Common Threads: An Interview with I Am No Bird’s Em Baker

Marriage is the focus of Australian filmmaker Em Baker’s feature debut I Am No Bird. The documentary focuses on four women from four different countries — Australia, Turkey, India, and Mexico — as they prepare for their weddings. Interspersing the film with quotes from Margaret Atwood, Cinderella, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Sharon Olds, Baker highlights the immense variance of experiences that exist within the umbrella term of ‘womanhood’. Ahead of the film’s release, Ivana Brehas sat down with Baker to discuss the myth of the bride, documentary ethics, and the resilience of women.

Ivana Brehas: Tell me about the title, I Am No Bird.

Em Baker: It comes from a Jane Eyre quote. Jane Eyre is sometimes heralded as being one of the first quote-unquote ‘feminist’ novels, but really, in the end, she does end up marrying Rochester. I felt like it was an apt descriptor for women who are trying to fight against, and participate in, a tradition. Also, I couldn’t call it Four Weddings, ‘cause that was already the name of a film [laughs].

IB: What’s your relationship to marriage like?

EB: Well, I am married as of March. I did that, like, a week after finishing the film, so it’s been a big year. My relationship to marriage has really changed a lot. I went into this project because I wanted to explore for myself whether this was something worth entering into as a queer, feminist woman — but one that was very in love and in a committed relationship. When I started, I wasn’t opposed to marriage, but it wasn’t something I was particularly interested in doing. But what I took from the film was that I felt there was enough there that I thought was really beautiful and important, and part of being a human being, that I still wanted to be a part of it. The women all had these different relationships to marriage, but in a sense they were all making something of it for themselves. I felt like that was an experience that I could really relate to as a woman, because I think that’s the quintessential experience of being a woman — interacting with institutions that are not set up with you in mind, and trying to find something for yourself in them. A lot of people are still really surprised that I got married, or even that I made this film, because my politics are quite left.

In many regards I do still feel like, ‘Let’s burn down systems, break things, shatter things,’ but I think that the day-to-day reality is that change is incremental. We do have to engage with what we have. The reality for most people is not that you walk out into the street and start setting things on fire. You probably do have to have a job. You probably do have to engage with various capitalist and patriarchal systems. I’m really interested in people’s resilience and strength, and their creativity in the way they move in those structures. Gay marriage being legalised in this country also really changed my perspective on what marriage would be in the future. It suddenly became a really inclusive tradition where it had previously been something that was kept from people. That changed the way I felt about the institution for myself and whether it was something I wanted to participate in.

IB: It wasn’t legal when you started making the film, right?

EB: Yeah, it changed when we were in post-production. It was legal in Mexico, which is where Dalia and Claudia are from, but it wasn’t legal here. At one point, I had an office above the 86, which is a drag bar on Smith St, and that office was kind of being used as the headquarters for the Yes campaign for a time while I was editing. That was really surreal. People would be like, “What are you doing?” and look over at my screen, and they’d be like, “Oh, is that a lesbian wedding?” and I’m like, “Yeah, in Mexico,” and they’re like, “Wow, I thought Mexico was really Catholic.” Gay marriage has been legal there as of 2015, I think, but it wasn’t legal here. And I’d get off the computer and be cold calling people to try and get them to vote for gay marriage.

The other three weddings in the film were quite religious — there’s large faith elements to them — and in much the same way as secular gay weddings don’t detract from a religious marriage, I wanted to include that in my film. I feel like all of them are really beautiful, and the scaremongering that existed in this country, that people’s marriages would be null and void if other people were able to do something that’s important to them, was untrue.

IB: In Anna’s wedding, it sounded like the officiant made a reference to that, like, “There are some people who want to change the meaning of marriage.” I’m coming from a similar perspective of being a queer feminist, and there were moments, watching, where I would feel a little uncomfortable. There was still, sometimes, that dynamic of a woman being given to a man to possess. It’s difficult, because there’s the dynamics of gender at play there, but also culture. How did you deal with things that might not have aligned with your politics?

