Birds Eye View, the UK's first major women's film festival, returns to London for a fourth year on March 6th. Over the next couple of weeks, Dazed Digital will be speaking to four featured directors, continuing today with Jennifer Venditti, whose documentary Billy the Kid, about a 15-year-old boy in a small town in Maine, will be screened with a Q&A on March 9th. (Or click here for our interview with Sonja Heiss, director of Hotel Very Welcome, or here for our interview with Lucia Puenzo, director of XXY, or here for our interview with Mariam Jobrani, director of The Fighting Cholitas.)
Dazed Digital: How did you find Billy?
Jennifer Venditti: I first met Billy when I was scouting a high school in Maine to cast real kids as extras for a film. I sat in the lunchroom for several days, studying the particular cliques and wondering if any kids ever tried sitting with someone other than their usual set. I filmed a table of bullies who recounted a story of inviting a victim to their table. Apparently, this particular kid freaked out at the way they treated him. As they all laughed after telling me this story, I asked them who this kid was. They gestured across the room to a boy sitting by himself. "Over there," they said. "His name is Billy."
DD: Billy's diagnosis is never really made completely clear. Is this intentional?
JV: My first intention, like anyone else, was to define what I didn't understand. I wanted to know what was wrong with him, what made him different. I began to interview and probe people about him to gauge who he was, but the responses I was getting were generalizations and stereotypes, the most used one being emotional disabilities. It seems like anyone could be categorized that way. What does that even mean? We are in trouble if the world is divided up by emotional disabilities! I tried to probe further, and Billys mom told me what other people, including experts, had told her and Billy, but nothing was confirmed or diagnosed. Everyone seemed unsure.
I became intrigued with Billy's character and who he was as a person, and I wanted to learn through him and his experiences rather than other peoples perceptions of him. I wanted the audience to get to know a character for who he was rather than how he was labeled. As much as I realize there is a responsibility in acknowledging a better understanding through diagnosis, I wanted this film to show people that no matter what our differences are, we all are searching for the same things in life: acceptance, love and to be understood regardless of who we are and what our labels of any kind may be.
DD: There are some really funny moments in the film, like when hes rocking out to AC/DC and when he declares himself a man to some older bikers, after snogging his new girlfriend for the first time. What were the funniest moments for you?
JV: The whole shoot was a mixture of laughter and tears. Too many to recall. Through Billy's eyes I reflected on so many of my own experiences and the universal experiences of life. I think a lot of times the laughter comes from Billy saying and doing all of the things so many of us have felt or thought but never could say or do in public. Someone once said to me "you've captured the inner Billy in all of us!"
DD: What did Billy and his mom think of the film when they saw the final cut?
JV: At first it was very emotional for Billy, especially because his dog Smokey and cat Chloe have since died. It was very painful for him to see them on film. It was hard for him to see himself in situations where he thought people would think he looked like a bad person or stupid.
But he hopes that he can use this story to connect with other people and help them feel they are not alone in their personal struggles. He also wants judgmental people to understand the stories behind the individuals they're judging. He and Penny both like the film and are happy with the way it turned out.
One of my favorite comments Billy has made about the film was when a journalist asked how he is handling having fans, and he said "I dont see them as fans but good listeners!"
DD: What does it mean for you to have Billy the Kid screen as part of a women filmmakers festival?
JV: I feel very honored to be a part of a womens festival. I have always heard that it's been difficult for women in film in terms of female roles and so on. Now that I've been on tour with the film at festivals around the world and industry events, I've seen firsthand the lack of female voices in the industry. This is very curious to me and I hope to continue to share my voice and empower other women to do so as well.