Alan Ball Chats With Jennifer Merin About “Towelhead”

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“Towelhead” is a complex coming of age story that presents an unusual and provocative take on so many troubling social issues. It’s dark and funny, and at times quite confrontational towards the audience.

MERIN: What do you see as the most important issue raised in “Towelhead?”

BALL: It delves into a tragically common experience for many young women–and young men, for that matter–and I think the film helps to shed a light on how these things happen. I’m speaking of the sexual abuse, the sexual assault of Jasira by Mr. Vuoso. And it also deals with being an outsider, being other, in this case being someone of Middle Eastern descent– and the baggage that brings. And how these two things are really experiences that usually are depicted in a way that associates them mainly with victimization, but Alicia Erian, in her book, told it as a story of empowerment. Which I found really refreshing and it felt like a story I’d like to be involved in bringing to another medium–because I really respect her take on this.

MERIN: In what way empowering?

BALL: Jasira’s not destroyed by the experience. Had she not gone through this with Mr. Vuoso, she would not have been able to extract herself from her physically abusive relationship with her father, where she reaches a point where she says “no, this is my body, my life. He–Mr. Vuoso–did this to me and I’m not going home with you. I love you, you’re my father, but you hit me. So, no, I’m not going home with you.”

Usually when that tale is told you think well, she’s destroyed for life, her sexuality is stopped, arrested. And, the fact that in the movie she says she doesn’t want to stop having sex with her boyfriend–and, in the book she has sex with him again–is strong. She says to her boyfriend, “I enjoy having sex with you and I don’t want to stop because someone else made a mistake and took advantage of me. Why should I be punished for that?” I found that really refreshing because I think in out society we’re conditioned to…well, we have a very different standard for adolescent male sexuality and adolescent female sexuality.

MERIN: Frankly, I think we have a very screwy take on below-the-age-of eighteen sexuality, of any sort…

BALL: Yes…

MERIN: Screwy in the sense that we human beings have only reached this era in which we live until the age of 80-or hopefully so-very recently in our evolution, and prior to this modern age, we were procreating at a much younger age because we were dying at the age of 20, so…

BALL: Yes…

MERIN: There was nothing unusual about procreating at the age of 16, so….

BALL: Yes. Alicia’s book acknowledges that children are sexually curious. But we, as a culture, don’t want to acknowledge, especially when it comes to female children. It’s okay for young boys, you know.

I actually was watching “Dancing With The Start”–one of my guilty pleasures–and when they asked one of the young champions–a 13 years old boy–who would you like to dance with if you could dance with anybody famous, he literally dropped his voice and he said “any of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.”

MERIN: Yeah, I remember that…

BALL: The audience went insane and next week they brought Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders on the show to give him his trophy. And I thought what if the girl had said “Any of the Dallas Cowboys?” What would the response have been? You know what I mean? People would have been shocked. Yet, they’re both 13, they’re both having these feelings. What’s the big deal? I understand girls can get pregnant. Well, let’s educate them, please. Let’s not say, “No, abstinence is the only thing that works,” and then have your daughter turn up pregnant at 17–not mentioning any names–but the hypocrisy behind that is so shocking…I can’t believe nobody’s calling her on it.

MERIN: Well, hypocrisy abounds. Do you think that in audiences watching “Towelhead” will understand the complexity of the film–of the multiple issues of adolescent sexuality, child abuse and racial stereotyping this film. Or will one of these be predominant in their eyes? If so, which?

BALL: I think it’ll be all across the board, all over the map. I think there will be people for whom this movie is preaching to the choir, and others who can’t even get past their initial emotional response to the issues being presented. I do think there will be people who say, “Uh huh, I never saw it that way before.” If that fifteen people or 15,000 or a million people think about things differently, I won’t know. But, one thing I appreciated in Alicia’s novel is that she presented a lot of complex issues and behaviors, but she didn’t tell me what I was supposed to think about any of it. And that’s what I tried to do with the movie–because, in my opinion, it’s not the responsibility of the artist to tell the audience what they are supposed to feel.

MERIN: True. I think it’s quite to the contrary–that it’s the responsibility of the artist to leave room in the work–not only a place, but a vacuum that sucks viewers in and makes them part of the creation.

