The Doc Doctor's Anatomy of a Film: "I Was a Teenage Feminist"

Therese Shechter talks about where the idea—and the money—came from, for this very personal, irreverent film


The Filmmaker's Mystique: Therese Shechter of "I Was a Teenage Feminist"
The Filmmaker's Mystique: Therese Shechter of "I Was a Teenage Feminist"

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About this new column: Many filmmakers ponder in anguish, How do other people—celebrated people—do it? Am I taking too long to make this documentary? Does everybody spend as much money as I am spending, or am I spending too little? And when filmmakers share their lessons learned in interviews in the glossy trade magazines, their tales seem to follow the arc of otherworldy heroes rather than real documentary makers, i.e. human beings like you and me. So each month, the Doc Doctor will go out into the world (this real world) of filmmakers who are successful and find out how they made it. The "Anatomy of a Film Column" is a chance to learn from filmmakers' hits and misses in real life examples. —Fernanda Rossi, story consultant a.k.a. the Documentary Doctor

Case Study No. 5

I Was a Teenage Feminist directed by Therese Shechter and produced by Barbara Barde

Running time: 62 minutes

Film Vitals

Logline: Armed with a camera and an irreverent sense of humor, filmmaker Therese Shechter sets out to discover whether feminism can still be a source of personal and political power. Along the way, she interviews cheerleaders and frat boys, Cosmo girls and feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem.

Location: Shechter filmed in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Toronto.

Length of shoot: The film was shot intermittently over 3 years.

Length of editing: 5 months

Length of time from pre-production through locking picture: 4 years.

Time in distribution: 2 years, and counting.

Money talk:

Total budget: Shechter’s budget was in the low six figures, not including P&A (Publicity and Advertising) expenses.

First, she self-financed the film and bartered. After that, she raised money from individuals at two fundraisers. A grant from The Jerome Foundation provided still more funding. Finally, Shechter, a Canadian living in New York City, was able to complete her film with funds from a Canadian television network and the Canadian government.

Most of the money raised was spent on post-production.

Filmmaker’s History

Where the idea came from: Therese Shechter attended a doc workshop several years ago, where she was asked to write a proposal about something she felt passionate about. The choice of feminism was inspired by the book Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier, and a particular issue of Bust magazine that she had just read. Her instructor told her to turn that proposal into an actual film, and lent his camera to her so that she could shoot her first interview.

Film school: Yes. Shechter attended Columbia College in Chicago, part-time for 3 years.

Beyond academia: Shechter has volunteered at Sundance every January for the past 7 years. She also volunteers for Brooklyn Pro-Choice Network. She likes to joke that she travels and flirts all over the world.

Survival strategy: When not making films, Shechter works as a freelance graphic designer.

Previous films: An animated short, <>Womanly Perfection, and a documentary short, How I Learned to Speak Turkish.

Smart moves

Because this was her first feature-length film, Shechter worried about embarrassing herself. So she went out of her way to seek help and guidance from more seasoned filmmakers. For example, she interned on a number of projects to learn the finer points of filmmaking first-hand. She volunteered at Sundance to learn about the action at festivals and how filmmakers gain distribution. And she put together a knowledgeable advisory board that included filmmaker Macky Alston (Questioning Faith, Family Name), and Jennifer Pozner, the founder of the group Women in Media & News.

Luck played a role, too, in Shechter's success. At the Toronto Documentary Forum — a well attended pitching session organized by Hot Docs — she won a raffle. The prize? She got to pitch her film in situ. That's how she got funding from the Canadian television network.

One of the biggest concerns she had was whether or not to use the word ‘feminist’ in the title of the film. Looking back Shechter thinks it turned some people off (which was, after all, the point of the film), but it also made the film a natural for a big niche market.

Mistake she'll never make again

Shechter wishes she had had a partner to share the workload and fundraising; she teamed up with her producer very late in the process.

Film’s successes so far

I Was a Teenage Feminist had a semi-theatrical release in New York City, Toronto, and Chicago. It also appeared at 50 festivals and special programs across the world, garnering a few awards including one from Pakistan, of all places! It broadcast nationally in Canada on the W Network. The organization Women Make Movies is the distributor of the film's DVD.

Most memorable moments

Shechter says that interviewing Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the creators of “Free to Be…You and Me,” was a highlight of making the documentary. Seeing the film subtitled in Portuguese, Italian, and Turkish at foreign film festivals was also gratifying.

Will relapse?

Already relapsing. Shechter's next film, The American Virgin, a look at our fascination with virginity, is already in production. Part social commentary and part anthropology, the film promises to be as hilarious and provocative, if not more so, than her previous work.

Doctor’s Credentials:

Story consultant Fernanda Rossi helps filmmakers craft the story structure of their films. She has doctored over 150 documentaries, fiction scripts, and fundraising trailers including the 2007 Academy Award-nominated Recycled Life by Leslie Iwerks. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars, she has served as a festival juror and grant panelist. Ms. Rossi also writes the bimonthly column Ask the Doc Doctor published by Film Arts magazine, and is the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer.

Related links:

The Doc will be presenting her signature workshops on structure and trailers in New York City in April. For details check Documentarydoctor.com.

Watch I Was a Teenage Feminist's trailer.

The Doc's previous "Anatomy" columns revealed the stories behind the successful documentaries 51 Birch Street, Divan, Rock in a Heart Place, and Kiran over Mongolia

Read Therese Shechter's blog on volunteering at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

To learn more about I Was a Teenage Feminist, visit Trixie Films.

To buy a DVD, visit Women Make Movies.