I Make a Film, the Film Makes Me

Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli on So Pretty, a fictional autobiography which came to shape her and how she saw herself and the world.

Every film is, of course, personal. Every film is, of course, collective. A film is the convergence of personal stories and perspectives, the histories of their cast and crew bound up in an object that in some way must reflect the exact moments when those people and perspectives converged on a film set and an editing room. As I made my second feature, So Pretty, which has its U.S. premiere at BAMcinemaFest on June 13, I was forced to realize how tight and powerful this net of personal stories could be, as I became caught up in it and found my sense of self shifting alongside the film and my collaborators.

So Pretty was intended to be an attempt to make a lightly autobiographical film out of sources that were entirely exterior to myself. It was to disaggregate deeply personal concerns through objects and stories outside myself. It would be fiction, at least mostly. I would transpose and translate an untranslated gay German communist novel, so schön by Ronald M. Schernikau, from the 1980s to 2018 New York, keeping much of its text intact. I would make use of a wide range of pre-existing music and musical performances. I would integrate performers’ everyday personalities, interests and affects, which included the video and music performance of Rachika S and the scholarship of Thomas Love. This was intended as a political act, as a way of recognizing that work and change – whether personal or political – occurs only through the constant interactions and intra-actions of a group and its exterior. I would cast my community and friends. It would concern gender and gender transition and play as a locus around which new social bonds could spring. It would concern care. The political future seemed bleak, so I was searching for a political and personal way forward, and So Pretty, with its largely femme-presenting leads of various genders, was an attempt to give a coherence and a direction to the various strands of art, history and community that suggested possible futures.

The film, more or less, is what it set out to be, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the ways in which So Pretty itself was becoming a part of my history and my autobiography, tangling my self more deeply in its participants and concerns. Making the film, as I have retroactively realized, was a deeply reciprocal process. As I reworked it and conceptualized the film, it also changed me. The most obvious facet of this – the inescapable fact – is my own gender. When I began writing the treatment, I was not a woman. I now am. It was quite explicitly members of my cast in the film who gently pushed me there, encouraged me and opened doors for me to make a series of small changes that turned into one larger change. The gender concerns of the film mapped themselves onto the contours of my body, which I set about changing on a cellular and social level. But I also came to integrate the novel’s sense of romance and utopia into my own outlook and actions, notions that I had largely rejected as political dead-ends. Taking the novel, the film’s participants, and the film itself seriously meant turning these elements into sites of self-alteration. And these models of thinking and changes in my body mapped themselves back onto the film.

This remapping and reciprocity of autobiography found its climax, perhaps, in the purely accidental casting of myself as one of the leads. A central actor was unable to participate, mere days before principal photography was set to begin, so my producers made the decision that I would star. I had never acted, but they pointed out that none of the other actors had either. And so the film’s lens now turned quite explicitly to my own body. My films had always focused on the body and its flesh directly and literally as a convergence of social, physical and political forces, and after a career of setting my camera down and letting it watch the slow movements of the flesh of others, their postures and contours, it would now watch my own. I left the camera and its rigid predetermined movements to my cinematographer, the lovely Bill Kirstein, a constant collaborator who I had learned to truly trust. This was not an act of taking control – as directing and starring perhaps often is – but the opposite. I am an untrained actor, so I was leaving myself to the gentle, loose, directing process I gave to my other actors. Acting, of course, meant changing myself as well, coming to terms with what my body meant as an object to be viewed, a delicate task of coming to terms with a still-transitioning body that looks different even now than it did when I was filming. It meant allowing my physicality to be something I took seriously, as something tied up in the intricate web of meanings that make up a film, to allow it to escape me. What you see on film is a quietly unfolding process of gentle chance, of my body, finally, revealing itself and its interactions with other bodies, to the lightly directed flow of a quietly observing camera.

I think, or hope, that viewers of So Pretty will share in this experience of fleeting encounters and shifting selves, that they might even feel swept up in it themselves. What exists on screen is the convergence of modes of thinking and modes of moving. It is a conversation across time with the sadly deceased author of the novel, Ronald M. Schernikau, a convergence of his model of communism with the divergent leftist tendencies of the film’s leads. It is the touching of hands on waists. It is bodies moving to music. As these bodies moved and thought and performed, they changed me. In the large sense, but also in a smaller sense, as I responded to the film in real time during filming, reacting to the contingencies of film-set needs and the gestures and movements of other actors. I came to understand them and me and So Pretty itself in new ways as the film went through the camera. The autobiography on screen reflects none of the stories of people bound up in it literally, but it does capture quite directly the interactions of these individuals and their stories with one another. I wonder now if this was the political thrust I was seeking when I began So Pretty, if I wanted the film to reshape my form, if I wanted the film to give space for new forms to emerge. When I watch the film now, I see it as an image of autobiography as collective process rather than fixed history.

There is no subjectivity in the film, nor in the novel, nor in my other films. I typically set my camera back, sketch out movements for it, and let it go free on its path without concerning itself too much with where bodies on screen wander off to. I hope this will give viewers space to consider these bodies and thoughts, to let themselves become participants in this autobiography, to interact with me and the other actors. When I watch the film, even now, I find myself doing the same.

Photos by Anne Hollowday.

Born in 1988, Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli works as a film director, editor, colourist and critic living in New York. She has directed two feature films, So Pretty, (2019, Berlinale) a literary translation/transposition focusing on gender and the utopian imagination, and Empathy (2016, FID Marseille), a performative documentary following a heroin-addicted escort across the USA.