Your Guide To Becoming A Docuphile: There She Is

Each week, I'll cover the documentaries that are worth a view. Consider it a primer to be becoming a docuphile. I encourage you to leave your favorite documentaries in the comments or tweet at me at @robinhardwick. This week, I was lucky enough to have a chat with a real-life documentary filmmaker.

As I've begun my concerted effort to watch more documentaries, I've become more interested in the production and "behind the scenes" side. As an avid film fan for years, I've seen and read a lot about the production of mainstream films and of course, many of those rules are out the window when it comes to documentaries. Fewer full-length documentaries are produced than feature films, and the public demand for them is less (hopefully not for long).

Documentary shorts are even less acknowledged by the typical theater-going public, but are just as, if not more, compelling. I had the privilege of viewing the film There She Is, which profiles Allison and Jenny, two best friends competing in the 2011 American Beauties Plus Pageant. The film is about the women as they compete in the pageant as both a statement and a celebration of their body acceptance. Both yearn for full acceptance of women of all sizes and have full confidence in themselves.

However, the unfortunate reality is that they do live in a world where women's body sizes are so obsessed over and judged, they can't help but escape the constant reminders in their world about how they are viewed. These women are open in their insecurities, which include scared to be out of the house in full makeup and never finding acceptance from a potential romantic partner. Although the film is only 18 minutes, the viewer easily relates to and makes the connection with the women. A good documentary should transport you into the subject's full world, and to do that so quickly is a tribute to the talent of the filmmakers.

At first, I was surprised that Allison and Jenny would willingly participate in something like a "pageant" that mimics the demeaning "beauty contest" that pageants do represent, but for them, it's a way to reclaim what beauty is. They also enjoy makeup and dressing up, which at times is seen as a conflict with "empowered women," but why can't a woman be empowered and enjoy such things?

Co-director Emily Sheskin was also gracious enough to answer my questions about the process of producing documentaries:

As a documentary filmmaker, how did you come to decide on covering these women's story? Did you decide on covering the pageant, and then identified the subjects, or the other way around?
Two years ago we set out to make a film with an idea that has always interested us: how we define our notion of beauty and what influences this definition. We brainstormed for a while and became interested in exploring our theme with pageantry, a traditional expression of beauty with a historical basis in the U.S, as the backdrop. Around the same time we came across the statistic that the average American woman now wears a size 14.

So we wondered, we've heard of Miss America, but are there pageants that include the average American woman? We soon found out that there are numerous plus size pageants that invite women size 14 and above to compete. From there we started talking to various plus-size pageant directors and contestants across the country, starting here in New York. We were eventually introduced to Angela Berrelli Howell who runs American Beauties Plus Pageant (ABP) in Atlanta, Georgia. We felt that ABP would be a good fit for the film and found Angela to be extremely accommodating and helpful in granting us full access to the pageant. She introduced us to several contestants including Allison Kopach, Miss ABP Indiana, who would be competing in Atlanta in the spring of 2011. We spoke with Allison over the phone several times, explaining our interest in the pageant and idea for the film, before Veena met with her in person in December of 2010. Allison told us that she was excited to be doing the pageant with her best friend, Jenny Flores, and after speaking with both of them extensively, we were confident that their voices were what we were looking for.

Were the women hesitant to share some very raw emotions on camera? How as a filmmaker do you help subjects feel comfortable?
We had been in contact with Allison and Jenny over the phone for several months before we met them in person. During that time, we got to know each other and they shared a lot of their experiences in pageantry and as plus-size women with us. When we traveled to their hometowns to film them, we already had an established relationship to build upon, which made it easier to ask personal and sometimes difficult questions during our interviews.

From the very beginning, we made it very clear we wanted Allison and Jenny to be themselves and to be honest about their experiences. We also let them know what our goal and message was for the film: we wanted to create something relatable to anyone who has struggled at times with being comfortable in their own skin, and maintaining a strong self image in the face of influential images of beauty surrounding them. I think a combination of all these things helped.

Body image is a much-talked about subject for women. What part of that conversation would you like for viewers to come away with the most?
I think when so many of us have struggled with these issues, I want viewers to come away asking why is it that we don't have a more inclusive view of beauty? In the process of making the film, I was forced to reconcile my own conservative ideas of beauty with the reality of having so many friends outside that definition who I find absolutely stunning. I think people often write these sort of issues off as superficial, but I wonder for myself, how life would be different if I'd gone through it never questioning my appearance. Body image affects our interactions with people, our self-esteem, our confidence and I think it's important to ask ourselves where our own definitions come from and how they influence our lives.

For an 18 minute documentary, how much footage did you shoot? How do you make decisions about what to include in your final product?
We shot for one month leading up to the pageant. We spent a week following each character in their respective hometowns (for Jenny it was Orem, Utah and for Allison it was Michigan City, Indiana) and then flew to Atlanta and spent a week covering the pageant. We ended the shoot by going back to Indiana to spend a few days with Allison after the pageant.

Our initial idea had been to use the competition to really drive the story but after a few rounds of feedback, we agreed that the film should be more of a character study rather than a competition doc. We worked hard to cut a new arc while continuing to keep in touch with Jenny and Allison. Ultimately we decided the film would be stronger if we followed up one year later, so we shot again for a few additional days in 2012.

We cut the film so many different ways before we ultimately decided to focus on them as characters. It can be really hard to be objective about your own film in the edit room, but I think we both pushed each other to get the best possible piece out of the footage we had. We were lucky enough to receive thoughtful feedback on rough cuts from friends and colleagues, and I think everyone who contributed really helped get us to where we ended up.

What are your goals for this shortform documentary? Is your plan to make a feature documentary about this subject or others?
Right now we would love to make this film accessible to everyone. We really think these issues are important and the goal has always been to start a conversation about body image and beauty standards. We don't plan on expanding this particular film into a feature but are both very interested in the issues we delve into in the film and may explore them in a future feature film.

You used a crowdfunding source to finance this documentary. Was that process more difficult? Is this the future for short films? When you do it again, would you use that again?
These days most filmmakers, whether emerging or established, have done or will have to do a crowdfunding campaign for their film. Crowdfunding is part of the current and future reality of independent short and feature films. It is empowering to be able to make a film despite not getting funding through traditional channels. Having the ability to go right to the community that is interested in seeing your film to ask for support is amazing. At the same time, it is always difficult and humbling to ask people for money for your project.

Can you tell us where Jenny and Allison are now?
Jenny still lives in Orem, Utah and is currently taking a break from pageants. She works two jobs, is an active member of her church's choir, and participates in various community service projects. She is currently engaged and will be married this year. Allison got a new job as Store Manager at Coach shortly after the film and moved into her own apartment. She has no immediate plans to compete in a pageant but hasn't ruled it out completely in the future.

How can people see this film?
We are currently in the process of submitting to festivals and are seeking broadcast and online distribution opportunities. We hope to make There She Is available very soon! Please check our website: for updated information.

You can also get updates on the film on Facebook and Twitter.

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