whom we talk about and how we talk about them. Race and class conversations are a spectrum, not this or that. What I have from my history is the knowledge that white privilege is a thing, that to be the most optimal human, especially in a creative world, is to risk that privilege or, at the very least, acknowledge it. In a film like Knives and Skin we never say what the proximity to Chicago is. It’s just a Midwest film.

Knives and Skin (Jennifer Reeder, 2019)
Still by Christopher Rejano © Newcity Chicago Film Project

Which evokes and inverts the Reagan era if you think about John Hughes.

Exactly. I wanted to make a rural-suburban film filled with young people of colour, so it’s not as though films for youth of colour are only urban films. Certainly, there’s despair and trauma in Knives and Skin, but it’s a different kind of despair and trauma. I didn’t want in any way to romanticise the violence and trauma that are associated so often with particularly young black men. I thought, “I’m going to have a young black male character who’s just utterly awesome.” Who’s deeply in love with the goth punk girl, who’s an athlete because he’s good at that, but who at the end of the day is the most ethical of anyone in the film. That was very purposeful. But, really, where I live in Northwest Indiana, like I said, it’s super diverse. And at the edge of where I live, where it gets super rural, are all of these black-owned farms. That’s not an anomaly. That’s what exists in the U.S.

Yet it’s not how the U.S. is imagined. It’s an invisible landscape when it comes to media representation.

Or think about states like North Carolina. The growth of chicken processing factories has attracted lots of Mexican immigrants to rural North Carolina. It’s not to say that there’s no tension in some of those areas – obviously – but I do think the entire landscape of places that are not either one of the coasts is shifting really radically, and to make a film like Knives and Skin and world premiere it in Berlin to an international audience that’s also thinking about what’s happening in the U.S. right now . . .

The fact that you deal with teenagers throughout your oeuvre really makes me think of the cauldron of being that age, when you’re trying to find yourself and find a path. How did your youth lead you to film?

I didn’t pick up a camera until I was a freshman in college. It was accidental. I had taken a sculpture course cause I was like, “Maybe I’ll do art.” I was like, “Maybe I can study art and philosophy and women’s studies.” I was trying lots of things on. Ohio State is a giant campus which is a Big Ten football school but also a really great research university with lots of interesting soft science areas. So I took a sculpture class that I failed out of. But the instructor said, “You have interesting moxie,” or whatever, and the next semester there was a performance art class being taught by this woman Linda Montano, a 1980s artist who did these durational performance pieces. She was coming to Ohio State for one semester as a visiting artist and doing a performance art class. We had to make videos, which was like recovering a phantom limb. It wasn’t film school. I was making film and video projects in the art school. I tried to hurry through undergrad and get my degree, so I could leave Ohio and become fully human. I was researching grad schools and saw that [Chicago’s] School of the Art Institute at that time, mid- to late 1990s, had a video department. And I heard about this place called the Video Databank, which was this distribution place for artist-made videotapes, and that was really like the second phantom limb. I was like, “I think I need to move to Chicago, I need to study at this place that’s all about videomaking, and I need to go to this place that’s dedicated to distributing artist-made videos.”

What were these first forays into filmmaking and feminism like for you?

I realised that feminist visual artists in the 1960s and 1970s and up through the 1980s did exactly what I did when they picked up the camera: they turned it around to themselves and played. And reinvented themselves against all other forms of media representation that were saying, “This is girlhood”, or “This is feminism”, or “This is what women do.” And it was interesting to feel that collective unconscious of what women do when they pick up the camera for the first time. It wasn’t that long after that that I was an educator, and it was miraculous to watch all these young women do an assignment to document “something”, It wasn’t even about self-portraiture or performance or self-exploration, but their instinct was also to turn the camera on themselves and determine their own image.

But prior to that, when I was in high school and even younger, starting at eight years-old, I was a ballet dancer. And, of course, in one of my early film history classes, I saw Maya Deren’s films. Somebody was like, “She was a dancer”, and I was like, “Well, then that’s it. This is my godmother.” And I still see a trajectory between dance and what I do. You think about the frame, about moving bodies through a frame. Editing always feels like choreography to me. I still cut to music. There’s something about music – the pacing feels more lyrical than maybe what conventional editing should be doing. Things drift. They move much more like a dance combination than something that one would have learned in conventional film school.

