Therese Shechter redefines womanhood in her subversive documentaries

Therese Shechter brings common female experiences that have been unjustly deemed taboo to the screen through her documentaries. Her latest “My So-Called Selfish Life” has started a movement for women who choose not to have children. The film examines what it means to say no to motherhood in a society that assumes all women want children, and exposes what’s at stake when women are denied the right to control their own reproductive lives. Therese walks me through how she got into documentary filmmaking, and why she is passionate these subjects are so pertinent for women in today’s society. I’m grateful for Therese and the subjects she brings to screen. You can learn more about Therese’s films at trixiefilms.com.

Therese Shechter

REBECCA MARTIN: Where’d you grow up?

THERESE SHECHTER: I grew up in Toronto. I went to school there, and I worked there until my late twenties. I left because I wanted a change in my life.

MARTIN: What brought you to filmmaking?

SHECHTER: Well, I’ve always been a film nerd and , I grew up being really interested in film. The first grown-up film I saw was “The Sting”. It was so wonderful., I couldn’t believe something like that existed because before. Before then I had just been going to kids’ movies. 

MARTIN: What did you like about the film?

SHECHTER: It was so smart and funny, and the. The performances were great. It’s a really tight film in all ways, and hugely entertaining because they’re. They’re conning the audience–whoops, spoiler [laughs]. I remember that feeling in the theater that i would never get to see it again, because that was a long time ago before VHS, and the only place toI would never see it again would be in a theater.

I was always into film. I went to art college, butand I made my first film in high school. It was a 16 mm film with all of my friends but. It has unfortunately it’s been lost.

MARTIN: Oh no!

SHECHTER: Maybe it’s like the outtakes from “The Magnificent Ambersons”, they’ll turn up someday. So that was lost, forever. Then I went to art school and focused on graphic design b. Because I don’t think I knew that making films was a job for women. The thought didn’t occur to me that that was something I could study. So I went to art school, and then I became a graphic designer. I moved to Chicago, and was there for about nine and a half years. working for the Chicago Tribune. I loved living in Chicago and I loved the Tribune, but just like when I was in Toronto, I started to get a little restless. I decided I wanted to go to film school, so I went part-time when I was working at the paper full-time. I even got them to pay for it. 

I would use my work vacations to make my films, which. I did that for a few years and then, very part-time. And then I decided I wanted to do an internship somewhere in Chicago. I ended up getting an internship in New York with Tribeca Films. I don’t know why, but they offered me the summer internship.

I had a staff of 17 at the Tribune, but I just didn’t want to do that work it anymore. I then took a leave of absence and, and then I went to New York. Within a month of interning at Tribecawith them, they hired me to work on a film as a PA. AAnd I kind of decided at that point I decided that I was not going back to Chicago.

MARTIN: You were following your passion, that’s great.

SHECHTER: I really loved living in New York and I loved working with film. I just thought I’d never be this brave again. 

MARTIN: How inspiring.

SHECHTER: Yeah, it’s interesting looking back on it. The pathseems clearer telling the story.

MARTIN: Yeah, when you’re in it, you don’t necessarily see it that way. What film were you working on at Tribeca?

SHECHTER: “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle”

MARTIN: Oh wow, that must have been interesting.

SHECHTER: I was a post-production assistant and. And then I was hired as one of Jane Rosenthal’s assistants. It was interesting working there. She’s a formidable person, and as a producer she is super-impressive. I worked there for about a year and. I actually worked on what was a this prototype the Tribeca Ffilm Ffestival, but, it had a different name., but I worked on that a little. 

And then I realized, uhhh, I’m not making films and , that is what I was supposed to do. And I ended up taking a documentary class with Macky Alston, who is a wonderful documentarian. In that class, our job was to write a proposal for an imaginary film. We were told to choose a topic we liked and we would go through the process of making a proposal, figuring out who the audience is, figuring out these resources, figuring out the pitch, all of it. And about halfway through the semestercore of the class, he sat down with me and he was like, “You’re actually going to make this film, right?”

And I was like, “no, I don’t know how to do that.” So he basically convinced me to make athe film. 

MARTIN: What was the film?

SHECHTER: “I Was a Teenage Feminist” was my first documentary. I didn’t even know how to use a video camera because we had been shooting 16 mm at school. So he actually lent me his video camera and told me tosaid go interview someone. Those wereThat was basically his instructions:, go interview someone. He knew that asAs soon as I would interviewed someone, I’d be down the rabbit hole, and that would be it. So I then learned how to use a video camera, but in the beginning, not very well. That was the beginning. 

