"Blood Below the Skin," part of a trio of shorts about growing up, will screen at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
Jennifer Reeder’s films are considered experimental, but they aren’t as out there as you might expect. “I’m not making gritty social-realist films,” says Reeder, whose trio of shorts, Blood Below the Skin: Films by Jennifer Reeder, will be featured at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival.
Reeder is an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago whose work has been featured at the Biennial at the Whitney Museum, the Berlin Film Festival and many other international events. She will participate in an audience Q&A after the screening of her films on Saturday, April 11, at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall.
The filmmaker describes her films as unconventional narratives that borrow from a range of forms including after-school specials, music videos and magical realism. “I want them to feel like teen films, but ones that suggest that teenage girls understand the world in a way that we don’t give them credit for,” says Reeder.
Reeder’s 2014 short, A Million Miles Away, screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. And her latest, Blood Below the Skin, had its North American debut at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in March. This year, the Wisconsin festival will screen those films with And I Will Rise If Only to Hold You Down from 2011. “The three films are related thematically in how adults and teenagers view each other, and the idea that coming of age is an ongoing process,” says Reeder. “Young people are fully aware that adults are some of the most immature people in their lives,” she adds.
Reeder believes teenage girls provide rich opportunities for storytelling, but she’s often dissatisfied with current media offerings for young people. “During high school the films of John Hughes, and Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl were a kind of religion for me,” she says. “They deal with social pressures, class and race in a really honest way that I don’t think current mainstream teen films do. Contemporary films promote the boy-crazy teen girl character, and I think that teenage girls are more complicated and interesting.”
Reeder identifies with the experimental film tradition, but credits her background in the visual arts, not the influence of abstract filmmakers like Stan Brakhage. “For some experimental programmers my films are basically like Transformers 4, they are ‘so narrative,’” says Reeder. “But in the United States especially, where we tend to want narratives that act like narratives, some programmers say ‘your narratives are so experimental.’ A Million Miles Away was just at the Sundance Film Festival, but it wasn’t the weirdest short by far.”
Reeder’s work is closer in spirit to the films and videos of Peggy Ahwesh and Miranda July than to the more abstract films of Luther Price and Phil Solomon, to compare to recent experimental programs that have screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
One reason Reeder’s work is more immediately accessible is her use of music, mostly from the 1980s. A Million Miles Away is set in a girls’ choir practice, and it took me a few minutes to realize that I knew what song the girls were singing. The song’s transformation is one of many pleasures in the film because it makes you hear and understand the lyrics in a new way.
Reeder says music is an autobiographical element in her work. “That’s what I listened to when I was a teenager,” she says. “The Smiths’ songs weren’t playing on the radio, they were something that you had to scout out. It was the music of the misfits and outsiders.”
Despite her nostalgia for the 1980s, Reeder says today’s teenagers relate to her films: “I’ve had girls come up to me, sobbing, at the end of A Million Miles Away. I hope it is because it feels authentic and feels like it is for them.”
“The positive response from younger audiences has been way more validating on some level than the phone call from the shorts programmer at Sundance,” Reeder says. “Making a film for teenage girls and having them say ‘I love your film’ is the best response there is, and tells me that I’m on the right track.”