Sex and the cities: 'Confessions of a Free Woman'

Jennifer Fox filmed women all over the world – and discovered there's a little Carrie Bradshaw in all of us. By Liz Hoggard

A 42-year-old woman is discussing dating in New York. She agonises about whether or not to stay with her married South African lover or commit to a new relationship with a Swiss film-maker called Patrick. Sound familiar? The show has already been described by Candace Bushnell of Sex and the City fame as "required viewing for every woman". But Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman is not a drama or soap opera; rather the two-parter, filmed over the course of five years by the American director Jennifer Fox, is going out tonight as part of BBC4's Storyville documentary strand.

At the start of the film Fox is living the carefree, privileged life she thought she'd always wanted. But when her best friend, Pat, is diagnosed with a brain tumour, she is forced to reassess her decision to stay unmarried and childless. In order to make sense of the sexual triangle she's got herself into, she takes her camera out on the road to talk to women about their lives. It's raw, compelling TV. But is it just soap opera dressed up as a feature documentary? Fox knows the risk she is running. "In a way I'm saying: 'Look at me, I'm a self-centred, narcissistic Western woman'," she tells me, laughing. "But I'm allowing the audience to see that. I do it on purpose in order to shift the game a bit."

Fox is a serious film-maker. She won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for her film Beirut: the Last Home Movie. For the TV series An American Love Story she lived with a mixed-race couple and their children for two years. And in Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, she doesn't just hang out in her Tribeca loft with her Sex and the City girlfriends. She visits women around the world, from New York to South Africa, Britain to Cambodia, Russia to Pakistan.

The series marks new ground for Fox. Originally she never intended to be on camera; the documentary was supposed to explore the way contemporary women speak – "and whether we speak the same language across cultures and nationalities". But as filming went on, she found it impossible to pretend she was invisible. "Having made very intimate films about other people in the past, I began to think: 'with this film, I cannot pretend to be out of the story.'"

Fox dissects her own relationships, as well as her friends' sex lives, families, pregnancies, miscarriages, birthdays, births, divorces and medical treatments, bringing the camera everywhere from bedroom to hospital to taxi to aeroplane. "After 20 years of psychotherapy," she says, "filming myself suddenly seemed like the only way out of my depression. What's a more perfect mirror than a video camera?"

She calls it "radical honesty". There could be no preparation: no make-up, no fixing up clothing, or adjusting her emotional state. When, in the middle of filming, she found herself in a deep personal crisis, it had to be reflected on screen. "I thought: 'OK, I will use myself as a guinea pig.' After all, how could I ask another woman to go on the line if I wasn't prepared to go on the line myself?"

According to the publicity, Flying tackles questions that are at once personal and universal. Does choice equal happiness? What does it mean to be a free woman today? I'm not quite convinced. Yes, there are moving moments – when Fox films Pat in remission; or visits a Berlin-based film-maker who has fallen in love again during treatment for ovarian cancer – but they often feel pretty incidental to Jennifer's Big Love Story. When she meets two women in rural Pakistan – who humblingly have given up the chance of marriage in order to study and campaign – you think, "Oh God, she's not going to bang on about her love triangle again, is she?"

But this is indeed how women talk – gossipy, self-revelatory, switching from trivial to profound in an instant. Fox laughs when I confess my discomfort, but insists it was essential to show that her own private story was really a universal, female story. Plus, she argues, women respond well to someone else's secrets – it really does encourage them to talk honestly. "We say: 'let me share, let me tell, let me listen to something about you'."

This is not to deny that the film has depth: Fox tackles real sociopolitical issues – from frank discussions about female sexuality to abuse, rape, and prostitution. But Fox's point is that audiences might never have bothered to watch the film if it had been billed as worthy. "We have seen many, many films about those poor women in Pakistan. And those poor Somali women and those poor Cambodian prostitutes without the film-maker in. What I wanted to say, even if I do it crudely, even if I'm not entirely successful, is that it's a lie to say there's no connection to us. I wanted to say it's about 'us' – not 'them'. It's not true that that a woman in Pakistan has no connection to me in New York or you in Britain."

And indeed there are great levelling moments in Flying that stop us being cultural tourists. Many of the women she interviews around the world, especially those in poor rural areas, give her tough-love advice about flaky married lover, Kai. And Fox likes the fact that many of them laugh about her obsession with being a free, hyper-sexual woman. There are other things to worry about – work, family, survival – not just orgasms, they remind her. Researching the whole issue of sex trafficking, too, makes Fox confront the fact that she herself was pressured into having sex by a sports coach when she was only 13.

Fox says she found it genuinely liberating to put herself on screen. Certainly the moment when she finally realises that Kai, however liberal, has totally reactionary ideas about women, has the emotional punch of a thriller. "Sometimes one should be incredibly distant, and sometimes you should merge with your material, which is what I've done, but even when one is incredibly distant I really believe that most authored documentaries are incredibly autobiographical," she says. "It's a lie to say that we're objective. We all strive for it, but there is no such thing."

Nick Fraser, series editor of Storyville, who co-commissioned Fox's film, enjoys the fact that confessional documentaries upset people because they're messy and partisan. "I like the way male, middle-aged TV executives are embarrassed by them. I find it deeply gratifying to see them squirming in their seats when they're watching them."

He argues that we need more confessional documentaries, not fewer. "I think you could do good confessions or bad confessions. Documentary isn't de facto worthy. We always try to buck this trend: in fact, we say you should enjoy Storyville as you would Grazia or The Independent, there's no difference." He argues that the slot is a place for any sort of programme – different styles, different attitudes, different subjects – the only requirement being that they should all be strongly narrative. And he points out that the most powerful section of the film – the death of Fox's grandmother and her rapprochement with her mother and aunt – doesn't have a single boyfriend in shot.

Fox admits that this is the one and only time she will put herself on screen. But she doesn't regret it. "It changed me and my relationship with the women in my family, because ironically from the narcissism of self-observation, what I actually got was a larger picture of the world. I suddenly wasn't unique in looking at my navel."



'Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman' goes out on BBC4 today and next Wedn-esday at 10pm

Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower