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03 July 2016

In the Spotlight… director Pratibha Parmar

Writer-director Pratibha Parmar, a former WFTV board member, is behind the forthcoming drama-documentary Fury & Tenderness. She tells Emma Morgan about crowdfunding, inclusion and the unseen Andrea Dworkin.

Your first feature, A Place of Rage, dealt with African-American women and civil rights, Warrior Marks is about female genital mutilation, Nina’s Heavenly Delights is a lesbian love story, Beauty in Truth is about Alice Walker and the controversies around her and now you’re making a film about arguably the most divisive feminist in living memory…
Any time in history that women have put themselves out there and pushed the envelope to make changes, they have been caught up in the firing line. Pioneering women, women who say things that, culturally, are not acceptable, that people don’t want to hear about or are taboo, are breaking ground. Alice Walker’s definitely done that and Andrea Dworkin absolutely has done that. And to a large extent, I seem to have done that with my work. Ultimately I’m interested in making films that in some way jolt people’s expectations and/or challenge their thinking.

On your website you say “Making independent films with social, political impact continues to be a challenge, especially for women filmmakers of colour”. Do you relish that challenge?
I don’t particularly relish the Herculean challenge of getting financing for my films. I came into filmmaking wanting to change things, to create representations of women and of people whose experiences weren’t seen in mainstream television or cinema. That’s never left me. It’s not always easy to get financial support, although I think things are changing, there’s much more awareness about women filmmakers and women’s voices. When I started out, there were very few women out there making films, very few women directors, but that didn’t stop me wanting to do it. My past involvement with Women in Film & TV was very much about wanting to create those opportunities and raise consciousness about why we need women’s voices in cinema. Can I just say, I don’t particularly care too much for the word ‘diversity’. It’s almost become a brand, a catch phrase without the necessary work that has to go into making it a reality. I prefer the word ‘inclusion’.

Pratibha Parmar on set with Amandla Stenberg in Los Angeles, March 2016 © Shaheen Haq

There tend to be more women filmmakers working in documentaries than narrative films – do you think that’s mainly down to the difficulties in finding funding, or is there more to it?
Documentary is not necessarily easier to get money for than narrative films, however in the not-too-distant past there was this archaic idea that women are not supposed to able to work with large crews or direct actors – thankfully that has and is changing. Documentary is something you can have more control over, you can pick up the camera yourself and go out with a very small crew and make a film, whereas with a narrative film the means of production are a whole different ballgame and you need far more finance. I do both fiction and documentary – the Andrea Dworkin film could be seen as a creative documentary or a more experimental narrative film. I’m interested in confounding boundaries between documentary and fiction. I’m doing dramatic vignettes that anchor the documentary elements, in a kind of a cinematic collage.

The original title for your Andrea Dworkin documentary was Intercourse, after her 1987 book, so does the new title of Fury & Tenderness indicate we’ll be seeing sides of Andrea Dworkin we don’t expect?

The original poster for Intercourse © Salon Pictures

The film came about when a couple of producers from Salon Pictures approached me with the idea. They had the title Intercourse. As the film developed I didn’t feel Intercourse captured the tone or the story telling approach I was interested in exploring. Then I read this wonderful quote from John Berger, where he says, “Most people get fed up with [Dworkin’s] polemics, which I can sort of understand, but she can be marvellous. She emerges as an intolerant castrating feminist, but in her fiction you can see that she is incredibly open, sensuous and tender. There’s a strange relationship between fury and devastating tenderness.” But this is also a working title and it could very well change again.
I met Andrea very briefly back in the ’90s, at Gloria Steinham’s house. Gloria was having a dinner for Alice Walker and me; we’d been touring with Warrior Marks and it had just screened in New York, so Gloria invited a group of women and Andrea was one of them. I was taken aback by Andrea’s softly spoken voice and her laughter. So it’s really interesting to me to explore what’s behind the popular representation of Andrea Dworkin and how does what she had to say and write about at that time speak to us now; does it have contemporary relevance? It absolutely does. And why was she so controversial? We would not be talking about ‘rape culture’ were it not for the work of Andrea Dworkin.

Fury & Tenderness is described as taking “a multi-layered visual, narrative approach” with actresses playing Andrea Dworkin “at different and pivotal stages of her life” in “‘expressive’ ‘non-naturalistic’ re-enactments”. Can you elaborate on that?
My storytelling approach comes from Andrea herself. Andrea had a pretty devastating, tragic life who experienced childhood sexual abuse, she was in love with a Dutch anarchist she married who became abusive, she was raped when she was working in the progressive anti-war movement. She used all of these experiences as fuel for her writing. She was a formidable writer, she was lyrical, she was a passionate campaigner. I only knew her from the representations in popular culture, the militant, dungaree-wearing feminist, so when I was approached by a couple of producers about this film I went and read quite a lot of Dworkin’s work and was completely blown away by it. It made me question my assumptions of who I thought Andrea Dworkin was.
I interviewed Susan Brownmiller who wrote Against our Will, one of the first books on rape, and she said she would see Andrea before she had to go on stage and she would be pacing and getting herself into this mode – it was quite performative, what she did. And you watch her, and she has this rhythm to how she speaks, her oratory is compelling. Who’s really the person behind that and why did she feel the need to have to do that? Andrea had a eating disorder. She made no concession to femininity, wore only overalls.
There are so many contradictory things that have been said about her –for instance “Andrea Dworkin is the greatest mind of all time”, “Andrea Dworkin is a lousy writer”, “Andrea Dworkin is a rapist”, “Andrea Dworkin is the Malcolm X of feminism”, “Andrea Dworkin is is a great pornographer”, “Andrea Dworkin is a maniac” etcetera… These frictions between different aspects and representations of her is what made me decision to work with scripted dramatic vignettes. These are not reconstructions but more an evocation of some emotional, formative moments capturing an ‘essence’ of who we might think she was. I am interested in going into the underbelly of the multiple perceptions of her using her writing as a guide.

