Jennifer Siebel Newsom doesn’t direct standalone documentaries so much as she makes starting points for ongoing cultural conversations. Four years after Miss Representation premiered at Sundance, the film still has a strong social media presence, generating discussion about how women are portrayed in the media.
Now, she’s come back to Sundance with a doc that explores the other side of cultural expectations in regards to gender. We sat down with Newsom at the fest to talk about The Mask You Live In and the messages society sends its boys and men.
Nonfics: There’s a bit in Miss Representation where Cory Booker talks about a woman who told him that she felt sorry for men because of the burden of expectations culture places on them. This film feels like an extension of that line.
Jennifer Siebel Newsom: Yes. Obviously, I love men. I have a father who I’m very close to, I have a husband that I love very much, and a son whom I was pregnant with at the time we premiered here with Miss Representation. But having made Miss Representation, everywhere I went, all over the world, from Abu Dhabi to Monterrey, Mexico, people were saying to me, ‘Thank you so much for making this film, but what about our boys? Isn’t there a boy crisis going on? How can we help our boys be part of the larger sort of cultural solution?’
I was really curious, and as I did research, I was alarmed by the statistics. Compared to girls, boys are more likely to drop out of school, be prescribed medication, binge drink, engage in violent crime and/or take their own lives. This propelled me to make this film, to investigate the other side of the coin. I want to help boys and men recognize the limiting narrative that they’re being fed, which our girls and women are also getting. We’re all being fed ideas about what it is to be a woman and what it is to be a man, and none of them are healthy.
The film utilizes a lot of clips from movies, television, video games, etc to illustrate its points. Sometimes the original context of the clips fits what the film is saying while other times the visual itself matches what you’re trying to say, regardless of its context. Who’s in charge of finding these clips, and how do you decide how they’ll be implemented?
On Miss Representation, it was mostly me, though I had a couple of people helping me do research. With Mask You Live In, we had a really diverse group. Ben Zweig, who’s one of the assistant editors on the film, found a lot of stuff, but it was a larger group of people.
In this film, the media was actually less important to me, aside from pornography and video games. The media was the central subject of Miss Representation, but this film is more about personal narratives. The thing about making a film is that sometimes you don’t really have a choice, and you have to work with what you’ve got because of a deadline or timing or the quality of the B-roll.
Obviously, this is a really broad subject, and you have to fit it all into 90 minutes. How do you decide how much time to devote to each particular sub-topic or issue?
I don’t think we thought about it that way. We tried to make sure we got everything that we needed in each area. I knew I wanted to end with discussions on violence and that the media as a subject could act as a direct intro to that. We had to figure out how to get from point A to point B and make sure that I’ve told the story, so that people can actually hear what is being said and not be turned off to it.
It’s a balancing act. As a filmmaker, you’re constantly going, ‘How can I tighten this? Do I really need this character? Why is this not resonating?’ What can I do better, what can I do to get more men to see the film?’
What’s an example of that strategizing?
It was very important that the movie start with sports culture. I knew the Miss Representation community was going to be interested in this film, and I knew there are men who are sensitive, artistic, creative, etc. who would hopefully feel compelled to see it. But I really wanted it to draw in “jocks” or “macho” guys, who maybe wouldn’t think that this would be worth their while. That’s why we started with the sports and Joe Ehrmann, who is an incredible human being and thought leader and who ended up bookending the film in a lovely way.
Is there anything you cut that you wish you could have left in?
Oh my gosh. The men in San Quentin. I could have made the whole movie just about them. Their stories were so beautiful. That was one thing that I wish that I could have spent more time on. There’s also the young men at Fremont High School. And Joe Ehrmann has these initiation rituals with young men. I regret that we couldn’t keep more of that in the film, but it had to end eventually. The good news is all that’s going to come out in extra video modules that are going to be available on the DVD and on the website. We can still unveil this rich content at the appropriate time.
Part of the point of the doc is that men are discouraged from ever being vulnerable, but you get a lot of men to communicate their emotions to the camera. Was it difficult to get them to open up this way?
Yeah, definitely. Some of the young men were more hesitant. I found the high school guys to be a little bit more open. The middle school boys and the 9–10-year-old boys, they were harder to reach. In one instance, we interviewed two boys who had basically been bullied by the same boy, and both had left the school. They were simply not comfortable talking about it in front of their peers. We had to get one of them on his own before he would talk about it, but even then he didn’t remember a lot, because it had been happening since he was five years old. His mother was better able to recollect.
The one thing that was very clear from all of them was that they felt so much of this pressure to conform, to “be a man.” It was so unnatural. They weren’t comfortable with it. They were trying to resist it. They loved and valued their friends, but there’s this dance starting to happen where they’re afraid to speak out or differentiate themselves, because then they get separated from the pack. My objective for the film, for young men in particular, is to inspire them to resist this unhealthy, toxic cultural ideal about what it is to be a man.
This interview was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 30, 2015.