an Interview with Deborah Kampmeier, director of "Hounddog" and "Virgin"
Alabama-born director and screenwriter Deborah Kampmeier is considered to be one of the most unique and fascinating voices in contemporary American Independent film. Her first film, Virgin (2003), and her second one, Hounddog (2007), won prizes and arose great interest.
In order to tell women’s stories that rarely make it to screen, Kampmeier founded Full Moon Films with her friend Raye Dowell, whom she met after moving from Atlanta to New York in the early 1980’s. Admiring the work of filmmakers like Jane Campion, Kimberly Peirce, Lisa Cholodenko, Julie Taymor, Nancy Savoca, Kasi Lemmons, and Allison Anders, Kampmeier recognized the need for women to have more opportunities to fail before they succeed.
Being a woman filmmaker also includes, for many of women, making films with a family in hand. Full Moon Films would like to create ways of making productions child and family friendly, while at the same time enriching not only the process of making the film, but also the film itself. While making Virgin, Kampmeier’s 15 month old daughter Sophia was on set at all times, as well as Dowell’s eight month old son. This created certain demands which seemed impossible to meet at first. However, they proved to be not only doable but nurturing of the entire cast and crew.
What is the plot of “Virgin”?
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 have been a paralyzing trauma (a pregnancy resulting from date rape), and turns it into a powerful myth for herself. When Jessie believes there is something special inside her, she is able to see and hear things in the world that were always there to be seen and 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.
What kind of feedback did you receive?
One of the criticisms I hear a lot is that there are no sympathetic male characters in Virgin. 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, and that is what I am trying to do as a director: 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, and part of the difference comes from the way in which we as women move between inner reality and outer reality. Sometimes it's very graceful and sometimes it's quite clumsy. That flow is often called "intuition." That flow is what I want to capture and get on screen.
Your second film, “Hounddog”, dealt among other issues with a girl being raped, and its distribution was prohibited due to the rape scene, under the claim it was an abuse of the actress. How did you handle that?
The whole process was challenging from the beginning. It’s a story about a girl whose voice and spirit are silenced, and who reclaims her voice on a deeper, truer level. It’s very interesting how the plot has been paralleled by the actual events of the making of the film. People were petitioning to have me arrested for child pornography. There were petitions to have Dakota's mother arrested. We had a bodyguard at the Sundance screening. There were death threats against me. It is hard to ignore, in this context, the politics of being a woman filmmaker. The silencing of this story, of women's voice in general, is so disturbing. It's become a controversial film and I'm trying to embrace that and bring light to an issue that's been silenced in our culture. Dakota is giving voice to millions of silent women and girls. This is an epidemic in our country, and it's so courageous of Dakota to take on this role upon her."
How did you feel when you had to re-edit the film?
Structurally, I changed one thing and that was not a reaction to the controversy, but was just me trying to clarify the arc of the story for myself. For me, the film is about a lot of things: Motherlessness, female sexuality, feeling, art, finding one’s true voice. The big change I made is that after the rape she doesn’t say a word, except the one time when she screams at her father. Other than that, she doesn’t say a word until the end of the film when Charles pushes her to sing, to reclaim her voice, her power and her spirit. Then, at that point, instead of it being Elvis’s voice she’s using to express herself, it’s her own true voice she’s connected to. The most important thing for me in the film was taking that which can poison your spirit and turning it into something good, which is what we as artists (sometimes, if we’re lucky) have the opportunity to do, and what Lewellen does in the film. I wanted to make clear her voice is silenced and then reclaimed; her true voice is reclaimed. And so I made this structural decision.
You mentioned “poisoning of the spirit”, which brings me to a question about all of the snakes in the movie. Robin Wright Penn’s character is bitten, but Dakota Fanning’s character is able to live among them. Does it have something to do with the resilience of spirit?
Exactly. Charles talks about snake medicine people that got and lived through many snake bites: Poisons of the body, poisons of the mind, poisons of the heart, poisons of the spirits. They are able to turn these bites, these poisons that can kill you, into something powerful. That’s what Lewellen does. I think Lewellen is bitten metaphorically, but she also goes through a transformation due to the snake bite, where she is able to embrace herself. As Charles says, she’s able to put her arms around herself like her mother never could.
In the South, in the 1950’s, there was certainly this other movement for freedom going on. Obviously this is a movie about this girl’s freedom, but why did you choose to set it in this time? Did it have something to do with the Civil Rights Movement, or was it significant in other ways?
I set it then mainly because I wanted it to be Elvis’s music she was obsessed with, and I wanted it to be the blues that led her to a truer voice. Elvis had a huge financial success with “Hound Dog”, and this woman, Big Mama Thornton, who originated the song and went to number one with it, died in poverty. I grew up in the South and it’s a world that’s very mythic in my imagination. I also like the mythology of the Elvis story. Black people have survived centuries of collected trauma. Black music is the absolute embodiment of expressing sorrow and rage in an attempt to tell a story, and be healed by the telling of it. I think there’s an identification between Charles and Lewellen in terms of the repression of their spirits.