Rebecca Shapass: on Being a Woman in the Film Industry, Defining Success, and Being "Exotic"
On her career: My primary focus is in directing and experimental filmmaking. However, I also make digital art and take photos. Additionally, I co-founded and co-direct a film festival called DV8 which supports ultra low-budget filmmakers as an act of resistance against popular media, which is saturated by multi-million dollar movies. I keep busy. In the next ten years, and maybe beyond, I would love to just travel around writing and directing films that do not conform to typical narratives. I would love to publish my poetry in a book. Like a real physical book. Printed on nice paper. And I mean, ultimately, I would love to be able to create art of all kinds, all the time, all over the world. However, there is a part of me that really wants to keep pursuing degrees, which is totally a conflict of interest and something I’m really torn on right now. Traveling and making art as well as getting a Ph.D. are difficult to accomplish at the same time. Where do you fall when you’re a creative person with academic interests? I don’t know, I’m figuring it out, continuing to work with other female filmmakers and artists with similar interests and concerns has been incredibly beneficial for me and hopefully for them too. And I’m truly lucky to have that community of people.
On her art: I make a lot of work on femininity and my personal relationship to myself as a woman. The short film I am currently completing is very personal. It’s vignettes in conversation with archival footage. The archival footage is collected from my family and from the past 7 to 10 years of my life. The stories told in the film are all rooted in fact. The film strives to honestly depict a young woman’s journey to the self that is clouded by her complicated relationships to the various men in her life. In the past, I have felt that I allowed myself to be defined by those situations and relationships, but now, a year after the film was shot, I don’t feel as though I let my personal relationships define me as much, if at all. It’s something I have actively been working on. And perhaps this film was a form of catharsis - a way for me to acknowledge that those things happened and to move forward.
On success: Defining success and my career has become so different in the last couple of months. The concrete idea of success for an artist is to be shown or sold or given a contract with a directing agency or something, but my own idea of success has become to work on my craft every day. This could mean creating a new piece or writing part of an outline for a script. Sometimes this means just looking at other people’s work, other times this means really struggling with an idea or project. That’s normal. That’s okay. I’m trying to learn to accept that the answers don’t always come easily - or ever.
On the perfect woman: I think the term “perfect woman” is dangerous. A lot of the time, it’s fueled by appearance. As a perfectionist, I really struggled with the idea of being perfect. It’s caused me a lot of pain in my life. In time, my goal has become to accept my imperfections rather than to fix them, to work on my insecurities rather than aggressively attack myself. “Process” is something I try to focus on. I definitely haven’t mastered this kind of thinking, but I am trying.
On traditional femininity: I believe the common idea of traditional femininity stems from the Victorian-era image of the house-bound, frail, beautiful, thin woman. That is who I picture when I think of traditional femininity. It stems from corsets and toxic misogyny. This was later translated into the perfect kitchen, the perfect house, the perfect kids…. In 2017, I really don’t know if it’s changed that much. I do think there are definitely more women and female-identifying people actively fighting against it. I grew up in New York, but I’m from Staten Island which is the home to a lot of traditional families. I went to Catholic school for the early part of my life. I think a lot of my beliefs are rooted in an active resistance against traditional femininity. Femininity is something we should all explore, regardless of gender.
On being “exotic”: I find myself being fetishized by men a lot. I used to take a lot of pride in the fact that people would look at me and say, “You’re so exotic, where are you from?” When I was waitressing, tables would play guessing games about what nationality I was. I’ve seen people lose money on this. In a way, I thought it made me interesting. And now when men say “You’re so interesting looking” or “You’re so exotic” as a way of dictating the limitations of my sex appeal, I feel really weird about it. It’s super fetishistic. All I can think of is Orientalism in 19th century paintings and a bunch of white, male painters making these hyper-sexualized images of these “exotic,” Eastern women on the preface of imperialism. These images affect how we ‘see’ today. There is an entire history behind images and what we subconsciously interpret them to mean. A lot of this is based on the male gaze and now on the media (which is often male-dominated. I think it’s really important to be aware of and find ways to address it.
On motherhood: Giving birth is beautiful, and as someone who is exploring and wants to explore all powers of being a woman, I think I want to have that experience, but I don’t know if I want kids. It’s early for that. Being a woman, getting your period, creating life, it’s so unique to the female experience. I kind of revel in it.
On sex-ed: We got sex-ed in the last year of high school...which was way too late. I had already slept with a couple of people by the time we got those lectures. And unfortunately, I had learned a lot about my own female anatomy from men. That’s not a good way to find out about your body. Exploring it with another person before you explore it yourself is very strange because it changes what your body means to you. We need to educate young people and give them the tools to lead healthy, responsible sex lives as soon as we can. This means we must destigmatize their sexuality.
On being a woman in the film industry: Working in the film industry as a woman is interesting. Especially in light of the recent outings of Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, and numerous other American celebrities. What is really sad is that no one in our community is shocked by this. We’re all upset, but it’s not a surprise. At all. I think it is important to note that not only sexual harassment, but general misogyny and prejudices are present above and below the line in our industry. Crew women probably face it the most. When I come on set as a production designer, of course, it’s fine, because I’m a girl and I have the costumes and the decorations to put up. It’s more accepted for women to be in the art department, wardrobe, HMU, producers-- stuff like that rather than camera, grip & electric, etc. People don’t expect women to be in an industry where it’s hands-on, physical work, and filmmaking takes a ton of manual labor. However, there are a TON of women who do it and are super kick ass at what they do (to no surprise). What is amazing is that there are a lot of women currently working really hard to open more space for other women in the industry. We lift each other up, get each other work, and love to collaborate with one another. I have always found women in the film community to be super supportive of one another; I am really grateful for that.
On the Fame School experience: In high school, the competition between girls was super obvious and extremely toxic. It was physical and mental. I personally struggled with self-image issues that manifested in a lot of self-loathing. I mean, LaGuardia is a strange place. There were a lot of girls who went on to be professional models. It was strange to be 15 or 16 and be comparing yourself to girls who were actually right out of a magazine and in the same classrooms as you. You’re also competing in your discipline with people all the time, constantly measuring your talent to others. It breeds insecurity. Even the socializing was extreme, going to house parties often meant going to your friend’s loft. We didn’t have suburban streets, we hung out all over New York and were exposed to a lot of things really young. My high school experience was very weird, and hard to explain to someone who didn’t go to high school in NYC. I thought this was normal. When I got to college, I realized that I had grown up really quickly.
On abusive relationships: I’ve been in them. More often than I’m proud to admit. But now, I think I am past that point. At least I hope I am. I don’t know if I have deliberately put myself in these relationships out of a sort of self-loathing, but I do believe that abusers prey on people who have low self-esteem. It was difficult for me to come to terms with abuse; I personally had a really hard time accepting it. But once I did accept it, it became easier for me to see where things went wrong and to move on. In turn, committing myself to improving my value of myself, has helped me to cope with the past and avoid other unhealthy relationships in the present. The self-blame exists but eases in time.