EB: My first reaction to that is: good. I’m glad that you felt uncomfortable, and I’m glad that there are moments where you think, ‘This person is really unlike me,’ because people are, and I think that’s important to acknowledge. I always wanted this film to be really non-judgemental. Women are so frequently over-scrutinised and held up as examples of either a culture that’s too conservative or too wild. We are constantly how culture is measured. The morality of a culture is measured through our actions, and I feel like that’s really unfair. It removes a lot of the nuance and context that people are raised in. You’re right, Anna and I have very different politics, but we also have very different lives. We were raised in different ways, in different families — I was raised secular and she was not. I was genuinely interested in hearing from all of the women as to what was important to them and why they were participating in the traditions they were participating in.

I think that freedom kind of exists in degrees for a lot of people. Realistically, does somebody have the same kind of freedoms to, like, exist in a queer relationship, or to not get married, or even to not have children in a lot of parts in the world? Probably not. People often make choices based on the incremental freedoms available to them. And I think that it’s important to not say, ‘Well, that person isn’t strong,’ or ‘That person isn’t intelligent,’ or ‘That person isn’t as empowered as I am, because they’re not making the same choice as I am’. People exist in different contexts to my own, and they’re making decisions that make sense based on where they’re from and who they are. I didn’t want to make a film that said if you weren’t a specific type of woman, then you were a failed feminist, or you weren’t intelligent. I think we get enough of that from society and men broadly.

IB: One of the things I found really interesting about Anna’s story was that she’d had all of her ‘firsts’ with her partner. Recently, I’ve been having a lot of conversations with women in my life who have been like, “I’m 20-something, and I’m a virgin, and I feel so weird about it.” So that was cool to see, because I hadn’t seen a woman talk about that.

EB: That’s exactly it — there’s 1001 ways to shame women. There’s just no shortage of the ways, honestly. That whole experience was incredibly interesting to me, because I did not wait for marriage to lose my ‘virginity’ — which is, in itself, a construct that I have issue with. I certainly was not going to be following the path of not living with someone or not kissing someone before marriage, but that is very common in a lot of parts of the world. In Anna’s case, I was interested because it goes against the grain of a lot of the values that I’ve come across in Melbourne. I’m so different from Anna in almost every way when it comes to that stuff, but I have a lot of respect for people who embody their beliefs. I think it’s really hard to do that.

IB: How did you find the women, and did you always know you wanted four women from those specific places?

EB: It’s funny — towards the end, people were like, “Why don’t you film a Japanese wedding? Why don’t you film a Samoan wedding? Why don’t you film a Swiss wedding?”, and I was like, “I don’t have any money, that’s why!” But I’d always thought four would be a good number. I shot Anna first, through sheer proximity — she went to music school with my partner — and then it kind of kept going. I just kept filming weddings, but I did start to look more specifically for weddings that were different from the last one. I found two of the women via posting on Facebook, like, “Does anyone know of any women getting married?” — and then it got ludicrously more specific, to the point where it was like, “Does anyone know of any non-English-speaking lesbians getting married in October?” and somebody was like, “Yes!”, and that’s how I ended up filming Dalia, which is kind of crazy. I’m a member of an international group for female and non-binary filmmakers called Film Fatales, and they have a chapter in Istanbul, so through their chapter I managed to connect to Benay. It took a little while. Shooting took around two years.

IB: Yeah, I read that the whole production took four years.

EB: Yeah, two in post. The film’s in five languages — one of those languages is only spoken by a very small, tribal subsection of India — so translation alone took, like, seven months. I wanted to translate everything I’d shot to know what I had, and then things took a while because I had a job. I was a schoolteacher, so I’d teach all day then get on my bike and ride to my studio and edit ‘til 10 or 11 at night, in-between phone calls for the Yes campaign. Most documentary filmmakers don’t have tons of money, so things take a while. But I did it, so that’s good!

IB: So was it self-funded?

