These Girls Know Secret Things: An Interview with Jennifer Reeder

Apr 2, 2018 by Alison Kozberg on The Nickelodeon Blog
Crystal Lake (Reeder, 2016)

Crystal Lake (Reeder, 2016)

Jennifer Reeder is an award-winning American alternative filmmaker and artist who captures the intensity, magic, and secret life of women and teenagers. Like her protagonists, the films are as punk and irreverent as they are raw and vulnerable. Her recent films include A Million Miles Away (2014), Blood Below the Skin (2015), and Crystal Lake (2016). Her film Crystal Lake screens in May as part of Girls to the Front

AK: Many of your films, including Blood Below the Skin (2015), A Million Miles Away (2014), Crystal Lake (2016), and All Small Bodies (2017) are filled with close-ups of hands — fingers orange from Cheetos, chewed cuticles, bitten nails, smudged polish. What draws you to hands in this way? What do a character’s hands reveal?

JR: I like to get my camera close, to capture details that tell you a story nonverbally. I think about what can you find out about someone without just asking them “how are you doing,” to which they would probably just respond “I told you, I’m fine.” So many cinematic depictions of teenage girls make them more verbal than they actually are, such as Juno, in which the protagonist speaks with the voice of a 26 year old woman. These imperfect hands with chipped nail polish and bitten-back bloody cuticles tell us about the tenuous nature of adolescence, without the girl having to describe it outright, they speak to the fragility and fierce nature of the human body of a teenage girl. There’s also something that’s really telling about the resilience of the average teenage girl, and the changing nature of her, and the imperfection of her.

We live in a culture, in real life and cinematically, that portrays teenage girls as witless, non-menstruating, perfect specimens, which is a lot of pressure for anybody to take on, let alone a teenager, so these hands tell of the labor of adolescence.

AK: They are the most realistic hands I’ve seen on screen on any protagonist, regardless of age. Do you think they are telling a story about women generally and the reality of the work they do?

JR: Absolutely, they tell us about women’s bodies in general. Our bodies are a complicated road map of our lives, our stretch marks, our scars, I could go on and on. I was a ballet dancer — my feet are crazy; I have three children — the skin on my stomach, my human body, tells of the labor of womanhood, the labor of what it means to be a female human. We do so much to erase that authenticity, we put so much pressure on women and actresses.

AK: Your description of the intersection of the fragile and the fierce reminds me of the scene in A Million Miles Away when a teenager states “prom is for assholes” immediately before confessing that she would like to go to the prom herself. Your protagonists are conforming and rebelling at the same time.

JR: There is something really authentic about those flaws and those girls, they are awesome and radical. You want the manicure but you also bite your nails. In Blood Below the Skin, the lead actress truly did have her nails bitten to the quick and I built it into a narrative moment when she was able to take back that part of her body in a way that was really validating and empowering.

Blood Below the Skin (Reeder, 2015)

AK: Society prescribes specific behaviors and beauty ideals and also demands that meeting those ideals look effortless. Your films and videos, on the other hand, draw our attention to the labor, ambivalence, and challenges that often converge as women attempt to uphold the codes of beauty culture. How does exposing and acknowledging these complexities reflect your relationship to feminism?

JR: I have always been a card carrying feminist. Even as a kid, I never denied that feminism was a part of my life. I grew up in a matriarchy and it has really impacted the way I’ve lived my life and promoted myself and my friends.

In my feminism there is room for the radical separatists and for Say Yes to the Dress brides. I’ve found these complications to be very real for young women, both in my life and in my films. Perhaps they have never had role model who says you can be a punk girl and love makeup and the color pink, or a goth feminist who loves Pink (the entertainer). If you are reading magazines ranging from a zine to Seventeen magazine, they might be saying you can’t have it all at once and I hate that. I love the complications of what adolescence is, adolescence allows you to flip flop without being held accountable for something becoming your life philosophy.

We lose the ability to embrace a lot of things as we get older. The reason I try I put together adult and teen females, often in the same frame or the same emotional crisis, is that I really think that coming of age is a lifelong process. Feminism is an ever-evolving philosophy. I would hope that a young girl watching one of my films would feel like they authentically represent the complexity of her daily decisions. When I look at Crystal Lake, I love that a young Muslim teen could watch the film and think I am Hijabi and I love to skateboard, I am Hijabi and I love hip hop and wear studded hats. I want to portray a complicated version of contemporary feminism.

AK: Your work incorporates artifacts ranging from those generally understood as feminist, like Sassy magazine, to those with more complex and often troubling depictions of womanhood, like the films of John Hughes. How you do decide how to incorporate such artifacts from popular culture into your work? How do they influence your feminism?