BALL: Absolutely, and forces them to engage. That‘s right. But the state of modern movie making seems to be to create predigested pabulum that you can lean back and just let it wash over you and you don’t have to engage in any other way then to have an appreciation of kinetic imagery. But the vast majority of what’s made by the moviemaking establishing–in this county anyway–is about non-engagement. It’s about distraction, and those are not the kinds of movies I want to make–which is why, when I read Alicia’s book, I thought this is what I would look for as a moviegoer. It forces me to engage. It makes me uncomfortable, it makes me look at things that maybe I don’t want to look at but that do exist, and somehow shows it all in a way that, while it’s horrible and harrowing, it’s also hilarious and entertaining, and it takes me to a place where I feel that I’ve had some sort of emotional catharsis, and I feel good about Jasira at the end of the movie. I feel hope for her. I’m not thinking, oh, she’s destroyed. And, to me, that was no small feat, accomplishing that in the book. I just thought this is the kind of movie I would love to see. So I made it.

MERIN: There were many extremely uncomfortable moments in this film. I’m not usually comfortable in films, but it pushed me in a way that make me uncomfortable. But, I wasn’t uncomfortable with my uncomfortable-ess–if you understand what I mean…

BALL: I do…

MERIN: Yet there were things I felt were obscene–and I mean obscene in the classical Greek sense, where the term is used to indicate that an event must take place offstage because it’s so overwhelming that it distracts the audience, bringing them out of the dramatic moment. So, for me, in watching “Towelhead,” I had such an uncomfortable moment when Jasira’s father holds up her used tampon. Why was that moment in the film?

BALL: Because it’s something every young girl experiences and it’s humiliating enough when you have a caring mother to explain it to you–but then to have somebody holding it up to you and actively shaming you about it. And, as a culture, I feel that our entertainment is filled with images of dismemberment and beheading, and what’s the big deal about a tampon? What’s the big deal about menstrual blood? Everybody has a mother, everybody has sisters, girlfriends, wives, daughters. It’s biology. We can take semen and make a hair gel joke about it and the entire world laughs. But I think there is a fear of women and women’s sexuality that is very deeply rooted in our culture, and in other cultures–cultures that might, for example isolate women to live in a tent while that’s going on.

MERIN: Well, some cultures–Islam, for example–consider women unclean while they’re menstruating, and they’re taboo, if not actually sent to live in a tent.

BALL: Yes. And how can something that is so incredibly natural be so taboo? It’s beyond misogyny. It’s gynophobia. And I just felt that to not show that, to have it be out of the frame would be, in a way, participating in that kind of shaming women for their sexuality.

MERIN: I understand. Now, getting back to pulling people into the film, getting them to engage, in cinematic terms, how do you as a director do that? What are your–and it may be difficult to articulate this–special skills or tricks that you know will pull the audience in and make them part of the scenario?

BALL: I don’t think about it in a calculated way. I don’t question how what I’m shooting will effect audiences and I don’t think that if I do this one way, people will feel that was as a result. I personally try to make each moment as real and honest as I can. I work with the actors to reveal as many differing feelings as possible, so I can understand their behavior. I rely on my cinematographer, my designers to create aesthetic beauty in the imagery. But for me, it’s about telling that story in a way that makes me believe it. Once I get into editing, and test screenings, then I get the opportunity to see how people are reacting to different moments. I can find out what works–that if they respond this way at this moment, it’s wrong for the movie. And I go in and change it.

MERIN: So would you say your process is primarily an intuitive one?

BALL: Yes. And I’m not a big believer in the auteur theory…it’s so collaborative. Alicia Erian created this story, these actors brought the characters to life. I don’t really think that it’s my job to think about what I am saying or what experience I am creating for the audience. I’m interested in creating a work where everybody in the audience has a different experience. And if it’s diametrically opposed to the experience I have with this material, that’s fine. I don’t think I can, in a world as widely diverse and complicated at this, really make movies for myself. Any time I try to make movies that I think will sell, or to play to what the marketplace is supposed to want or what people want to look at right now, I’ve failed miserably.

