In the Film Arts & Hearts Filmmaker Interview Series, we will be talking with filmmakers from all over the globe to get perspective and a head’s up on the trends and activities of promising, current and future industry leaders.
I stumbled upon this amazing documentary thanks to my social media addiction. After watching the trailer and reading more about the film’s origins, I had to connect with the filmmaking team (and star) behind this story to get more details. My only hope is that they can attend the Film Arts & Hearts International Film Festival in June so I can meet these amazing ladies in person. The entire crew will be screening the film at 11am this morning at the Los Angeles Cinema Film Festival. The screening will be held at the Complex Theater (6476 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood). Grab tickets here.
FA&H: Katherine, I see you are an extremely accomplished filmmaking professional. Your credits are certainly impressive. How did you come up with the concept for this film and how did you get started?
Katherine: Long story short, I saw a cell phone video that Jade posted online — and it changed my life. That’s how this film got started.
The video was of Jade, doing some aerial tricks, in the center ring of this beautiful blue and red striped circus tent. Behind her, someone was juggling. Behind them, other performers were involved in some kind of balancing act, and then behind them, kids were watching and eating noodles. And they were all bathed in this ethereal purplish light from the tent. It was this incredible, deep and layered view of this Felliniesque circus life. I knew that if I didn’t go explore this world, I would never forgive myself.
I have to credit my start in documentary filming to my upbringing and my parents. They are both famous street photographers — essentially documentary photographers of humans. Documentary and art were fundamental lessons they brought into my life since birth. I learned the power of good composition and importance of foreground and background elements before I learned arithmetic.
FA&H: Jade, what has your experience been as the subject of a film? Is there anything unexpected that you’ve dealt with as a result of your involvement
Jade: Until now, I’ve never shared anything publicly about my experience with being bipolar. In fact, this film was the first time many of my friends and family learned about my diagnosis or my suicide attempts. I was worried about what the response might be but it has been overwhelmingly supportive and many people have reached out to me about their own struggles just after seeing the trailer.
Now, I recognize the power in sharing my story. I feel compelled to continue making work that destigmatizes mental disorders and inspires others to not only hold on to life but to live their dreams everyday.
FA&H: Katherine, I see that you have a number of screenings scheduled this year. What is your ultimate goal for this film?
Katherine: The ultimate goal right now is to get the film seen. Destigmatizing mental health “disorders” was always #1.
In 2020, my producer and I hope to partner with nonprofit organizations focused on bipolar and mental health awareness so that we can get this film to potentially help more people. Jade could be a public speaker, an inspiration to everyone.
Eventually, we will land on a streaming platform like Amazon to get the film seen widely and get Jade’s struggles and accomplishments out into the world.
FA&H: Talk to me about the techniques you used in creating this film. What camera(s) did you utilize. Did you use the work of an existing filmmaker as influence?
Katherine: I was in Ho Chi Minh City for a month filming Jade and the circus. So I had the luxury trying a lot of things that didn’t make the final cut.
For instance, I also have a background in visual effects, and I tried some pretty crazy things, like, Jade “taking-off” and flying away like Superman. I had shots of her levitating like Dr. Strange. I was trying to play up the idea that she felt like a superhero, but the silly tone of those particular shots didn’t end up working in the story — at all. Since we had the time, we tried lots of things and we shot with drones, GoPros, largely with Panasonic GH5s. I specifically chose the GH5 because it was mostly unobtrusive. I chose native zoom lenses so that I could easily frame shots without taking away from the moment by switching lenses.
My favorite documentary film of all time is The Act of Killing (2012). In this film, the director, Joshua Oppenheimer, has an Indonesian death-squad commander reenact (in any way of his choosing) his part in the genocide of almost a million of his people. The commander chooses a MUSICAL re-telling with dancing woman, waterfalls and a giant wooden fish. It was an insane twist on the re-telling of history, for sure, but in it was some kind of subjective imposition on truth.
Some seed of inspiration was probably gathered from that idea. I wanted to show Jade’s feeling of the situation and not just the objective documentary experience. I wanted to live in a hybrid space of subjective documentary and emotional structure. For example, in her bipolar lows, she speaks of being trapped. We pictured her underwater, darkness surrounding her, as she sinks deeper into blackness.
We actually jumped in a swimming pool with the GoPro and threw a black sheet behind the area of the frame that would background her body. I knew. the feeling was right — sinking, feeling trapped, feeling “underwater.”
FA&H: Is High Flying Jade classified as a documentary? Obviously this is a true story and you dive deeply into this amazing young woman’s journey, but this story is so compelling it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. What genre would you categorize this film?
Katherine: I never wanted this to be a straight documentary. I was really interested in what it feels like to be Jade. What does it feel like to be able to fly through the air and hold your life in your hands — with sometimes just a few fingers — hanging on to a hoop, suspended 500 feet in the air, with no net. To be that strong — that agile, it must feel incredible. (I myself, have never even been able to do a pull-up.)
Conversely, what does it feel like to be on the downswing of a manic episode of bipolar disorder. I wanted to explore the high-highs and low-lows. What does that feel like and how can we show that. We tried a lot of things. What ended up staying in the film are a small handful of VFX shots in which we tried to show some of these feelings.
Blurring the boundaries of categorization is always something I aspire to. I sometimes call this documentary/fantasy, but it’s definitely a documentary in nature. The story was very real. Locations, struggles, hardships, triumphs were all very real and happened just like they do in the film.
FA&H: At the root of this story is a struggle with mental illness that showcases an absolutely breathtaking and unbelievably strong heroine. What message do you hope this film conveys and to who(m) do you hope to touch?
