As fate would have it, I spent my Thursday night in cool confines of Film Forum, still my favorite place in New York City taking in Jennifer Fox's passionate, engaging Flying: Confessions Of A Free Woman, a six-hour (two admission) exploration of the state of the modern woman. I was a little hesitant to attend the film; Some very nasty reviews of the film took Fox to task for her first-person take on this wide-ranging subject. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I know I've spent many hours in movie theaters being bombarded by earnest, undeserving narcissism posing as documentary film making, so I was prepared for the worst. But all the petty, name-calling nastiness was completely unwarranted; Flying is an engrossingly powerful story about one woman's attempt to connect her own life to the world around her in an age of isolation and rootlessness.
A bit of a summary will help the discussion; Jennifer Fox, a documentary filmmaker and non-fiction consultant, is constantly, obsessively filming her own life. She has two lovers (one a married man in South Africa and the other a Swiss film technician) and she spends a great deal of her time worrying about her relationships, be they familial, platonic or romantic. Fox's inability to see the patterns of behavior that repeat themselves in her life are the source of a great deal of pain and analysis for Fox, and she takes every opportunity to put her issues on camera by discussing her life and experience openly and honestly with everyone she meets. Of course, being a globe trotting non-fiction activist, Fox meets a lot of people, and her desire to connect with the people she meets is at once amusing (as in the case of her attempt to broach the subject of sexual pleasure with woman steeped in sexually repressive social norms) and also moving; Fox has no one in her own life with whom she can find closure for the pain that is clearly keeping her from facing some truths about herself.
The Examined Life: Jennifer Fox in Flying: Confessions Of A Free Woman
I have to admit, at the mid-way point of Flying, I was growing a bit concerned; With each passing encounter, Fox's own issues with her family and her sexual choices were starting to grow a little tiresome. She was slowly becoming the cinematic equivalent of the needy friend who asks you a single question about yourself so that she could launch into a monologue about her own needs and problems before diving back into the same choices and behaviors that lead her to her unhappiness in the first place. There were two frustrating and complimentary urges that seemed to be at the root of Fox's problems; A deeply Freudian relationship to her parents and their authority coupled with a refusal to make a single choice or demand upon the relationships that defined her life. Fox, it seemed, was transposing the idea of liberation and freedom with a sense that while she was entitled to sexual pleasure, she had no need for a deep relationship beyond the bedroom. Instead of freedom, she found longing and dissatisfaction to be the sources of a cyclical inability to see the forest for the trees.
Which is why, when the second half of Flying kicked off, the movie began to soar. After a slow, rhythmic build-up (kudos to the editing team for assembling the wonderfully rhyming look and feel of the film), Fox uses her fascinating experiences with oppressed women from around the world to finally draw some clear, immensely satisfying conclusions about her own life, her own needs, and most importantly, the ways in which those conclusions echo the need for universal female empowerment across societies. There are encounters with Cambodian prostitutes, Pakistani women in a village that practices the "honor killing" of sexually abused daughters, there are Indian widows, Somali women fighting against female genital mutilation, South African survivors of sexual abuse; Through each of these encounters, Fox never gets overwhelmed by the urge toward awe or hushed empathy and instead dives right in and applies her own experiences and thoughts to these overwhelmingly tragic situations in the hopes of making a deep, personal connection.
Survivors: Amina (right) and her sister-in-law Kaltouma discuss their experiences with Female Genital Mutilation in Flying: Confessions Of a Free Woman
I can understand how this crucial interaction, repeated several times in the film, can be misread as narcissism; It's a bit difficult to compare the life of an affluent, privileged American woman with that of an uneducated impoverished prostitute who endures violence and suffering on a daily basis. Fox avoids the issue of class to a fault; There is little mention of the Nantucket home ("We went to the beach" she says) or her enormous TriBeCa loft (documentary consulting looks like good business!), and the affluence of her youth is only hinted at by archival footage of her jumping show horses and practicing archery as a child. Class is subtext in the film, and maybe its better for it, but I think Fox's own deeply troubled relationship with her own desires and past only enhance the frailty of class as a barrier to female identity; A woman is a woman. That said, the movie changed for me when I realized that the women Fox was talking with universally appreciated her personal revelations because they understood the empathetic urge that Fox was expressing; Each encounter with between these very different women lead to a long conversation, full of revelation and, it seemed, relief. By sharing herself, Fox got her subjects talking and trusting, instantly building a rapport and her own openness and honesty seemed a model upon which a quick relationship between filmmaker and subject could be built. Of course, the need to discuss feelings and sexuality (and men in particular) seems a universal enough impulse among women, and Fox capitalizes on this desire for expression and understanding to tie together a vast array of human experience.
In the final act, life grows ever-more complicated so that, when the movie ends, you're left with the feeling that you could watch much, much more. Will Fox find happiness? Will she reconcile her feelings about her family with her desire to begin her own family? What of these women, all over the world, that to whom Fox has introduced us? Are they finding happiness? Don't be discouraged by the run time; Get down to Film Forum and give the movie a chance by watching both halves. As a complete experience, it is a lovely example of someone (like you, like me) uncertain about how to live an uncharted life and looking for answers in the global community of human experience. You can't help but be moved by a life lived with such scrutiny and integrity. Jennifer, if you're out there, may you find happiness.