JR: I’ve always been really interested in the narrative potential of props and wardrobe. Props matter, wardrobe matters, set design matters. They introduce information about the characters. You can create a world that doesn’t exist. I never want to miss an opportunity to inject some of my autobiographical feminist history into a film, like Sassy, which is no longer in publication. It’s not necessarily realistic that the protagonist of Crystal Lake, a 14-year-old living in the suburbs of Chicago, would pack all of her Sassy magazines, vinyl records, and VHS tapes onto a suitcase. That’s a little bit about me creating a world that represents a feminist, Riot Grrrl history.  In A Million Miles Away she is reading Backlash (Susan Faludi, 1991). It might be unrealistic, but a girl watching the film might say “What’s Backlash? I’m going to look that up.” In Blood Below the Skin one of the the girls is reading Dawn, by Octavia Butler, and I would love for people who watch the film to look that up and learn a little bit of feminist history. Another girl is making her own college sweatshirts that say Smith, Spelman, and Bryn Mawr. I like to imagine a girl who watches this film and is thinking “How do I get out of this shitty town?” and ends up applying to Sarah Lawrence.  

AK: It sounds like your films are intended as gifts for teenage girls and are filled with treasures that can help them change their lives. Do you feel as if you can still access your teenage perspective?

JR: The films all have a nugget of autobiography, though it might no longer be recognizable when it reaches the screen. I still feel like I can call up some of the elation or disappointment or confusion that I felt when I was a teenage girl over family or love or jobs or school. As an adult I get to make films that are gifts for teenagers. I’m also able to work with teenagers who are having all these real life experiences with their boyfriends, families, work, school, and college. I hope they are transformed by the experience of being in one of my films. My work comes from from being an adult woman who has lived as a teenager, an adult woman that still feels really close to adolescence.

AK: There is that great moment in A Million Miles Away when the music teacher says “These girls know secret things.” Do you think there is something you knew as a teenager that you don’t know anymore?

JR: Yes, I do. Though, it’s as if they are still secrets to my teenage self. I 100% know that I had internal power as a teenage girl with those secrets or because of those secrets that I’ve definitely lost as an adult and a professor and a mother. I have all of these responsibilities that make my life very full but have also buried the secrets I had as a teenager. Working with teenagers I can see it — these girls know things.  They know that they have secrets but don’t know that the secrets are powerful and don’t know that they have agency. This culture loves young people but also likes to take power away from them. There is a feeling of the power of having secrets but not feeling like those secrets give you agency. The line “these girls know secrets things, like what to do with your mouth when you’re fighting your way out,” it’s the sense of being an adolescent girl and being in the fight of your life everyday and having a superhero weapon that changes every 60 seconds.  You have a weapon but aren’t sure how to access it, and you sort of lose it as you get older. On the one hand, I am so grateful I’m not a teenager anymore but there are parts of me that are envious of that eternal combustion that is housed within the teenage body. 

A Million Miles Away (Reeder, 2014)

AK: It’s interesting to hear you talk about adulthood and being a professor. In some ways I think teenage life is more intimate — confined within smaller spaces and defined by more intimate relationships between peers. When I think about what I have lost, it’s the emotions associated with friendship being all-encompassing. I believe that female friendships are the great love story of adolescence, for girls.

JR: It’s really true, we would have a sleepover every weekend, every moment that we could. We would share sleeping bags, it was physically intimate, not sexually, and we deeply valued all of that intimacy and the idea that you could have a screaming fight with someone but when their mom asked if you needed to leave you would say ”no, of course not!” You were allowed to have intimacy. Now if I were to walk into a classroom when I was having a hard day and emotionally explode, like I did when I was a teenager, I would have someone to answer to. So that’s part of the secret of the teenage girl. While making A Million Miles Away we had 20 girls on set and over the course of three days they all got really close to each other, there just wasn’t a moment of mean girl tension, which was amazing. As the director I wasn’t part of it, but I thought, Wow, I don’t really have that anymore — where is that? Who do I rely on like that? Female friendship as survival strategy is a huge part of my films.

AK: What role does music play in the films?

JR: It’s an extension of props and set design and is also a way to introduce autobiography. Much of the music is really from the 1980s, which is when I was a teenager. It’s pop music, but it’s still really well written and there is pathos and infectious beat. For me, and for a lot of teenagers, music is your religion. When you feel totally misunderstood you can go into your room and Patti Smith gets you or Siouxsie Sioux is your high priestess, or Morrissey, or Madonna. That music and the transcendent, transformative properties of listening to your favorite song over and over again is really meaningful. Music is something that has pulled a lot of teenagers including myself through really hard times. Sometimes it starts off in a diegetic way, but then it becomes something else.

AK: You have cited After School Special as an important influence for your work. Do you consider the after school special a genre with certain unifying characteristics. Are there specific after school specials that made an impression on you?

JR: It’s a genre of weird short films that were made to be broadcast on television and were intended to be lessons in adolescence — how to navigate romance or a problem with your parents.  They weren’t supposed to be hip, they were supposed to be educational, and there is something that is so awkward about them. Their producers must have thought: “This is great, this is actually what teenage girls need.” Maybe we watched them the way I now watch a made-for-TV movie on Lifetime, out of curiosity, and wonder Is this supposed to be for me?

