Jennifer Hardacker

UNEDITED INTERVIEW WITH JENNIFER HARDACKER

Can you talk a bit about your background and what led you to filmmaking?

I grew up in an Indiana rust-belt town. I remember being in grade school and hearing my and my friend’s parents talk a lot about the lay-offs at the steel mills and how hard everything was. My dad left the steel mills to become a firefighter and my mom drove a school bus. My mom was fond of telling me that I should “do something with my life” and that was an ever-present mantra in my head. The city I grew up in was pretty depressing to me because it was rather poor and also artless, and so I always had an idea that whatever it was that I do with my life would not involve living in my hometown. I had day-dreams of New York City and being around “artists.” I think at that time, I didn’t even know what an “artist” did! When I was in High School, I was focused on creative writing and then when I was 15, I saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and that made me want to be a filmmaker. Specifically, it was the shot in the opening sequence in which he leads you down into the orifice of that moldy, severed, ant riddled ear that convinced me of the possibilities of cinema to show something beyond what I was seeing at the multi-plex. But also, I realized that as much as I love words, I’m more interested in visual storytelling.

Can you talk about a moment, a film, a screening that really inspired you to become a filmmaker?

See above, though it wasn’t really until graduate school that I was fully exposed to the breadth of the kind of filmmaking that there is, or found that my particular interest in filmmaking is the experimental mode. In particular, the films of Su Friedrich greatly impacted me. A good many of my films are in some way trying to capture something of the power that I see in Su’s Sink or Swim. Specifically, I am drawn to the way that the individual parts are such specific stories, but the sum of the film as a whole is SO BIG.

What is the genesis of Winged?

The genesis for Winged was the Horoscope that is quoted in the film and what that horoscope spoke to in me at that time. I really liked the imagery of the “broken wings and artificial flowers” line—very filmic! So that is where the kernel of the bird imagery comes from. I often do “research” as part of my process, and I did some cursory research into bird symbols in various cultures and religions. It’s probably not surprising how many cultures have birds as symbols for motherhood, childhood (more specifically—states of innocence or fragility), or rebirth. While I didn’t specifically look to replicate the particular bird iconography from these cultures, it became part of my thinking when I was shooting the film.

What were some of the film’s influences?

I saw Sigur Ros’s music video for “Glosoli” around the time I was doing my bird symbol research. The video features these beautiful Icelandic kids running around on really beautiful Icelandic landscape. At the end of the video the kids jump off of a cliff and soar across the sea. I like music videos that feel more like mini-films like this one, and this one was particularly cinematic and lush, but at the same time, really produced and a bit too slick and commercial. But the influence is in the portrayal of the children who are so ethereal and strong at the same time. Also, Winged follows my previous film The Nightgardener in which I had used video projection to overlay ethnographic images onto flowers and foliage in a very suburban garden. With that, I tried to conjure a tension between what is natural and what is cultivated, what is “global” and what is “domestic”. In Winged, I again turned to the use of video projection, because I like the way the image integrates with the textures and curvatures of the space in which you project the image (as opposed to using some kind of post-effect to combine the images) but I also returned to the idea of bringing images of nature into the confines of our domestic space.

Can you elaborate on the process of making Winged? How important is the process to you?

The process is very important. I barely know what I’m making when I start something. I usually have a few strong images in mind and then through trial and error, dwelling, re-thinking, (interspersed with some crying!) I get the rest. For this project, I had the image of the boys with wings. I like tactile crafts quite a bit and am always excited when I can bring that into my filmmaking. So, the making of the wings was a really enjoyable part of the process for me. I like working at things slowly, but steadily. I like feeling connected to what I’m doing, but not totally immersed (until editing) because then I sometimes get overwhelmed or mired. It’s important to have time to look at it with some distance. In editing, I would love to be able to work for long stretches without interruption. I find flow when I’m editing. Alas, long stretches of uninterrupted time are not easily come by at this point in my life! I like reworking things in editing, and for that feedback is so important.

I know the metaphor of the process as a journey is overdone, but it is so only so overdone because it so apt. It’s so important to take detours, etc. There are a great many associations that get made along the way that are wonderful and surprising. For example, the projection of the text was staged in bird sanctuaries, and that choice was made because, of course, there was a good possibility that there would be birds there, but I also became enamored of the word “sanctuary” and it’s implications for the subtext of the film. There’s a good chance that nobody who watches the film will catch on to that connection, but for me it’s part of the fiber of the film.

Can you contextualize Winged in relationship to your body of work overall. Does this film relate to themes that you typically explore or is this film a departure?