EB: While I was filming it, yes. And that’s why it took so long, too. People would be like, “Oh, you’re going on a holiday?” and I’m like, “I don’t go on any holidays. I just go and film random people’s weddings all over the world.” But then in post-production I was kind of retroactively paid back by Screen Australia for a lot of production via the Producer Equity Program. That program is being scrapped, so it won’t exist anymore, which is a real blow to a lot of low-budget documentary filmmakers. You just won’t see films like mine. It’s a real shame.

IB: As a documentary filmmaker, once you did find these women, how did you approach getting them to trust and welcome you into such a personal experience?

EB: All the women had a really different attitude to it. Anna knew my partner, so she was quite willing. The connection with Luthanlu had been through her fiancé, Ebenezer, so I think she was initially a little confused. I think they’d thought the focus would be more on Ebenezer and then it turned out to be more on her [laughs]. I guess the answer is just to be really slow and respectful of people. There were times when she was busy preparing and it wasn’t a good time to go and film. At the end of the day, movies are important, but respecting people and not ruining their weddings is obviously more important. It’s just a matter of taking things really slow and steady. Dalia and Claudia, like, cried for happiness when I spoke to them on Skype about the project. They were so happy to be involved, and so happy to have been chosen. We all cried. It was really emotional.

Benay and I don’t have a language in common, but she’s an extremely warm and bubbly person, so despite the fact that she basically just said “Emily, come,” the entire two weeks I was over there, she was very warm. Being in the mosque was a little bit stressful, because I don’t speak the language and it’s such an important ceremony, and I’d not been inside a mosque before. I was like, “I’m sure there’s so many ways this could go wrong,” and I was sure I was going to mess it up. At the end, the imam was kind of laughing about something with Benay and Hussein, and I was kind of like, “Oh, God, what have I done?”. But they were laughing because he said that usually he doesn’t dress up and put the lights on, and he did it for the movie, to make the movie good [laughs]. For the most part, people are extremely trusting. That trust can be exploited, and I think you do have a duty as a filmmaker not just to think about, like, “How can I get access?” and “How can I make a great film?” but also, “How can I make sure that the people involved in this film don’t feel they were exploited, and don’t feel that they were misled in any way?” That’s really important to me.

IB: It’s so nice to hear that. That’s not as common as it should be.

EB: No, because if you make someone cry or scream, people are like, “Wow, what great content”. It’s nice to make a good movie, but you have to be able to live with yourself. That’s got to be more important.

IB: Tell me about the three styles, or mediums in the film — digital, Super 8 footage, and animation.

EB: The first film I made, I was 22. I didn’t go to film school; I just took a camera and rode my bike across America, and so all I was thinking about was, “How can I get to the other side? How can I make a movie at all?”. So for this film, I was really conscious from the beginning of, what kind of effect did I want the style to have? Not just ‘pick up a camera and film things’, but what do I want people to feel through the medium I’m using? And I wanted the feeling to mirror the feeling you get from weddings, which, for me, have always been almost mythical events. You know, the myth of the bride. It’s almost like you’re not human. You’re a princess, or whatever, but you’re definitely not a mortal human in that moment, and I felt that the Super 8 really captured that. It provides distance between the audience and the subject, and it kind of plays with time and reality in a way that, I think, makes the whole process seem a bit dreamlike. Similarly, most of the animation sequences are exploring the women’s childhoods. I feel like, from the second I had language as a child, I was dipped in this culture that taught me what it was to be a girl, what it was to be a woman, what it meant to grow up and become a wife, and the significance of all of that. The animations are similar to the cartoons I was watching, so it felt like an interesting and appropriate way to explore that. We all come with the culture, and the religion, and the views, of the society that we’re born into. Whether we rebel against them or not, we absorb them, especially as children.

IB: The things you said about the Super 8 kind of tie into what Dalia said at the start — “When you’re in love it’s like wearing new glasses, where everything is beautiful.”

