In and Out of Focus
A Conversation with Jacqueline Liebman

interview by Dan Lybarger, 28 June 2002

Regardless of their gender, filmmakers have often had a difficult time balancing their careers and their families. South Africa native Jacqueline Liebman's documentary In and Out of Focus ingeniously combines both factors. The film is a chronicle of her own motherhood that actually opens with the moment she discovers that she's pregnant.

Much of In and Out of Focus looks like a home movie, and this actually makes the movie interesting. However, the on-camera discussions have a frankness that most people don't share on the videotapes they'd show to their friends. For example, while the tape is still rolling, she and her future husband, Lance Gentile (a physician who is also an Emmy-winning writer and producer for ER and Third Watch) mull over whether to continue with the pregnancy. It's this sort of unflinching intimacy that makes In and Out of Focus more than a simple family album spanning seven years.

Liebman also pointedly comments about how Americans (and particularly Angelinos) view pregnancy. While roaming through a shopping mall, she contrasts the flashy, but skimpy clothes available at a Frederick's of Hollywood outlet with the drab offerings at a maternity store down the hallway.

In the documentary, Liebman uses her own experiences (working on films such as Full Tilt Boogie and Beeaje Quick's Real Stories of the Donut Men) compares them with those of other female filmmakers like director Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker, Deep Impact), producers Elizabeth Avellan and Tamara Smith-Zimmerman (Spy Kids) and legendary editor Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia, Out of Sight).\

The cable channel Oxygen first aired In and Out of Focus in May of 2001, and the film has become oddly prescient as the months have gone by. I contacted her as she was presenting the film as part of the Women in Film Symposium at the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee last April. Before she showed the film, she pointed to that week's issue of Time Magazine, which featured a cover story about the challenges of balancing parenthood and work. It's a topic that she's been exploring for the last seven years.


Dan Lybarger: At the beginning of the film, you say that you came to L.A. as a teenager to become an independent filmmaker. What made you want to do that at such a young age?

Jacqueline Liebman: You know, I always knew I was going to end up in the United States. Always. I did come here when I was fifteen. It's a very weird thing. It's almost like there was an invisible hand pushing me here my whole life. I always knew I would eventually end up living here.

In the documentary, I say that I came here to make movies. On some level, yeah, I came here to make movies. The reality was that I was still a high school student. I also knew I'd eventually make movies because I was obsessed with them. I'd be going to tons of movies. I'd be watching a movie, and I would rewrite the ending if it was bad. I'd go, "They should have done this; they should have done that." I think it's one of those things where it's almost unconscious, but it's there inside of you. You know that somehow -- you don't know how -- you'll end up doing that kind of stuff.

 

DL: I loved the home movie footage from your childhood where you're a little girl at a wedding who just isn't going with the program.

JL: It's so funny. There was always this story as I was growing up about this footage of me at this wedding where the entire wedding was completely captivated by this little three-year-old. I was dressed in my little three-year-old flower girl [outfit]. They told me where to stand. They told me what to do. I was supposed to hold these flowers. I just would not cooperate. I had my own agenda. Actually, what you don't have [in the clip] is the audience, who were hysterically laughing.

They put me in this box, which you see. And I climbed out of it. [Laughs]  I had always heard of this footage. It wasn't as demonstrative as I thought of what was really going on. I found it and put it in, and hopefully, people get it.


DL: You see this little girl, and the idea is that she now is going to continue breaking with the program.

JL: She's my inner child. It's fun when you discover "I'm not this weird person. I've always been this weird person." Actually, I was thrilled to discover that. As an artist, you're discovering who you are, what makes you tick and your journey. To be able to find that footage and use it appropriately was amazing.


DL: Making a film about yourself is a challenging task because you have to look at things about yourself that you don't want to see.

JL: I have to tell you something that that is the hardest thing. I kept wanting to make a movie about everyone else going through my experience but keep myself out of it.

I did have an editor at one point. The relationship didn't work out because she had another vision of what the movie was about. Early on it didn't have the women [filmmakers] in it. It was just me and my husband. I didn't want to just make that. I told her that the two fused together, and she couldn't see it. The one thing she did give me was that I needed to put more of myself in it. I had a ton more footage of my husband in it. I also realized that I had to take it out even though it was fabulous, hysterically fabulous.


DL: As a guy, I found it refreshing that your husband comes across as three-dimensional.