Amandla Stenberg on set in Los Angeles, March 2016 © Shaheen Haq

Fury & Tenderness is your first film to focus on a white woman, yet the casting so far is of women of colour: Amandla Stenberg and Kalki Koechlin. Was that a deliberate choice, to perhaps emulate Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There and depict facets of her personality?
At the beginning of her memoir, Andrea uses this Rimbaud quote, “Je et un autre” – ‘I is another’. That, to me, was key: I am this, I am that, I am so many other Andreas. So that became my kicking-off point. Who was Andrea? I loved the boldness of Todd Haynes’ film on Bob Dylan but that was a purely narrative film whereas I am creating a more of a cinematic ‘collage’ of both drama and documentary elements. The ‘diverse’ casting comes from my default position to ensure that there are inclusive representations on the screen. Patriarchal violence against women is global, it happens to the female body in whatever shape, form, colour, age. Something like one in four African-American girls under the age of 14 have been sexually assaulted, so if people do ask ‘Why have you got a young black woman playing Andrea?’ that’s why; it gives us an opportunity to have these conversations. I am not doing reconstructions from Andrea’s life and no one is ‘playing’ her as such. My approach is to create more expressionistic moments in the film evoking for the audience an affinity with the experiences unfolding on screen.

You crowdfunded Beauty in Truth first; what lessons did you learn from that?
When we did the crowdfunding for the Alice Walker film, it was much more something that was part of the independent-filmmaking culture in the US. And because I have my feet in both camps [Pratibha is based in the UK and US, and is Associate Professor of Film at California College of Arts] I knew filmmakers in the US who were doing crowdfunding campaigns and been successful with it. And, given that Alice has this incredible support in in the US, that’s who we appealed to. But, hey, it’s not easy. It’s damn hard work. We were going to start off just trying to raise $25,000 then somebody said, ‘Oh no, it’s Alice Walker, you’ll raise $50,000 easily!’ And it wasn’t easy, we did it over a three-month period and I had a team of three other people who said they’d help and then, by the second week, they’d got other things to do, so I was left with it on my own. It was pretty much full-time and full-on, doing the outreach to different kinds of communities, raising awareness about the project… Crowdfunding is like that, you can’t just put the page up – how will people know about it? How do you drive the traffic to it? I did a whole seminar on crowdfunding after that experience!

Pratibha Parmar on set with Amandla Stenberg in Los Angeles, March 2016 © Shaheen Haq

This time around, your website says you’re filming “footage alongside archival materials and interviews… edited to create a sampler to enable further fundraising.”
This time we already had a small community of supporters so we didn’t go on a crowdfunding platform, we did it through our own database and it worked. Again, it wasn’t easy. We sent out a number newsletters explaining how difficult it is to get seed money to get a film kickstarted. We got a couple of larger donations and quite a lot of smaller donations and it enabled us to shoot and edit this first sample, with Amandla. I’m excited with what we’ve got, it’s really powerful, strong material and will act as a persuasive proof of concept for potential funders.
Two years ago, I was at the MeetMarket at Sheffield Doc/Fest and there was a lot of interest but people said, ‘Make sure you have A-list actresses, then we’ll definitely be onboard’ and ‘We need to see proof of concept, because what you’re doing here is bold, it’s creative, it doesn’t fit into easy categories or genres’. We may get A-list actresses, we’re in conversation with a couple – I can’t say who! – but also sales agents want to see something. It doesn’t matter how many years’ experience I have as a filmmaker who has won awards, every new film is starting from scratch. So that’s why we’ve created the first 15 minutes of the film, basically. Now we’re going to use this sample to go to the industry and get full financing for the production. Also we wouldn’t have got this far without the development support of the BFI and in particular Lizzie Francke, who ‘gets’ my vision for the film.

When asked how she’d like to be remembered, Andrea Dworkin told The Guardian, “In a museum, when male supremacy is dead. I’d like my work to be an anthropological artefact from an extinct, primitive society.” How do you think she’d feel about feminism today?
I think that toxic masculinity is globally on the rise, civil society somehow managed to contain some of that… actually, I’m not sure if it was a containment or if it was hidden, and now, because we have social media and because so many more people are willing to speak out about violence against women, it is much more out in the open. I hate to think how Andrea could have survived the internet, because she would have been even more crucified. She was vilified throughout her life. There’s a really interesting quote from her that I think sums up how she saw herself; she said, “You always need women who can walk into the room in the right way, talk in the right tone of voice, who have access to power. But you also need a bottom line.” I think she saw herself as one of those people who pushed from the bottom up, so the women who were walking through that door to power wouldn’t capitulate too easily. Andrea would perhaps be horrified by the many ways in which women’s bodies are under attack all over the world and that, rather than feminism becoming a thing of the past it is ever more pertinent than ever before.

Fury & Tenderness is in development with the BFI. The producer is Shaheen Haq of Kali Films, and the Executive Producers are Nick Taussig and Paul Van Carter of Salon Pictures.