Family Drama

The Texas Documentary Tour: Jennifer Fox

The Wilson Sims Family from <i>An American Love Story</i>
The Wilson Sims Family from An American Love Story

A 10-hour documentary is a long documentary to watch. But then think about what went into it: seven months living with a family of four in a smallish Queens high-rise (and sleeping on the floor of the daughters' room), 400 hours of interviews with 65 friends and relatives, a thousand hours of videotape, which took eight months to enter into the computer before it could even be edited down to the 10-hour film. A long snapshot -- yes -- but still just a snapshot: Ten hours is obviously only a drop in the bucket of a family composite, particularly when the portrait you're trying to tease out is what it's like to be an interracial family in America. Those of us who were transfixed, much like soap addicts, by Jennifer Fox's An American Love Story when it ran on PBS for five nights last September likely had two conflicting reactions to it: too long and not long enough. Which meant that Fox had us where she wanted us, hooked into caring enough about the day-to-day small dramas of this engaging, close-knit, interracial family to stick around and see how their larger, tangled racial issues played out and resolved -- or didn't.

Originally, Fox's plan was to make a one- hour film about three interracial couples, her interest having been sparked when she herself was dating a black man and was surprised by the negative reactions she encountered. In the end, the project's focus narrowed to the love story of Bill Sims, a black blues musician, and Karen Wilson, a white information systems manager -- a couple who, 30 years ago, to the hostile disapproval of their small-town Ohio neighbors, became romantically involved and had a child, and then fled to more diversity-friendly Queens to raise their family. Says Fox, "Bill and Karen were the most complex and rich couple, strong and stable, who, in addition to the race issue, were dealing with issues, like gender, common to people everywhere."

Fox, who is 39 and teaches at NYU, and her sound person, Jennifer Fleming, followed the Sims-Wilson family for 18 months beginning in May 1992. ( The project had no financing until '94, when American Playhouse came on board. In the first months of the shoot, Fox actually worked alone, using only an on-camera mike -- which required her to stand awkwardly close to her subjects.) The first episode takes us to Colgate University, where Cicily, the oldest daughter, the next generation, is struggling with the seemingly irresolvable legacy of her biracial heritage: She doesn't feel comfortable with either the black or white students. We then follow her (Fox did not go along but sent someone with a camera) for a semester in Nigeria, where tensions between the black and white Colgate students heighten, and Cicily, falling in love with an African boy, has a cathartic identity experience.

Subsequent small-drama episodes take us through a few serious family illnesses; Bill's drinking problem; Karen's solo trip to visit her mother and stepfather in Ohio (she does not feel comfortable bringing along her family); Bill's visit to Marion, Ohio, to intervene with the son he fathered as a teenager, now arrested on drug charges; 12-year-old Chaney's first date and the parental hand-wringing it induces; Cicily's college graduation and subsequent depression when she can't find a job; Bill's struggling career (we see a lot of him at home, cooking the family meals, while Karen, the family breadwinner, goes off to her nine-to-five job); Bill's subsequent acknowledgment of his drinking problem; and the bittersweet final episode, in which Bill and Karen return to Ohio, where it all started, for Karen's 25th high school reunion.

Fox has been amazed by the response to her film -- which amassed $3.1 million in costs, mostly in post-production -- not least of which is that it has been shown either in its entirety, or close to it, at festivals like Sundance, Berlin, and Nyon, as well as theatrically in New York and Minneapolis. "I'm delighted that a film made for a television series has been accepted as art-and-craft. Not just as television, but as a film," she says. She will bring two episodes to the Alamo Drafthouse on Wednesday, November 17, at 6:30pm (segments one and three) and 9:30pm (segments seven and nine) as part of the Texas Documentary Tour.

Austin Chronicle: Why did Bill and Karen agree to do this film?

Jennifer Fox: I don't think it's completely clear. There are a number of possible reasons: One is that they thought they might contribute a positive vision of a situation that has caused them a lot of suffering. Or maybe they did it to prove to all those who thought they were wrong 30 years ago that they weren't. Bill always said he wanted people to see them as ordinary -- just like anyone else. And then there's the adventure part of it: Bill is an adventurer, and Karen enjoys hanging out, as do the girls.

AC: Probably the most obvious question that comes to mind when one tries to imagine what it would be like to have you and your camera hanging around 24 hours a day is: What doesn't happen because you're there? How inhibiting is the camera presence?

JF: Obviously, certain things would have happened if I wasn't there, but I think that was not just because of the camera but rather the fact of having an outsider present. The family enjoyed being with me, and I with them , so they were very relaxed in front of the camera. To them, I was Jennifer-who-happened-to-always-have-a-camera, that's who my persona was -- like a friend who was visiting. And when you have a friend in the house, you never forget that they're there but would probably say it didn't bother you or have a big impact on you. On the other hand, at times when you're very upset, like when Cicily was depressed about not finding a job, I'm sure she wanted me -- and my camera -- out of her face. And, of course, those in the film who were not members of the core family were very stiff and cautious -- Cicily's sorority sisters, Karen's old friends and family, to name a few.

AC: Do you feel that your presence had a positive, salutary effect on the family relationship?

JF: I feel uneasy answering that question; I think it's something they would have to answer. It would have been interesting, though, to have had someone interview them periodically during the project to see what effect it had on them as a family.

