EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Documentary Filmmaker Jesse Epstein

Paradigm Shift Community Outreach Coordinator Julia K. Weis here interviews acclaimed documentary filmmaker Jesse Epstein about her work dealing with the relationship between body image, media and physical perfection. Epstein, who most recently had the video “Sex, Lies and Photoshop” featured as a New York Times Op-Ed, received an MA in documentary film from NYU and was selected for “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by Filmmaker Magazine. Her three films are distributed to universities and high schools through New Day Films (a filmmaker owned & operated business). “WET DREAMS AND FALSE IMAGES” received the Short Subject Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival, “34x25x36” premiered at SXSW, and “THE GUARANTEE” won Best Short Film at the Newport International Film Festival.

NYT Op-Ed "Sex, Lies and Photoshop"

NYT Op-Ed "Sex, Lies and Photoshop"

PShift: How did you get started working in film?

Jesse Epstein: It’s weird, I feel like I started more with thinking about body image and issues and then thinking about what’s the best way to communicate a message and that kind of led me to, OK – media, like, how do you counteract media messages? You have to use media itself! So I really wanted to learn filmmaking specifically to do projects around body image and media, but then I got really swept up into it and now I’m in love with film as lighting and camera angles and things I never thought I would be interested in.

I started off trying to learn about filmmaking by working as a prop-person and an on-site dresser – I worked in the art department on independent films. I then realized that I was getting some of the tools but I wasn’t getting any of the theory. So I decided that I would go to graduate school at NYU at the Gallatin program and create my own major, but really focus on documentary film and gender studies and combine all of this stuff. This barbershop (from “WET DREAMS & FALSE IMAGES”) was my thesis film, and then I’ve been building on that to make a larger project. It’s definitely been a way for me to get involved in social activism.

PShift: At what age would you say that your interest in social activism and body image became prominent?

Jesse Epstein: When I was little I grew up in Africa, so I came back to the US when I was a preteen and I think that was one of the most influential things. I went there and there was a certain kind of body image and then I came back and everybody was trying to be skinny, which was different than what they were trying to be there. So I think a big part of it was being nine years old and coming back to the US and being totally confused about what was going on and seeing my peers being obsessed with their weight or obsessed with perfect this/perfect that. I think starting then was when I began looking at body image.

Fairly recently I was teaching a video class in the Lower East Side to all teenage girls and someone brought in a magazine and they were looking through it, and I said to one of these girls, Do you know that when you see that picture of Halle Berry that it’s totally constructed, or do you think of it as a snapshot? She never thought about it and just thought it was hot Halle Berry in this moment. And I said wait, I know from working in the film industry that there’s hair & makeup, there’s lighting, there’s putting Vasoline on lenses, there’s all this stuff. On top of that things are airbrushed. From this I sort of figured out that maybe one way of getting at body issues was to try to deconstruct the media in terms of, Look this is a work of art, and get people to see that. I’m constantly trying to figure out a way to get people to talk about these issues. They are so big. How do you take a stab at them and make it tangible and tell stories that relate to people?

PShift: Have you been surprised about the response to your work so far?

Jesse Epstein: The first film was about this barbershop and photo retouching. I submitted it to Sundance and got in. I’d been to one festival before in my life and had no idea what to expect whatsoever. So I went to it and what I was surprised about was that I was dealing with some of my own issues in the film and I had no idea if it would resonate with anyone. Even at the screening at Sundance there were all these actors in the audience and this one guy was telling me how he’s always been self-conscious about his shoulder and how he’s always felt so bad about it. So all of these people were suddenly coming up to me and telling me their stories and hugging me and crying.

It’s interesting because I didn’t know to what degree it would affect people or not, but it definitely seems like it’s an issue people want to talk about. I mean, I get emails all the time that are like these intensely personal stories about people’s battles with eating disorders and I think it’s good for people to talk about.

Every one of these short films is incomplete – they end without a complete story because I hope people will continue with a discussion. Each one is not a feature that comes to any conclusion. They are really geared towards being used in classrooms and community groups.

PShift: Had you any intention of expanding any of these into larger pieces or were you planning on showing them as a series?

Jesse Epstein: Right now I’m making a fourth segment and I’m trying to also make something to weave them all together. I guess I’ve always conceived of it as one project since it’s all about perfection. But they’re all really different segments just dealing with the same story. The way I think is very much: get in, tell a story, and get out. Right now I think I’m more suited to make short films but I’m viewing these shorts as all part of the same discussion, telling a bigger story.

