Deborah Kampmeier’s “SPLit” is an arrestingly raw howl of fury at the global stigmatization of female sexuality. It is also a deeply haunting portrait of one young woman’s internal growth, as she learns to fully embrace her identity, freeing it from the clutches of her abusive boyfriend. Kampmeier’s heroine, Inanna (played by a revelatory Amy Ferguson), powerfully embodies the agony of countless women who have sacrificed parts of themselves in order to conform to the expectations of society. The blurred line between fantasy and reality evidenced in Kampmeier’s previous features, “Virgin” and “Hounddog,” is brought to an operatic level of expressionistic grandeur in “SPLit,” as Inanna participates in a play that externalizes her emotional journey, complete with startling imagery evocative of Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”
I was fortunate enough to view the film well before its release, which will likely be sometime next year. Kampmeier spoke with me about her journey making “SPLit,” the importance of depicting real sexuality onscreen and why she wants her daughter to “grow up whole” rather than “pure.”
In many ways, “SPLit” feels like your magnum opus.
I feel that it’s closest to my vision so far, but I don’t think I went as far as I could’ve taken it if I’d had a significant budget. My vision for the film was very theatrical and grand, and with a very small budget, I got as close to it as I could. That being said, I love the film. The dance between inner and outer reality in my films reflects my own experience of moving through the world. Perhaps it’s a feminine experience of life. My female friends have said that they also experience life not as a straightforward, male thrust of action. They see inner and outer reality weaving in a very intuitive way, and my goal is to find a way of expressing that movement on film. Which is more real, our inner reality or our outer reality, and how do we allow inner reality to inform outer reality and vice versa?
In “SPLit,” I was able to push it as far as I did because I got to return to the world of theatre. When I fled the South to New York at age 18, I wanted to be an actress, and I worked in the theatre for years. I studied within the avant-garde theatre world, and was able to explore myself as an artist. The theatre deeply informed who I became, and I feel, in many ways, that it saved my life. It’s the place where I could go and tell my truth, and it was a safe place to express my rage and my pain and my grief and my joy and my love. But joy and love are much easier to express in the outer world, and the darker aspects of our inner life often need that container of something like the theatre, something like art, in order to be expressed, allowing us to heal. When I was able to use theatre in this film, it gave me more room to move between inner and outer landscapes in a much more organic way than in “Virgin” and “Hounddog.”
I love the monologue in “Virgin” about the caged dog receiving electroshocks that refuses to leave once the cage has been opened. It’s a perfect illustration of how a cycle of abuse can hold one captive even after an escape materializes.
It’s reflective of the experience I’ve had, and that so many women I know have had. Though that certainly was a monologue I wrote, the idea of it comes straight out of psychology textbooks. I can’t claim the original story myself, but I did write it in a form that the character could speak. When we first assembled “SPLit,” it was four hours long, and it’s now a two-hour film. I cut monologue after monologue after monologue—I just couldn’t stop writing them. [laughs] I had to hole myself up in the editing room a bit, but yeah, there’s just so much I want to say. So many years go by between films and if I can make a film a year, maybe I can say a little less each time.
In a recent interview with Emma Eden Ramos at Luna Luna Mag, you said that a line in “SPLit” was inspired directly by an answer you gave in a 2009 Salon interview. It was a beautiful statement about wanting your daughter to “grow up whole.” Can you elaborate on that idea?
That is what the film is about, really. We’re not aware of the patriarchal society that we live in because it’s all that we know. It’s the air that we breathe and comprises the fabric of our existence. I’m very disturbed by this notion of “purity” and “pure women.” I think it’s such a big part of the split that happens within people. Repression and abuse are two sides of the same coin. It’s all about controlling and shaming female sexuality. I have a daughter, and I don’t want her to grow up abused or repressed. I want her to grow up as a whole, sexual being. I feel very strongly that our sexuality is deeply connected to our creativity, our spirituality, our power and our wholeness, and that is being chipped away at constantly in this society. Our daughters need to be educated, not naive and “pure.”
I grew up in the South, and I was acutely aware of the abuse and repression occurring there. How do we create a space for our daughters to grow up whole? When you rob women of their sexuality through rape or repression, you are taking away a huge chunk of their soul. A huge chunk of their power. A huge chunk of their authenticity and personhood. And “SPLit” is really about reclaiming those lost parts of the self. Those parts that have been stolen, or abandoned by the self, through abuse, rape, repression, exploitation.
I knew someone who was abused by a member of her family and was pressured to forgive the abuser through religious guilt, while maintaining her own sexual repression.
