Splitting Off from Powerlessness: A Conversation with Director Deborah Kampmeier
2016 might have been the year when the dire position of women film directors finally broke into wider consciousness. After a monumental effort, spearheaded by Maria Giese, the ACLU and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) agreed to hold major film studios, TV networks, unions and agencies to account, citing Title VII violations in all perimeters. 2016 was also the year the Cannes International Film Festival proudly announced that they showcased “only” 86% male directors — down from their average of 93%.
Yet even as dismal statistics prove women are severely discriminated against at every level of film production and exhibition, there has been a perceptible shift. More films helmed by women are, in fact, being made on the independent front, and perhaps even more importantly, some are getting distribution and critical acknowledgment. There has been this past year’s intense, almost unbearably painful Still Life by Maud Alpi, as well as Elizabeth Subrin’s A Woman, a Part, the essential re-release of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Kelly Reichart’s elegant Certain Women, and the fabulous, exhilarating The Love Witch, by Anna Biller — all works that powerfully confront and re-define our male-dominated cinematic landscape.
Deborah Kampmeier’s third feature Split is part of this deeply needed howl of long repressed selfhood. Kampmeier leads her heroine, and her audience, away from titillation in cheesy strip clubs into a netherworld of embodied female pain and fury. Here we see very different naked women, the ones who are actually experiencing themselves versus just being on display. Shapeshifting, deformed by oppression and aching for liberation — it is this percolating underground zone, Kampmeier suggests, that just might hold the seeds of our redemption.
Filmmaker: Split shows and critiques various splits in consciousness. As the film opens, it looks like standard sexist fare. We encounter a young, white, svelte aspiring actress, Inanna (Amy Ferguson), who works as a stripper. We see her, almost nude, performing pole dances: a classic stereotype of female objectification. Later the film shifts gears drastically. What was your process in terms of deciding to include this kind of imagery?
Deborah Kampmeier: Yes, there are many splits I am exploring in the film, but I think the core one for me is performed sexuality and self vs. authentic sexuality and self. I think many women live through the painful and confusing split of a performed sexuality as opposed to an authentic sexuality. I know for myself, I stepped into stripping as an unconscious way to reach for a wildness and a sexuality that had atrophied in reaction to abuse and then repression that I experienced in my youth. And I was desperate to find it again. I didn’t realize I was acting out a struggle for control and power over something that I felt powerless in the face of. I didn’t realize that stripping would take me further away from my own body rather than deeper into it. I thought the male fantasy was a path to my liberation, but it only separated me further from myself. So while, yes it is clearly a stereotype of female objectification, a projection of male fantasy and male gaze rather than a feminine experience, I think as wounded women we can be tricked by that mirage. We naively believe it is a mirror of something real that we can emulate. I wanted to show, in stark terms, the way in which acting out our sexuality separates us further from our authentic sexuality. And then when we feel further separated we act out more. But the more we act out the further separated we become. It’s a vicious cycle which takes us further and further away from ourselves. That is the experience I was trying to create with these images.
Filmmaker: Submissive, sweet and lost, Inanna starts off in a state I would call friendly and fuckable. She attracts, not surprisingly, an abusive, insecure if good-looking male partner (Morgan Spector). In highlighting this dynamic, were you ever concerned that you might be reproducing culture as opposed to expanding consciousness?
Kampmeier: We often get trapped in living out a reproduction of culture. So it was important to me to start there. To reflect that. And to show, if possible, a way out.
Filmmaker: The film changes direction when we enter the subterranean world of mythic Queen Inanna’s primal, wounded older sister, Erishkegal (Raïna von Waldenburg). Ostensibly within a theater piece in which the actress Inanna is performing, we now encounter women who look and feel electric, embodied. So, ironically, Inanna is fake in real life, and moves towards the real within the constructed space of theater. I think many people can identify with that: the external persona is a façade; our inner lives are more compelling. For most of the film, Inanna is resisting the pull of that messy, inner reality. Does she ever truly break free?
