After transitioning from dancer to director, JENNIFER REEDER found herself stranded in a sea of peers unlike herself. Jennifer is now a renown director of films on relationships, traumatic moments and coping.
Words by Chloe Casper
“I feel this might be a totally presumptuous and pretentious ambition,” admits Chicago-based writer and director Jennifer Reeder, “but I want my films to be special. I want them to be meaningful and impactful. I don't want to put something out there that's forgettable.”
With just a brief glance over Jennifer's body of work, it's safe to say she will never have to worry about being labeled “forgettable”. With a distinction brought about by a willingness to shift the spotlight onto those left typically in the background, Jennifer's filmography demonstrates an understanding that leads by example.
“As a freshman in college I took a class that involved making videos, and it was like recovering a phantom limb that I hadn't known I lost.” Though originally interested in dancing, Jennifer admits her relationship with film was love-at-first-sight.
“It was not that different to how I felt dancing. And I still feel, in a way, my position behind the camera is linked to choreography on some level,” she says. “I feel like I'm still sort of moving bodies through space; that it's connected to a sort of lyricism. The relationship between watching a character move back and forth in their life, and between the frame, to a certain piece of music is directly related to why I always loved dancing.”
After transitioning from dancer to director, Jennifer found herself stranded in a sea of peers unlike herself - a “clusters of boys making films about boys”.
“When they divvied up positions and made decisions about who would do what, oftentimes what was left for me was getting coffee or just standing around, which I absolutely refuse to do.”
Instead Jennifer went out on her own, learning to be her own one-woman crew. “I had a very small camera I could travel with and set up. I had local lighting. I could edit myself. It took out, for me, what was a real gender gap in film school.
“I was capable of doing everything myself, and I did everything myself. Even in the very beginning I had this system as a means to get my work done.”
This early exposure to the imbalances that exist both in front and behind the camera is something Jennifer has sought to remedy. Crystal Lake, one of her recent shorts, follows a group of young Muslim women. Instead of focusing on the supposed “otherness” of their culture, they're instead portrayed simply as a group of friends.
Her upcoming feature, Signature Move, takes this approach even further. “It's a romantic comedy about two women in a romantic relationship” she explains. “One is a Pakistani Muslim lesbian, and the other is a Mexican-American lesbian. It's a story that portrays two vibrant cultures, and feels like a really important story to tell.”
Jennifer doesn't exactly hide her dissatisfaction with both past and current portrayals of women in film, particularly those outside of the typical default of straight and white. Her decision to tell diverse stories, stories that centre on groups not necessarily represented as much as they should be, doesn't come from tokenism, but instead from a genuine understanding of the importance in seeing more variety in front of the camera.
“Where I live and the university where I teach both have a huge Muslim community. In particular, lots of hijabi girls,” she says. “They're very visible as Muslims but they're also wickedly intelligent, politically involved, and identify as feminists. They've grown up in the States. They're Americans who happen to be Muslim in a country that is deeply afraid of Muslims and very misunderstanding of Islam in general.”
For Jennifer, it's about making something relatable to those outside of the straight-white-male demographic. “It felt really important to make a film that a young Muslim girl, a young African-American girl, could watch and say. ‘that's me’."
“There are still so many trendy clusters of States based film makers who are replicating these schlubby 20 something guys from Brooklyn, with no jobs and hot girlfriends,” she explains. “This ridiculous portrayal of white men does not speak to me in any capacity. And if it doesn't speak to me as an adult white woman then it certainly does not speak to the people who are the main consumers of film: teenagers of all races and ethnicities.”
To make something that people can look at and see themselves reflected back is a feat many film makers have tried to achieve. But trying to make films that tell a story far from your own can be an off-putting tightrope walk to many wannabe storytellers.
With filmmakers and writers encouraged to write what they know, making something outside of our own experience is achievable Jennifer believes, by listening. “If someone who belongs to a community that is not my own culture says something is offensive, I listen to it. I do a lot of listening.”
However, she is keen to press to her students that there’s nothing wrong with making films that are a little closer to home. “It's okay to make films about who you are and where you came from, but if you want to break out of that, do your due diligence,” Jennifer explains. “When people get it wrong is when they base their whole film on their own closed assumptions.”
It's not just religious representations that Jennifer is keen to explore. Her short White Trash Girl was in part a response to a lack of discussion around white poverty and our assumptions surrounding poverty and race. “Often poverty is associated with non-white communities. This country is made up of a small amount of people who have a lot of power because of their wealth, and a larger middle class, but primarily an enormous lower class,” she says.
“This discrepancy, the class problem, is something that so many politicians don't want to talk about because often poverty is associated with non-white communities. The majority of very poor people in this country are white. So many things are based on race and not anything else. It's easy to blame our non-white communities for violence and poverty when that's just not the case.”
Jennifer suspects that the rise in a rhetoric that is quick to point the finger of blame at race-divides rather than class-divides is bred out of fear. “It's this fear of the loss of power,” she says. “The patriarchy is based on well defined straight-white-male power, and the idea that that hierarchy is being challenged by non-white people, by women, by people with disabilities, by gay people, is so terrifying to this group of people.”
The key to fighting this rhetoric, Jennifer believes, lies in both how we educate others and how we educate ourselves.
“I go back to this idea of listening. Branch out. Consider someone else. Being an inclusive human means considering other perspectives,” she explains. “It doesn't mean pushing your own onto someone else. That's what I would like to see, and I think that's what's happening a little bit at a time.”