What it Takes to Lay Your Problems Naked on Film—Literally
Filmmaker Joanna Arnow talks about putting herself in two of the most unflinchingly honest films in recent memory.
The metaphorical train wreck is a common movie plot device, to the point where Trainwreck itself became an Amy Schumer-penned film a couple years ago. Audiences just can’t look away from these near-disaster stories. But what if that train wreck is your own life? In filmmaker Joanna Arnow’s case, she took the impending implosion of a relationship as an opportunity to turn the camera around and press record.
Arnow’s feature documentary, i hate myself :), focuses on whether or not she should stay in a relationship with the provocative James, a slovenly white man who hosts a cringeworthy, borderline racist open mic night in the traditionally African-American cultural hub of Harlem. One of the film’s storytelling tactics is transparency about its own process, including editing sessions that border on therapy with a fully nude editor, and a moment that can be excruciating for any filmmaker: showing edgy work to your parents.
“A lot of people told me not to make this film pretty early on.”
A thematic follow-up to i hate myself :) is the frank, comedic black-and-white narrative short Bad at Dancing, which won the Silver Bear at Berlinale in 2015 and in which Arnow also stars. As of this week, both films are finally available online: Bad at Dancing on Short of the Week and i hate myself :) on Vimeo on Demand.
No Film School spoke with Arnow after the New York theatrical release of i hate myself :) about where to draw the line in sexually-charged scenes, whether or not character likability is important, what to think about before turning the camera on your own life, and more.
No Film School: Both of your films are coming out this week, but they were both made a little while ago, so I'd like to hear about your path to distribution and how made choices about where they would premiere online.
Joanna Arnow: Well, basically i hate myself :) played a few festivals. It premiered at Rooftop in 2013. Then I made Bad at Dancing a couple years later and the success of the short—which played around much more widely—made this theatrical release opportunity possible.
Bad at Dancing was accepted by Short of the Week and I wanted to release i hate myself :) online too, so I decided to put it on Vimeo on Demand. It seemed like Short of the Week was going have a wide audience so I wanted to release i hate myself :) online at the same time. The two films are related in some ways, so I thought it would be nice to do a double launch.
NFS: Why did you choose Vimeo On Demand?
Arnow: I'm self-releasing it, so Vimeo On Demand seemed like a good channel for that. I know that [Brooklyn-based indie film and record distributor] Factory 25, for example, always has their VOD releases on Vimeo On Demand, and I was modeling this release after Factory 25. I think [Vimeo's] layout is great. I like that you put your poster up but you can customize the design. I've had my films on Vimeo for years, so it seemed like a great place to host them.
“I wanted to present the sexuality as almost a recurring element of the set.”
NFS: As you said, the films are related. One way is that they're raw and they feature you in compromising positions. How did you make decisions about where to draw the line in terms of exposing yourself or your characters?
Arnow: With both films, I felt that I wanted to tell the story in a way that the story was called for, in terms of sexuality.
With Bad at Dancing, I see the film as a descent into the character pushing her friends away and then eroticizing their rejections, so the end where she is masturbating seemed like the logical end point for that. I wanted to present the sexuality as almost a recurring element of the set so that it shows more in a wide shot, to show the contextual observing of the situation, and a reference for that was Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L'Amour.
i hate myself :) is a film about a relationship and sex is part of a relationship, so I thought it was very much on topic to include a sex scene as well. I guess that question hasn't really come up for me, 'cause I'm not really looking to show sexuality in a sensationalist way. I don't feel like I'm at odds with myself in the decision-making process. I'm wanting to tell the story in the way I'm excited about.
NFS: In terms of i hate myself :), it sounded like you didn't necessarily intend to make a film about yourself and then it evolved into you being the protagonist. What made you realize that your story would be something that people might want to watch or know more about?
Arnow: I didn't feel like I quite got that access I needed to tell the story of James and the open mic on its own, and it felt like my story might provide somewhat of an entry point for audiences to be able to relate to the film and connect with it in their own ways, and think about their own relationships. That was part of the reason I decided to include my story.
"Everyone's often trying to present themselves as likable people, but there's this darker side beneath the façade."
NFS: Once you started going down that path, how did your production or editing processes evolve?
Arnow: Well, once I decided that I should be a character and the protagonist of the film as well, I needed to find a way to tell my part of the story, and I didn't quite have the footage to do that since I had been behind the camera most of the time. So it seemed like the choices were voiceover or filming an interview with me, and both of those techniques seemed a little bit too self-indulgent given the type of material I was working with.
Meanwhile, my co-editor, Max Karson, and I were having some conflicts about how to tell the story that I thought could be interesting and kind of comic relief, so I decided that it would be best to get my part of the story in this conflict-driven way. It led to me filming the editing process instead of doing something more traditional with voiceover or interviews.
NFS: You said something really interesting in the post-screening Q&A about how the likability of the characters is not a primary motivation for you. Where does likability fall in your scale of importance? If it's not important, why not?
Arnow: Complexity is important to me and I was hoping to make a film that showed different sides of all the characters.
Something that I look for in books and movies is getting to see sides of people that you don't normally see. I feel like everyone's often trying to present themselves as likable people, but there's this darker side beneath the façade which is what people keep hidden. So I was interested in exploring what's behind that façade.
I see a lot of the film as about sort of coming to be more open about things that I didn't like about myself or was ashamed about, and then in that openness, coming to terms with them and even seeing the humor in them. I think that everyone has things that they feel they don't like about themselves, so that was another way I was hoping that this arc could be relatable.
NFS: So it's not about likability per se, but relatability is important.
NFS: What advice do you have for people who might want to turn the camera onto their own lives?
It was important for me to get feedback from other people early on in the process to see how they were reacting to the footage. I enjoyed editing myself, but it was great to have a co-editor, Max Karson. It was helpful to hear his and others' thoughts on how the footage was looking for them, and how others who don't know you might view you as a character.
I think it's great to watch a lot of personal documentaries to get an idea of what's out there. I particularly like Caveh Zahedi’s films, I Am a Sex Addict and The Sheik and I, which kind of showed the range of how you could push boundaries with the medium. I also like classic personal documentary, first-person narratives like Ross McElwee’s Sherman's March.
Then also I think it's helpful with any film to stay true to your vision and not compromise what's important to you. A lot of people told me not to make this film pretty early on. I got a lot of negative feedback early on in the process. I just think it's important to fight for your vision when you're passionate about it. Stick to your guns.