AK: The made-for-TV movie that made the biggest impression on me was For the Love of Nancy, both because it screened on television and because it enjoyed regular circulation through America’s health classes. It is about anorexia and Tracey Gold was really in recovery for an eating disorder when it was made. I remember it really clearly but I am also troubled by it because I felt it made a spectacle of her body and trauma. I wonder how you navigate depicting trauma and injury in your own work?

JR: So many teenage girls — myself, so many of my friends, and now the teen daughters of friends of mine, and the girls in my films — do experience some really unbearable but everyday trauma, from parental abuse, to sexual assault, to eating disorders, to nasty divorces, to poverty.  I was a ballet dancer and I was anorexic for many years in high school. There were multiple much-older-men in my life who crossed boundaries with me. I had a student teacher in my high school who used to write me explicit love poetry and would hand it back with my homework. In high school I was not interested in anyone, let alone a 27 year old student teacher. Looking back, I had this secret that I didn’t tell anyone and I wonder “Who the fuck did he think he was, trying to bring me at 16 or 17 into his desires? What did he think was going to happen?”

Teenage girls are so often the victims of adults who have no interest in respecting boundaries. That’s trauma. We live in a world that says “You should be glad, you’re a cute girl, he’s flirting with you,” and parents can break up in vicious ways in front of children.

The amount of young women who have endured sexual assault is staggering. I don’t want my films to be triggering but I want them to say  “This shouldn’t be part of what you deal with. It’s fucked up and it’s called trauma. You might not be able to deal with it now, you might deal with it 20 years from now, but it’s real and it shouldn’t be part of your adolescent experience.”

Crystal Lake (Reeder, 2016)

AK: I’m reminded of the moment in Crystal Lake when Samiyah tells Ladan, who is mourning the death of her mother, “You’re not invisible, I see you, I will always see you, you are a stain, a deep, dark girl-shaped stain, and you won’t ever disappear.” It’s an acknowledgement of trauma and refusal of erasure that is a very powerful expression of love for young women.

JR: This often comes across to people who respond to these films or program these films. It’s important to acknowledge all of your flaws, all the ways that you have fought your way out of this are what make you un-fuck-with-able, there is an inherent fierceness to any young girl, any female, anybody who was survived adolescence. There is certainly another set of weird conditions for boys. But, we live in a culture that so often still does not give a shit about women and doesn’t believe women. That’s something that I can feel as an adult, that for every good secret a teenage girl is keeping there’s another really hard secret that she’s dealing with. We also carry those with us as adult women. There are lots of secrets that adult women carry, that make up a woman shaped stain.

AK: You created a list of your Top Ten films for the Criterion Collection that includes Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and Agnés Varda’s Vagabond, describing both Jeanne and Mona as “unruly women.” What does “unruly woman” mean to you? What rules are these women subverting?

JR: In real life and in fiction, I deeply appreciate an unruly woman. A woman who lives and thrives on her own terms and whose own internal power is lawless, feral even. Sometimes these women are called bitches which of course is just a way to dismiss their inherent agency. Our culture dislikes actual difficult (unruly) women which is one of many reasons HRC did not win the election (in my opinion). However, we love films about these women but only if said film is directed by a man. I love Jeanne Dielman and Vagabond and other films like Morvern Callar or Winter’s Bone so much because they are a female take on the complicated woman.

AK: You are currently shooting a feature film, As With Knives and Skin. Can you tell me a bit about it?

JR: It’s a script I’ve been working on for three years. Part of A Million Miles Away and Blood Below the Skin came out of writing exercises that turned into this script; it’s directly related thematically to both of those films. It has some Twin Peaks-like elements: there is a girl who goes missing at the beginning of the story who turns a small town upside down, but that fissure allows secrets to be revealed among the adults. The adults in Blood Below the Skin and A Million Miles Away are big time mistake-makers. The adults in As With Knives and Skin are reenacting some of the things they did as teenagers. There are two adults who were sweethearts in high school who are having an affair again, and it’s having ripple effects through the lives of teenagers, but it also brings together three girls who are from three different social cliques. In the film, female friendships and the relationships between friends and their mothers are the ones that survive. We are shooting this summer and currently getting the music rights — there are a lot of awesome songs in the film. I’m excited to bring all of the stuff we are talking about too a much wider audience who will feel,  “I have agency because I have secrets, I have agency because I have my girl squad.”

AK: Are there ways that women across industries can continue to work collectively?

JR: Well, on the one hand I would say there have always been networks of women across cultures and educations who have supported each other, who have built each other up, who have circumvented the system. It’s exhausting, but I feel this has always been happening and is still happening, and it’s not just directly aligned with American Western feminism. I hope the paradigm is shifting, but optimism alone is not a plan. The odds are against so many women, but they continue to make films. It’s an uphill walk both ways in bare feet. But then, I was listening to Michelle Obama talk about what her portrait will mean for another young girl of color who walks through the National Portrait Gallery and sees Michelle Obama, and knows the portrait was painted by a Black woman. Those are the moments that keep you going.