JL: Believe me, he's actually four-dimensional. I had to cut him down a bit. He's very honest. He's very comfortable on camera. Starting to make a movie, not [necessarily] this movie, was his idea. He was very open to having the camera on him. He liked being on camera. He's a ham [chuckles].


DL: What's fascinating is your older son's reaction to the camera is so different. For him as a toddler, the camera seems like this weird, foreign device.

JL: He really did not like the camera. It's still painful for me, the one part where he's saying, "Off. Off." I said, "Do you want to go to the beach?" He's trying to walk around the camera to find where I am. He's trying to find "Where's Mommy?" The reality is that I didn't switch the camera off. I walked him down to the beach, and he was so upset with me that he wouldn't look at me. Every time I see that footage, and I remember. I feel like I betrayed him because I was working.

When I watch the movie, it's like [Harold Ramis's] Groundhog Day. There's a lot of hidden pain in this movie.

This movie is really a coming-of-age story or a rite of passage. You see a woman grow up. The movie's cut like that. The reality is you grow up when you grow up. In seeing it again, there's stuff that's painful, and you go "My God. How could I have been so clueless?" That's part of the fabric of what the film is, and I'm O.K. with that. I actually did grow up. I do feel secure in many things, and I have arrived in a much stronger place in my life. So, actually it's kind of cool.


DL: As a film geek, I was excited to finally see what [editor] Anne V. Coates looks like. Did you notice any difference in the attitudes between filmmakers who are Anne Coates's age vs. someone who would be Mimi Leder's age?

JL: Anne Coates is really from the old school. The things that are in there about Anne -- and I specifically chose not in there because I didn't feel like it supported the idea of what I'm trying to say -- is that Anne had mentioned to me that she doesn't belong to any women's groups. [In the film], you did hear her say that feminists were the kind of women who were a little bitter and had gotten strident. She has a very strong feeling about the fact that she's part of the boys' club. She's modeled herself very much to be in that club. She sort of dresses in a very unfeminine way. She's comfortable with that. I think she needed to do that at that time because there really weren't any women around. That was fine that's what she did. I think women today can sort of reclaim their femininity and their sisterhood a little bit more. It's OK to be women in film.


DL: I think your selection of filmmakers was rather interesting because you feature Mimi Leder, a woman who's best known for directing gritty TV shows like ER and action movies like The Peacemaker and Deep Impact.

JL: You know what's amazing is that I wrote a paper in film school that said, "Who's going to be the first woman director to do the big action feature?" because women up until that point had been kept out. I know Kathryn Bigelow had done [Point Break], and that was the first big action feature for a woman, but that was nothing as huge as what Mimi did. We actually ended up talking about that on the set [of Leder's The Peacemaker] that day. She said Kathryn Bigelow had done it before, but I said this is bigger. And she said, "Yup. This is pretty big." She was pretty freaked out by it. She did action on ER. She did a lot of action stuff. [Steven] Spielberg thought she was great, so that's how she got the job.


DL: Women might actually have some advantages in directing because more men tend to be colorblind.

JL: Look at what Sofia Coppola did with The Virgin Suicides. It's just phenomenal. The colors in that are incredible. You're struck by that, and it's a perfect contrast with such a dark story. I think women haven't been given the opportunity to experiment enough. I think if we saw more women directors we might see more women directors taking chances and being incredibly creative. I think the fact that they're there, they're thrilled. [Laughs] Maybe we don't see enough of that.

DL: You could argue that some women already have. In Europa Europa, which was directed by Agnieszka Holland, you have a movie about the Holocaust where the hero is going through a hell like no one else's. He's a Jewish boy successfully passing as a German. He can never be himself because he can't reveal that he's been circumcised. Some have said "Only a woman would make a movie where the whole things centered around the guy's penis." Her movies have male protagonists, but the lines between good and evil aren't as clear. I wonder how many male directors would have thought of that angle.

JL: [Laughs] I can't comment because I haven't seen it, but that's interesting because one would think only a guy would make a movie that was centered around a guy's penis. I think what you're bringing up is plotlines. Women naturally are creatures that really analyze things. So I think in general you're going to get a more analytical view of a character, not that men can't write incredibly involved characters.