I am intrigued by the way you describe turning the camera on yourself because when I went to see a program of your short films at the Viennale six years ago, one of the things that made me feel really strange…

Like a bodily muscle twitch?

Like a twitch, like goosebumps . . . was the fact that I was seeing something I hadn’t seen elsewhere. I was seeing something that I could recognise from the experience of being female, but that I had never seen portrayed. When I made my own film, Rosehill, people in the audience had that same sort of reaction. Men in particular were amazed by the fact that I had made the travails of female anatomy into part of the plot. They were like, “I never would have thought of that.” Or women would say, “I’ve never seen friendship portrayed this way, but I know it.” I felt that same thing watching your films: “I know this.” I like to show my students a clip from your short I Will Rise If Only to Hold You Down, and I’ll be like, “What’s different about this?” We have what looks like a breakup between a husband and wife. We have two adolescent girls sharing an intimate moment of friendship with each other. “What is different about this?” And it’s hard for them to articulate the nuances of your storytelling. For me, it’s a moment of uncomfortable and revelatory juxtaposition: of an adult woman going through a divorce and her eleven or twelve year-old daughter playing games with her friend. Both mother and daughter on the cusp of complex feelings. Then the mother breaks into a space where she doesn’t really belong, trying to join the girls’ game . . . This is what you were talking about when you take the camera and turn it around on the female experience. I wonder about that impulse, that jump from turning the camera on yourself to turning the camera on your sex as a whole, this gender and gendering experience, this evolution of childhood into womanhood. In your films these two moments of female development are always adjacent to each other, touching each other.

I feel like I can access my adolescence pretty easily. I remember the first time I started my period. I remember when I started my period for the fourth time at school when I was wearing white pants. I remember having an argument with one of my female friends because she was going to go hang out with a boy instead of hanging out with us. As in Knives and Skin, when I was in high school, a substitute teacher was sending me love notes. One of the lifeguards at the pool, where I was on the swim team, called me and asked me out. He knew I was in high school. I wasn’t interested in dating anybody in high school, let alone 28 year-olds.

I experienced these moments of the female body deceiving you. And I experienced wanting intimacy but also knowing that I wasn’t ready for it. It took me a long time to become a sexual person. In retrospect all those awkward fumblings are exactly what adolescence can be and should be. And you take so much of that stuff into your adulthood. The deception of the body as a young person and later, as an adult, when the body deceives you again in something like childbirth, where you’re like, “Wow, I’m a monstrosity. I just pushed another human being out of my body.” How do you make a film that’s still a feminist film that talks about women’s agency and empowerment, but both exposes the female body and reinjects it with magic at the same time?

Knives and Skin (Jennifer Reeder, 2019)
Still by Christopher Rejano © Newcity Chicago Film Project

The adults in your films, particularly the women, all seem to share this layered connection to adolescence. They are the grown-ups in the room, but still don’t seem to have found their way.

 My parents were married until my dad died, but I had friends who would call me and say, “Can I spend the weekend at your house? My mom just found out that my dad was having an affair, and she kicked him out.” So I was also deeply aware that there were lots of adults around us who were fucking up and felt completely within their rights to indulge in their own desire to the detriment of their parenting. And then, being an adult and experiencing a divorce at some point and the nuances of that adult breakup and really feeling like, “Wow, those were weird things I did not expect . . . I’m going to keep that in mind for a script.” Because we are so peculiar, we human animals. And desire is very personal. Grief is very personal. How we cope and survive our daily lives is so abject, and we try so hard to repress all of that. And we especially try so hard to repress female bodies that I try to make films that are about all of that, coming just to the edge of it, so that I’m not alienating an audience. I think Knives and Skin comes the closest to being a full eruption because we have this dead girl, who refuses to disappear or rot. And we have a woman who has a simultaneous miscarriage and menstruation. On and on.