I often work from a subjective point of view. This is the 3rd film I’ve made that heavily features my children. I am fond of saying that cinema is a unique medium through which we can communicate our shared experiences. My subjective point of view is always with a mind that my experiences are my experiences, but that they are not wholly unique or isolated and that I hope that folks will find a place to see their experiences reflected in my “personal” films. With my previous films, the most gratified that I feel about the finished product is if after a screening, someone wants to share with me their experience that was similar to what the film was about. In the case of Winged, I’m sure every parent has had a moment of doubt that they are strong enough to be everything they hope to be for their children, and I hope Winged offers a moment of reflection and comfort that they’re not alone in this feeling.

How does your point of view as a mother and a woman inform your filmmaking? (Some women have felt that if they were to be taken seriously as filmmakers they had to be “closeted” mothers or choose between the two. Is that something you have encountered?)

A few years ago, I made a film, For Summers to Come. My oldest son was then only one-years-old and I was thinking of the home movies I have of me as a kid and how much they have created my memories—I don’t have any real memories, just the documentation of the home movies. I tried to make a film that drew attention to the manufacture of these kinds of images. I remember screening if for some students of mine, and their reaction was, “Oh, your son will really appreciate that when he’s older.” I think they didn’t see the film as being anything more than a home movie (the very thing I was trying to deconstruct!) This was not the general reaction to the film, but still, this idea that if I made a film with my kid in it, that it might be diminished to the realm of “home movie” stuck with me. In some ways, that made me want to foreground this particular aspect of my subjective experience even more! I love contemporary experimental film, but I am a little dismayed at the way that irony reins supreme in the films that I see at many festivals—irony is cool. Being a mom doesn’t really win you any cool points, though I do think that is changing. There are lots of high profile rock and roll moms. I think we’re slowly eating away at the image of the personality-less mom, with no sense of self. But I don’t think that irony will teach my kids anything real about life or what it is to be a good person. Consequently, I am dedicated to be NON-ironical in my work.

Does your role as a filmmaker inform how you see yourself as a mother?

I think being a filmmaker and a teacher and a mom and a partner makes me think a lot about balance. On my worst days, I think I’m failing at everything because I’ve got too much to juggle. On my better days, I think that I am lucky to have all of these roles and challenges that I incorporate into my sense of self. Because there is always so much going on, I think it’s important to choose your battles: I choose a day at the beach with the kids over stressing out if there room is clean or not. It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of choosing battles—I catch myself expending too much energy on some no-win battle or another. It’s a constant learning process—in life as in filmmaking, it’s all about process.

Did you have reservations about including your kids in the project? Can you share a story about the process of working with your kids?

The desire to not have filmmaking be one more thing that takes away time spent with my kids does factor into thinking about projects that includes them. I didn’t worry that I would be exploiting them, so long as they were enjoying the process of making it with me. And therein lies the perils! In making Winged, the boys were very excited about wearing the wings and running around on the beach pretending to be birds. That was a wonderful day for us! But as the film progressed, they were less and less happy with me staging them. At one point, I had to bribe them to wear the wings. Dealing with that becomes part of the process—I realized they weren’t going to enjoy wearing the wings anymore, so I decided that the film would show a kind of progression—wings in the beginning of the film, and then they would no longer be little birds, but rather little boys without wings—and I was able to stage them less towards the end of the film—just took footage of them without disrupting what it was they were doing.

How do you balance teaching, making films, your family, life, etc? Can you share a day in your life doing this balancing act?

The balancing act becomes easier as the boys get older and more self-sufficient. I realize that I often take this self-sufficiency for granted and then I’m guilt ridden about how many hours of video gaming goes on in my house. I filmed The Nightgardener, my youngest was just born, and I filmed at night after he’d gone to bed. That’s the kind of balancing that goes on for me: the need to balance everything goes into the decisions I make about the methodology and content of the films I make: how can I make a film, enjoy the process, and not feel like I’ve done it at the expense of my other duties as a mother and an educator.

We have shared the rationale behind putting together the Kid on Hip program. Do you have any thoughts on being included in this group of films as a screening program?

As one of the curators of this program, I’m very thankful to be included with these other filmmakers. When Enie and I began discussing the potential to do this, I really wanted to see the work of other women who look at their domestic lives, but I also wanted to hear their thoughts about how they see their films being received. I am likewise excited to see how this program is received and to be a part of generating discussions about domesticity and feminism and art. 

How important do you think a subjective mode of storytelling is in media education? How do you use subjective storytelling in your teaching?

I aim to inspire my students to connect and recognize the themes that are important to them and begin to understand that the stronger connection they have to the stories that they tell in their films, the stronger the connections the film makes with its audience will be.