I think that women really dissect a situation. You go to a party, someone says something and a woman might go home and speak for three hours about it. "What did it mean?" "How This?" and "How That?" You're going to get stories where the storylines are going to be fairly complicated and the characters are complex because women are just organically more complex. Men, not that they're simple, tend to want their lives a little bit simpler. At least I really believe that, having been surrounded by quite a few men. They can get complicated if they like, but I think they'd prefer more complicated effects and explosion scenes than characters.


DL: You did this in stages. Where do you get the confidence to decide whether something needs to be shared?

JL: That was the biggest thing that bothered me the entire time. I really doubted that this was something that needed to be shared. I nearly abandoned the project so many times. Number one, I was embarrassed to share it. Number two, who's interested? What does this have in common with anyone?

Again and again people would just come out of nowhere and be blown away. They would have such extreme reactions, not that lukewarm or "we kind of like it." Extreme, like, "Oh, my God!" They'd be hanging on my arm and saying, "What is this?" It was sort of bizarre, like, "This says something to you?" They'd say, "You've got to finish it. You've got to!" I said, "O.K. I'd guess I'd better continue."

I still was terrified. I'd wake up and think, "Oh, my God. What am I going to tell my children? Are they going to watch this?" I'm still a little freaked out about my oldest son watching it and having a conversation about it because we have the abortion conversation right at the beginning.

I adore my son, and the fact that we even had the conversation freaks me out. I obviously didn't want to have an abortion. It scares me a little, and I don't know how he's going to interpret that.


DL: Early in the film when you mention your pregnancy, some of your acquaintances look at you as if you have told them that you're a leper.

JL: Absolutely. It was like pregnancy equals leprosy, definitely. And I'm afraid of that, and what I'm afraid the most is for my son. I think, though, what he'll get in there is that I was so immature and so freaked out that I didn't equate being pregnant with him. It was like I was so scared. In the end, he'll benefit from the fact that I was that honest. The reality is that when I screened it, there was more than one woman in there [watching the movie] crying her eyes out. There was a woman in the dark saying, "I hadn't seen this movie. I was four months pregnant when I got married, and my daughter is twelve. This movie's making me cry so much because it brings back everything."

I think we need to be more honest with children and let them know what it's really all about and not paint this like, "and then you know it was forever after, and then we got divorced." Kids understand.

I'm a very big advocate for people not having children because a lot of people rush into it and they're so not prepared. They're like, "We're going to have a baby, and it's going to be a little dolly that you dress up."

People need to understand that what you are raising is you, and you know how complicated and screwed up you are. You are raising a little one of that. It's not a little pet. It's complicated, complex, needy. It's everything you are as a human being in miniature. We don't realize that.


DL: You had a little diversity among the other female filmmakers because some of them like Ms. Smith-Zimmerman chose not to have kids while others did.

JL: I made a decision early on not to do research and say, "Who would be a good person to interview?" I had access to all these people. There were only two people I didn't know but I had been told about and had easy access to them were Anne Coates and Claudia Weil. Coates was not a friend, but she had worked with a director I had worked with. He said, "You should interview Anne Coates." I said, "Give me her number." It was one phone call, and she was amazing. I'd been told by three people to interview Claudia Weill.

I ended up taping Weill's bat mitzvah. She decided to have a bat mitzvah when she turned fifty. She had me do that first before she did the interview. With Claudia, I did a B-roll in the studio, which I used some of that footage, and almost a year later, I got the interview. I did a LOT of work on Claudia.


DL: Your background seems unique because you live in Los Angeles, and you're a South African Jew.

JL: It gets even better because I'm also a Jewish Gentile because my married last name -- even though I use the name Liebman -- is Gentile, which is Italian, so it's even more freaky. There are a lot of Jewish South Africans in Los Angeles, though. I don't really know many of them because I left home. I'm not part of any enclave of people.


DL: Do you think that you've been dealing with a forbidden subject?

JL: Oh, yeah. People are starting to talk about this, but there's nobody else doing this. I don't think women talk about [the ambivalence toward motherhood] enough to the detriment of everybody. It's like it's a sacred secret. I feel on some level like I'm telling the secret. I'm so bad. Actually, what I'm hearing from women is "Thank God someone is finally saying that we are ambivalent, and that we sometimes have no idea of what to do with our children? I can't be the mother, and when is the mother coming?"

Women don't tell that. Motherhood is this very sacred ground. I think I have opened the issues a little bit, but it's in a very positive way. I don't like to throw bombs in places and destroy things. I'm all about empowerment and fixing and building and remodeling.

 

 


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