Mar 28, 2017
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Cassie Jaye: A Filmmaker Births Herself
by Don Schwartz
Young but accomplished documentarian Cassie Jaye with her main axe, the Panasonic P2. photo: C. Jaye
A beautiful young woman sensually paints lipstick on her lips. Stevie Ray Vaughn's "You Better Leave My Little Girl Alone" smothers the scene with its hot-and-heavy moaning guitar. Cut to a handsome, middle-age, clean-shaven man tying his tie. Both are at home, preparing for their ceremony, a Pledge of Purity, to be conducted at a Purity Ball for fathers and daughters. The pledge is hers, a vow of chastity, a promise not to have sex until marriage.
Intimations of incest. This is the very first scene of 25 year-old Cassie Jaye's very first film, "Daddy I Do". The scene and the topic of chastity pledges serve as a springboard to Jaye's exploration of adolescent sexual behavior and public sex education in America. A tough documentary topic for anyone, let alone someone of Jaye's youthful age.
But wait. There's more. Jaye has completed principal photography of her second documentary, "The Right to Love" which follows two years in the life of the Leffew's, a Santa Rosa same-sex parented family—another tough topic.
Born in 1986, in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Jaye was an "Army brat," moving from base to base. She put substantial time in Seattle, where she began performing in elementary school, and in Las Vegas, where she performed in commercials and small productions. At eighteen Jaye moved to Los Angeles, where she acted for five and a-half years before moving to Marin in 2008.
I sat down with Jaye and her mother/producing partner Nena at my home in Larkspur, last July, to learn more about this young force-to-be-contended with.
Why the moves behind the camera and to Marin?
The main reason I went behind the camera was because I never felt fully fulfilled acting. I never acted in a film that spoke about what I wanted to put out in the world. And so that's what began "Daddy I Do". I wanted to do something that was personal to me. In my acting career I was probably in about eight horror films, died eight times. I've done a lot of films, they were fun to work on, but I wasn't telling the story I wanted to tell. The move to Marin was a collision of a lot of things—a breakup, the high price of living in L.A., I wanted something different. I was going behind the camera, and I was working a lot with my family who live here. I was editing with them, doing all my post production up here, so it just made sense to be up here. I thought it was going to be a Summer in the Bay Area, and I ended up loving it, never moved back.
Cassie Jaye with Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, who requested to meet with her after the fiasco at The Lark Theater when they cancelled the "Daddy I Do" screening and then brought it back. photo: C. Jaye
Who Is The Family?
I mainly work with my mom [Nene Jaye]. She produced "Daddy I Do" and did the camera work. She started out as a photographer for many years. When I decided to make the film I didn't have any money to make it, but I figured, 'well, my mom's a photographer, maybe get a video camera, see if she can do it,' and she did. So we travelled the country together, and we bonded over that whole experience, 'cause that was the first time we came together with me being an adult.
After the shoot my sister came on in post-production, doing a lot of the administrative stuff. Then her and I began our second documentary called "The Right to Love: An American Family" which is about gay marriage. So Christina, my sister, and my mom started "Right to Love" about two years ago. Now we're close to completion, we'll have picture lock in a few weeks.
What was the genesis of "Daddy I Do"?
It was during the writers' strike in L.A.—late 2007/early 2008—no work. I was going through an acting slump, no auditions, not feeling fulfilled, my creative juices were not flowing. I started watching a lot of documentaries. I watched "Jesus Camp" which I loved, mainly because I grew up in that world—evangelical Christians. I went to Jesus Camps as a kid. And I thought the film did a very good job of showing it, like a fly-on-the-wall aspect of it.
But I also felt like the filmmakers didn't live through that. They both grew up not religious. That kind of fueled a little spark thinking about this, about the religious influence on society and politics. I grew up in religion; but now I call myself an agnostic. So, I feel like I can see both sides, and relate to where their religious aspect is coming from, but also take a step back and see the bigger picture. I was also reading a lot of political books at the time.