Kampmeier: I think Inanna has only just begun the journey towards her freedom. I think at the end of the film, when she is finally willing to descend to face the parts of herself that she has rejected, and abandoned, when she surrenders to the death of her ego and her position of privilege and hangs on a meat hook rotting, and when she is then released by Ereshkigal, and given life, and when she then re-emerges from the underworld, she is still not a fully realized or transformed woman. But she has done the work to unlock each of the gates that give her access to the messy inner reality, and to the energy that comes from truth. We don’t face the darkness so that we can be free of it, we face it so we can integrate it. She now has access. The channel is open. She can travel down and back any, and hopefully every, time she needs to. She can bring the riches of the darkness, the riches of the underworld into her life.
Filmmaker: Ereshkigal and her underground sisters/comrades are physically and psychically light-years away from Inanna’s constrained femininity. They represent diverse shapes, races and sizes, are usually crying out in rage and pain, and are most certainly not attempting to fit into any of the traditional categories which Inanna represents. They do not, in any way, make themselves small; they are unashamed of their scars — even the most unspeakable ones. But I wonder: after Inanna goes through her process, what happens to these wild, raging women of the underworld?
Kampmeier: These women emerge from the underworld as well. They bring with them, into our world, their gifts of experience and wisdom. They bring depth and meaning and poetry. They bring resistance. They bring compassion. They bring wholeness. They bring fierce truth. They are released from the underworld and are able to emerge because they have been truly heard. That is the deep longing: not to be fixed, but to be heard. Their release occurs when Kurgarra (in the myth a creature made out of dirt) goes down to the underworld and listens to Ereshkiegal’s pain. In my interpretation of the myth, Ereshkigal is actually holding all of the rage of the women in the underworld, as well as every woman. It’s huge rage. It’s ancient rage. And ancient pain. It’s not just our pain and rage, but our ancestors’ pain and rage as well. The pain and rage of women from the beginning of the patriarchy. It’s living in our bodies, stored in our DNA, passed down, generation to generation, from every woman throughout history who has been wounded and silenced. That’s how big it is. Ereshkigal is calling to Inanna and to us all to face ourselves, to face our own rage and pain, and to hear all of the other women facing their own rage and pain. So this creature is sent to the underworld and instructed to not only hear Ereshkigal’s pain but to feel her pain. If the creature doesn’t really feel it and hear it, Ereshkigal will kill the creature too. And I think that is really the message. We have to hear these stories, or it will kill us all. We have to hear them and we have to feel them. We have to, in fact, experience them, without imposing our own ideas onto them, without imposing our own story. If we are able to do that then we can really, truly hear. And that is a powerful, life-changing experience, to hear and to be heard. When it’s finally heard, all of this pain, all of this grief, all of this rage, the release occurs where those feelings can soften, can move, can transform and inform. It is this process of healing that the film is really about. It’s about healing the split. It’s about reintegrating ourselves so that we don’t get stuck. Our darkness is as sacred as our light.
Filmmaker: Your film features one woman character, Anja (Anna Mouglalis), who seems to have overcome the “split.” She is smart, strong, clear-headed and apparently in a healthy, sexy heterosexual partnership. Do you think we can actually arrive at a place of balanced wholeness while living in the deeply sexist world as it exists today? Do you have hope?
Kampmeier: I would love to one day become as whole as Anja. She does represent something to move towards and to hope for. I have to tell you though, originally Anja was killed in the film. She was shot by a jealous boyfriend. We ended up taking that out in editing because when we started showing the film to friends and colleagues everyone felt it was just too mean to have her die. The audience needed her to survive. They needed hope. I felt very angry about this at first. I felt like, fuck you all, that’s how it happens. Women are killed all the time. In this deeply sexist world we live in, a woman like her would be killed. Women like her are killed. And then, going back to an earlier question you asked about expanding consciousness, I realized that it is time for me to move beyond just giving voice to my personal stories, and other women’s silenced stories. It’s time for me to move past telling only the stories of what it is like to live in this deeply sexist world. I feel I must begin to move into a place of creating new myths that honor women’s most expansive truths. This world we live in now doesn’t tell the truth about who we really are. But it’s our time to change that. It is our stories that shape our culture; we create the myths we will live by with the stories we tell. It is time for me to wrestle with finding these new stories. And letting Anja live was the beginning, for me, of creating a new story, a new myth. And yes, that gives me hope.
Nina Menkes is an independent filmmaker, a member of the film faculty at California Institute of the Arts, and a Fulbright Fellow to the Middle East and North Africa. Follow her on twitter @menkesfilm.