I met Deborah Kampmeier at a workshop in November. We were two weeks post-election; the room was raw with emotion, and electric with conversations about resistance. This tall, badass woman dressed in all black sauntered into the room, and chose a seat at the table. When she read, my solar plexus exploded, and I couldn’t stop nodding my head.
After the workshop, she sent me the screener of her new feature film, Split. It was the first time I felt such a strong feminine point of view in a film, and I was filled with both joy and furious longing for more. Why hadn’t I seen a strip club, or sex, or feminine rage portrayed with this kind of honesty before? There was no glamorous lie, and no apology. Instead, women’s stories were given a rare primacy that felt luminous, transformative, magical.
Deborah Kampmeier is a two-time Independent Spirit Award-winning filmmaker. Her feature film, Hounddog, starring Dakota Fanning, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Split will be released at the Socially Relevant Film Festival on March 18, 2017 and available on iTunes Movies starting March 21, 2017.
The Rumpus: When did you first know that you wanted to make films, and how did you come to your feminist vision or point of view?
Deborah Kampmeier: I made my first short when I was still pursuing acting. And it was an attempt to get Wim Wenders to cast me in a movie. I had just seen Wings of Desire, which touched my twenty-three-year-old heart so deeply, and so I thought I’d make a video fan letter, and say why I thought he was so great and why I needed to act for him. And in the process of doing that I realized, wait, I actually have my own story to tell. It happened very quickly. I proceeded to write the script in two weeks.
Kampmeier: It was amazing. I thought I was trying to get an acting job but I actually found my path in the process.
When I started off, I never thought of myself as a political or feminist filmmaker. I was just an artist, trying to speak my truth, and share my personal stories as honestly as I could. And in the process of trying to do that, I came up against reality: only six percent of films are made by women. And so in that that paradigm, a woman making a film at all is a political statement. A woman speaking her truth creates a feminist film.
Rumpus: Do you identify as a feminist?
Kampmeier: Oh, absolutely. Fuck yeah, I identify as a feminist.
The thing is I grew up in the South and somehow never heard that word. And I didn’t go to college so I never had that awakening that so many young women get in Women’s Studies 101. But my life experience was such that I was always fighting for my voice, fighting for my body, fighting for my sexuality, fighting for my life. And so when people started saying I was a feminist, I was like oh cool, that’s what that is? How could any woman not be? It’s what I’ve always been, even though I didn’t always know that’s what it was called.
Rumpus: One of the things that drew me into Split was the way it’s shot, it feels like, in a way that combats the male gaze. Do you think about doing that explicitly?
Kampmeier: Yeah, absolutely I think about it. Female sexuality is presented in our culture as a male fantasy, which doesn’t include the reality of the abuse, the pleasure, the pain, the power, the complexity of women’s sexuality. And so for me it was very important that I had a female DP, and a female crew, and that we were holding space for women to feel seen. My actresses are being asked to reveal their truth, not their expected presentation.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about your main character? I guess we’d call her a sex worker, broadly, because she starts off as a dancer and then takes some money to meet a client in a hotel room. How did you take the stereotypical “actress hard on her luck” fantasy and spin it around?
Kampmeier: Well, yes it’s a cliché, and it’s also my experience. I have a very complicated relationship to my sexuality, and I had to travel a very long road to heal and reclaim it. Part of the process of doing that has been art, theater, making my films. In my early twenties, I was a stripper. I know a lot of women who have an empowered relationship to that work, and I respect that. But for me, stripping had a direct relationship to my abuse. That scene in the hotel? Scene from my life. So I was taking something that yes, has been turned into a cliché, but I was using the details of my own experience to combat that.
I also became addicted to abusive men, which was a part of my personal wound. And so, this film is reflective of my healing journey because the theater was very much the place where I found my true voice: the unacceptable parts as well as the acceptable parts.
Rumpus: One of my favorite scenes in the film is of the women sitting in a circle, and they’re doing a storytelling process where they’re expressing rage, sorrow. I’ve never seen something like that in a film before.
Kampmeier: I haven’t either, but I have seen it in women’s workshops. And I think we’ve kept it protected because there’s so much cultural shaming when women sit in a circle. So I think we’ve kept it secret. Women were burned at the stake for this shit, you know? The spaces where we gather as women to do this work are sacred. And I think it’s dangerous to show it, but it’s also necessary. I think we have to do it, especially now.
Rumpus: You mentioned that a lot of your healing came from the theater, and Split is a film about a theater production. Do you think one of the big differences between theater and film is the absence of the camera? Going back to the male gaze, do you think there’s an additional challenge when we put a camera in the room?