One of the situations in Knives and Skin that’s interesting is this almost mystical, spiritual bond between a mother and her missing daughter and the mother’s desire to touch her daughter’s things, wear her clothes, and get close to the boy that her daughter was last close to. There’s so much about wanting to feel or actually touch, grasp, or sense this child that once lived within her. There’s a fascinating mix of attraction and disgust in your adult characters. 

I wanted to present some women who were unethical. Especially mothers. There’s a woman who’s lying to her husband and children. There’s another one who is done with motherhood, whether or not she really has an electromagnetic sensitivity or whatever it is that’s keeping her in bed. It’s not that she’s so unethical, but she’s not rising to the challenge of her life. And, certainly, the grieving mother. I really wanted to portray the eccentricities of her grief. And make her coping have some questionable ethics also. I wanted to try to make a feminist film where there’s a dead girl and really unruly women. It doesn’t always happen in the shorts, but I can do this in a feature-length film: to suture up their narratives enough, so that they’re actually likable. And you have sympathy, maybe even empathy at the end of the day. I’m drawn to Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar (2002), which is really brilliant for how difficult that female character is, or Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016). You can’t quite access any of the women in that film. It’s astonishing.

And think about the opposite. Take any blockbuster, shoot-em-up, massive special effects movie with its paper-thin roles for women. There’s nothing to those female characters. They’re just parrots speaking lines. That’s the difficult thing. We know how complicated we are. We know how complicated our female friends are. Daughters, mothers, grandmothers. We know how complicated our and their stories are. It does feel extremely false to live in a world in which we accept so many underwritten female roles versus what you’re creating. It’s almost as if you have to produce an excess of female complication to make up for the general lack thereof.

That’s right. I recently watched Blade Runner 2049 (2017) because I was curious about the colour. And I know that when that came out, there were a lot off think pieces about the representation of women in that film. But I was astonished by how erotic all of those women were, and I don’t mean that in a complimentary way. They all die at the end, and they’re just these flat, foxy women. There’s nothing wrong with foxy women. They can be super-dimensional. I love the original Blade Runner (1982). All three of the main female characters in that are attractive women, but they’re fully written and have dimension. I was just raging on social media about Blade Runner 2049. Thankfully people raged back at me in a good way. We were all like, “Yeah, fuck that thing.” It’s a giant film, and to know that many, many people sat around, and no one said, “Excuse me. Let me just point something out.” There Will Be Blood (2007) I think has one woman. That irritates me. Fine, fuck it. If you’re going to make a film that’s really about the West and masculinity and that kind of journey, it’s fine. Maybe have no women. But if you’re going to have women, then please just do a little better.

Have them do something. Have them in there for a reason.

And we know that audiences are down with female content, you know? Year after year there are these films. Right now, both here and in the U.S., The Favourite (2018) is killing it. And that’s all girls all the time. It was directed by a guy. I love his films. He loves the weirdos. But I also want to see more women be offered those giant films that have female content. Or be offered films, where they’re writing their own content.

And I Will Rise If Only to Hold You Down (Jennifer Reeder, 2012)

Speaking of character depth, if you watch some of your shorts – And I Will Rise If Only to Hold You Down and A Million Miles Away (2014) come to mind – it seems as though you’ve been rehearsing elements of Knives and Skin for a long time. What was the process of that evolution from shorts to feature?

I will go back to make more shorts after this. I dearly love the short form because you can experiment with characters or with little narrative moments. It’s almost like a bodily tick in your brain, and you’re like, “I want to try that out.” You can make them fast, and you can make them cheap. My MFA thesis project White Trash Girl (1995) was nominated for a prize from ZDF in 1997 or something. So, I knew I had an audience. Maybe not in the States, but I had an audience of people who were down with what I had to say. And I had this life, making film and video projects in the art world for a while. And in the art world, like if you’re an abstract painter, there aren’t rules. You get to experiment and be instinctual. So early on, I realised, “Use your instincts, be artful, be experimental, try some things out. It’s okay to fail. Don’t invest all the time and money and worry into this thing. Do something, send it into the world, see if it sticks, keep moving on.” And fast-forward to And I Will Rise If Only to Hold You Down, which had a script and professional actors. I could experiment with having people sing at the end, with having some magical realism elements and emotional dialogue delivered in a deadpan way. I could figure some of that stuff out. And that film did really well both in the U.S. and overseas. So then you say, “There’s a response to this. It’s working.”

