I've fallen in love many times online. Sometimes it lasted, sometimes it didn't. Sometimes there was sex, sometimes we met in person. I could never completely understand why other people had such a hard time believing I could fall in love with someone I had never been in the same room as. As if their experiences of falling in love in real life were any more or less logical (or more or less successful).
I was thinking about this while watching the trailer for Nancy Schwartzman's new film project, xoxosms. The trailer is part of Nancy (and her co-producer/cinematographer Issac Mathes') xoxosms Kickstarter campaign. If you haven't heard of it Kickstarter is a site that allows artists to ask people to support their projects, and lets the rest of us have a hand in making all sorts of creative work happen (and get gifts along the way). In the past two years I've supported one book, two documentary films, and a project combining tech, disability, and art. You can give $5, $500, $5000 or anything in between, it all helps.
Because this project relates to both my personal and professional life, I wanted to know more about it, so I met Nancy online for an IM interview.
Your upcoming documentary "xoxosms" follows the relationship of Gus and Jiyun who met and fell in love online, without meeting in person. Whenever I hear about documentaries I always wonder how the filmmaker found the people, particularly when what they are doing is so private, and there are so many of us online. Who did you meet first, and how did you meet them?
I met Jiyun first, she's my niece Sasha's good friend from high school. We were watching the World Cup Finals together in Philly and she told me she had a boyfriend that she had never met, and they were in love. She said they have saved every chat. I knew she'd make a great subject, Jiyun is very pulled together and composed, but also very open. She is willing to talk about her life, but crafts her thoughts and words very carefully. She's very thoughtful.
Did you have the idea for xoxosms before meeting her, or was the proposal sort of written for her?
I had the idea before meeting her. I was spending so much time with young people during the launch of The Line Campaign and my interns were constantly talking about the ways technology was shaping love and hooking up. They were writing great blog posts about communication/sex/technology and I knew I wanted to explore the convergence. I drafted a proposal and asked Sasha (my niece) to read it - to see if it seemed relevant to her life, or her friends' lives. Then she told me about Jiyun.
It seems like an incredible amount of intrusion into their personal lives, were either of them hesitant to participate?
Jiyun was very receptive to sharing her story. Both she and Gus marvel at how they met, how different they are, and how deeply they love each other. They were very interested in sharing, and had saved every chat and email ever exchanged. When they let me into their archive, it was like the modern equivalent of stumbling across a box of love letters! I had to document their story.
Film making is a really invasive process, so all of us have done a lot of talking since the shoot about boundaries, privacy, and consent. Both Jiyun and Gus are introverts, so the process of sharing on camera - and revealing their feelings - is not intuitive for either of them. It's been very interesting and real challenge to honor my subjects and tell the best story I can - so respecting their boundaries, while also pushing them. They are young, and in some ways very guarded and others, very open. So the push and pull has been interesting. I wrote something about this for Cinereach, about consent and the relationship between filmmaker and subject.
Ultimately they both felt very strongly that their story needed to be told - because many people challenged their relationship. "How can you love someone you've never met?" "How is this real?"
Why do you think people are so skeptical about the possibilities of people falling in love online?
I think the skepticism comes from people's personal experiences - having their online crushes or dating flame out and not work, or the other party misrepresented themselves. I also think the media hype about what happens when you meet someone online: lies, murder, kidnapping, etc. play into that, too. I understand the questions like: how can you know someone if you've never touched them? smelled them? or heard their voice? How do they carry themselves? Can text on screen really describe someone? Can a living human being, be represented that way? Valid - but, allowing feelings to develop first - without the distraction of appearance, expectations, clothing, all the other factors that can get in the way, is valid, too.
This kind of courtship is Victorian, passionate and longing letters, a pouring out of one's heart on paper... falling in love with a stranger, but feeling you truly know that person... And - think of all the soldiers who came back for a night or two from WWII, met a lady at a dance, wrote letters for two years, and then got married. My great Uncle and Aunt had that relationship. What I know to be fact, is that this kind of "anon" intimacy, where two people chat and it blooms into something unexpected is real - and common - I hear that far more than the stuff like in the film "Catfish" where people you meet online end up being a hoax. And I can say that more folks are weighing in on Kickstarter about their successes.
