The Ms. Q&A: How “Thelma & Louise” Turned Jennifer Townsend into a Filmmaker

Twenty-eight years ago, a movie changed Jennifer Townsend’s life. 

She went to the theatre not knowing what to expect from Thelma & Louise (1991, dir. Ridley Scott), the critically acclaimed female buddy film about love, friendship and a refusal of gender expectation that been alternately lauded for its feminist politics and critiqued for its seeming praise of “criminal” women. Thelma & Louise continues to inspire and provoke viewers decades later—and remains relevant in conversations about #MeToo, rape culture and feminism on film.  

The film resonated with Townsend in a profound way, so much so that she embarked on a research project to find out how others had experienced it, beginning with a questionnaire nearly three decades ago and culminating this year in her documentary Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise—now available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime (US/UK) and Vimeo. (The film will also soon be available for educational use, with supplemental materials for educators, from Bullfrog Films.) 

In Catching Sight, Townsend embarks on a series of thoughtful and emotional conversations with women and men whose experience of watching Thelma & Louise affected them in varying, but deeply personal ways. More recently, Townsend opened up to Ms. about her own impressions of the iconic feminist classic, the origins of her documentary and making a film for the first time in her late seventies.

On both your website and in the documentary, you talk about being moved by Thelma & Louise in 1991, and it sparking you to embark on this project. What was it that drew you to not just talk about the film with your friends, or spend time thinking about it, but actually do a lot of work to get other people’s responses? 

It wasn’t a normal day-to-day kind of world I was living in at that time after seeing that film. If you remember the cover of Time magazine with Thelma and Louise on it, and the [headline] was “it strikes a nerve,” and it did. It just lit up some place in my brain and in my heart and in my soul. There are no words. You can’t explain it when something like that happens. You just experience it. And it takes you and it leads you. You’re not leading it. 

You put the project aside after you’d received a number of responses because there had been so much written about the film. What does completing this project now mean to you? 

The project never really left me. I felt an obligation to get the material out to the world. People sent this to me. They poured their hearts out to me, not for me personally—they didn’t know me—but with the sense that this would get out. I was like the treasure-keeper. So, it would come back through my mind periodically through the years as I was raising my family and sending my children off the college and so on. As I got older, and I was retired so I had the time, then it was absolutely necessary because I really felt like this is unfinished business and I have to do this before I die.  

You’re a first-time filmmaker at age 80, is that correct?

I’m 80 now. I was 75 when I started on the project.

What was your experience with filmmaking before?

I didn’t have any before! About two years before I actually started production on this film, I bought a camcorder and I tried to teach myself something about making movies. I did a little series of shorts for just myself and friends and family that had old people. It was called Old Folks at Home. It was a conversation sitting around a kitchen table with people from like 70- to 90-something, talking about specific subject matter that’s of interest to old people, like what’s it like to be getting old and to face dying, and giving up driving—that was one that everybody had something to say about, because nobody wants to give up driving… 

So that was how I cut my teeth getting some little tiny idea of what it’s like to shoot a camera and do some editing and come out with something at the other end. But, of course, when you compare that to making a feature, all the thousands of things that go into that, and all the different hats that I had to wear, there’s no comparison. None whatsoever.

When did you start finding people to work with you on the project, once you got it going? 

When I was doing my little films and learning, I joined the Seattle Documentary Association. The first comment I heard was, “well, you have to be in it,” and I had no intention whatsoever of being in it. That was the farthest thing from my mind. I was going to make this movie about people that wrote me these letters, period. It’s about the audience. And that just terrified me. 

It took me a very long time to get comfortable with that idea and be willing to put myself into it, and, of course, that had an impact throughout the entire film.

When you’re talking, later in the film, it’s really moving to see your response. It did strike me at that moment that you weren’t really intending to share the things that you shared. That this happened organically.

When I was being interviewed, and I got to that point where I was asked “why [make the documentary]?” and I said maybe three words and I started to cry. It was like the dam broke and all this heartache and trauma and just this horrible emotional stuff that I’ve held onto for decades with so many of my friends being attacked and raped—and even the daughter of one of my friends was murdered in an attempted rape. All of these things I’d just been bottling up for decades and that question just broke me open. I just could not get myself together to answer it. I kept coming back. You know, I’d use a box of Kleenex and come back and sit down again and would try it again. And every time the question came up, I was just a basket case, so we had to, at some point, just stop filming, go do something else, and then finish. 

You’ve been taking the film to a variety of film festivals. Are there any experiences that you’ve found particularly moving? 

One of the most exciting festivals was in Seoul, Korea. The documentary screened at a women’s film festival there, and they found me. They were incredibly generous and honored it as being the closing night film. They showed it twice to sold-out audience.  I interviewed on stage for almost an hour with an interpreter. And then, the women queued up—every time they’d see me—they wanted my autograph! 

That sounds amazing.

It was amazing. They had lined up volunteers for a couple of days to take me sight-seeing. It was just a fabulous experience. But, also, I want to point out that this is a group of women that are trying desperately to change Korean society in terms of gendered relationships. The patriarchy is even more entrenched there than it is here, so they’ve got this struggle every single day, and women there, just like women all over the world, we have to put up and deal with so many things and we’re not safe. As a gender, we’re not safe in society because we’re always subject to attack.

Absolutely. It’s something women face every day.

Yeah. Every day. Everywhere. 

To piggyback off what you just said: what do you hope people will take away from this film? And what’s next for you? Has this sparked your interest in making more films, or are you hoping to work with this one for a while? 

What has become the takeaway is that women will say after seeing my film that they don’t feel alone anymore. Women will come up, often crying; they’ll hug me. They’ll thank me. If I’m walking down the street in the town where they’ve seen the film and they recognize me, they’ll come across the street and say, “Thank you so much for making this film. Thank you.” They say it makes them feel they’re not alone—it hits them at a gut level—because we all know that we’re not alone but knowing it and feeling it deeply are two different things. They make this emotional connection with who they are and how they identify with the women in the film, and it gives them a strength. It gives them the power to take the next step and move on with their lives. It helps them to heal. That is one of the things they say. That’s why I want to continue working with the film for some indefinite time into the future. 

What are we individually going to do about changing society in regard to women’s safety? So, if I can move people to take action—whether to talk to their children or their grandchildren—whatever it is each one individually feels they are capable of doing, to make some kind of commitment to change society in their own way, even if it seems like a tiny step, it’ll have ripple effects. 

About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University and Contributing Editor, Scholar Writing Program for Ms.