DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT –
MEETING JABE BABE
I first met Jabe at a nightclub. She strode onto the dance-floor with a group of her larger than life transvestite friends, creating a strong impact as she towered above the crowd. We got to know each other through mutual friends. When I observed her height and long fingers, I asked her whether she had Marfan Syndrome. She was shocked to learn that I knew about this little known medical condition. I explained that my uncle had suffered from the same genetic disorder.
My uncle was a tall man. He lived his life with partial sight, and from the age of two wore thick glasses. He became a professional musician and before he died I remember him playing the piano with his long spiderlike fingers. He had to stop playing french horn professionally as the retinas in his eyes detached several times due to the pressure of playing. My uncle was an unusual and funny person, but he never married or had children due to his genetic condition, so his professional success was mixed with a certain level of personal sadness. I was able to understand Jabe’s experience of living with Marfan Syndrome, and the impact that her health problems were having on her opportunities and choices in life.
Jabe and I also shared some similar experiences as tall women. People who are considered outsiders often have to develop a strong sense of humour and irreverence as a defence mechanism. Jabe's awareness of herself as different, as a 21st century 'freak', led to the formation of her compassionate and individualistic character. Initially I felt that her difference was defined by her body and Marfan Syndrome. However, during the course of filming I realised that there were other social and psychological forces which defined her difference.
Jabe grew up as the tallest girl in the class, the freaky skinny teenager, the girl with the coke-bottle bottom glasses who never dated boys. As a result of her mother’s schizophrenia, she was removed by the authorities and put into the foster care system at the age of 6. She lived with a range of families, good and bad, until she was 16. Jabe almost died at the age of 17 due to an aortic aneurism, and after open heart surgery was told she may only live to the age of 25. In her twenties, Jabe’s ‘apprenticeship’ and career as a dominatrix helped her to feel powerful and respected, a step towards gaining independence and control in her life.
I felt that Jabe’s differences and stories of survival could be reflected by the structure and form of the film, which is idiosyncratic, eclectic and transgresses genre boundaries.
The film takes place as Jabe enters a period of transition. She has transcended childhood pain and self-destructive tendencies to find herself in a place where she can, for the first time in her life, plan for a future and look forward to a normal life expectancy.
‘Normal’ life, however, is full of challenges. With a lack of formal schooling or academic qualifications, Jabe struggles to find a place in the workforce, and feels that her physical appearance has led to her exclusion from certain types of work. Her tall stature, whilst being an advantage in her work as a dominatrix, has also limited her acceptability in terms of personal relationships. She tires of being cast in the ‘dominant’ role in the relationships she has had with both men and women. After all, tall women feel the need to be nurtured and cared for as much as short, or ‘feminine’ looking women.
During the course of the film I follow Jabe as she chooses to give up her work as a dominatrix to explore her capacity for a relationship and her pursuit of a new career in the funeral industry.
Jabe Babe - A Heightened Life is a hybrid documentary which experiments with its use of performance, design and structure to construct a story of survival and social acceptance. The film merges non-fiction with fiction forms, and interweaves observational footage with studio based performance sequences. The film also references 50s cult cinema, popular stories and medical photography through studio reconstructions. Jabe Babe is both documentary subject and performer as she spins tales of her ‘heightened’ experience of life. The film’s playful visual treatment lifts the film out of the conventional worthy 'medical documentary' genre, and into the realm of subjectivity and creative storytelling.
Not long after I met Jabe, I asked her whether she would be interested to participate in a film about her life. However, I did not feel that a totally ‘observational’ style documentary would do justice to her story. I set out to construct a visual style and storytelling structure which could build upon her naturally flamboyant character, sense of humour and love of role-play and visual transformation. Hers was a larger than life story, and the key was to find a film form which could involve her as a creative participant and performer, and not simply a passive subject. Jabe agreed to participate in the process, and we developed a friendship. Jabe had to rely on me to tell her story with sensitivity, and I had to trust her abilities as both documentary subject and performer.
I set about writing a film which would interweave documentary and fiction conventions. I was interested to combine the immediacy of observational footage with more controlled elements such as interviews, performed tableaux, and studio reconstructions. The script drew on popular stories such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865) and cult films such as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Dir: Nathan Juran, 1958) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (Dir: Jack Arnold, 1957). Due to Jabe’s height, I wanted to play with the concept of scale, and to invert the traditional hierarchy of patient and expert found in conventional medical documentaries.
The film’s treatment and script grew slowly over several years. I would meet with Jabe from time to time, getting to know her better and explaining the medical and design research that I was doing. I spent time with Dr Lesley Adès at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney. She is Australia’s leading authority on Marfan Syndrome. I also spoke with other health specialists such as opthalmologist Dr David McKay, who treats eye problems associated with genetic conditions, such as the dislocation of lenses commonly found with Marfan patients. There were no photographs, home movies or visual evidence from Jabe’s childhood from which to work (although she did eventually find one small photograph which we could use) so I knew that I had to find other ways of presenting her story.
