Reflecting on “Being Ginger”

That is to say, reflecting on the film itself.

The film went live on Netflix a month ago, and since then I’ve had more viewer feedback than I had in the previous two years combined. I find it very touching, and up to this point I’ve tried to reply to every message and most of the tweets, but it’s getting difficult to keep up and work on the new film, so I figured I’d put out a blog post that covers all of the usual talking points, plus a little bit extra.

First and foremost, the first scene in the film was shot in March of 2011. The last scene was September of 2012, so quite a lot has happened since I finished the film. Too much for me to give a proper update. The most common question is did I make it to Florida to go on a date with the girl I met at the end of the film, and the answer is yes, but I’m afraid I can’t go into any more detail than that.

At the moment I live in Paris, where I am working on a follow up film which is currently called “An American Ginger In Paris.” It’s a “sort of” sequel to Being Ginger in that it is the next step of my personal journey and is my attempt to expand on one of the smaller themes in the first film, namely the idea that I’ve seen too many romantic comedies and I think it’s screwed up my head. As I’ve been working on it though I’ve discovered some deeper themes, that at least to me, are all connected. Time will tell if they will work together in a film. I can also tell you, having shot almost the whole thing, that my hair hasn’t come up once.

Other than that, the only real update I can give is that in many ways I am no longer the man I was when I made Being Ginger. I am extremely happy, both personally and professionally, and I’m eager to share the new film with the world.

I suspect the Paris film will have a much smaller release than the first one (which is saying something) and probably won’t make it on to Netflix. So if you’d like to know when the new film is ready, please sign up for my mailing list here, and I’ll be in touch. In fact, I have a special five minute trailer that I made as a reward for my last crowdfunding campaign. I don’t want to make the video fully public just yet, but if you sign up for my mailing list, I’ll send you a private link and password so you can see it for yourself.

Okay, enough about that, time to start reflecting

I have a lot of random thoughts and I don’t know how to organize them.

Let me just state a few things for the record. The film isn’t really about my hair. I know that might be confusing, since I named it Being Ginger, but it’s true. The film is about the longterm impact of schoolyard bullying (for anything, not just hair color), specifically how it can impact your self-confidence, and more specifically, when it comes to dating. At one point in the film I said I didn’t want to make a film about bullying, and at the time it was true. The person in the film didn’t want to talk about what he went though when he was seven because he was terrified that no one would understand what he had to say about it.

As it turned out, he was both right and wrong. I have received hundreds of private messages from people who had similar experiences, redheads and non-redheads alike, expressing their gratitude that I chose to share my story and let them know that they weren’t alone. And I thank each one of them for their kinds words and letting me know that it was okay to open up about it; those messages have been the best part of this journey.

But I’ve also seen my share of ugliness online. Occasionally it’s come in the form of people tweeting directly to me, other times I’ve found it by simply searching on twitter for the words “Being Ginger Netflix.” Fortunately I’m a great lover of irony, and I can’t think of anything more ironic than being bullied for making a film about bullying.

I feel like being called “worse than all humans” is kind of a badge of honor.

Sorry folks, I ruined the year for everybody.

The critique that hurts the most, simply because I think there’s a valid argument to be made, is that I’m a shallow misogynist. This is complicated, but I want to explain it all in detail from my perspective:

First of all, the original idea was to make a five minute long film. I started shooting six weeks before I needed to hand in my thesis film; on one level I thought I could make a funny short film out of collecting different women’s views on redheads. But it actually went a level deeper than that because I knew I wasn’t brimming with self-confidence, and I didn’t think I was going to have the guts to actually stop anyone. That was the very reason I asked my friend Lou to come film with me, and why I told her to leave the camera running no matter what. Lou is a charming and witty woman, she also likes to tease me in the way that a trusted friend can. That’s why I asked her to shoot it: I knew I was going to chicken out, and I knew that she would get frustrated with me, she’d tease me, and even ask me a few questions, and I thought that would be enough to make a five minute film that I could use to graduate and send to festivals. And sure enough, I was right. Lou ripped into me. She also asked me pointed questions; she wanted to know on her own if I’d ever been bullied. It was only after an hour of standing in the cold that Lou finally got me to stop someone. And the woman I stopped was smart and funny, and the film just sort of took off from there. At that point my job was just to get out of its way.

So as for the critique that I’m shallow, yes, I said I was looking for attractive girls, but I don’t know how to apologize for saying that I wanted to talk to a girl who I found attractive. Everyone who is single (and looking) is looking for someone they find attractive. But more than that, I think it was my way of not stopping anyone because the whole idea terrified me. That said, I do wish I’d worded things differently that day.

Secondly, at no point in the film did I complain that no one would go out with me. In fact, I spoke about “my last serious relationship” at one point, which means that I’d had more than one serious relationship. The impetus for the film was simply the weird thing that exists in Britain when it comes to redheads. No, it isn’t universal. Not everyone in the UK hates redheads. I didn’t think I couldn’t get a date because of my hair. But I had experienced this weird and random thing, and it often came from women. I wanted to make a film about it, and I figured the best way to do it was to turn it into a journey. I’d heard that some women specifically liked redheads, but hadn’t met one personally, so I thought I’d go looking, and I hoped it would give me way to talk about a much more serious issue that I cared a great deal about.

