The Reeler


July 5, 2007

Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman

Jennifer Fox's freedom isn't free in six-hour travelogue, dialogue and memoir-mentary

Jennifer Fox is a piece of work. Six hours’ worth, in fact, and after sitting through Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, Fox’s exhaustive survey of her own navel and what the navels of women around the world have to tell her about her own navel, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to smack her or shake her hand and then smack her.

A successful filmmaker (her Beirut: The Last Home Movie won the documentary jury prize at Sundance in 1988) with a thriving teaching career, several years ago Fox embarked on a path of nearly constant self-documentation in the hopes of answering some of her questions about the decisions she has made (with regard to men), and what the future holds (with regard to men). Along the way she enlists women from some 17 countries to share their own experiences (with regard to men). Fine. The problem is that in the course of her nearly constant narration (Fox’s voice is regrettably bland and uninflected), she is prone to making statements like, “There is one rule every woman will tell you: Never fall in love with a married man.” Sister, if you don’t know that at 42 years old, I’m not sure what to tell you.

Luckily, all of the wincing, incredulous comments you will make to yourself about our hapless heroine will eventually be spoken aloud by one of her indefatigable, whip smart wing-women. Filmed on high-quality DV, Fox strove to create an interactive dynamic with her subjects quite literally, handing her girlfriends, boyfriends and family members the camera during the endless dissections of her personal life, but what that chiefly amounts to is: more Jennifer. Jennifer in crisis, Jennifer giving seder speeches, Jennifer in the shower and Jennifer after sex. Any number of the women Fox films are far more interesting, articulate and engaging than she is, but we are saddled with a middle-aged main “character” whose biggest problem seems to be that she forgot to have children and despite her independence and self-possession, can’t stop making the mistakes most of us cover at 25.

Depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing, and how willing you are to invest in the foibles of someone who calls her boyfriends “lovers” and has been in therapy for 20 years but only recently decided it was “time to face my mother,” Flying can be infuriating, insipid, embarrassing, compelling and sometimes all of those things, all at once. It is also rather consistently a fascinating look at the lives and attitudes of women around the world -- many of them women whose suffering and subjugation are proscribed from birth -- and the ways that Fox’s extreme privilege has not deterred her from finding a set of obstacles to stand in the way of her own “happiness.”

Fox plays the crass, curious American in countries like Pakistan, Cambodia and India, where she scandalizes a group of women by asking them if they take any pleasure in sex, or God forbid, give themselves pleasure. She asks so we don’t have to, and though their reactions are played for laughs (apparently there is not even a word for “masturbation” in Hindi, and the women become almost uncomfortably hysterical as Fox spells it out for them) they are also a painfully sad reminder of the way women are viewed in the majority of the world. Reduced to their sex but forbidden to inhabit or even acknowledge it themselves, until very recently and even now quite exclusively, being female suggests a kind of existential dichotomy that Fox recognizes must have resulted in her own mother’s rage. It is Fox who is the exotic element in these discussions, Fox who is the minority; the “free” woman must make up the rules as she goes along, and that becomes a burden in itself.

Flying’s moments of revelation are extremely hard-won, but when they do come, as with Fox’s confession about her early sexual experiences in the fourth hour, they add to an increasingly intricate but cohesive continuum, a mosaic of experience and endeavor reconsidered as human (in this case, very much female) experiment. The enervating debate Fox has over the six hours, between her married-with-children South African concubine and her very patient Swiss boyfriend only grows more enervating; I nearly threw in the towel when she decided that being impregnated by the former was the answer. Thankfully Fox returns to the lives of her international cadre of confidants often enough to leaven her frequent schoolgirl piques (Should I have a baby? Check yes or no.) with some substance, or at least some substantive advice. A friend in need is a friend indeed. But a director? You tell me.

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Comments (3)

I saw "FLYING: Confessions of a Free Woman" this week at the Film Forum and really loved it!
I have to admit that the length seemed daunting at first but the film plays out like a series (which was its original intention) so the flow is incredibly smooth and the story is so riveting that I forgot all about Film Forum's uncomfortable seats!! Part 1 was great - especially the 3rd hour with Paramita in India, but Part 2 blew me away!!! Fox travels to Cambodia to speak with young prostitutes and to Pakistan to meet a rural village of women. Fox's own story evolves in such a way it really made me think about my own life and place in the world. She goes from a naive and somewhat foolish emotional wreak to a self-aware cognizant woman. I highly recommend this honest and raw film about women's lives.
Go to see Part 1 but DO NOT MISS Part 2!!!!

I agree with Sara. I too, saw Part 1 of Confessions at the Film Forum and was blown away by the brutal honesty of the woman involved in this film. Jennifer, the women in Cambodia, the ladies of India, everyone is scandously candid and are willing to bare what most women are too reserved to say. It is an enlightening piece of work and I admire the filmmaker greatly for bravely opening herself up in order to make known the plight of other women around the world, less fortunate than herself. It's a must see!

Sounds like the writer Michelle Orange was really moved by the film untill she wanted to smack the filmmaker... wow. It also sounds like Jennifer fox succeeded in creating a honest, deep and engaging film series that moved many women deeply. I have not seen it yet but i am going to see it this week and i look forwards. The bazz makes it sound like an international documentary and original take on 'sex in the City" ... congratulations.

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