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Film about Sex Abuse Airs Tonight at Cinemathèque

The Tale director discusses its powerful #MeToo message

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Filmmaker Jennifer Fox had always thought of her first sexual experience as consensual: she was 13, and it was with her trusted 40-something male coach. It wasn’t until three decades later, while shooting Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, a documentary about modern womanhood and sexuality, that she began to realize that the relationship had been anything but OK.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Fox said that as soon as she began making films she knew she wanted to make one about her experience. Back then, she romanticized the relationship. But the film she made is something very different: The Tale is a fictionalized account of her relationship with her coach, focusing on the abuse.

The film follows Jennifer a documentary filmmaker who starts to rethink that past troubled relationship after her mother finds a story she wrote when she was 13. In it, Jennifer talks about her relationship with her male running coach and her female horseback riding coach, who introduced the two and helped groom Jennifer to be his sexual partner. Her mother presses Jennifer about whether the story was fictional or had actually happened.

The Tale, starring Laura Dern as Jennifer (a performance that earned an Emmy nomination), Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn as her mother, and Jason Reitman as her coach, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, and generated instant buzz. It was quickly snatched up by HBO.

It was nominated for a 2018 Emmy for outstanding television movie, and critics commended its skillful handling of sexual abuse. “Jenny’s perception may be hazy, but Fox’s directing and script are so purposeful and direct that it can be very hard to watch The Tale without having to look away,” wrote a critic in a strong review in Variety.

Tonight, Fox will screen the film and discuss the story behind it as part of BU’s Cinemathèque series, a College of Communication program that brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to show and discuss their work.

a portrait of filmmaker Jennifer Fox

“It was this kismet moment where I realized I had been sexually abused, but I could never use those words, because the words were so painful to me,” says filmmaker Jennifer Fox, who will screen The Tale, a fictional depiction of what happened to her, tonight. Photo courtesy of Fox

BU Today spoke with Fox earlier this week about her experience making the film, the #MeToo movement, and the power of fiction.

BU Today: You have been a documentary filmmaker. Why did you decide to fictionalize your story and make it a feature film?

Fox: There’s not a cut-and-dried answer. I always saw the film as fiction, and funny enough, even when I wrote the story as a kid, it was fictionalized. There was never evidence that sexual abuse happened, nor would anyone usually talk on camera, certainly not the perpetrators. So there would be nothing to film, and it happened 30 years ago.

Fiction allows you to re-create the past, and also I wanted to make a film about memory. Memory is so evasive and difficult that we needed to use the creative functions of fiction to show how memory works. I never considered making a documentary, ever.

You’ve said that you thought about your relationship with your coach periodically. What led you to realize decades later that it hadn’t been consensual, that it had been sexual abuse?

I always thought it was my first relationship. It wasn’t until I was 45, and making a big series about women around the world, Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, which was not about violence, but about pleasure and autonomy. It seemed like every second woman I met, including women I knew, told me either a sexual abuse story, a rape story, or an assault story. It was this jaw-dropping moment—like wait, what happened to me in more than one instance (because sexual abuse is only one of the things that have happened to me) was not my private narrative, it’s a universal narrative of being a woman. Those who had been sexually abused, their stories sounded weirdly just like mine.

There isn’t one version of sexual abuse, but there is often an architecture that is identifiable. It has to do with grooming, and an older person bringing you into their circle and manipulating your trust and making you feel important and special, and all these steps that lead to an act of sexuality that crosses a boundary. I began to hear these other stories of sexual abuse, and architecturally they were just like my little special relationship that I had at 13. It was this kismet moment where I realized I had been sexually abused, but I could never use those words, because the words were so painful to me. To use the words felt like it would have destroyed me as a kid.

Was making the film cathartic?

I wouldn’t say cathartic, because it was useful. What people don’t understand is the marvelous thing about being an artist is that all of your work is also transformative. There’s no film I’ve made, either my story or someone else’s, where it hasn’t impacted me profoundly. And this falls in that category. It was a really interesting investigation that brought up all of the things that I had buried over time. And releasing it into the world was just another step where I was learning a lot about my narrative. So making it, and showing it to other people, and hearing people testify after seeing the film that this had happened to them, it went into changing my DNA in some way.

The Tale was in the works for a long time—over a decade. Was its release during the #MeToo movement purposely timed or coincidental?

It was totally accidental. I started to write the script in 2008 while I was working on Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, finished writing in 2013, and then went into production in 2015-2016. So we were way ahead of the #MeToo Movement. It was really scary because I really didn’t know whether the press or audiences would tolerate the level of detail and vividness of the film.

What’s the public reception to the film been?

It’s been phenomenal, positive, revelatory. I really feel like the film opens the eyes of a wide spectrum of people. For the people who haven’t experienced abuse, and neither have their close friends or family, for them, it’s like, “Oh my God, I never understood before.” But weirdly, even people who work in the legal system with sexual abuse, like lawyers and judges, psychiatrists, doctors—people who are aware of sexual abuse and even deal with it on a daily basis—have said the same thing to me: “Oh my God, I thought I understood sexual abuse, and I don’t, and your film made me understand how nuanced and complicated it is, and how a child can love his or her abuser.” It seems to be hitting every segment of the population, and a wide variety of classes and cultures, because sexual abuse is completely beyond class and culture. We’ve shown the film around the world, and it was as powerfully received in South Africa as it was in Norway, which is really ironic. No one once said, “Oh, this is just an American film.”

What are you working on currently?

I’m working like a fiend on a lot of projects, but I can’t talk about them yet. They’re all fictional, but true stories. I’m really interested in true life narrative, how we can use fiction. Fiction is a form that we enjoy for everything—we use it to escape, for humor, but it is also this amazing form that when harnessed can help people understand, politically and socially, something they never would have understood without the fiction wrapping. I really like to call it impact fiction, great storytelling that you can use to get people to understand things they never would have.

And then you have the added hit, when you have big actors, you all of a sudden have the vehicle that will speak to people around the world, because you have iconic representation. You use the energy and power of these incredible actors to tell something truthful, and yet it’s slightly removed from reality because it’s fiction, and it allows people to drop their guard, let go of their preconceptions, and go on a journey. And hopefully, along the way they see life in a way they never would have seen it. That’s the way we create change. I love the power of fiction to really change the world.

Jennifer Fox will discuss and screen her film The Tale tonight, Friday, November 9, at 7 pm, at the College of Communication, Room 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. The event, part of the BU Cinemathèque series, is free and open to the public.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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