Essential SF Q&A: Jennifer Phang

By Pam Grady

2015 has been a banner year for Berkeley-born filmmaker Jennifer Phang, starting in January with the world premiere of her latest feature, the dystopian mother-daughter drama Advantageous. The film that was supported in part by a San Francisco Film Society FilmHouse residency won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and last month received a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award’s John Cassavetes prize. Phang is also an inaugural recipient of San Francisco Film Society Women Filmmaker Fellowship and is one of six directors chosen for the 2015–16 Women at Sundance Fellowship. After earning her MFA at the American Film Institute, she might have stayed in Los Angeles and sought a more mainstream career. Instead, she moved to New York before eventually making her way back to the Bay Area where she is forging her own, Essential SF path.

San Francisco Film Society: What brought you back to the Bay Area?

Jennifer Phang: My family lives here and the San Francisco Film Society offered me a residency with their FilmHouse program in support of Advantageous. I also started working as an instructor. So, I did the residency, did a little work here, and worked on my film here. I had a lot of amazing collaborators, like Sean [editor Sean Gillane] and [visual effects supervisor] Catherine Tate.

SFFS: You’ve had quite a year. Advantageous won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and you’ve received fellowships from both the San Francisco Film Society and Sundance. What does all this mean for you?

JP: Did you hear we were also just nominated for a Spirit Award?

SFFS: No, I haven’t seen the nominations. Congratulations.

JP: Thank you… We were nominated for the John Cassavetes award, because our budget was under $500,000. I’m also happy, because it recognizes the producers’ contributions in a major way, which is something I didn’t want to go unnoticed, the fact that we were able to make a film with slimmer resources. It’s been an amazing, interesting year where people have become more aware of the importance of looking at story in a fresh way. Audiences have been responding to Advantageous, because we brought a female perspective to an issue that was interesting to people. It was a lot of work to make the film. I’m just glad it worked so that it’s paying off for a lot of our collaborators in terms of getting recognition for their talents.

The whole year has been a life-changing experience. Suddenly, it’s become this moment where I have to take stock of my situation and what paths I could take to continue working on projects I’m excited about. There are a lot of ways I can go and mistakes could be made. It’s a moment where I’m thinking about developing a lot of projects. I’m working with the San Francisco Film Society on developing another feature with the Women Filmmaker Fellowship about global warming and humanity’s kind of cynicism and the tension between these things.

SFFS: There’s been so much talk this year about gender inequality in film. People are making different initiatives to either address the imbalance or at least comment on it and promote women making movies. What has your own experience been like?

JP: I’ve understood gender inequality for most of life, since I was a kid. I came to understand that it didn’t have to be this way. I came to understand that when I met women who were extraordinary, but who weren’t sitting on their laurels and saying only they could be the extraordinary ones. Basically, what I discovered is the quality that we instinctively love in people like our mothers and our sisters, those ‘soft’ qualities that have been frowned upon by the business world or by the more ambitious voices in our society, these softer qualities that people associate with women are actually the strongest, most important qualities in the world. For a long time, the ‘feminine’ qualities of nurturing, kindness and empathy were considered qualities of the weak, people who were weak-minded, who were ineffective, but I’ve realized that that’s completely untrue. Those are actually the qualities of true leaders, people who are brave enough that instead of taking the easy route of feigning authority and bullying, these are people, who are often women and men who embrace these qualities, who actually move communities toward positive change.

I think what’s happened is that women have come into their own. When I was going to school, that idea was out there, but we didn’t have enough power. We didn’t have enough influence. Over time, we’ve empowered each other and made each other more brave. Female filmmakers have supported me—filmmakers like Cheryl Dunye, for example, who’s a local, San Francisco filmmaker—and they are the ones that have lifted me up and put me in positions where I could succeed.

It can be awkward to describe the value of a female perspective sometimes, because it can sometimes feel diminutive, like it’s a special case. For a long time and still sometimes today, as a woman, I feel like a special case, a special consideration. ‘OK, we’ll make a little bit of room for women of color over here, a little bit of room for that woman over there.’ It can feel a bit like a tokenized honor or recognition, but more and more women are standing together and standing up and opening their mouths and not letting it be about an individual woman getting recognition, but about the idea of women having a perspective that is important, that stands alongside every other perspective.

SFFS: What makes the Bay Area a good filmmaking community?

JP: When I think about people in the Bay Area today, there’s a lot of different thoughts. One of the more traditional perspectives on the kind of person who lives here still holds true: a commitment to humanity and equality, to the equal treatment of people. What that does is, especially through the Film Society, what that has encouraged in many ways is—the Film Society had funded and fostered and nurtured films that speak to human concerns across the world. The audience is also very sophisticated here. Both the Film Society and the audience encourage filmmakers to raise the bar on their storytelling and the subjects they choose to engage and make films about. The Bay Area has allowed me to connect with the community and hear people’s concerns, and this community kind of emboldens my commitment to what people are calling a feminist sci-film about a mother and daughter. It’s something that, specifically in the Bay Area, I felt people understood…I think I got a lot of community support from being here.

SFFS: When it comes to film, what to you is an essential SF experience?

JP: Every time I brought a film to San Francisco and was able to screen it, I just fell in love with the audience. I leave the theater moved by the audience’s questions and their support and their warmth. I don’t know if they love every film that they watch, but whether or not they love the film, they’re willing to engage with the intentions of the filmmaker, the meaning of the story, the impact the story might have on the world at large. The audience here doesn’t mind being challenged. 

Essential SF is the San Francisco Film Society's ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions. This year's inductees—filmmaker and curator Craig Baldwin, longtime film distributor California Newsreel, Mill Valley Film Festival Director of Programming Zoë Elton, journalist Michael Fox and filmmakers Jenni Olson and Jennifer Phang—will be honored at this annual celebration. A key event in the Film Society's year-round appreciation of local talent, this tribute shines a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world.