I like to tell my students the story of Francis Ford Coppola agreeing to make the moving The Godfather. The legend goes that initially, he thought Puzo’s novel was a bit too pulpy, but then he realized that many of the characters reminded him of his family and family’s friends. And he realized the power of the story of the son that wants both to be his own man and wants his father’s recognition, and Coppola saw in that story his own story. And then I point out that there are hundreds of mafia genre films, but only a few, such as a The Godfather that become classics. While this is not subjective storytelling per se, I stress that it is the personal connection that we can make to a story that is what we will use to connect to audiences. I find that the traditionally aged college students have consumed A LOT of film, TV, video games and so on, and they can do a great job of imitating what they’ve seen (and that’s an important step in learning, too). Asking them to make subjective work is asking them to strip away the imitative (as much as possible) and be true to their story, and explore the way to find the style and technique to best realize their story.

What are the important messages to convey to women filmmaking students?

I want my women students to know that they can be leaders and that they shouldn’t always be the ones to compromise. I also discourage the notion that they can’t become technical! Every filmmaker should understand the basic concept of how a camera works, and how the technical is intrinsically related to the aesthetic.

Does your point of view as woman and mother affect the way they you see your work in relationship to technology?

The way I see my work in relationship to technology is affected by my point of view as a mother as part of the balancing act as I mentioned before—I sometimes am choosing my technology based on what will fit best in with the rest of my life. Winged also began as a project to become better equated with AfterEffects, which was necessary at the time because I was going to teach it in a class for the first time (in the end, there is only a tiny, tiny moment in the film that uses what I’d begun in AfterEffects). Another example is in making my film, For Summers to Come, I used a toy camera, in part because it was portable enough for me to carry on walks and hikes and so on, with my 1 year old in a sling (on my hip!).

I do think sometimes about the process of filmmaking and the tradition of handcrafts among women. I think about those women two hundred years ago that patched together beautiful, intricate quilts by hand. They probably worked in the evenings after the kids went to bed. I hope that they found some creative expression in their work. I’ve always approached filmmaking as a kind of patchwork, with a lot of disparate elements and multiple technologies, and I feel like I’m stitching together frames to make something bigger. Winged has video projection, 16mm, rotoscoping, and digital animation.

Do you think there is a relationship between choice of technology and development of concept? Can you explain the relationship between technology and concept in Winged?

Absolutely there is a relationship between choice of technology and development of concept, and I ask my students to dwell on what they make of that relationship. I don’t think you can tell any story with just any style or technology, but one doesn’t necessarily decide the other. It’s up to the filmmaker to explore how the concept and technology work together and get the most out of both. Winged was an interesting film to make in this regard, because it did start out as an exercise. I actually took a class in AfterEffects and needed to produce a final project for that class. It was brilliant to be in that role again! To have to make a project in a short amount of time and also to have the technology (AfterEffects) be the dictate and then trying to find the concept that I could best work with in that confines. In the end, I turned in a version for the class, but the film as it is now has no resemblance to what it was that I’d turned in, and in part because in the process of making Winged I realized that the concept did not in fact fit that particular technology.

I have had some feedback to the effect that folks see a nostalgic element to Winged and I think that is evoked in the 16mm footage because it is contrasted to the video footage. That was a conscious decision. I knew going through our family transition that it was rough at the time, but that in retrospect, we would be able to recognize the beauty of that time in our life, that we would recognize it as a new beginning.

How do the different changes in technology expand or contract the storytelling possibilities? Can you give an example of how changes in technologies have changed the way you approach telling the story you want to tell?

I’m not sure that the changes in technology expand or contract the storytelling possibilities per se, but I think it encourages expansive thinking: How can I adopt this new technology and make it work for me? It’s part of the same challenge as deciding how the concept and technology work together and how to get the most out of both. I used an optical printer to make my earliest films and I was comfortable with that tool as a mode of making my patchwork films: combining different formats of film, overlaying images, and so on. My first reaction when I moved to more digital realms was to try to replicate that mode of filmmaking using Avid or FCP. I found the results to be unsatisfying! And so I have slowly adapted to finding the way to make my patchwork films work in this mode of technology. It’s been a very trail and error process. But thank goodness for that push that adapting to new technologies gives us, or else I might still be comfortably making optically printed films and not growing as an artist.

In your opinion, are there particular approaches to filmmaking that academia does not value as highly? How do you think this way of thinking affects approaches to media education?

I think “academia” means different things at different institutions and what those different academic institutions value varies. I will go out on a limb and say that what academia values is recognition, so regardless of what approaches a practicing artist/educator uses, it’s only important that they can prove that their work is regarded in their field. This way of thinking emphasizes the final product over the process. I think that this mentality does trickle down to the students: the program will be held in higher regard at the institution if the student work is generating attention and the final product matters more than the process. This is certainly detrimental to students trying new things and taking risks.

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