Yes, that’s a tactic that is used over and over again on women. It is so easy to take on unearned shame. It is so easy to feel sorry and responsible and apologize. Listen to the number of times you hear women say, “I’m sorry,” on any given day. I do it too, and I try to stop myself, and my daughter does it, and I try to stop her. It’s so deep in us.
The abusive relationship between Inanna and her boyfriend, Derek (Morgan Spector), is similar to those romanticized in books like “Twilight,” where the woman’s sole role is to aid her damaged man.
One of the things that Morgan and I felt was essential was that we do our very best to make this man likable and sexy and charismatic, so that the audience is seduced in as she is. He can’t be a total a—hole. When we were editing it, there were a couple moments early on in the film that we decided to cut out because we were afraid that people would shut off to him immediately. We wanted a little more space for the seduction to begin. Morgan was amazing in how he found the charisma of this character and it’s been interesting to see how Derek has split audiences during early screenings. Some women are like, “Don’t tell anyone, but I just have the hots for him,” and other women are like, “Oh god, why is she with him?” Women who have been in that relationship totally get it, and women who are clearly healthy enough to have not been in it don’t get it at all.
As for Amy—what a courageous performance she gave. She and I understood what was keeping Inanna trapped in this relationship. When I first rehearsed with the two actors, I just wanted to keep it very simple. The two of them made eye contact and said the text very simply. Their chemistry was there from the beginning—they would bristle around each other, and it was fun to see that connection emerge.
Derek is childlike in how he emotionally manipulates Inanna. When she finally stands up to him, he bursts into tears.
What tends to happen in those power dynamics is that one person holds all the grief, and the other holds all the rage. When Inanna finally does claim her own rage, there’s space then for Derek to feel his own grief. As women, we usually aren’t able to face our rage, so I think men oftentimes hold all of that and don’t face their grief. I’m thinking in heterosexual terms right now, and I know that this is a very particular male/female relationship that I’m addressing.
The script originally opened with Derek performing a puppet show, but because of certain pressures and problems with production, it just wasn’t good enough to start the film. That puppet show actually told his backstory. It showed that his father left, that his mother was a drunk, and that she had sexually abused him. There was an enormous amount of backstory there, and it was one of those moments where, as a filmmaker, you have to say, “Which is the lesser evil—cutting it or keeping it?” So we cut it and I think it’s the right choice. I do hope that with the film’s migraine flashes and images of Derek as a boy that you get this sense of a very deep wound in his character, and it is that deep wound that compels this abusiveness in him.
We all have to face our own underbelly, which is what Inanna does in the film. It’s her story, so she’s the one that has the reckoning with it. But I hope in that moment of collapsing in the face of Inanna’s rage into his own grief that Derek may be beginning to face his wound. Both character have past wounds, and you don’t see them in Inanna as much if you haven’t watched my first two films. You can just assume that her wounds are identical to those of my other lead characters.
Would you consider the heroines of your three films all shades of the same person?
Oh absolutely. I actually wrote “Hounddog” first. Five years of financing fell through over and over when I decided to make “Virgin.” I still consider “Virgin” my second film. “Hounddog” was first, then “Virgin,” then “SPLit.” I do see them as a trilogy, though I didn’t set out to write them in that way. I do think that they share the same psyche. They are my expression of the personal themes I’m wrestling with. These three films complete my exploration of that piece of my psyche, and I’m moving in a very different direction right now with my projects.
Do you feel your work would be more widely embraced today, in light of films addressing abuse head-on, such as “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” as well as performers like Amy Schumer addressing issues like rape in the military?
I do. I really think that if “Hounddog” were to come out now, there would be a totally different response to it. I think it would be embraced for the film that it actually was. I don’t think people could actually see the film that it was through all the controversy. Unfortunately, there was a false leak that occurred, and it started this whole wildfire. If the film had gone to Sundance and had just been this quiet little gem, it may have had a different life even at that time. Now the film would be received very differently. I question whether or not “SPLit” will be as well. I’m not sure people are ready to see older bodies, real bodies and fat bodies onscreen. I do know that there are women who are hungry for their truth to be told. I have had so many women see it and they’ve told me how much they love it. I’m not sure what’s scaring some people. Is it a 55-year-old woman masturbating in close-up? I don’t make films with a political agenda. I just want to tell my own story, yet in this climate devoid of female filmmakers, it becomes a political statement.
Perhaps what’s scaring people is the notion of women taking ownership of their sexuality.
I think so, I think that’s exactly it.
