Jeanie Finlay is a British artist and filmmaker who creates intimate, funny and personal documentary films and artworks. Her focus is on creating compelling portraits and is obsessed with telling other people’s stories. Her work is known for its innovative approach to engaging with audiences in meaningful ways. Her documentaries includes Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, The Great Hip Hop Hoax, Sound It Out, Goth Cruise and Teenland. (Photo by Jo Irvine.)
I wanted to make documentaries because I knew I wanted to tell stories. I thought, “This is another way of being a writer without having to imagine.”
In 2012 I received a fan letter of sorts out of the blue: “Dear Jeanie, you don’t know me but I watched your film Sound It Out and I loved it. I’ve already watched it twice and can’t wait to watch it again – Kim.” I read this and was, honestly, a bit gobsmacked. The note was from Kim Longinotto, great unsung hero of British documentary, director of 17 features including incredible films such as Salma, Sisters in Law, Love is All and last year’s Dreamcatcher.
We met in person not long after at one of those strange “women in film” events that female directors get invited to from time to time (this one was in a bank vault) and hit it off immediately. We may be at different stages in our careers – I have made just six features to her 17 – but we share a sensibility, an approach to working with people and a bemusement with the baggage and whirlwind of discussions around being a female director. In 2014, I accompanied Kim as her guest to IDFA when she selected Sound It Out to screen at the festival as part of its “The Female Gaze” strand.
Kim’s films are often devastating and have the ability to reach into your chest and pull directly at your heart, not through sentimentality or unearned emotion but through visceral connection to an unfolding human story. The opposite of “fly on the wall,” Kim acts as a witness to the stories she records and the finished films, although not made with the intention of “doing good” as many socially engaged films are, often act as a catalyst for action.
I met up with Kim recently to talk to her about her approach to making work, her habit of sending fan letters to creative strangers and about what I believe is her finest film, Dreamcatcher.
Tell me about what you get from filmmaking that you don’t get from anything else in your life. What does it mean to you to make films?
When I left university, I was friends with Nick Broomfield and he said, “Why don’t you apply for film school?” When I got into the National Film and Television School, it was a defining thing that changed everything for me. I had been lost – I was just somebody that couldn’t function very well and I had ended up living on the streets. I had made a mess of my life, I had a child. But when I went to film school, I was able to start again.
My first film at NFTS was Pride of Place, which was about the boarding school I went to. It was a revenge film. It was great to be able to make that film and discover some very deep truths. And that’s what I get out of filmmaking, Jeanie. I learned so much and it helped me so much.
When I think about films I made years ago, part of me feels, “They’re done,” and “That’s a record of me at that time exploring that idea.” I have to let them go, but partly I think, “Oh, I could have asked this…” or “I would do this now, because I know to trust myself more.” Has your practice shifted as you’ve learned more?
I watch these old films very occasionally and I think, “I haven’t changed how I made them at all.” They’re all very much obsessed with authority, with people changing, transformation and outcasts becoming rebels. I feel I am probably still an outcast, but I ally myself with the rebels who are strong.
People often say, “All your films are about women” and I disappoint them terribly because I say, “Well, if men were shot in the head for going to school or if men were locked up at puberty or if men were forced to marry 60-year-olds, then I would be filming men.”
I see it as a power thing. My absolute everything has to do with the underdog. My films are all about underdogs.
Can you tell me about what role gender plays in your work? I was interviewed at IDFA last year by a filmmaker who is obsessed with the idea that I will point my camera and frame shots in a certain way because of my gender.
It’s called the “female gaze.”
Yes, and I disagree with it. It’s like saying all women will have the same handwriting if they use a pen.
I feel really, really, really strongly about this. In the 21st century, there’s so much to be miserable about but one of the really good things is that gender at last is being broken down. Jeanie, as female filmmakers we have to be questioning these notions of female and male, because all of the things that are meant to be “masculine” – [being] adventurous, practical, strong, intrepid – we can be those things too, or not, if we want.
And all the things that mean to be a woman – nurturing, maternal. We have to think of a different world; we have to change words. I’m questioning and reevaluating those all the time.
The first fan letter I wrote was to Lukas Moodysson. He made Fucking Åmål [aka Show Me Love], which was about two girls falling in love in a school. The outcast girl was me, because when you watch films, it’s all about you; that’s why we’re making films. We don’t want the audience to be thinking “Oooh, prostitution” or “Oooh, record shops,” we want them to be thinking about how [what they’re watching] has an impact on them.
I think what films do is open little windows; I love the ripples they create. We don’t really know what they do. You can have an audience of hopefully 200 people, and each person in that audience is going to [experience the film] differently. That’s what is so wonderful about what we do.
I think Dreamcatcher is your finest film. I felt so profoundly moved, I deeply connected with it. The scene for me that absolutely broke me was the one in the school with the girls as they all reveal, one by one, that they have been abused. What was that like for you to be there in that moment? I don’t believe in fly on the wall, I believe that you are there and you are present and you’re bearing witness.
I showed them Sisters in Law, which is a film I made in Cameroon. I don’t know why I chose that film but it was a film about young people and there’s a rape scene in it. It’s about people standing up and changing their lives.
The next day, one by one every single girl in that class talked about being raped from the age of 4 – the youngest one – and the oldest one says, “Well, I was much older than you. I was 14 and I had to leave home because nobody listened to me…”
I’m thinking, “Fuck.” I could film perfectly well, but I couldn’t see – I was sobbing and the tears were coming down in sheets, dripping off my chin. So I put the camera down because I couldn’t even hold it anymore, and I went and hugged that girl, the one that said, “I had to leave home because my mum wouldn’t believe me.” And she whispered to me, “I did it for you.”
It took me a while to realize that she didn’t do it for me, she did it for an audience. For the first time in all of those girl’s lives, someone had listened to them. It’s a whisper but it’s going through a megaphone, so it’s going to get their story out loud.
I told one of them, “Look, I’ve been raped as well,” and I told her about what happened to me, about the first person I told, someone I knew really well. My face was so bashed up, she said, “What happened to your face?” It was at film school. It was the first time I was raped. I told her it was a gang thing and she looked really shocked and never spoke to me again.
I said [to the girls], “I’m so proud. You are survivors and you’ve given me the strength to know that if someone asks me now, I will tell them. We don’t have to be ashamed.”
People say to me, “Oh Kim, you are so over the top, you’ve got to stop saying [so much].” And I say, “Look, we make these films and we ask these incredibly personal questions of people, we ask people to really open up in front of us. Who are we to then turn around and say we’re not going to talk about our own pasts?”
You have to tell the stories that keep you awake at night.
The stories that you fall in love with.