Elle Kamihira On Her One-of-a-kind Animated True Crime Feature Documentary ‘Jennifer, 42’

Interviewed by Vaishnavi Sundar

The term “Coercive control” is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim. A form of violence that can’t be “proved” nor is taken seriously in the judiciary, globally. Elle Kamihira, with her predominantly female crew, is just about finishing her Animated True Crime Documentary, Jennifer, 42 and is hoping to release the film in 2020. Jennifer, 42 is a why and howdunnit, a painstaking re-investigation into the shocking events that led to Jennifer Magnano’s murder. In this interview, Elle talks about her experience making this film, and about the lack of conversation around coercive control as a form of domestic violence. Read on…

Q. You have a fabulous list of notable credits in your name, but how did the filmmaking journey begin? Could you tell us a bit about your childhood, education and your pursuit of filmmaking?

Elle Kamihira

I was born in Norway and raised in Norway and Sweden. I’m a third-generation visual artist of painters, ceramists, and architects, and my dad gave me a camera when I was twelve and I’ve been making picture stories since. I studied film and photography at Ingemar Bergman’s Alma Mater Södra Latin in Stockholm, Sweden. I moved to the US when I was still in my teens and honed my producing and creative skills by working in independent film and commercial production in New York and Los Angeles, and also shooting all over the country and internationally for many years.

I was always more interested in documentary stories and was drawn to the museum as a storytelling space and ended up directing and producing many big media installations and signature films for museums of different sorts – cultural, historical and science museums. My career tracked with film production going from film to videotape and then to digital production and becoming more and more accessible as a medium, and I feel fortunate to have been part of the digital revolution and such an incredibly innovative time.

Q. How did Jennifer, 42 happen? What made you feel compelled to come together as a team and tell Jennifer’s story?

I had been working in the museum world for a long time and wanted to try something different. I am a third-generation feminist and a single mom raising a young girl and had encountered my share of abusive men. From that point of view, I became interested in the question “where we are as a culture as it pertains to domestic violence? Are women better off today than they were when the domestic violence revolution started in this country in the 1970s?” 

I was always more interested in documentary stories and was drawn to the museum as a storytelling space and ended up directing and producing many big media installations and signature films for museums of different sorts – cultural, historical and science museums.

My initial interviews with experts suggested that we were not making good progress in terms of reducing the number of women killed or holding men accountable for their abuse. Then I interviewed Dr. Evan Stark, who wrote a book called Coercive Control, which describes in detail the tactics men use to entrap and terrorize women, and his theories revealed something for me as a woman that I had not been able to name or quantify up until that point, which is that abuse as such, had nothing to do with ‘out of control’ temper or rage, but was rather a strategy that men use to control women. 

And then I really wanted to find a story that could show people what this behavior looks like, and I was given an investigative report into the murder of a Connecticut mother of three, Jennifer Magnano, written by then Connecticut State Victims Advocate Michelle Cruz. The report gave great insights into the abuser’s escalating patterns and was also a fascinating story of a woman who rose from being a silent, powerless victim to a warrior. I interviewed Michelle Cruz who is one of the main narrators of the film and together with Jennifer’s three surviving children voice this harrowing story. 

Still from Jennifer, 42

Q. How did you form your team? Whose idea was it?

I worked for a couple of years building relationships with Jennifer’s children first and other people directly involved in Jennifer’s life and the case, and at one point when the narrative was coming together and we had to decide on visual direction, I thought about using reenactments but I didn’t want it to look and feel like just another ‘dead-woman’ story with cheesy ‘actors’ playing out the visuals. I am also a huge fan of animation and loved films like Waltz With Bashir or Persepolis, animated feature films with big, serious subject matter. So I decided to pursue animation as a storytelling style.

Once my producing partner Katie Hyde joined me, we did a big search for an animation director whose aesthetic matched our story and after a few months, we found Yulia Ruditskaya, and even though she is from Belarus, she was living not far from us in Brooklyn. It’s been a great match so far, she is a multi-disciplinary artist with a huge grasp of different animation techniques and enormously creative. Her work is deeply emotional, complex, haunting, and it has been a pleasure taking this creative journey together with Yulia.

Q. Why animation? (You could say why not, of course. It is a fabulous attempt with every frame more beautiful than the rest. But why animation?) Did you think it was freeing to work with a form that didn’t restrict you in terms of logistics unique to live-action?

Animation is a borderless medium, and its superpower is not realism – but rather along with drawing the actual events of the story, we can add layers of memories, emotional realities, subjective experiences from the children’s point of view. We can be abstract, and symbolic and not literal. This story is highly subjective, its told by people who were on the receiving end of abuse and very difficult events that they were trying to survive, and animation allows us to truly inhabit their point of view, ‘seeing’ the events through their eyes.