Jade: I create art because I’m grateful to be here. If I had been successful in my suicidal actions, I would have taken away the pain but missed out on so much beauty, joy and adventure. All the best stuff was waiting ahead for me but I was blinded by the suffering. I had to be brave enough to ask for the help I needed to thrive in this world and I had to make drastic changes to get there. So, the message is simple: keep going. I hope that this message finds the people who are hurting, the people who are numb and the people who are afraid. There is hope and you are strong enough to hold on.
Katherine: Just Imagine: What if you were diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and rather than being given a terrifying prognosis that typically includes the words suicidal, depression, manic, etc, you were given a link to this film? What if you were given a list of things that bipolar individuals might actually excel at?
Jade’s message is so important for everyone who thinks their brain chemistry might be something other than “normal”.
In the film, as she stands triumphant after completing her performance, she says,
“I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t have this ‘disorder’ I mean, I wouldn’t be me.” This is the message I’m trying to convey. What may initially seem like a weakness can be turned into a strength. What may initially be perceived as a loss can ultimately lead to a win.
FA&H: What was it like working on an Internationally-shot film? Were there any events you did not anticipate or stories from production on location you can share?
Katherine: I absolutely loved the circus performers. I loved being backstage and just documenting the athleticism and physicality of these incredible humans. One night I was filming Jade, behind her a woman was balancing a sword on her chin. Next to them was an acrobat, in a long headstand, talking to his family in Mongolia — upside down on Facetime. I was just around so often that eventually everyone just ignored me while I filmed — and that’s the best footage.
Actually, everything was really great in Ho Chi Minh City and at the circus. We employed a couple of fixers to help with translations and legal documents, but it was very affordable. Everyone was very easy going. I really recommend this city as a tourist destination if you enjoy urban exploration. The local crew was awesome. My producer, Jayjit DasGupta, was coordinating from Los Angeles. The heat and mosquitoes were the hardest part for me.
FA&H: Jade, what was the single most powerful moment you felt captured your journey in the film? Is there a part that is too difficult to watch?
Jade: Watching my opening night aerial performances was a powerful moment for me. I was worried for months about my acts not being good enough because of the extreme level of talent at the circus. I practiced my acts, I revised my acts, I dreamt about my acts, I cried about my acts… I really wanted to present work that I could be proud of. When I finally saw Katherine’s footage I was beyond thrilled. I’ve never seen myself shine so brightly! I had a “holy shit that’s me?!” moment watching it.
It’s hard for me to watch some of the scenes where I share what my depressive side looks like. I definitely cried at several points watching the film for the first time. It’s hard but necessary to accept that side of myself.
FA&H: To each of you: What part of this process was the most memorable and if you were given the chance to do it all over again, is there anything you’d do differently?
Jade: One of the performance days we filmed was on my birthday. After my first act, the cast surprised me with a beautiful birthday cake and the entire sold-out audience sang to me in Vietnamese. I felt like part of the circus family. It also made me think of all the circus-themed birthday parties of my childhood. I don’t think childhood Jade would have expected future Jade to actually have a real circus birthday. After the show, we all drank too many beers and sang karaoke, it was perfect.
The thing I would have done differently is invest in more Vietnamese language lessons! The language barrier was frustrating for us all sometimes. I did my best but I missed out on so much because of it. On the positive side, we were all forced to connect in very interesting non-verbal ways because of it. Lots of miming, expressive dancing and hilariously confusing Google translation moments.
Katherine: The most memorable parts are physical sensations — adrenaline pumping from seeing Jade’s performances, the sticky heat, heart-pounding while motorbike riding, itching of mosquito attacks.
I would have followed Jade on Tour. The way the circus worked, they were one month in Ho Chi Minh City and they toured the country for another month in some beautiful cities north of Ho Chi Min including: Vũng Tàu, Da Nang, Hội An Đắk Lắk and Hạ Long. I wish, wish, wish I would have been there.
Before I left Los Angeles for Ho Chi Minh City, I wrote a grant proposal for funding that I didn’t end up receiving. But in that process, I had kind of imagined the structure of the film. I imagined that I would film her up until the Opening Night and that was the end of the film. So I think I was too locked into that storyline. I mean, I also needed to go home and work and pay my rent etc. and I don’t know if the circus organizers would have even let me tag along in the bus, but I wish I had just figured it out and went along for that circus tour.
FA&H: Katherine, as a filmmaker, do you have any words of wisdom to share with any young student or indie filmmakers that you wish you’d been told when you were just starting out?
Katherine: I have a lot, some advice — seems conflicting but here it is:
- Even documentaries need “story”. Structure for storytelling is everything. You must learn it so you know if and when you want to bend or break it and when to lean into it. Even though real life seldom gives up protagonists with clear goals and struggles, that’s what you should look for in subjects.
- Just start filming. Especially, if it doesn’t cost a lot (like a documentary), grab a camera and go. If you have an interesting story, if you’re in love with your subject, go and get the shot.
- Get the release (after the shot). If you want to sell your film, and you really never know when this is — I’ve screened things I thought were ridiculous and been approached by TV distribution — you kind of need people’s formal consent. Get the shot, make friends with everyone, get permission to film, get more footage.
FA&H: Give us details on how we can see the full film!
Katherine: Right now, we’re on a festival run. So you can watch it a handful of festivals — dates coming soon.
We actually have a screening today, January 5th, at the Los Angeles Cinema Film Festival.
If you can’t make it today, please follow the High Flying Jade film for updates on the next screening:
Eventually, we will stream free on Amazon or some other easily accessible platform.
Feel free to reach out to us personally as well if you’re interested in the film.
Director: Katherine Sweetman
Star: High Flying Jade
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