In A Million Miles Away, I wanted to make a film about an adult having a breakdown at the worst time. And I was thinking about a terrible time to break down. Like if you were a teacher, subbing for a class. But that wasn’t quite enough. There needed to be some motivation. What if it’s all girls in a choir class, singing? All that eventually made its way into a very specific script. But I made that film for $5000 that I had saved up from my university job. I made it on my own. Chris Rejano, who also shot Knives and Skin, shot it with his own camera, a little Canon 7D. We shot over the MLK holiday at the university where I teach with 22 actual high school girls, who could all sing. In 2014, that film premiered at Rotterdam, but then in 2015 it screened at Sundance. And people loved it. I didn’t expect that response. I’ve made films, where people are like, “Meh.” You take stock in that. Films are for an audience, and I don’t want to screen a film to no one. When people responded to all the weirdness in A Million Miles Away – the singing, her cat jumper eyes glowing, the dynamic between the adult and the teenage girls, the sexual specificity of what the adult is writing in her diary – then for sure I was like, “People dig all this stuff. I’m going to make a better snowman. I’m going to make it bigger and weirder and keep going.”

A Million Miles Away (Jennifer Reeder, 2015)

I was supposed to make Knives and Skin in 2016, but I got hired to make a film called Signature Move (2017), which I didn’t write. It was a very conventional romantic comedy. I’m super proud of it. But it’s a different kind of satisfaction. I knew where the laughs would fall, I knew who the audience would be. It’s not the same kind of abject, nuanced relationship with the world. Then I returned to Knives and Skin and tried to make a story that would be visually engaging but entertaining. I wanted people to really like it and want to consume it again. But I also wanted to see how weird I could get. In the scene when the girls are passing objects from their vaginas . . . I think that scene is a perfect example of where my interests lie now. Being able to talk about intimacy nonverbally. Talk about the particulars of desire, the precision of desire nonverbally. To make a scene that’s visually interesting and communicates something, that’s sexy and romantic, but also awkward and hard to access.

Knives and Skin was supposed to be made in 2016, but look what happened in 2017-18 with #metoo and Time’s Up. We’ve had ongoing discussions in the public sphere about misogyny, sexual harassment and assault and consent. This moment is ongoing. We’re still seeing the heads of one powerful man after another roll. Of course, this discussion is not new. And there’s so much reassessment of these issues from our own youth and young adulthood. Public ridicule of intelligent women back then – Anita Hill’s testimony comes to mind. It is seared into the memory of my younger self, the sense of how very wrong that was. I can’t imagine what young girls have experienced and taken in since the presidential election in 2016, followed by such a public reckoning and eruption of collective trauma. Knives and Skin is coming out in such a different moment of awareness. It has a lot of moments – such as the scene between the football player and the girl in the marching band – in which a girl suddenly says, “I changed my mind.” How did this political and cultural moment affect the film?

I don’t know any woman who hasn’t had multiple #metoo moments. I had been thinking about that for a while. Like, who was this character Carolyn Harper and how did she get gone and who was responsible. I wanted to make her sexual because women have sexuality. And I wanted her to have a moment that inspired a fall. And it occurred to me that maybe she should decide that she’s had enough, and the boy gets pissed. So many girls in my audience I’m sure have had a moment where they’re like, “I don’t think so,” and then a boy gets mad. Today in the Q&A, a young woman asked, “Is this a #metoo film?” And although I started writing it before, it absolutely is. So many moments in it are about consent and boundaries. I wanted to make a film with the trope of the horror thriller teen genre, where there’s a missing girl and still make it feminist. But I didn’t want her to be killed. It certainly isn’t the case that she goes missing because she wanted sex and then changed her mind. I don’t want that judgment to be in there at all. But I want that to be complicated. And I knew that that boy needed to be called out. We still live in a time in which women are not always able to say, “You can’t talk to me like that.” It even happens in my academic job in faculty meetings. Men talk over my female colleagues or over me. Now I am coincidentally the boss of the school, so I get to say, “You are done talking. You have talked enough at this meeting, and you have interrupted every single female at this table.” I have no problem calling that out at this point. I don’t make these films about female agency and female experience because I hate the guys. I don’t. And when that male character gets his jacket back, there’s hope that maybe he’ll stop and think about what he’s done.