PShift: For the objectives that you had for each of the shorts, did you find it hard to find people to feature in the films? Was one harder than the other?

Jesse Epstein: Each one had its own challenge. For the first one I needed to find photo retouchers who would be on camera and the two that I found were really nervous. They didn’t want me to film while they were with any clients. You know, Revlon wants you to think that it’s Revlon making the girl look good. I didn’t want anyone to lose their job.

One of the guys that I interviewed was very cautious, he kept canceling. It was like the third time he canceled because he’s like, You can’t come in now. I have a client who stayed later. But I was all geared up, had an extra camera, my friend was coming to film with me. We’d put so much effort into getting everything together. We were in Greenpoint and I was like – Let’s just go out and film something, anything. So we went out and ran into this guy who is a producer, half-Polish and half-Dominican. We interviewed him about his two different sides of the family and what his parents wanted for him in a girl. Long story short, he tells me, I’m going to get a haircut and you should come. These barbers who I’ve been friends with for a long time are hilarious. So I show up with a camera and immediately it’s like, there’s my main character!

I would say it is definitely hard to find someone who can show and not tell. Go through an experience without actually talking about it. I’m trying to keep things present-tense. The second film is about a guy who gets a nose job. He agreed to sell me the story but said he wouldn’t be on camera, but I remembered meeting this illustrator and decided to team up with him to draw the experience.

The third one was tricky because we were filming in a mannequin factory. I went to some showroom in Midtown New York and met the designer there, who was then able to introduce me to the mannequin designer for Victoria’s Secret. He wasn’t interested in being on camera though either. We also couldn’t mention VS, but we could show windows. So again it was just convincing people that what we were trying to do is explore this stuff as anthropologists and not point fingers. I don’t have the answers, I don’t know if it’s good or bad that people want to get nose jobs. I’m just interested in figuring out why we do the things we’re doing. Does it fulfill something in us? Is it all bad? I want artists to also examine their own roles in creating the fantasy.

It’s funny because since the NYT Op-Ed I’ve been getting all these pointed interview questions, like, so Do you think airbrushing should be banned? And I’m like, I don’t know but it’s here, so let’s talk about it! I don’t want to pick a side – good or bad – I want to really think about it. A lot of what me and my friends talk about, my co-producer is also my best friend, is how in college we felt like we couldn’t shave our legs or wear make-up because we were feminist. But then we could wear lipstick. So there were all these blurry lines and it’s like, well people want to look good, want to feel good. But the question can’t be, am i good or bad because I wear lipstick. It has to be, why do we do it? how does it make you feel? is there a biological region why you put on blush, like after sex you look flushed so is that why it looks good? It’s not just about buying into stuff, but there are certainly extremes. I mean, people are walking around feeling bad about themselves — there’s a problem. But it’s complicated.

PShift: Could you tell us more about the educational program being set up for the film?

Jesse Epstein: I’m distributing the first two and maybe the third through New Day Films, which is pretty awesome, it’s a 38 year old filmmaker owned business. It’s distribution owned and run by filmmakers. There is like 100 activist filmmaker members and is doing well financially because we’re all so excited about the films and then able to get them into libraries. It’s offering me a supplementary income through selling my films to libraries. It’s been helpful because I get to keep some money coming in while finishing projects. It’s tricky but basically I created a study guide and my ultimate goal is to create an interactive study guide web site. But I’m still working on figuring out what I want on that.

PShift: What do you ultimately want to achieve by creating these films and study guides?

Jesse Epstein: I want to do audience engagement with the films. One of my goals right now is to do a series of screenings in barbershops because, especially in New York, those are the community centers where men hang out. So I want to have the barbers from the movie come and do a Q&A and have people ask them about their expectations about women, from their parents and from themselves, because I feel a lot of that gets left out. A lot of the films that I’ve seen about eating disorders or body image are mostly geared toward teenage girls. And I feel like if we just focus on eating disorders and teenage girls then in some ways it’s letting us off the hook. We’re not really having to see that everyone is dealing with this. The goal is really discussions and people understanding that they’re seeing constructed images everywhere.

For more information on Jesse, visit http://www.JesseDocs.com and http://www.newday.com/filmmakers/Jesse_Epstein.html

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