I think I’m really lucky in that regard because the one thing that I do have is confidence that I have a real keen sense of storytelling–I love the form, I love watching actors work, I love telling a story that pulls me out of my technical mind and my academic mind and works for me on an emotional level. So that’s the kind of work that I strive to do, and those are the kind of stories I’m drawn to.

MERIN: What’s the difference between making movies for yourself in the way in which you’ve just described and being an auteur?

BALL: I guess I don’t think of myself as the author. I think of myself as the director. There are 300 authors for the movie. I personally don’t take the “film by” credit because it feels embarrassing, and it’s like a slap in the face to everyone else who worked on the movie. I think if you want to be an auteur, go write a book. I’m sure I’ll piss some people off by saying that. But it’s what I believe.

MERIN: This summer that has been designated by some as “a woman’s cultural moment” and the “season of women’s films” because of Sex And The City, Mamma Mia, and The Women. You’re a man, making a film about a female central character–that’s very different from these other women’s films in its subject matter, its aesthetic, and everything else. How do you see “Towelhead” and films like “Frozen River,” “Hounddog” and other such films as fitting in to that “season of women’s films” notion?

BALL: Well I don’t know who thought up “woman’s cultural moment” or “season of women’s films,” but it sounds like a marketing person to me. The movies you’re talking about are all big budget, and they want to make a lot of money back. “Towelhead” is a definitely a woman’s story, but I hope it’s a film men can appreciate just as much as women can. They may not appreciate it the same way, may not be able to put themselves in Jasira’s shoes, but I think they can appreciate it from a humanist perspective. I think there should be many more movies about women. And I tend to write a lot or women because I find women, as a rule, tend to be much more in touch with their emotions and more adept at expressing those emotions. So as characters, they’re more interesting.

And I’m tired of movies where men go and fight over stuff. And I’m tired of movies where the woman is there either as the thing to be fought over or the sacrificial lamb, girlfriend, wife who gets killed so it justifies the man becoming a vicious killing machine. The sad economic truth of the matter is that the majority of people who go to movies are teenage boys, and that’s who they make the most movies for. I hope all of the movies you mentioned are successful, and they will be successful if women–and men–go to them. If they’re successful, there’ll be more movies about women. Ultimately Hollywood is totally run by the dollar. But, as you say, this movie got made, “Frozen River got made.” But those are the movies people have to fight to get made. I can go in and say a guy gets mistaken for a terrorist and his wife gets shot so he has to go underground and kill all the people who mistook him in the first place, and it would star Matt Damon–that would get green lit in a minute. I go in and pitch a woman has been basically a doormat all her life and she snaps and she decides to become a vigilante–I’m gonna have a lot harder time with that.

MERIN: In terms of the whole business of Hollywood and the dollar–

BALL: Or America and the dollar….

MERIN: Yes, America and the dollar. But, Hollywood with the dollar has co-opted independent film–and is it possible that the thrust of chick flick successes will co-opt women’s films? That’s scary….

BALL: I hear you….

MERIN: that it can become harder for you to make a serious woman-oriented film because suddenly there’s the frenzy to make women’s films that sell, sell, sell. You can’t blame filmmakers because it’s so hard to get funding–so there’s compromise and filmmakers start shifting direction a bit, then more. And it’s scary that success of women’s blockbusters at the box office might actually wind up hurting women’s films.

BALL: I understand what you’re saying. All I can say is that as movies become more expensive they tend to be made more and more by committee and filmmakers become more and more scared, and they start pulling their punches, become more crass and appeal to the lowest common denominator. But I think there will always be filmmakers who don’t want to do that kind of work and there will always be audiences who respond to independent filmmakers’ work.

We made “Towelhead” for eight-million dollars. You can make a great movies for five-million dollars, or for three-million dollars. I don’t think the studios are where you’re going to get that done. The studios trying to co-opt independent film and become their own little indie film companies didn’t really work. Warner Independent Pictures dissolved after they bought “Towelhead.” It ate itself up, and now there’re independent fanciers who step up–you know, guys and women who’ve made a bazillion dollars in their lives and they want to make movies. That’s what happened with us. And I think that’s going to be the case in the future. That there are always going to be people who want to make those movies. Will those movies ever be the million dollar grosser on the first weekend? No. But that’s not the point. For people who want to make those kinds of movies, profit isn’t the point.

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