I haven't really had a chance to discuss Jennifer Fox's documentary film series Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman (2007) with any girlfriend yet, or maybe my friends don't watch the Finnish national TV on Thursday nights. YLE has been sponsoring Fox's project with other Nordic national TV stations, and in an interview Fox admits that only her Nordic audiences have actually "got" her point. In other countries, the feedback has been more negative, controversial or mixed.
I have seen three episodes out of five, there is yet one to come. The klezmer-type of music is wonderful, it really captures the viewer. I am suffering from extreme travel-deprivation, which is why I was instantly captured by the idea of the documentary: Fox has been travelling for 4 years in 19 countries and discussed with her friends and colleagues about love, sexuality and inner life. And this is exactly my idea of travel: to go and hang out in faraway kitchens with people willing to share their lives with me at least for a moment. It's so soothing to watch these encounters - the women she meets are very much like my friends in faraway places.
I already discussed the series in my ethnography class with a group of international students. None of them had seen the documentary, but they got interested in the idea. I would call Fox's project visual ethnography: she manages to get inside the life of the communities she films, she often creates confusion and acts as a mirror for the interviewees, making them ask new questions about their own lives.
As a filmmaker, Jennifer Fox believes in brutal honesty about her personal life. In fact, one of the film's key missions is to bring her own messy love life into scrupulous focus, and she uses her friends to make up her mind about men. While filming Flying, Fox has a married lover and a single boyfriend in different countries. The boyfriend participates in the film-making as a figure with a real name, the lover not so much, he has a pseudonym and we can only see bits of his chest, hands, arms. What Fox wants to share with her female friends, not all of who are as affluent and internationally mobile as herself, is that life is a hell of a mess even for an independent career woman who has no children.
I've been reading viewers' comments about Flying. Many women viewers have been outright offended by Fox's "egocentrism", navel-gazing, problems that only a minority of the world's women can "afford". I wouldn't judge her so harshly, although some moments in the film are bizarre. She is visiting rural Pakistan, Taliban-areas, and meets women who are in constant control by the extended family and villagers. She even gets these women to talk about their personal lives, women who are so far removed from Jennifer's reality that the category "womanhood" doesn't make any sense at all. I would consider her an extremely skillful interviewer, especially when she uses the "pass the camera" technique. Even after such filming days, Jennifer is upset by the South African boyfriend's text messages. (If I got on such trips, I'd switch off the phone and goddamned forget about the lousy lover. Forget him! Delete him! I shout to Jennifer. Go on! What you are doing there is much more interesting!)
As I happen to work regularly with immigrant and refugee women from the same countries as Fox's interviewees, there are many things I instinctively recognize from the cross-cultural encounters. Jennifer chooses the same "going native"-method I am also prone to take on. She dresses in the clothes her informants give her, and tries to share everything. She doesn't just go out there and squeeze answers from her informants, but tries to build an atmosphere of reciprocity. All talk happens in pretty equal terms with the local people. Much of the problems discussed seem universal, not as strictly culture-bound as one would assume.
The result is at least a momentary intimacy, but what has happened, and what will happen after the filming, seems more interesting than the product as such. Did some of Jennifer's informants get negative responses on opening their hearts in such a bold documentary? Did this film endanger someone's career or private life? The questions are similar to what for example the US sociologist Carolyn Ellis discusses when writing about portraying the lives of "intimate others": how do we find an ethical way to bring about issues that are not only personal but also political in larger society?
I am sure Fox has used all the arts of her trade and made sure that all interviewees have consented to be seen in the final product. The film's problem is probably not research-ethical at all, but it deals with feminist politics. Some aspects of the film are distinctly post-feminist: Fox takes up the personal trouble (boyfriends and marriages) as the key cause of women's discontent, when the women in faraway places probably would have liked to share with her deeper political, environmental, health-related etc. concerns. The women she interviews are the kind of women who probably have read their Hardt and Negri from cover to cover. Chatting in kitchens about boyfriends is all very fine. But I would like her next film to deal with what she obviously cut out from Flying. The bigger picture. The brutality of everyday life beyond boyfriend trouble.