I also started volunteering at the Sundance Film Festival. It was really fun and I also got to see a ton of films, many of them documentaries. These documentaries I saw at Sundance were incredibly creative,  and the kind you would never see in any mainstream outlet. So that was also super-inspiring because I sawthey showed many different ways of doing a documentary. Like, yYou could be funny. 

I ended up making a lot of films about things that were personal and taboo, and. I always felt like the people I was going to interview. I’d interview my subjectsthem in their natural habitats. And I’ve always shot with some really small crews . One reason is because sometimes the questions that I asked wereare really personal. The less people, the less gear, and the less lighting makes it easier to have these intimate conversations. 

MARTIN: Let’s circle back to your film “I Am A Teenage Feminist”. Was that your first feature film?

SHECHTER: Yes it was. That one I got lucky with. I got to pitch it at Hot Docs inin Toronto, and I ended up getting a producer and a Canadian broadcaster through that. And I just assumed that’s how it always happened. Apparently, it’s not. That break really helped a lot. I mean, we had been working on it for three years, but that support helped us finish.

My films are all based on personal questions I have, generally about the world and women and what our lives are like. So I always start with my own sort of questions. Before I made I Was A Teenage Feminist I was edging towards 40, and I was very unhappy with where I was in life. I wasn’t married, I didn’t have any children, I didn’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model, you know, that kind of stuff. It seems stupid, but that’s how I felt at the time. I was annoyed with myself because I remember when I was a teenager I was a real feminist and I felt a lot of power from feminism in the 70s. And I had to ask myself, what happened to it, where did it go? And why didn’t I feel that way anymore?. So it was a documentary about reconnecting to feminism, and what it means to be a feminist in the 21st century. The film is a journey to discover what that meant to memyself and a lot of different people. It This film culminated with the “March for Women’s Lives” (2004) which was a reproductive rights march in Washington. 

MARTIN: That’s wonderful.

SHECHTER: So yeah, that’s that film. And at the time, people went, ‘No don’t do a film about that. Nobody wants to talk about that.’

MARTIN: That’s not true! But I’m sure there were some people who didn’t want to address that topic at the time.

SHECHTER: And the fact that people were trying to talk me out of making this documentary made me want to make it even more. It was not a subject at the time that people talked about. It was the early 2000s. There was no feminist blogosphere yet. “Feminism” was still really a dirty word and . I guess it still is in some corners. It was like, “Wow, why are you talking about that?” Since thenIn the meantime, a lot has happened. 

MARTIN: Before we dive deep into your film, “My So-Called Selfish Life”, I wanted to touch briefly on your next film “How To Lose Your Virginity”. Can you comment on your experience making that film?

SHECHTER: That film was also about these sacred ideas around women and how we are defined by our sexual histories. It was around the time the “Abstinence UntilBefore Marriage” pPrograms” were really kicking in, led by George W. Bush to an incredible extent. All the Disney teens were taking virginity pledges. There were just a lot of things going on in the culture and  about that. I was not sure why virginity was so important. W, why is it such a big deal? What are we being taught about female sexuality, and to what extent does our sexual history equals our value? With virginity, there’s no actual definition for it. There’s no medical definition forof virginity. Once you poke at it a little bit, no pun intended, it all falls apart. It doesn’t make any sense at all, and t. That was kind of fun to explore, and to sort of tease apart. It ended up being this culture of slut-shaming, and the ideas of virgin and slut are both ludicrous topics. The goal was to bust as many myths as possible. And again, it was me trying to figure it out for myself.

MARTIN: Right that makes sense. For youre next film, “My So-Called Selfish Life,” the following you’ve developed for this film is so exciting. You’ve really targeted this large group of people that are underrepresented onscreen, or at least not portrayed in a realistic way. Can you talk about what brought you to this project, and about the movement that has transpired since the making of the film has began?

SHECHTER: A journalist said my work was “disturbing what was considered most sacred about womanhood.” I always thought that was a great quote to define my work and I think that applies to feminism, female empowerment, and female sexuality. And now the most sacred female thing of all, motherhood. 

When I started this film, I did not realize what a taboo subject it was. I go into these topics, and I’m always a little surprised. And I’m someone who’s known her whole life that she didn’t want children. Although I expected I would have them anyway, because that’s what people do.

MARTIN: It’s expected from us, it’s what’s supposed to happen. 

SHECHTER:I didn’t want them but it’s not something that I’ve ever talked about really because it didn’t seem like a conversation to have. There were more and more conversations bubbling up  and over the past four or five years it became more of a mainstream conversation. When that happened, I felt like “oh, I’ve been thinking about this film for a long time”, this is a good time to do it. 

