Interview with Filmmaker Katherine Sweetman (HIGH FLYING JADE)

HIGH FLYING JADE was the winner of BEST DOC SUBJECT at the January 2021 DOCUMENTARY Short Film Festival.

1. What motivated you to make this film?

High Flying Jade is a documentary on a formerly suicidal, bipolar, American woman who joins the Vietnamese circus as an aerial performer, and in doing so, she kind of heals her need to do self-harm. Also, Jade is a friend of mine, so my initial motivation was a video I saw her post on Facebook. She was 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. Behind them, kids were watching and eating noodles. Dogs were barking. People were yelling in Mongolian and Vietnamese. Everyone was bathed in this ethereal, purplish light from the tent. It was an incredible, Fellini-esque circus composition. I knew that if I didn’t go film this, I would never forgive myself.

I was also very much motivated and inspired by Jade’s backstory. I knew a little bit about her experience with bipolar disorder, and I saw that now, she was living a pretty incredible life in Vietnam. So, I kind of just jumped on a plane a few days later and found myself in Ho Chi Minh City.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?

I think it took about a year from start to finish. It’s hard to say exactly because we have had a few different versions.

3. How would you describe your short film in two words!?

Bipolar Power!

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

I did not know Jade was going to let me make this film when I jumped on a 20-hour flight from Los Angels to Ho Chi Minh City. She only agreed to let me document her as she joined the circus. I am not some jet-setting, wealthy documentary filmmaker. I was coming out of USC’s Film School with a mountain of debt and a pang of regret that I hadn’t made a significant film while I was there. I saw this as an opportunity to do something meaningful and jumped. It was very scary to start that conversation.

Luckily, Jade was very receptive to the idea. She was actually amazingly excited about it. When we sat down, the first night, to chat about the film, I had this written-out list of why we should do this film, how important it could be to others, and ideas to counter her concerns and objections. I didn’t even have to use my list. She agreed the very first time I ask. I was ecstatic.

Of course, there are tons of other obstacles in making films in Vietnam: regulations, heat, mosquitoes, language barrier, translators, forms, fixers, motorbikes, Malaria, Dengue Fever, and many more. But… it was all worth it.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

I was overwhelmed. We have not had that many people provide so much positive and insightful feedback in the entire run of the film. It was very special. This year has been hard on both Jade (the star of the film) and myself (the director) it was very touching to hear the very positive feedback.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. How did you come up with the idea for this short film?

You could make a film from each chapter of High Flying Jade’s life. She was an air traffic controller in the Navy. She was in a punk band in San Diego. She studied at Oxford, She’s married and divorced an Austrian man — when she lived in Austria. She competed in Jiu-Jitsu tournaments. She’s apprenticed at tattoo shops. She’s been a professional wrestler. She studies Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Texas, Austin. She worked at night clubs as an aerial performer. She was in a circus in Vietnam. She went to the School of the Art Institute, Chicago to study performance art. She worked as a tightrope-walking elf at Elf On a Shelf drive-through holiday experience (2020). She’s headed to Las Vegas to be a showgirl!

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

Dazed and Confused (1993). I know all the words. We didn’t have cable for a long time when I was a kid, but also it’s a great film.

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are you feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

I think it’s nice to have everything in one place. It’s helpful to keep track of everything. One used to have to manage a spreadsheet. Yuck.

9. What song have you listened to the most times in your life?

Robert Miles, Children. And now I have to listen to it again.

10. What is next for you? A new film?

Since lockdown, I have started some very cool remote directing projects for a couple of clients including the mobile platform Hooked (https://hooked.co/) . I have been logging in remotely to my actor’s iPhones and directing them at their homes — while I’m also safe in my home. I was featured on Stage 32 (with a detailed outline of this process (https://www.stage32.com/blog/How-to-Direct-a-Film-100-Remotely). I am also currently remotely directing a short dance film for the BlackLight Summit at the University of Maryland (https://theclarice.umd.edu/content/blacklight-summit).

AND to bring this back to High Flying Jade, I am currently co-writing the feature film, narrative version of High Flying Jade with the protagonist herself. We are both headed to a lock-down screenwriting house in Las Vegas for a few months to see if we can create a Magical Realism narrative feature film script that will attract some interested producers.

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