Kampmeier: Yes, I do. I think when I work with actors it’s all about a process of learning to be private in public, instead of performing in public. Which is what women do: we perform, especially our sexuality. So that scene of the women speaking? We shot the first day. Which was very intense but it felt essential to go there because then we were all committed after everyone shared their stories. All of those stories are real stories, some of them actually belong to the women who spoke them. So there was a sense of solidarity in that room. And from that point on, we all knew what film we were making.
Rumpus: What was your vision for Split and do you feel like you achieved it?
Kampmeier: Yes and no. My vision for it was that I would have a very large budget. My vision for it was extremely theatrical. Something like Pan’s Labyrinth. And I had a fraction of that budget. So in the sense of the magical realism I had envisioned, I didn’t have the special effects budget I would have wanted. However, I feel like the film is what it’s meant to be. And I love what it is. It’s certainly different than what I had begun with in my mind’s eye when I wrote the script a decade ago.
Rumpus: The myth of Inanna, how did you come across that?
Kampmeier: About twenty-five years ago, I took a workshop, like the workshops I was discussing earlier, led by Olympia Dukakis and Joan MacIntosh. She (McIntosh) plays the theater director in the film. The workshop was called Voices of Earth, and was based on this ancient Sumerian myth, the Descent of Inanna. We explored the ways in which we have succeeded in the patriarchy. What are the parts of ourselves that we’ve used? Are we using our sexiness, are we using our intelligence, are we using our motherhood? How have we survived? And then we took that useful piece of ego off and went down into the underworld to face those silent parts of the self.
In the workshop, we had to mirror each other, and when you mirror, you have reflect in your body, in your voice, exactly what the woman in front of you is going through. And four of us, would mirror each woman who was going through this epic journey. And so this experience for me of being in the middle of my deepest rage, and my deepest wound, and my deepest grief, and having these women reflect it back to me. It made me feel heard. I can’t even give words to how deeply I felt heard and seen, and it freed me.
It transformed my life as a woman and an artist. And it stayed with me. And I got out of that relationship you see in the film, and I knew I would make a film of it.
That myth is the oldest piece of writing that we know of. It was written by a high priestess, Enheduanna. Inanna, the Goddess of Heaven and Earth, has to go to the underworld to face her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. It’s a myth that really instructs what women must do to reclaim the self that the patriarchy has stolen.
Rumpus: I was shocked when I discovered how old this myth is. I was an English lit major at a women’s college. And we went back to the Bible, or to Greek mythology, but we didn’t learn about this.
Kampmeier: The history of women’s silenced voices, I mean, I think we’re just so fucking sick and tired of it. I feel it right now, in epic proportions, that women are done. We’re going to speak our truth now, and hopefully more and more of these silenced, forgotten stories will be unearthed, and we can take strength from them.
It’s terrifying to have a voice right now. It’s so terrifying, and it’s so essential.
Rumpus: What you’re saying is that this silencing is ancient. It isn’t just that we haven’t ever had a voice; it’s that we had one and it was buried and taken away.
Kampmeier: Violently. The history of silencing women is violent. And we feel that in our DNA. On a cellular level we know what it costs to speak our truth.
In the film, Ereshkigal, the madwoman, she holds the ancient rage. She holds every single woman in history who has been abused, repressed, silenced by the patriarchy. She holds it all. She’s such a fierce, powerful archetype in Inanna’s psyche, and in all of our psyches. I feel like she exists so close to the surface right now.
Rumpus: And that performance of Ereshkigal, by Raina von Waldenburg? Both her performance and the archetype of Ereshkigal are so inspiring and necessary. I thank you for bringing that out into the world.
Kampmeier: I love that woman so much, she is so fierce and so true. I remember when we had some feedback saying, “you have to cut that close-up shot of her masturbating, like you just have to get rid of it.” And I was a little nervous, I showed Raina a rough cut and she said to me, “I will take my name off of this film if you take that shot out. You have to keep it.” I was floored. She was so fierce about claiming our truth.
I think about what women like her, women like me, in our fifties have had to do to reclaim our sexuality from the male gaze. It’s epic, it’s so enormous. She was so ferocious and fierce and protective, like, “you may not water this down.” And I was really grateful that she stood up for that. People are uncomfortable with it. But you know what, you have to be uncomfortable.
Rumpus: It is uncomfortable because everyone is used to a different model but I think it’s time that we learn how to break out.
Kampmeier: And I feel like all the women in the circle have done that. They’re calling to Inanna up on her throne, refusing to look at her own pain and rage, and insisting she do that. And I think we have to insist.
And that fifty-three percent of white women who voted for fucking Trump are sitting up on that fucking throne, refusing to look at the way they have betrayed themselves for the patriarchy.
And we all have to fucking insist, they have got to, we’ve got to grab them and drag them down to the underworld. That’s what I feel like.
Rumpus: Where do we line up? I’m ready.
Author photograph © Mikaela Martin.