It actually all started with a survey. I knew my own experiences, but I didn’t really know other people’s so much except for a handful of my friends, maybe. So I posted this survey for people who did not have children, whether by choice or circumstance. I would ask them, “Why did you respond to the survey? Tell me about your experiences. Did you not have kids on purpose or for some other reason?” After about a week, I got 1,900 responses. 

MARTIN: Wow. That’s insane.

SHECHTER: It was crazy and a bit scary that I got so many responses in one week. And then I thought, “Well I guess this is a subject that I really want to talk about.” I learned a lot by hearing other people’s stories, and how complex all the reasons were for why people might not want to have kids. After a couple of weeks we probably had about 3,600 responses. 

MARTIN: Did you reach out to any of the people who filled out the survey?

SHECHTER: I did actually. I reached out to a good handful of people mostly for conversations. There was an option to leave an email for follow up and a very good portion of people gave us their emails. I was able to follow up with some people, but I was also able to build up a mailing list. 

MARTIN: That’s great! You found your audience. 

SHECHTER: It’s true, we built up our core audience. One of the aspects we explore is “maternal regret”. People who had children, and then regretted it, probably because they had children for the wrong reasons. There were a handful of people who responded in that vein, and one of them was really interesting and articulate and she’s in the film now. 

MARTIN: I love the campaigns that you all do with people sharing their personal stories on social media, that is so powerful. What stage is the film at?

SHECHTER: We’re editing right now, we’re in the rough cut of the film. 

MARTIN: Final thoughts? Specifically to the current landscape of women in film?

SHECHTER: One thing I’ll say is that I don’t think I’m deeply involved in the film community. But I think there is still this idea that movies about women that are important in terms of women’s lives are just not given the respect that is deserved by the gatekeepers. Even when women sneak through, they still don’t get Oscar nominations. Maybe the Oscars don’t matter, but if you work in this business, they do.

Films about female victims are big,but films about women who aren’t necessarily victims but are sort of wading through bullshit aren’t. When I was making “How to Lose Your Virginity”, the fact that I was making a film about very ordinary American teenagers was not considered important, butut the issues in the film affect every single person in the whole country. It just wasn’t considered a serious topic. If these teenage girls had been victims of trafficking, sure, bring it on over. 

The ordinary lives of women don’t get any respect. I don’t mean to be self-serving butgenerally speaking it’s true. 

MARTIN: That is so true, I agree with you. A filmmaker [Kris Rey] I featured recently talked about the lack of scenes of women giving birth that are directed by a woman, or portrayed in a realistic way on screen. That is what we’re missing on screen, accurate portrayals of the shared common female experiences.

Kris Rey’s “Unexpected”

SHECHTER: It’s an experience that many people have and you want to see it through the lens of someone else who may be experiencing it, as opposed to someone who has an idea of what it should be like. Like men showing what it’s like for women to lose their virginity.

The effect of pop culture on our lives is profound. The film I’m working on now is very much in the world of pop culture and the messages that we get just everyday. Innocuous innocent messaging that really affects how we think of our lives, our futures, our relationships, everything. It’s important who is a part of that pop culture, and why. 

“Big Bang Theory”
“Big Bang Theory”

I’ll just use as an example: the TV show “Big Bang Theory”. Wildly popular. Two out of the three female characters did not want to have children, like they were very explicit about not wanting children. The series ran for a long time, like around 10 years. One of the women gets knocked up and has a child and very soon after she has another child. There’s never really a lot of conversation about it. She suddenly has two kids, and her husband is thrilled. The other woman in the final season, she’s the lead female character, she has all of these long speeches in the final season that she does not want children, like “why, can’t it be just the two of us?” And in the season finale you find out that she’s pregnant. They don’t really go into the specifics, but basically she was drunk, and they didn’t use birth control and it’s like all her fault. It’s clear that she is going to have the baby, but you never see her talking about it or bringing it up. The producers said they got her pregnant because they wanted her to end up in a happy place. 

I’m thinking if you spent the last 10 years saying you don’t want children, and you’re pregnant with no deliberation, that is– 

MARTIN: Ridiculous! There are many other things that a woman can do to make herself happy. 

SHECHTER: They wanted to complete her “story”. From the moment this couple met they were destined to get married and have children, and so that is the way that the story has to end. No matter what she says. And that’s the thing that’s most curious to me. A lot of viewers lost their shit over that so it didn’t go unnoticed. 

I mean you’re watching this as a young woman, a child even, and what are you learning? That one day you are going to grow up and change your mind about having children? Whatever you say, the only happy ending requires you to have the kid. And your husband is always going to expect you to have a change of heart. People who want kids should have kids, and that’s great. But it’s the messaging around that. Whatever you feel, it doesn’t matter. However you feel about this, it really doesn’t matter, you’re just going to end up having kids anyway. You’ll see. That’s what needs to change.

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