Your former student, Joanna Arnow, masturbated oncamera in her prize-winning short film, “Bad at Dancing.” What inspired you to show images of masturbation in “SPLit”?
I wanted to show real sexuality. Female sexuality is presented in our culture as a male fantasy. The actress, Raïna von Waldenburg, who masturbates in “SPLit,” is an incredible, ferocious woman. What have women in their 50s, women like myself, had to do to break through the male fantasy and find their true, authentic sexuality? This woman has done that and she is pushing Inanna to claim her own rage and sexuality. It’s not pretty and it’s not what you see in porn. It’s volatile.
It’s a shame that teenage girls in the U.K. couldn’t see “Diary of a Teenage Girl” in theaters. That’s exactly the sort of film that they need to be seeing. Unfortunately, my teenage daughter is stepping into a world where boys are all on their cell phones looking at porn. That’s the education they’re getting. I read a fascinating article recently about a young man who said that porn killed his sex life. I want to start a campaign that says something to the effect of, “I don’t have a moral opposition to porn, it just makes really bad lovers.” I know anytime a man is a porn-watcher, you can just tell. It would be so healthy for young men and women to see “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” just as it would be healthy for women of all ages to see “SPLit.” We need to have a space where we can see the real thing.
I love how that haunting song—with the lyrics, “When you look inside a flower, it goes down down down forever”—is woven throughout the film’s score, suggesting the uncharted depths within us all.
My friend, Leslie Graves, and I worked on the score together, and I always wanted her to compose the music. My other credited composer, Michelangelo Sosnowitz, did all the club music. Leslie and I collaborated on a few themes, including the one you mentioned, which is Inanna’s theme. We talked a lot about this idea of using sounds that are related to each of the chakras, which mirrored my vision for Inanna going through the seven gates. Unless you’re looking closely and know about chakras, you won’t really notice it. At the first gate she goes through, the crown comes off, exposing her head—then her throat, then her chest, then her solar plexus, all the way down. Leslie had done all this research exploring the different chakra tones, and we sort of started from there. We found the tune and the lyrics, and at first I was going to tweak them because they seemed a little too on the nose. But then I thought, “No, they’re perfect.” It was amazing what Leslie came up with.
The film’s theme regarding the repression of yourself in order to find acceptance is universal in its relevance.
That makes me happy to hear and it’s certainly what I had hoped. Sometimes it’s hard for a film with a female protagonist to translate that way at this point in time. We, as women, go to the movies and see all these male protagonists and have a cathartic experience living through them and seeing ourselves in them. Men don’t have the opportunity to do that very often. As soon as there’s a female protagonist, there’s a wall that goes up. Many men feel like they can’t identify with that, whereas women have always had to identify with the opposite gender in stories. The hero’s journey and the three-act structure have been going on since Aristotle’s time. We must hold the space for men to step up and say, “Oh yeah, I really identify with that woman’s story,” or, “I see myself in her.” There are so many negatives connected to one’s identification as a woman in this society. You’re viewed as weak, and it’s deeply engrained in men to avoid being seen that way.
Do you feel we are reaching a tipping point that will bring us closer to gender equality?
I sure hope so. We’ve been talking about that tipping point since I got into film thirty years ago and the numbers, as I’m sure you’re aware, don’t shift. Usually 6 to 9% of directors are women. There will be a lot of talk and then the issue flits away. But right now, you have Ava DuVernay, Jill Soloway, Rose McGowan, Leah Meyerhoff, Film Fatales—you have a lot of people articulating their views on a platform that is much bigger and has a much wider reach. The fact that you have studies being done that are now bringing possible lawsuits into action is very encouraging. I hope this isn’t another moment of lip service, but the possibility of tangible change seems very real. I feel very hopeful.
What you had to say about “SPLit” made me cry. I was like, “Thank god you get it!” I was so nervous when I was doing early screenings. My husband was like, “You have to let some men watch it,” because I just kept putting in my target audience. I finally showed the film to a man who clearly had artistic sensibilities, and he gave me the best response I’ve received thus far. He said the film made him love his wife more than he’d ever loved her before, and he also said that it forced him to look at his own rage. I was like, “Wow, if the film did that for one man, I’ve done my job.” It’s so great to know that the film isn’t just for middle-aged hippie women. [laughs]
For more info on Deborah Kampmeier, visit her official site. She also teaches a Master Acting Class, and is currently writing the script for “Untamed,” a fact-based drama about Carol Ruckdeschel, “the wildest woman in America,” and her fight for Cumberland Island and the sea turtles that inhabit it.