And he’s got a little bloody, oozing scarlet letter on his face.

Exactly. That is not healing. I really wanted him to be marked by Carolyn. She still injects herself into the world when the other girls get that mysterious text message. I wanted Carolyn to be an icon, an emblem more than anything else. She’s also a ghost and kind of a zombie, willing herself back into the world. In my real life, I have three sons and talk to them all the time about consent. At the weirdest times, like when they’re brushing their teeth for school, and I’ve got them all trapped. And I’m like, “Don’t even look at a girl unless you know she wants you to look at her. Do you understand me?” And they’re like, “Yes, Mama.” But I’ve also said to them, “Don’t let anyone ever look at you if you don’t want to be looked at.” It can go both ways. As adult women, we still have a hard time saying, “No means no. Don’t talk to me like that.” And this happens to young girls constantly. Adolescence for girls in particular – and I try to put this in my films – is about simultaneously wanting to be the most visible person in the room and the most invisible person in the room. If you are experimenting with your sexuality and sexual desire, how do you do that in this #metoo era? Especially in the US, this moment tells girls how to not get raped but doesn’t tell boys not to rape girls (or boys).

In both your shorts and Knives and Skin there’s an element of girls experimenting with a queer identity. Is that for life? Is it a moment? Is it fluid? Going back to the Reagan 1980s, there was no discourse around gender fluidity among children and young people, compared to today. A child can be like this one day, like that another day. There’s space for it.

We become adults who don’t value intimacy in friendship. Before I was even a teenager, I remember being at sleepovers with my friends. And we would all share sleeping bags, and we’d all be sleeping on the floor together, curled around each other. Between takes when I was shooting A Million Miles Away, those girls just became big puppy piles. With no judgment. It was really just the loveliness of being close to your friends and having your squad. It was a safe environment. No one was wondering, “What’s going on with you two. You’re sitting on her lap.” It’s clearly much worse for young men who also need intimacy in those friendships. Oftentimes sports help. Because there can be a physical intimacy in sports that’s completely acceptable. But I also wanted to make a film where some of that exists, and it can exist in moments in the film that aren’t verbally explained.

One of the most profound elements in Knives and Skin is the a cappella singing – which comes a bit from A Million Miles Away. But the girls aren’t singing just anything. They’re singing songs from our childhood, our youth. These songs would be like oldies to them. You seem to enjoy collapsing historical time this way. The films are set in the present, but, musically, they’re infused with nostalgia for the 1980s. It’s like this vast, intergenerational, feminine continuum. But it’s also the songs you choose – the ones that used to play coast to coast on the radio.

Iconic 1980s pop songs.

You slow them down, remove the instrumentation, and the songs are suddenly reduced to their poetic lyrics. The moments when you use this device are interesting, e.g. when the two girls who are falling in love sing to each other in superimposition. I’ve never seen that before, but it’s a beautiful way to handle that situation narratively.

We cast girls who could all sing. Every time there’s been singing in a film, all those people could actually sing. Because I had had girls sing rearranged 1980s songs before, I knew it worked. People were really drawn to that. With the short films, I didn’t get permission. My punk rock roots were like, “Yeah, they can come after me.” With Knives and Skin, I knew we had to get publishing rights. So, we had to start planning which songs to use a year ago. And we got all of our first choices except a couple. We couldn’t get a hold of anyone from INXS. We couldn’t get Madonna’s people to respond at all because I wanted to use “Lucky Star”. We wanted to use a Smiths song, but they’re way too expensive for even publishing rights. But I feel great about the songs we have. I’m not saying that Katie Perry’s “Teenage Dream” wouldn’t be meaningful, slowed down. 1980s pop songs are my era, my injection of autobiography, but they’re also the era of the parents in the film. They take the place of some dialogue.

