Tall Tales & True

March 1st, 2005 Film, Inside Film, Personalities

Who among us isn’t familiar with that quintessential Hollywood institution, the sex worker with the heart of gold? The truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

Jabe isn’t Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman or Shelley Long from Night Shift. Born to a bipolar mother from whom she was taken at age seven, she went through no less than eight foster homes until her late teens.

Diagnosed with Marfan’s Syndrome during puberty, Jabe has spent her life on the periphery. Not expecting to live past 25 (because that was the limited medical opinion she was exposed to at the time), she never made future plans, rejecting education and the usual employment options, turning her previously ungainly height to her advantage as a professional dominatrix.

Marfan’s Syndrome, attracting 1 in 3000 people, affects the biochemical binds that hold the body together — resulting in tall stature, large hands and feet, elongated features, eye, heart and skeletal/muscular problems. At 17 Jabe had open heart surgery to correct the problem that would have killed her within months, and from there, embarked on a nine year career playing characters from the Queen of Mean to Calamity Pain.

Ironically, for the first time in her life, Jabe felt in control, the one others deferred to because of her large stature. After living the life of an outsider, Jabe’s unique physiology shaped her life in a new way.

It’s the themes of acceptance, being an outsider, and the struggle to reconcile ones ambitions with ones abilities that’s the subject of writer director Janet Merewether’s latest film, Jabe Babe; A Heightened Life.

‘I met Jabe at a dance party abut five years ago,’ Merewether recalls, ‘she walked in with some transvestite friends of hers. She was wearing very tall shoes so she was about six foot eight. I met her again soon after at a friend’s house, and there was something about her physicality which I picked as being Marfan Syndrome.

‘I asked her about it and she couldn’t believe I knew about the condition — very few people did. We got to know each other and I originally talked to her about making a film dealing with the condition.

‘It kept developing for the next few years and turned out not to be about just the syndrome itself — it’s very much about the result of being a tall woman and how socially acceptable that is in a world of traditional feminine stereotypes. It became a bit warmer, and also became more about the acceptability (or not) of people with genetic conditions.’

Masterwork

A former AFTRS student, Merewether is accomplished in both directorial and design work. Starting as a production and set designer, she then became interested in directing. She feels Jabe Babe is a natural culmination of her talents.

The film shows a highly distinctive style that’s worlds away from the traditional fly on the wall documentary structure. She describes it as ‘highly controlled’, bringing together all her apparent talents (as well as some behind the scenes) for set and production design, scripting and directing.

‘The whole film is highly designed and properly lit,’ she says, ‘very much a piece of cinema, and that was because it referenced so many cinematic styles and stories from fiction.

After making a splash in animation, where both design and directing could occupy her time at once, Merewether got into motion graphics and broadcast design, creating several recognisable credit sequences for TV and film, including The Boys and Walking on Water.

‘I’ve always worked as a short film writer/director alongside the motion graphics and titles,’ she explains, ‘this is my first long form film. I’m doing less design work at the moment but my interest in design is evident in Jabe Babe.

‘I’m still interested in titles but there are very few Australian films that have a budget to even do title sequences. The industry is in such a state of collapse it’s not even viable as a profession any more.’

Fortunately, another new cap Merewether has donned for the production of Jabe Babe is that of producer, so along with all the creative direction, she’s trod the boards of documentary sales forums and festivals to line up backers and jumped through the hoops of the Australian funding apparatus herself.

When asked where she wants to be in Australian filmmaking, Merewether sounds keen for more of the business side of movies.

‘I’m interested just to enable more unusual or visually challenging projects. That’s why I’ve taken this opportunity to learn how to produce. A lot of producers aren’t willing to take the leap into projects that aren’t just run of the mill observational documentaries or realist feature films.

‘So if you’re interested in making movies outside those fields you have to try to take control in some way and be involved in the finance of the project.’

I ask if that means there’s a chance she’ll move to LA to be a big time feature director in the traditional of Phillip Noyce, Lee Tamahori or Alex Proyas. Merewether responds with a surprised laugh, as if the thought has never entered her mind.

‘I don’t think that’s really on the cards. I’m interested in films that are aligned with the European style. I don’t see many interesting films coming out of the States.’

That’s partly the reason you may never have heard of Janet Merewether or her work. To her, living in Australia places her amongst the rest of the Australian film industry like Michael Moore loves George W Bush because they’re both American.

‘My films have always travelled comfortably overseas, and I always see my work in the context of world cinema,’ she says. ‘I don’t even see myself positioned in the Australian film industry, and it’s barely recognised my work in the past, so I don’t’ have any kind of desire to invent a miraculous Australian film.

‘I see Jabe Babe as something I hope would appeal to viewers anywhere, and that’s the problem with our features; no-one overseas would want to watch those films, they’re so inward-looking and immature.

The Price of Financing

Jabe Babe started out as a project for a Masters degree at UTS and had an extraordinary journey in itself. After shooting a preliminary scene to take to Byron Bay’s Australian International Documentary Conference about two years ago (which landed a pre sale with SBSI), the next step was to look internationally.

‘I tried to find finance for the film overseas, ‘Merewether recalls. ‘I went to IDFA [the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam] but it was very hard to get anybody on board with an initial rough cut, so I came back to Australia and applied for funding from the AFC. It’s rare as hens’ teeth — it’s basically a one in sixty chance, and we got it, so we were amazingly lucky. We’re about to go back overseas to see if we can seek an initial sale so I can do a final finish.’

So with additional funding from the NSW Film and Television Office, didn’t the multiple levels and stages of funding bureaucracy drive Merewether insane — especially as a novice producer?

‘You can’t be impatient,’ she advises. ‘It took many years to finance the project, but I wasn’t prepared to change it to make it easy to fund. If it was a straight fly on the wall documentary, it would have been much easier to finance, but it would have been a completely different film. So I stuck to my guns as far as the visual style and the interweaving of fiction and non-fiction.

‘The waiting is frustrating; you have to wait 6 months, 12 months or 18 months, and in the meantime still find work to survive.

‘But in some ways waiting led to more thought about the project and more refinement of the script. Plus other things were happening in Jabe’s life, so her story unfolded a bit more.’

The result is that Jabe Babe: A Heightened Life is a profound, moving and stylised experience as told by Jabe herself in both real and contrived worlds. If Merewether can strike the right deals in the next few months after putting the finishing touches on the sound design, Jabe will go much further than her humble beginnings ever promised’


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