This is a bit complicated, because it might seem at odds with what I said in the film, but the truth is that I never would have wanted to date a woman who had a fetish for my hair (and I have since met several women who qualify). I wanted a woman who would like me for me, regardless of my hair. The idea of looking for a woman who liked redheads was just meant to be funny, because in my personal experience, living in Scotland, pretty much everyone made fun of redheads.

I lived in Scotland for six years, and hold both American and British nationality, and there is a thing in British society that isn’t in my head. I’ve heard redheads try to compare it to racism or other forms of discrimination, which always makes me wince because this is a conversation that requires an awful lot of nuance. It isn’t the same thing as racism. Full stop. That might upset some redheads, and I understand, but the history just isn’t comparable. You will never have to tell your redheaded son to be careful about wearing a hoodie. That said, last week I heard a story from a woman who told me that she came home and found her redheaded son in the bathroom washing his face so hard he gave himself a skin burn. He was trying to scrub his freckles off because he didn’t like being teased at school. He’s five. And I’ve heard that same story a number of times. So for some redheads, it’s a real thing. No it isn’t as bad as racism, but it also isn’t nothing. All you need to do is look for stories about kids committing suicidebecause they are bullied. And not just for having red hair. The damage bullying can do to a child is catastrophic. And telling any child (or adult with a history of it) to grow up and just forget about it is singularly unhelpful.

So to the woman who said there are more important issues in the world than my not being able to get a date, I agree. I made the film to help people who were bullied to such a degree that they wanted to kill themselves.

By the time I committed to turning the film into a feature I knew that it was really a film about bullying. But the guy in the film couldn’t know that. I was terrified that if I made a film that was just about bullying that no one would see it. I thought I’d put the serious message underneath something light and fun in the hope that it would reach more people and have a bigger impact. I’ll never know if my gamble was correct, but I’d do the same thing again.

Further more, I have a shockingly large number of stories when it comes to bullying. When I was 15, a kid at my high school put a knife to my neck and told me he was going to kill me. The next day I was leaning against a locker, studying, and he took a swing at me with the knife and only missed because I ducked in time. His blade broke against the locker. When I was 12, I was walking through the hall at school, during class so the hall was empty, and two 14-year-old boys grabbed me and beat me up. They only stopped because someone came out of a nearby classroom and scared them off. Neither assault had anything to do with my hair, they had to do with the fact that some kids just get bullied. I still have nightmares about the kid with the knife. I have so many stories that if I told them all in the film there wouldn’t have been time for anything else.

I’m explaining this not because I want sympathy from anyone, but just to say it’s more complicated than I can express in a 68 minute long film.

One of the most common messages I get is from people who tell me how sad they think the film is. Personally, I hope that it’s more funny than sad, but I haven’t watched it all the way through in awhile.

I’d like to say something about the edit of the film. Once I’d shot the whole thing, Ben and I took great care in how we structured it. We took a chance, and emulated the structure of one of my favorite films: Casablanca. I don’t know if that will seem crazy to you, but it’s true. Casablanca opens with Rick being kind of a dick. He says he sticks his neck out for no one, twice, then acts even worse, and only half an hour in does the audience find out why, and for the most part his dickish behavior is at the very least understandable. From then on the film is the story of how he changed, and in the end he redeems himself by doing the one thing he said he’d never do: stick his neck out to save someone else. That’s the structure of Being Ginger. Okay, so I’m not fighting Nazi’s, but I had my own personal demons to fight, as we all do.

The risk, or course, was that people would get so upset when I said that I thought all redheads were ugly that I’d completely lose the audience. And having sat through several screenings of the film with an audience of 200+ redheads, I’ve felt the entire room turn against me. But no one walked out, and in the end they all seemed to understand where it was coming from.

Now that the film is on Netflix, it seems plenty of people are turning the film off at the halfway point and don’t actually make it to the part where I explain about my past.

That makes me wonder about the differences between documentaries and narrative films. To me, there is no difference. In fact, my background is in screenwriting, so I approach every film thinking about the story and the structure first. I like documentaries that follow a character on a real journey with an arch. I have zero interest in ever making a film where I have all of the answers at the start.

I see a lot of comments on facebook about how I should be proud of my hair and how special it makes me. People who seem angry that I ever had a negative view of it. That all seems very strange to me. Maybe it’s because the film is called “Being Ginger” so they think it’s supposed to be about all redheads, when clearly it’s about me and my own relationship with it. I invite anyone with a different experience to tell their story for themselves, but a promotional film that just goes on about how great and special we are doesn’t interest me. I need a film with a story. And a good story requires highs and lows.