So, the first time we hear singing in this film, it’s the girls singing “Our Lips Are Sealed”, an infectious 1980s pop song. Slowed down with those beautiful choral voices, but with that cadre of girls singing towards that dissolving teacher, saying sort of, “We’re in solidarity with each other. Our lips are sealed. Our secrets are our own.” I wanted to start the film off with that, to let people know this was the direction we’re going in terms of how girls are represented, how quiet moments in the film are represented, how I want to offer moments that are transgressive, but also transcendent, and how I want to deal with music. I can’t sing, I’m not a musician. But I deeply appreciate music’s ability to just get into your spinal fluid. And pull you down further. Or pull you up.

In Knives and Skin, but also in your other films you both play with genre and resist its rules. For example, this film opens with the iconography of the horror film as the mother walks through her home with a knife in her hand . . . But that’s not necessarily the film we’re about to see. It’s as if you’d be selling out (or selling out your youthful protagonists) to really go down a specific genre path.

I love genre films. I love teen films. I actually really love thrillers and horrors. More like Suspiria (1977) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). I’m a feminist who has a very problematic relationship with Roman Polanski, but goddamn, he’s made some fucking good movies. I caught a moment of Rosemary’s Baby on cable: the end, when she walks into the other apartment and sees the baby for the first time. She’s walking like that. The camera is following her over her shoulder, and she’s just walking with this knife. I took a picture of it, sent it to my DP, and was like, “This is how we’re going to start the film. Let’s start it so horror.” And it doesn’t matter that it’s Rosemary’s Baby although I do think it’s interesting that it’s a mother who doesn’t even know yet that she’s getting ready to lose her child. But I wanted to start off in a way that has you thinking, “I get it. This is a horror film.” Or, “I get it. This is a musical.” But then it shifts.

A couple of years ago someone at the Berlinale said that he liked that my films don’t have any round edges. Even in a scene, things start out this way and then take a sharp turn. And then another sharp turn. I suppose this film has the potential to frustrate some people who say, “What is it?” But I also think it’s time for us to deal with the mashup. The film nudges towards all of those things.

This accomplishes at the level of genre what you’re trying to do with character. These characters are something other than what we assume.

That’s why I felt it was important to create this kind of fantastical world, to light it the way I did, use the music. It’s sort of to say, “Let’s not ground this in either reality-reality or even cinema reality, where I’m asking you to pick a lane. Let’s drift through this film together and let it sort of wash over you.”

I was impressed with the audience’s response. It seemed as though you really touched something in them. 

There were a ton of school kids at the screenings. And today I was swarmed by teen girls at the end. Like I had pulled something magical out of my vagina to give to them. It was like we were all in on a secret. Making a film that can be accessed by the public world but sends its own little secret messages to the audience and maybe even specifically to the women in the audience or the boys or men who need those messages, too. The response here at the Berlinale has been totally bananas.

Do you have a distribution plan for the U.S.?

The film has a U.S. sales agent and a foreign sales agent. What’s happening now is that the festivals are all asking to screen it. And the hard part is that I have to ask them to go through the sales agent and negotiate that. But I have a really good professional team around me. I was like, “Look. I’m a female director. This is a particular kind of film. I want you guys to send this thing out of the park. Let’s do everything we can for this film. But do not compromise my integrity. This is my film.” And so far, everybody’s been lovely. We’re working with WTF Films in Paris, and they love the film there. And CAA is selling it in the U.S. Same thing. They’re agents’ agents. They’re fast-talking, but they also get it. Their head of sales sang “Promises, Promises” to me on the phone, and I was like, “He gets it.” That also feels really good. I’ve done too many things in my life to decide, “Yeah, you take the film and do what you want with it.” It’s authored.

You’ve been extremely prolific in the past years with the shorts, and it seems like this feature is capping something and opening new doors.

I want to make more films. And I want to make my content. Offers have come in to direct other films I haven’t written, but I also feel like men get to make their own content. I want to make my own content.

Endnotes:

  1. See the festival’s own Gender Evaluation Report, 2019.
  2. See Pressekonferenz zum Programm der 69. Internationalen Filmfestspiele Berlin (29 January 2019.

About The Author

Brigitta Wagner is a film historian and filmmaker. She is the author of Berlin Replayed: Cinema and Urban Nostalgia in the Postwall Era and the director of Rosehill.

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