So it really just started as, 'Let's see where this goes. Let's start interviewing people.' I vaguely had an idea that I wanted to make a film about the Purity Ball which I learned about through "Glamour" magazine. I found that fascinating because I did things like that as a young girl growing up in the church. I was part of the 'Missionettes' which was like a Brownies girls' troop, but it involved learning Bible verses, learning how to iron, cook, and do laundry. And we'd get badges for that. So, I did the virginity pledges, I put on a silver ring at 16, vowed to remain a virgin until marriage, moved to L.A., saw the wider scope of how people are living. I really grew up in that bubble, and then I came out of it.
You used the Purity Ball as a springboard to the topic of public policy on sex education? What came first?
The Purity Ball [which promote virginity until marriage and are often associated with American Evangelical churches]. I didn't realize the bigger picture of the whole issue until midway when we started filming. Originally the Purity Ball concept was fascinating to me. I found it a little bit creepy, but I also understood where they were coming from, so I wanted to explore that. We ended up having issues trying to film Purity Balls. It's a private event, a lot of folks have their guard up about the presence of media. And it's a religious event.
Also, the BBC was making a documentary called "The Virgin Daughters" at the same time. So they were filming the first established Purity Ball, and we wanted to film that one, too, and we talked to the founders, and they gave us permission—for the next one in a year. We didn't want to wait a year to start filming. So we decided to take the idea of the Purity Ball, and to start peeling back the onion layers, and seeing what the bigger issue is, and how this affects American policies.
Comfortable with both playing the and playing with beauty, Cassie Jaye sees the travails of women coming of age in our society from the inside. photo: C. Jaye
Was there a moment, an epiphany where you realized you had to address public policy?
The second half of the film addresses girls' personal stories. And hearing those stories was the time we're not just talking about fundamental values or traditions, we're talking about people's lives that are changed for the worse because of misinformation. The first half of the film shows the organizations and the events that go on, preaching abstinence until marriage. And it all does look like fun and games for a certain amount of time, but when you realize the deep implanting of information that can affect these young kids later in life, that's when it hit me that this is a bigger issue than I originally thought.
So, would it be accurate to say that you were most moved by these interviews, and that's when public policy came to your foreground?
Absolutely. It was seeing girls who were victims of sexual abuse because of misinformation, or feeling like they couldn't talk about sex to anyone. It was stories of girls having a baby too young, girls living in poverty because they were a teen mother and had no family or baby-daddy to turn to. And when you see that more than half the people living under the poverty line are single moms with kids under the age of six years old, that's a big issue.
So that realization changed who you were going to interview and what information the film would provide?
The people we found and interviewed was a very organic, unplanned process. We only took out [of the film] maybe three people that we interviewed because of time constraints, but out of everyone else that we present are the people we found. So, we didn't interview a hundred people and select the 12 people that had the story we wanted to tell. These were the people we found. We originally sought out the Purity Ball family and The Silver Ring which is one of the largest organizations for abstinence only education. Then we went into the personal lives, the personal stories. So, when you watch the film, you are seeing our process of filming. There is no manipulation to tell a story we wanted to tell.
So, when people have issue with the people we show in the film, their stories, what they said, these people are not having an issue with me as an editor, they're having an issue with the facts of life. We've had backlash from people thinking that we just found the most extreme scenarios to film. That wasn't the case. We didn't know the women's stories before we filmed them. I know some documentary filmmakers will get their stories first, and then go back and film them later. We filmed them right when we met them. When we shook their hands, we were filming them. I was learning about them while the camera was rolling, and that's what we show in the film.
You showed some pretty heavy-duty situations. Had you ever confronted those situations before?
I have with friends, but never with strangers. I mean we're talking about people's deepest, darkest secrets, and we are asking to film it. So I've never had that experience before.
Documentarian Jaye and camera ready for her closeup. photo: C. Jaye
How did you deal with what you were receiving?
It was hard. Because you want to help them, and there's not enough help you can give to really turn back time.
