WEBCAM GIRLS (Aerlyn Weissman, Canada), 53 min, w/ BREAKIN' IN - THE MAKING OF A HIP HOP DANCER Monday (April 25), 9:15 pm, Bloor; April 30, 9 pm, ROM. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Renowned doc filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman and I are talking over the phone. That seems appropriate, especially since her new film, WebCam Girls, looks at women and new technology.
I know, I know. The phone is hardly new technology. But at one time it was, and women were warned against it.
"Women were told to be very careful around telephones," laughs Weissman from her Vancouver home. "The thinking was, you could be talking to someone who claimed to be your Aunt Minnie but could turn out to be an imposter."
New technology + women = fear. That's one of the societal equations that drew the ever-curious Weissman to this project. Are women who focus a webcam on their so-called private lives 24/7 simply enticing stalkers? Are they exploiting themselves?
(I guess I should explain to those who think the Internet is that thing dividing opposing volleyball teams that a webcam is a camera hooked up to your computer to transmit your moving image to others via the Web.)
"Going into this, I had no idea what the answers would be," says Weissman, who's clear and cerebral and listens painstakingly to my questions - just what you'd expect from someone who's used to doing the asking.
"What was fascinating to discover was that these women felt more nervous working at a copy shop."
Weissman, best known for her award-winning doc about lesbians and pulp fiction, Forbidden Love (co-directed with Hot Docs programmer Lynne Fernie), centres on four women who've spent much of the last few years in front of a cam for the entire world to see.
They range from Anna Voog, an enigmatic St. Paul recording artist/crochet queen/photographer who uses the medium to challenge the idea of what art is, to Dionne, an entrepreneur who starts out as a sex/chat worker to support her husband and eventually hires other webcam girls to open up her own business.
One of the film's funniest moments comes when Dionne wonders why the guys running the sites ("they aren't brain surgeons") should be making more money than the workers. After all, there's no way the guys would strip on cam.
WebCam Girls is full of mini revolts like this. The wildly charismatic New Yorker Ducky, a former sex-trade worker, reinvents herself on her webcam by pushing the boundaries of what's erotic, sexy and fun. Voog, whose music is bought by a label that doesn't release it, decides to make her own genre-defying videos on the Internet and discovers how she can subvert the form.
In some scenes, Voog turns the tables on Weissman, first photographing the crew and then turning her webcam on them so the they become objects, too. It's a terrific moment, and you can see the crew's shocked expressions.
"I was delighted and surprised by that," says Weissman. "It comments on the social software side of what goes on in the Internet. It raises issues about the authenticity of relationships, as every new representational technology does."
Going in, Weissman had some tough questions about what these women were doing.
"I wondered if the webcam phenomenon really empowered women," says the director. "Were they presenting themselves the way they wanted, or was this just a high-tech version of the same old, same old?"
She gets many answers from her fourth subject, Terri, an academic who offers theories about autobiography and branding.
"Terri believes that women brand themselves as an available item, as opposed to men, who own real estate and property," she says. "In a way, the women become the property. There are guys with webcams, but they're often gay sites. For the most part straight men don't put themselves on display in the same way. They don't perceive themselves as the object of that kind of attention."
Technology moves quickly, and in the years she's spent making the film - which has been picked up by the W Network - Weissman admits the webcam market has exploded. But that doesn't date her film, she says.
"The questions and issues are more relevant than ever," she says. "People can see things they couldn't see before. There are these public images today that yesterday were private. You can walk into a stadium and your image gets captured and entered into a database of known terrorists.
"As Ducky says in the film, 'You better think about what you want to put online. '"
What's up, doc? Only North America's biggest documentary fest, featuring 100 films from 23 countries. Highlights include a spotlight on Israel, a focus on Canadian vet Larry Weinstein and an Errol Morris retrospective. So get reel - and real.