Interview with Deborah Kampmeier: VIRGIN

Interview with director Deborah Kampmeier by Jan Lisa Huttner

March 11, 2005

Deborah Kampmeier’s film ‘Virgin’ was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards in 2004, but none of the usual suspects were interested in distributing it. Fortunately ‘Virgin’ was recently released on DVD. Jan Lisa Huttner called Kampmeier at her home in New York to discuss ‘Virgin’ as well as her take on director/distributor dynamics.

JLH: Describe the basic plot of ‘Virgin’ for us, Deborah.

Deborah Kampmeier: Jessie is a teenage girl looking for love in all the wrong places. VIRGIN is the story of her journey from a path of self-destruction to one of self-respect and self-love.

I think Jessie is a very courageous character. She takes what could be a paralyzing trauma [a pregnancy resulting from date rape], and turns it into a powerful myth for herself. The film is about many things for me, especially the power of the imagination, how what you believe changes your perceptions, and changes your perspective on the world both inside and outside of yourself

When Jessie believes there is something special inside her, she is able to see things in the world that were always there to be seen and hear things that were always there to be heard, but she didn’t have the eyes or the ears to see or hear them before. Now she does. She is able to appreciate others as well as herself in an inspiring new way.

JLH: What kind of feedback have you received?

Deborah Kampmeier: One of the criticisms I hear a lot is that there are no sympathetic male characters in ‘Virgin’. But I have such compassion for the two young men in this story.

JLH: You’re talking now about Jessie’s classmates, yes? Shane is the boy she’s in love with, the one who takes advantage of her. Michael is Shane’s friend, the only person he confides in about what he’s done.

Deborah Kampmeier: Yes, Shane and Michael. I have enormous compassion for both of them. I don’t condone what they actually do to Jessie, but I see their complexity. And that’s especially important in the scene at the end where Michael rapes Jessie. In his mind he’s making love to her.

JLH: Right, I found Michael heroic. He knows what Shane did, but he thinks he can make everything come out right if he takes full responsibility.

Deborah Kampmeier: Yeah, what Michael does is totally twisted and sick, but he’s living in a paradigm that teaches him that the only way to deal with his hurt is through power and violence. Many people live in that reality, in that paradigm, and they’re not taught other ways of coping.

And for Shane, he makes a stupid mistake, but he’s not a bad guy. In the course of the film, he goes through an enormous transformation. For most of VIRGIN he’s holding this enormous secret, but in the end, he steps forward. How many people actually do that?

JLH: It takes poor Arthur Dimmesdale in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ a whole damn novel!

Deborah Kampmeier: Yes, you made that connection in your review, Jan. I hadn’t consciously thought of it, but I like it. It’s true that my two male characters aren’t fully flushed out, that’s another one of the complaints I get, but it’s not their story. Men are so used to seeing other men in the lead roles. But this isn’t a man’s story. It’s Jessie’s story.

These two young men are part of her world, she’s not a part of their world, and I think that perspective is very hard for some people to tolerate. They don’t like the fact that a woman’s story gets the focus, so they turn it into a criticism: “the men in this film are two-dimensional,” etc.

When I did my first edit, the film was 3 hours and 45 minutes long, so I had to cut a lot. Michael, in particular, had more back story, some private moments, but we had to cut…

JLH: Last year, the IFP nominated ‘Virgin’ for a John Cassavettes Award and Elizabeth Moss, who starred as Jessie, received a nomination for Best Female Lead.

Deborah Kampmeier: Yeah, and then no one would distribute it. I’m a teacher (at NYU) and I have access to a lot of female students, so I would fill the house with my target audience whenever potential distributors would come. 18 to 24 year old women in the audience would be sobbing, and not because they knew me, because most of them didn’t.

After these screenings, the distributors would come out and say, “Wow, it’s really a very impressive film, but we just don’t know who the audience is.” So I’d say: “Hello, I just spoon fed you your audience!” But over and over I was told: “Well, women aren’t a ‘demographic,’ at least not a demographic you can market to. You know, boyfriends and husbands make the decisions.” So I’d say: “Okay, let’s say that’s true. We have the highest divorce rate ever in our country. What do all those divorced, single women do? They go to the movies! And women, when they are not out with their husbands and their boyfriends, what do they do? They go to movies with their girlfriends!”

We were really up against it, and that actually reinforces the broader issue, for me, of what I’m trying to do as a filmmaker. I want to tell women’s stories, get women’s stories on the screen. I’m not just talking about the plot. I want to put the experience of being a woman on screen.

I think women’s stories are different, not better or worse, just different. And part of the difference comes from the way that we as women move between inner reality and outer reality. Sometimes it’s very graceful and sometimes it’s quite clumsy, but there’s a way we move in and out of inner reality and outer reality, and that flow is often called “intuition.” That flow is what I want to capture and get on screen.

Women’s stories aren’t as linear as men’s stories are, they’re not so forward-thrusting. I think that we [women filmmakers] have to work in a male paradigm right now, and it’s great. I love movies made by men. I mean some of them I don’t like, but some of them I really truly deeply love. But even when I’m deeply moved and affected by what I see, it’s not the story I need to tell. It’s not the same experience.

Life isn’t always about “doing;” there’s a way in which women can just “be” in the world. It’s very engaged and active, but it doesn’t necessarily look like “action.” That’s part of what I’m trying to explore as a filmmaker, what I was trying to explore when I made ‘Virgin’.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (3/11/05) – Special for Really Good Films (reposted with permission)

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Jan Lisa Huttner is a Brooklyn-based arts critic & feminist activist. She is the creative force behind the SWAN Movement—Support Women Artists Now—which has just begun its third phase as International SWANs® (aka iSWANs). In the Jewish world, Jan is best known as the author of two books on Fiddler on the Roof—Tevye’s Daughters and Diamond Fiddler—both of which flow from a strongly feminist POV. She also served as both story consultant and “talking head” on the award-winning documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.
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