After we interviewed the ladies, we would have a long car ride to discuss what we had just experienced. And I remember realizing that in a way, these women represent populations of, for instance, Hispanic women who live in poverty. What are they like? The Black women who have multiple children with multiple men, and living in poverty, maybe been in a gang, doing drugs, all those things. And I remember us having these chats afterwards.
Just amazed by the souls of these women. Although they're in this situation, we're talking about real human beings, with the same desires, passions, hopes for the future that all of us have. Yet they didn't have the same kinds of opportunities that Cassie and I have had in our lives. Maybe because, I hate to say, we're white, middle, upper-middle class. We had the money to go to college, we had the money to live our dreams out, but these young ladies didn't have those kinds of opportunities. But they're just the same as Cassie and I.
It really affected me, it affected Cassie. And we thought we really need to make sure that when these women are portrayed in the film that somehow we impart to the audience this opportunity for empathy for the lives. To show there's a connection, we're all connected, and we should have compassion, and we should care about what's happening to these women. We look at political policies in this country where there is an enormous amount of the population who want to take away social services, monies to social programs to help these women. It's not just that they made bad choices, and let them now exist in their wrong choice.
No, we're all in this together, and we need to try and do something because what's happening in the United States right now isn't working. We have the highest STD rates, highest teenage pregnancy rate, where is this coming from, why is this happening? And why don't people care about it? So, that's why it was really powerful meeting those women.
I always find myself defensive for these women, when people attack their choices. Because I don't feel like they were the reason why their lives are the way they are. I feel like society failed them. We failed them. Everyone failed them. They didn't bring it on themselves, we brought it on them.
Wow. Thanks! Tell me about the "Right to Love" project.
"The Right to Love: An American Family". It's about same-sex marriage. For the past two years we've been following this family—Jay, Bryan, and their two adopted kids, Daniel and Selena. The Leffew family, up in Santa Rosa. After Proposition 8 passed, in 2008, they began showing their lives in the rawest form on YouTube. Showing what a gay married couple is like, with their two adopted kids. And it's no different than any other nuclear family. They've developed quite a following online, and a ruckus from people who disagree.
It's a very uplifting film in the long run, an educational film in a lot of ways. We're looking to premiere it beginning in January, 2012. Skywalker is doing our foley, sound mixing, all of our post sound production.
How did you find this family?
My sister, Christina Clack, found the family. My mom and I were making "Daddy I Do" and Christina wanted to make a documentary with us as well. She wanted to make it about the same-sex marriage issue. This was right before the Obama election. She found the Leffew family on YouTube, when they had only two or so videos out. Now they have hundreds. Their YouTube channel is called Gay Family Values.
How was the shoot?
Great. We're really happy with it. We've been working on it for more than two years, and it's been overwhelming with how much has happened and changed—the LGBT rights in this country. We finally put it all together into a really powerful story. So, we're excited to see where it goes. We feel that "Daddy I Do" has been a very personal project to us, and it has done very well with the festival and college screenings. But we feel that "The Right to Love" is a much further step along, with what we've learned from "Daddy I Do".
Some folks spend years promoting their film after it's produced. You've got two films coming out soon.
I think we're pleasantly ignorant sometimes, so that's what helps us. We don't think in terms of how are we going to possibly do this. We don't have that voice in our head telling us 'you're crazy.'
Well..., since you are 'crazy,' what's your next project?
We've talked about some ideas. I'm also trying to get into narrative directing, to combine my acting training with filmmaking. I have a story in mind. We have some documentary ideas. One of my lifelong goals is to live in Africa, at least for a couple months. There is an organization called Palms for Life Fund in New York which is one of the largest NGO providers of food for low-income families in America. But they also do work overseas, and we're trying to get this documentary off the ground, and film their work in Africa.
Thanks, Cassie and Nena. I look forward to saying, "I knew them when...."
is an actor, writer and doc maven living in Marin.
Posted on Aug 21, 2011 - 10:08 PM