The documentary Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise had its origins back in 1991, when director Jennifer Townsend saw the then-newly-released Thelma & Louise, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Callie Khouri, a complete badass who wrote the script in longhand while working a production assistant job, won an Oscar for it, and reportedly responded to critics of the film’s feminist messages by telling them to “kiss my ass.”
Townsend was deeply affected by the film. “It blew me away,” she told me in a phone interview last week. “The very next morning after I saw Thelma & Louise, I woke up and decided to change my name.” Up until then, Townsend had been holding on to her married name, Pierce, despite the fact that she had been divorced for many years. Inspired by the film, “I just picked a name out of the air,” she says. She also started to wonder if other people were being inspired by Thelma & Louise in such a profound way. So she planned a research project, though she had absolutely no background in doing so.
“I wanted to find out ‘Are other people having this kind of reaction?’” remembers Townsend. “So I made up the name of a company and I put out a press release.”
She sent the release to a number of newspapers and film-themed magazines. It explained that she was seeking respondents for a research project about Thelma & Louise, and that interested readers could write her to receive a questionnaire, which contained five simple questions about their reactions to it, like “Who did you identify with in the film?” Some of the publications she sent the press release to did run something about her project, and printed her address.
“I got all these postcards saying, ‘Please send me a questionnaire,’” she says. “Some people just answered the questions, but some people sent me two, three, five page letters.’”
All of this took a while, however, in the pre-internet era, and by the time she had received all of these submissions, Thelma & Louise’s moment in the spotlight had come and gone. She boxed up the responses, with the intent of writing an article about the whole thing one day.
But years later, when she finally took the submissions out of their boxes, she felt like only a film could really convey the feelings so many had expressed.
“I realized, ‘I have to find these people,’” she says. Of course, that was easier said than done, but when she tracked down 20 of the people who had responded back then, and had interesting reflections on how the movie had affected them, she knew she had enough material to make a film that could coincide with Thelma and Louise’s 25th anniversary in 2016. She didn’t realize that she would end up being a central voice in her own movie, as well.
“I had no intention of being in the movie,” she says. “But then I realized it’s my story, it grew out of something I did, I would have to explain where the original letters had come from.”
Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise takes a unique approach to filmmaking about filmmaking, with the subjects in the film reflecting 25 years later on their reactions to the film when it came out. It also features a couple of the male actors from the film talking about the misguided masculinity of the roles they played. Townsend, who will be at the festival screening to talk about her documentary, hopes it answers that question of “why are films worth making?” in a way that captures a cultural moment.
“I think [the audience] will discover why there was such a phenomenal reaction to Thelma & Louise when it came out,” she says. “Why it created such a stir.”
One of the purposes of film festivals in general and the SCFF in particular is to take a closer look at our love of cinema in this way, says the festival’s director Catherine Segurson. These questions about the nature of movies and why we watch them are questions she is always asking herself when she’s considering films for the festival.
“So maybe I’m a little more biased toward those types of films that are exploring that,” she admits. “But I think other people will find it fascinating also, because sometimes we don’t even realize why we’re watching movies or attracted to watching movies. I like the films that are kind of meta in a way, exploring the whole purpose behind creating films—it’s the art, but it’s also what it does to the people watching films. That’s what the Catching Sight film explores, and that’s what Cinema Travellers explore.”
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