As for the young woman who was so harsh to me, I could write 20,000 words on her. I’ll try to keep it shorter than that. First of all, please don’t call her nasty names. I’m a big believer that we should all be nicer to everyone, and nothing she said to me can justify what some people have written about her. (Again, the irony of it being a film about what can happen when you’re mean to someone isn’t lost on me.) I won’t use her name, in fact I intentionally omitted her name from the credits because I feared there would be a backlash against her. I’ll just call her “the woman” for the next few paragraphs.

She is real, I couldn’t have scripted what she said, I’m not that creative. I wasn’t even remotely tempted to lose my cool with her because I was so happy to be getting it all on camera. Every single thing she said I’d heard before. (Never from one person at one time, but still.) And I was ecstatic because now I had proof that people said those kinds of things to me. Her story about the first time she saw a redhead being bullied is also what let me put my own story in the film. Without her, the film doesn’t really work. So the truth is that I’m very grateful to her. But more than that, if you could listen to the whole interview (it was about 20 minutes long) you’d understand that her real issue (I think) isn’t that she hates redheads, it’s that she thinks everyone else does because she’s been surrounded her whole life by that British thing I mentioned, and her real issue is that her own self-confidence is a bit shot, and she’s terrified of what everyone else would think if they saw her with a redhead. It’s actually quite sad, but she’s a product of her culture. So please don’t hate her. If anything, have a little sympathy and be glad you aren’t like her, then move on.

I haven’t spoken to her since then, so I have no idea if she’s seen the film, or if she feels bad about what she said.

And then there is the “teacher.” I put the word in quotes because that man hardly qualified. I interviewed him in Louisville, Kentucky in 2003. At the time he was no longer teaching. If he had been I suspect I’d have taken the tape to a local news station to try to get him out of the classroom. Since then I have from time to time looked him up on google to make sure he hadn’t gone back to teaching. I recently learned that he passed away before I ever released the film, so he never saw it and never understood how much harm he caused.

I have more material about him, there are a number of other awful stories, several of which he bragged about in that interview. He told me that whenever a kid cried in his class he would walk up to them and say, “There will be no crying in my class. If you want to cry, save it for the last day, we’ll have a contest, and the student with the best tears will get a prize.” I vividly remember the contest from my own year. It isn’t a traumatic memory, it’s mostly just strange. In the interview he told me that at one point the crying contest was so popular they had to hold it in the auditorium. Parents, teachers, and members of the school board would come to see it. (According to him.) He also told me that he taught at eight different schools in twelve years. One year he was paid to not teach. It makes me suspect that he was getting shipped around from school to school every year because they knew how awful he was. Which means they should have believed my parents when they went in to complain. (More on that in a moment.) He also told me why he chose to retire early. He was teaching at a high school and a 16-year-old girl attacked him. His version of the story is that it was completely unprovoked, and she was just an awful girl…but knowing him as I do I suspect there is more to the story. I’ve often thought about trying to find the woman to learn what really happened. In fact, I’ve often thought that there is another story to tell about all of the other former students he must have harmed in some way. I’d love to do a short film or even a radio piece for This American Life if I ever get the chance. If anyone ever reads this who has their own story about him, please get in touch, I’d love to hear it. His full name was Reuven Ben-Avraham, or Reuben Abraham.

Another common question has to do with my parents. Yes, I told them about the bullying, and they tried their best to do something about it, but the principal didn’t believe us. At least that’s what she said. In the 80’s and 90’s school administrators didn’t seem to take bullying seriously. They just took a “kids will be kids” attitude about it all. But my parents gave me a very safe and loving home, so as bad as school was, and it was bad, I was always okay when I came home. I think the smartest thing they did, when I was 10, was get me a dog. That dog is one of the best things to ever come into my life, and for anyone who struggles with depression or bullying or loneliness, I can’t recommend anything better than having a dog. To put it simply, I was his best friend, and nothing made him happier than to see me walk in the door. And every time I opened that door and saw him running towards me it made my day better. He passed away when I was 25 and every time I think about him I’m overcome by both sadness at missing him and joy at the wonderful memories I have of him. His name was Bandit.

The redhead festival is amazing, and I’m quite happy that the film has inspired others to go there. There are actually a number of different redhead gatherings around the world, so if you can’t make it to The Netherlands, you can try Ireland, or London, or Portland, or Quebec, or Troy (NY) or Milan, or Rome (Georgia). The Redhead Days also has a few affiliates in different cities, like Chicago. They are smaller, but they are growing. I’ve been to The Redhead Days three times now, as well as The Irish Redhead Convention, and Redhead Day UK once each. While I missed the gathering in Portland, I did a screening in the city a few months later and got to meet the organizers, and I hope to join them at some point. The gentleman who runs the Ginger Pride Parade in Rome asked me to be the grand marshal this year, but I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to make it, I have too much work to do in Paris (and I’m broke). But I’m sure I’ll make it there one day.

That’s everything I can think of. If you have any more questions or comments feel free to email me at [email protected]. Also, please sign up for my mailing list and I’ll send you the link and password to let you take a sneak peak at the new film.