AC: How did you know when you'd filmed enough, that you had your film?

JF: That's a good question. The parameters of the project were a longitudinal study of a family, and that meant it had to film for at least a year. I changed my plan to do a one-hour film about this family when it became obvious that there were about four episodic stories that were going to take place -- Cicily was going to graduate from Colgate, Karen had this high school reunion planned, for example -- and that in order to take a deep look at this family, an episodic series was the way to go. That decided, you just go far enough to get these stories, and then it's really just a matter of intuition. You feel, oh, I've got as much as I can -- I've explored everything that I can with this family, in this way, at this time, and they've given me all they can, and so have I, and that's enough. So you just stop.

Jennifer Fox
Jennifer Fox

AC: In hindsight, with 1,000 hours of footage cut down to a 10-hour film, was there anything you wished you'd included or hadn't cut?

JF: As a filmmaker, you always think about how much of the film you had to cut and whether what you've left out alters reality. For example, Karen is very close to her sister but in the final cut, her sister is very peripheral because she didn't play a major dramatic part in the activities that I included. Since one has to edit for key units of drama, the result might make a good story and one that's easy for people to absorb, but it's necessarily a skewed reality and that makes me sad. Not knowing how close Karen is to her sister skews the picture of the white family.

AC: What kind of editing or final approval rights did the family have over the film?

JF: Actually, we had no such agreement at the beginning, but they asked for one about three years into the project. When we started, we discussed how neither they nor I wanted to whitewash their lives, and I had stated very clearly that I thought they were wonderful people -- with both good and bad -- and was not about to take the complexity out of them for their vanity. I explained that my purpose was to show real people, and they agreed.

But about three years into the project, they began to realize how big the project really was and that they needed to have some kind of control, not knowing what kind of film I was going to make. It was when I'd finished filming them and had been interviewing friends and family that I'm sure they started wondering what were these people saying and began to worry about what the film was turning into. So at that point, we had to recognize that this was a partnership, and that if I didn't trust them, why should they trust me? It sort of leveled the playing field, and I appreciated it. If they hadn't been given final approval I think we might have lost the project. As it turned out, they were very happy with the film and barely made any changes.

In a film this size, you can't do what a filmmaker who's making a one-hour film usually does, which is get the goods and leave. The subjects don't really understand what's going on -- you edit it, put it on TV, and then the shock hits. In a film like this, that requires this amount of access and takes so long to make, eventually the subjects catch on to what's going on and once that happens the filmmaker can no longer exercise absolute power. That's sort of what happened here, and we had to recognize that this was a partnership.

I don't think every film runs into this dilemma, and I'm not sure that all films necessarily need final approval by the subject, but this one was so intimate and the subjects became so savvy to what was going on that I think it was the only respectful choice.

AC: What were some of the other ethical constraints you ran into with a project like this?

JF: Lots. When you're going deeply into people's lives, putting them on national TV, their lives are being exposed, and one has to do that as honestly as possible, with as good a heart as possible. None of us knew what the repercussions would be. So far, they've been good but now these people are public figures; they've gone from anonymity to being pubic figures. People recognize them and write to them. It's been okay since it's been all good. It's dangerous if it gets bad.

AC: Talk a little about your documentary style. You wouldn't call it true cinéma vérité style, would you? What would Fred Wiseman say about your use of voiceovers, in which we hear the subjects talking about something other than what's happening on the screen?

JF: I don't want to do traditional vérité, because I think most of the time it's a very superficial look at character. People don't talk their feelings and motivations and thoughts -- they act. So if you want to get a whole look at a person, you combine interviews and vérité, vérité being the action, interviews being the contemplation, thoughtfulness, motivation, memory. That's how you begin to get a sense of the exterior and interior life of the character. My feeling often is that vérité comes across as very cold. With the Loud family, people criticized them for being dull and flat but the reality is that we never knew what they felt -- the camera was a very cold observer. When you do in-depth interviews, we can then say, oh, that's why you were acting like that in that scene -- you have a text and a subtext. And, in a situation like ours, where we were filming stuff that's very small drama -- family life -- as mundane as can be, it lacked a subtext: Without the interviews and voiceovers there wouldn't be enough story to hold interest.

Typically, voiceovers are used to explain why something was happening -- to get from one place to another.. But we used it to explain deep motivation or conflict or to create another level of conflict.

AC: Would any interracial couple have been able to hold our attention for 10 hours?

JF: No! They had a stage presence and were very charismatic people -- each with a unique identity. And, they were a fun family. I felt that, too; I mean Christmas at Bill and Karen's house -- now that's Christmas.

AC: Are you still friends?

JF: Oh, yeah, I see them all of the time. end story

An American Love Story will be presented as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, November 17, at the Alamo Drafthouse, 409 Colorado. Segments one and three will be shown at 6:30pm; segments seven and nine will be shown at 9:30pm; tickets for both shows are on sale by phone (322-0145) through Tuesday (10am-2pm). Tickets will go on sale at 6pm on the day of the show. Admission prices are $6 per show for the general public; $4 for Austin Film Society and KLRU members and students. Jennifer Fox will be in attendance to conduct a Q&A session after each screening. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, KLRU-TV, and SXSW Film.

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