EB: Yeah. Throughout these four weddings, I found myself looking for a common thread, and they’re pretty hard to find. There’s not much that is the same in them, except, weirdly, a white dress. But white dresses aren’t what make a wedding. I was really trying to find the essence of what the constant at weddings is. And I don’t think there is one, but I do think with the four that I filmed, the constant that I could see was hope. Everyone, on the day of the wedding, was really hopeful about what the future might bring for this couple, you know? There might be love, there might not be; there might be children, there might not be; but it’s this whole community getting together; community hope for their lives. There was something really nice about that. I think there’s a lot of nice things about weddings. There’s a lot of terrible things, but a lot of nice things too.

IB: I found the four quotes in the film really interesting. They’re from such different sources. What were the decisions behind them?

EB: I feel like this film, at its heart, is an exploration of the choices that women make for their own lives in the context of the culture they come from. I felt that including the four quotes was kind of a dose of that culture, you know? They are all really different. There’s a bit of mixed messaging in there. But I feel like that’s what it’s like to be a woman — to spend your whole life hearing you’re meant to do this, but you’re also meant to do that, and the two things don’t match. They’re both going to be really hard to do at the same time.

IB: Yeah, it goes from Margaret Atwood to Cinderella. You can’t boil down everything you’re trying to get at with one quote, because the film is about differences.

EB: Yeah, and contradiction. You know, I enjoyed my wedding… I probably enjoy being married more than I enjoyed getting married, but the part of the wedding that I resented the most was having to be beautiful. I felt like it was a really unfair pressure and strain, and not really the point. But it’s such a huge part of all of it, even when you aren’t deeply focused on it.

IB: Do you feel like you, or the women in the film, were able to be present when the moment finally came? It’s such a big lead-up — this is such a minor comparison, but when I turned 21, which is considered a ‘milestone’ birthday, the day was horrible. I didn’t enjoy it, because I felt a weird pressure on it to be an important day.

EB: It’s hard for me to really speak as to the inner monologues of the women on their wedding days. I guess I took from it what you did, because I was watching them like you were, but for me personally, I definitely felt present, particularly for the ritual-type events and the actual being married. That was because I love my partner very much, and I was very certain that this was something that I wanted to do. But that’s not the case for everybody who gets married, for various reasons. Again, it’s hard to find a common thread! People probably feel all manner of ways on their wedding days.

IB: I’m kind of obsessed with marriage and think about it all the time. At the moment, I don’t feel like I want to get married, but I’m really interested in it.

EB: I feel like when I was in school there was this attitude of, like, you’re getting ready for university, and after university you’re getting ready to have a job, and then you had a job and it was like, you’re getting ready to have a better job… I feel like I spent my whole life getting ready for my life. But when I got married, standing there and saying, “I will love this person until the day I die” felt like I was saying, “This is my life now. I’ve made my choice.” No more waiting, no more, “What could be next? What could be different? What’s the next thing?” — it was like, “This is it.” For me, that was really powerful.

Everyone has a different experience, and there’s a lot to puzzle out. When you start thinking about it, it’s a bit broader than “Will I get married or not?”. It’s about, “What kind of life do I want for myself? How much of what I’ve been told is a good life for a woman is going to be true for me? How much do I want to invest into that?”. You’ll be faced with these decisions your whole life — do I want to have children? Do I want to work in an industry that’s predominantly men, where I’m frequently treated like shit? Do I want to go out late at night even though it’s quote-unquote ‘dangerous’? You’re constantly asking these questions. I Am No Bird is an example of one, but there are so many. I think that’s what makes women so intelligent and resilient. We’re constantly puzzling things out.

I Am No Bird is showing in Australian cinemas on 14 – 17 November at Dendy Cinemas, and 14 – 21 November at Classic Cinemas Elsternwick and Thornbury Picture House.

Em will be doing a Meet The Filmmaker session at Classic Cinemas Elsternwick on 15 November at 7pm and another at The Thornbury Picture House on 17 November at 5pm.

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Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She also makes lil videos. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.

Ivana Brehas

Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She is currently completing her MA in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.