With my background in design as well as experimental film and media art, I have long been interested in merging genres and using visual means to convey ideas. I knew that I could more thoroughly explore Jabe’s emotional realities in the stylised space of the studio. The film studio gave me the opportunity to stage the key interview in a heightened ‘tree-top world’ environment. I wanted to enable Jabe to form a direct relationship with the audience, so I asked her to spin her tales whilst looking directly down the camera lens.
Other parts of the film, including Jabe’s experiences in the foster system and her current life, were shot on digital video in an observational style. I used the exteriors of her childhood foster homes as locations for interviews, and attended many medical consultations with her. This technique captured a different side of Jabe; her wit, energy and strength of character. Filming in these locations also helped her to recall memories from her past.
Jabe often spoke about feeling powerless as a child, being taken for tests, and being scrutinised by doctors who, she felt, treated her body like a medical specimen. I researched the history of medical photography, which until recently employed the characteristics of forensic imaging. Patients, highly vulnerable and stripped to their underwear, were photographed in black and white, against a measuring grid, in what was considered an empirical ‘objective’ style. The imbalance of power in these photographs was palpable. By reconstructing these images with the adult Jabe in the studio, I could explore and evoke her childhood feelings of vulnerablity and isolation.
One of the key concepts in the film is the contrast between an individual’s subjective experience of life from inside a body as opposed to the way that bodies are judged and interpreted by outsiders such as the public, lovers, clients and medical specialists. I developed a distinct visual style to convey these two realities. Interviews and performances from Jabe’s perspective are staged and filmed in a dreamy celluloid 'Technicolor' world constructed in the studio, whilst her interaction with the ‘normal’ or sometimes banal real world is captured on monochromatic digital video. There is a transition during the course of the film as Jabe realises that she is likely to have a normal life expectancy. She descends from the treetops into the ordinary world which seems exotic for her. As she catches a train or is tested for a drivers licence test we leave behind the landscapes of her larger-than-life experiences, and enter the more grounded realities of day-to-day struggle.
In keeping with the film’s exploration of scale and Jabe’s experiences as a tall woman, I conceived a hyper-real model city with replicas of the buildings we visited during the observational filming. Miniature monitors were placed in the buildings, so Jabe as ‘giantess’ could view her own life as represented in the video sequences. This time, though, she is in control, and the medical experts are miniaturized rather than holding positions of authority over her. The monitors also present Jabe’s exploration of friendships, and her search for a relationship with her mother, who is an invisible character in the film.
The miniature city setting reference films such as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, where the larger-than-life woman, and her desires, are perceived as a threat to social stability. Jabe is a mild giantess in one scene, and then a destroyer of cities the next. ‘I didn’t realise that I was intimidating,’ she says in the film. Other giantess sequences represent men’s ‘macrophilic’ sexual fantasies, where men desire to be devoured, squashed or trodden on by giant women. Indeed, in reality, many men pay for this service.
I was interested in exploring the idea that there are many sides to a single person, and that women ‘perform’ feminine roles which are, to a certain extent, social constructs. In real life and in her role as a dominatrix, Jabe enjoys dressing up and inventing characters, perhaps as a form as escapism.
I invited Jabe to work as a performer, and wrote various tableaux to explore her childhood memories, her medical experiences,and her relationships.
Other scenes incorporated some of her invented ‘characters’ such as ‘Calamity Pain’ and the ‘Queen of Mean’. The performed tableaux act as chapter headings to different stages of Jabe’s life, as well as exploring the themes of acceptance, control, death and desire.
Jabe’s life is an epic tale, so, in creative collaboration with director of photography Jackie Farkas and production designer Karla Urizar, I developed a lush visual style complemented by a rich soundscape by sound designer Liam Egan which reflect her wide range of experiences.
With Jabe Babe – A Heightened Life I seek to extend the boundaries of the 'factual' form to create a hybrid documentary which is groundbreaking in its innovative use of design and performance.
16th May 2005
I researched and wrote the script for Jabe Babe – A Heightened Life whilst undertaking a Doctoral research degree (DCA) at the University of Technology, Sydney, supervised by Sarah Gibson.
The project was developed with a close team of collaborators including co-producers Deborah Szapiro and Georgia Wallace-Crabbe, Director of Photography Jackie Farkas, Production/Costume Designer Karla Urizar, editor Roland Gallois, sound designer Liam Egan and composer Felicity Fox.
I am grateful for the support of Glenys Rowe and Debbie Lee at SBS Independent, Karin Altmann and Julia Overton at the Australian Film Commission, and Sally Browning at the New South Wales Film and Television Office for their support.
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