Jennifer Reeder wears and sells t-shirts with ‘feminist as f#ck!’ on it, she is an associate professor at the University of Illinois and Chicago, but above all, she makes wonderful short films. Think of a mix between David Lynch, ET and eighties high school movies. Her favorite subject is the world of teenage girls, and how female friendships can help them survive in a world with dysfunctional parents, school bullies and unreal expectations about beauty. Mister Motley asks Reeder all about her views on the life of teenagers and how she handles their troubles in her films.
I noticed that all your latest short films are about the troublesome world of teenagers, and more specifically, teenage girls. What makes teenagers so interesting?
I think coming-of-age is a lifelong process, but it is never as intense as in your teenage years. Teenagers are going trough a transition to adulthood every day. When you just look at the visible changes to their bodies, teenagers are like mutant monsters! The transition from child to adult is usually accompanied by a lot of drama, and a part of that drama lies in the relationship with their parents. Adults and teens have a different view on the world: I think teenagers have a better sense of their environment. They’re more neutral observers, unlike most adults who always try to predict the outcome of a situation. Adults often forget they were teenagers too once, and don’t understand the mind of a teenager anymore – that’s frustrating for both parties.
You definitely choose the side of the teenagers in your films, while parents are often dysfunctional characters. Like the distraught mother and absent father in A Million Miles Away.
A lot of teenagers are surrounded by adults who’ve lost the ability to parent effectively. When you’re young, you’re trying to figure out the world, and that is hard itself. But it’s even more difficult when you try to navigate through a maze of adults making one mistake after another, but who have all the authority. It’s like working for a shitty boss, and you know you can’t quit your job. You just have to sit there, shake your head, while thinking, ‘Oh my god, I have to listen to this person who is so inept!’
Do you want to give teenagers a message concerning living with all these inept adults?
I do. I guess I want to say to them that they have agency. And recognize that their opinion matters, that their thoughts matter. I think that they are smarter then we give them credit for. Adults can learn a lot from teenagers, not the other way around. I actually see myself as an immature teenager now, while as an actual teenager I was very serious.
Can you tell us more about the young and serious Jennifer Reeder?
I grew up in a stable family, and I was the youngest of five; therefore I had a lot of freedom. So I didn’t need to rebel by staying out all night or bringing home lots of boys. I wasn’t very boy-crazy anyway, I was more into reading philosophy, being a ballet dancer and going to see bands.
Music plays an important role in your films. The characters often play records and sing along with eighties classics. There’s a box of records that comes back in some of your films – is that the music you listened to when you were young?
It is. So a lot of eighties new wave, alternative and electronics: The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Kraftwerk for example. I was also very intrigued by Madonna. She was wearing her bra on the outside! As a teenager I thought, ‘What in the world is this woman up to?’
I think music is a way for teenagers to feel connected to the world. And as an adult I still listen to music a lot – it’s a really important part of my life and how I connect to the world. Some adults lose that: the grind of daily life makes them forget how meaningful it can be to lock yourself in your room and just put on your favorite record.
Sure. As a kid I found recognition in John Hughes films like Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles for example, or even prior to that: Valley Girl with Nicolas Cage. Those films didn’t reflect me directly, but they represented that feeling of being some sort of misfit – a girl that’s not super popular, not the prettiest girl in school, that listens to slightly different music and who’s interests are outside of shopping and having a boyfriend. Those were the films I had on repeat. I remember when I got the VHS of Sixteen Candles. I think I watched it ten times in a row and literally stayed up all night. It was like religion, a mantra. John Hughes really had a way of writing for young female characters.
There are references to these films often in my own films, whether it’s a VHS tape in the background, a line of dialogue, or a song from the soundtrack of one of these films. For example, the title of my film ‘A Million Miles Away’ is taken from the title of a Plimsouls song that was also used in Valley Girl.
There are also a lot of feminist references in your films.
It’s really important to talk about feminism at an early age, and especially to do so in a positive way because the term has a very negative connotation – a bit dusty and aggressive. Young girls might not be concerned about feminism as a term by itself, but they sure are about gender equality. I don’t know any young girl who’d say: ‘No thanks, I’m not interested in being considered for the same position or equal pay as a young man with the same qualifications when I’m looking for a job later.’ These are not issues I address directly in my films however. I want my films to be entertaining and I try to gain interest in feminism by putting subtle references in my films. For instance in Blood Below The Skin a character is reading a book by the female science-fiction writer Octavia Butler. If there’s one person that will read a book by her because of that reference, I’m satisfied. In an interview at the Berlinale they asked me: ‘One of the girls in your film presses t-shirts with the text ‘Bryn Mawr’ – I’ve never heard of that band’. That’s because it’s a woman’s college. What I want to point out to young girls with this reference is: be less concerned about how popular you are in high school and how much you weigh; Instead of sitting in your room and panicking over a boy, you could also sit in your room and dream about what college you want to go to. We put a lot of pressure on girls to value very superficial things in their life. In my films I want to suggest that there are other things for girls to aspire to.
But short films are a difficult way to reach a younger audience I figure…
They are. I love how enthusiastic the European public at the film festivals is about short films, but I know of course that the majority of the kids aren’t scrolling around on the internet looking for experimental short narratives about teenagers. But I love the short format, and there are a lot of ideas that shouldn’t be a feature length film. A television series or a feature would probably reach a much bigger audience though…
When watching your shorts, I always have the feeling you’re secretly working a television series. I mean, they’re all very connected, and have this Twin Peaks feel of weird underlying tension and mystery. Tell us, what are you working on?
Haha, I’ve been a David Lynch fan for a long time! I like the way his dialogue is so stylized, and that he can create a very mysterious or surreal environment or tension with very simple elements.
And I also like the idea of a series. It actually seems that television series and episodes for the web are a place where female writers and directors are really excelling. But at the moment I’m working on a feature that I’m shooting this summer. And again, it will have a connection with the themes and characters of my short films Blood Below The Skin and A Million Miles Away. It’s actually autobiographical. I feel that as an adult I’m able to reflect back on the time when I was just living in the moment. But don’t think that after my first feature I will stop making shorts. I love the way you can experiment with narrative in a short, which is not possible with feature-length films. I say this a lot, but: short films are people too. I really believe in shorts films, so I will definitely go back to making them.
We’re happy to hear that!
This interview is the first in a series of interviews with short film makers. There are a lot of beautiful short films and very talented directors that don’t gain much attention outside of the short film world. Mister Motley puts them in the spotlight that they deserve.