One of the things you filmed along the way was what you call a visual catalog of the network itself, cell phone towers, cables, hardware, software, all the things that make the communication between Gus and Jiyun possible. Are you thinking of the network as a character?
Absolutely. Jiyun and Gus exist most often in a space-less place - its the network that connects them and makes it all possible. That network is where they are. So for us it's like connective tissue between scenes, and the strategy with that material is that it will tell a story of how messages are transmitted. Starting from the very small - an outlet, a wifi signal, to the very large - a server farm.
As I was watching the trailer I found my mind going back and forth between thinking about Gus and Jiyun on the one hand, and the technology piece on the other. And then eventually I found myself focusing more on the technology than on the relationship. Which got me wondering if technology and love opposed, in a narrative way?
In the way that technology compresses distance, it enables this particular love story. Where its complicated is that Gus and Jiyun exist on Skype in some ways, almost as their best selves - they have an ability to be intimate and unguarded with each other because of the technology. So it enables an intimacy but also complicates the nature of that intimacy - because it is mitigated by technology. When I was thinking of creating parallel images to the network - I thought of water - the mercurial nature of its shape, our utter reliance on it, and its ability to make things grow. But also how and where that water flows --- a trickle, a drop, a stream, through a gutter, down a window pane, along a field - to the ocean - the way it travels and transmits. I like the image of being inside a rainy car, and watching two drops of water make their way to each other and join together in a stream and travel down the glass, like lovers.
Can I ask when you think of your own relationships, what where technology fits into your feelings of intimacy, alienation, love?
My most intimate relationship in high school was with someone on the phone. We never spoke during the day in school (we pretty much ignored each other), but at night, when my house was asleep, we got on the phone at midnight, and talked for hours. He was my best friend and we were in love with each other. The phone was all we could handle, we were too awkward and insecure in person. We told each other everything. I believe in the power of that space - whether its gchat, or skype video without sound - to allow an openness that other forums don't. In my current relationship, when my partner is in the field, technology causes frustration. I'd rather we speak in person, because a cell phone with a wonky signal is not cutting it.
What makes that difference? Why is the space created by a cell phone signal frustrating in one case (with your current partner) but opening in another?
I think for me, to have a steady, consistent in-person relationship and then cut to a wifi one is a step backwards, the phone becomes a means to an end - a check-in. Whereas the process of discovery -- that occurs on chat, with a stranger, the opening up of oneself, is transforming.
So because you're using Kickstarter and asking folks to contribute to the post production, I need to ask why. Or maybe who. Who is this film intended for?
xoxosms is looking at Love 2.0, so it really hits a chord with young adults, who are living it, and then there's the Love 1.0 crowd, who online dated in the 90s, who express nostalgia for back in the day. Then folks like my Mom, who are just starting to get "social networking" and how it worked in Egypt, and how it can work for lovers. So there's something for everyone - whether you're living it, remember it, or learning about it. The film is going to focus specifically on Gus and Jiyun, while teasing out these themes of intimacy, love and technology. I'd also throw in alienation, growing up, religious background and how it informs notions of sex. What's interesting about launching on Kickstarter is that we're getting so many different kinds of reactions already - its like a pre-audience. I'm getting letters from folks who met their true love online, who totally believe in it, and others who are completely skeptical.
By supporting the film financially, in any way or sum possible, the contributor gets to be part of the making of the film. They are the pre-audience, their comments and contributions help shape the project, and some of the rewards offer a chance to chat with the creators and subjects. The support gives us a longer time in the edit room, more sophisticated motion graphics, a sweeter sound mix, all of those contributions feed the quality of the film. For me, as the director, to get interaction with backers is invaluable - you can hear how the film touches people or how the story is relevant to their lives.
Watch the Trailer: xoxosms A Documentary About Love in the 21st Century
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