I thought about using reenactments but I didn’t want it to look and feel like just another ‘dead-woman’ story with cheesy ‘actors’ playing out the visuals.

Q. What is the importance of working with a predominantly female crew for a subject matter like that of Jennifer, 42?

For me, it was important to surround myself with creative collaborators who had an innate understanding of the subject matter, and I found in my search that with women there was an instant recognition of the story, whereas with men it didn’t really resonate, or at most superficially. So it was a pretty organic process that we ended up with mostly women. All of us on this team have experienced some measure of controlling behavior by men in our personal lives, and are interested in the topic of male power and questioning of male power.

Q. You’ve taken a clinical and psychological angle to explain coercive control, but at the same time kept it simple enough for women to understand (at least those who suffer from it) how did you find the balance?

Still from Jennifer, 42

What was so fascinating to me with Jennifer and her children’s experiences with dad and husband Scott who coercively controlled them all, was that it painted such a concrete picture of all of his behaviors, his demands, his threats, his ideas about women and men, his power over them. How he seamlessly transformed from a ‘nice guy’ when they were in public to an evil person behind closed doors. How his tactics evolved over a fifteen-year period and how his need for absolute control escalated as the abuse intensified. And even though each abuser uses highly individual tactics, there is definitely a common playbook, and I think it is important that women learn each chapter of this playbook, and learn to recognize the signs of a future abuser, so that they can get away before they are stuck.

Another important aspect of Jennifer’s story is that it makes clear that this can happen to any woman, that she and the children bear no blame, but that Scott, the abuser is responsible for his brutal behavior, and he alone.

All of us on this team have experienced some measure of controlling behavior by men in our personal lives, and are interested in the topic of male power and questioning of male power.

Q. How did you keep objectivity, when a subject matter is just so close to every woman’s heart? I am sure you had backlashes in terms of “but what about *her* mistakes?” from the “whatabout” universe.

The statistics tell a very clear story. 3-4 women per day are murdered in the US by current or former male partners. 3-4 women per week in the UK. The UN reported around 50,000 women worldwide murdered by current or former male partners worldwide in 2018. 137 women per day. Women killing men are not statistically significant, meaning the numbers are too miniscule to count. Male violence is the problem. Period. Everything else is just nonsense.

Still from Jennifer, 42

Q. How much do you think can cinema be a tool to bring about policy level changes? Do you think Jennifer, 42 helped raise awareness in that regard? With a producer like Laura Richards who spearheaded the Domestic Violence Law Reform Campaign to criminalize coercive control, and developed and delivered the first training on the new law in the UK?

We are hoping Jennifer, 42 gives us a platform from which to raise legal questions and to discuss domestic violence law reform that takes into account the whole range of coercively controlling tactics and the research that shows its close correlation to homicide. We hope that this story will help create a new understanding of domestic violence and that it will provoke a cultural shift we need to see domestic violence in a new light so that we can start to build a legal framework that actually protects women from male violence and control instead of colluding with the male abusers.

Q. Clearly, emotional violence, gaslighting are terms that men consider words that women use to fabricate and make false cases, how did you circumvent all that?

That is a broad societal fight that I think we may all spend the rest of our lifetimes battling, and ultimately I think it comes down to the catastrophic power imbalance between men and women that is a fact of life for all of us. Women are not believed by and large because we are women. But I’m going to keep talking, keep reporting from my female point of view, speak my truth and the truth of other women, for as long as I live. 

Q. What was Jennifer’s family’s reaction after watching the film? 

Jennifer was killed by her husband, her murder is part of our story. However, Jennifer’s three now-grown children David, Jessica and Emily, have seen excerpts and are very happy with how we are telling their story.

Q. Have you made any limited screenings elsewhere? What has the general reaction been like?

We are still in production, with hope for a release in 2020. We have screened our teaser at various events to very powerful reactions, so we can’t wait to see how an audience reacts to the whole film.

We hope that this story will help create a new understanding of domestic violence so that we can start to build a legal framework that actually protects women from male violence instead of colluding with the male abusers.

Q. What are your plans for the film?

We are hoping to get a broadcast deal, theatrical release, film festival tour, perhaps streaming on Netflix or similar and certainly an international broadcast deals.

Q. Anything else you wish to add?

Thanks for your interest in Jennifer, 42, and I welcome your readers can join our filmmaking journey on our website jennifer42movie.com where they can sign up for our newsletter, and also on social media here: instagramfacebooktwitter