Walking the line between mindfulness and adrenaline rush, an American, bipolar, aerialist tries to reconcile her suicidal inclinations, her past life as an air traffic controller and the pressures of training for opening night at the Vietnamese circus.
High Flying Jade is the true story of a bipolar woman from Los Angeles who moved to Vietnam and joined the circus in Hồ Chí Minh City.
In the US, Jade was an air traffic controller but repeated attempts at suicide culminated in hospitalization. She was eventually diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder. Now, she tries to manage her unique brain chemistry with learned-mindfulness and focused aerial training. We meet her one week before the opening night of her first ever performance in a real, big top circus.
High Flying Jade is directed by Katherine Sweetman. Katherine is a director with an MFA in Cinematic Arts from the University of Southern California and an alum of the Emmys/Television Academy program.
Sweetman is an artist and media technologist with work distributed in major film festivals; broadcast on major TV outlets including Cox, Brighthouse Networks and Time Warner; shown in galleries and museums including The Getty Center, Los Angeles.
It is our pleasure to speak to Katherine Sweetman about the making of her film and her journey as a filmmaker.
What was the inspiration behind the making of High Flying Jade? 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 inspiration 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 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.
What were some of the challenges you faced making this film?
I did not know Jade was going to let me make this film when I jumped on the 20-hour flight from Los Angels to Ho Chi Minh City. She only agreed to let me document her as she joined the circus. But it’s important to note, 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 challenges 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.
How did you fund the film and how did the film go into production?
This film is 100% self-funded. It was also 99.9% shot by me on equipment I already owned — so that was helpful. I am a professional filmmaker, and I work full-time as an editor and director for other people — so that was also helpful. I did apply for some grants, right away, to get help with production/travel, etc, but I didn’t get them. I was also too close to Opening Night to wait for any help. Fortunately, Ho Chi Minh City is very cheap. I mostly stated with Jade for free. The couple of other workers involved in the production were very cheap. It was very easy to get around — Ho Chi Minh city has Uber. They have Air BnB. They have a PostMates-like food delivery and food is cheap and incredible. You can get around remarkably well — even without knowing the language at all like me.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you created?
I’ve been creating films and documenting my life and things around me since I was a little kid. Both my parents are photographers, and I had my own Polaroid camera when I was still in diapers (really!). I shared my first video camera with my parents when I was about 10, so I have been making short films and experiments with cameras all my life.
My first real, longer format, documentary film (that was screened for audiences in festival-type venues) was called Swimming with Rosemary. It was similar to High Flying Jade in that I went to document the story of a friend of mine. In this case, a woman who had been in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and didn’t evacuate before the flooding/chaos. She ended up stuck in this horrific escape story featuring crime, domestic violence, police corruption, and dead bodies. We went back to New Orleans together for the first time after the flooding subsided. We went to her destroyed home, found her devastating and moldy car, and spoke about her former life. She took me on a tour of the events she witnessed.
Where do you see the future of female directors, and why is it important to have the perspective of female directors in cinema?
Men and women tend to experience the world differently. We tend to feel things differently and see differently. So what women put in front of the camera is different, and it’s so important to get the female perspective because we are half the population. When we, as women, get to see films through the female lens, with the female gaze, and into the stories women want to tell, it’s really a deeply empowering experience. We can recognize it as our own experience. We are half the population of people who watch the films, but we’ve grown up on male directors, male perspectives, the male gaze. We've come accustomed to the male-dominated film world, but today we are changing it. We are showing stories through our eyes, through angles and decisions we make because it seems right to us. We get to tell stories that matter to us with complicated and real female protagonists in complicated and real situations. It’s important for women to see women telling stories, but it’s important for men to see women telling stories. It opens up our world to them. It creates empathy. It allows them to live in the female psyche for a little while.
The future will be a level playing field; Women will make up half of the filmmakers in the world and there will be no need to even call them “female" directors or have conversations about the inequity. The time is coming, but we have a lot of work to do.
Which genre is your favorite to work on and why?
I absolutely love working in narrative filmmaking also, and the genre that appeals most to me is Magical Realism. Some of my favorite films are Donnie Darko, Trainspotting, Eternal Sunshine of A Spotless Mind, Amélie, and other classics that mash reality and fantasy together.
When I made High Flying Jade that is what I was trying to do — make a magical, almost hallucinatory experience for the viewers when Jade feels her highs and lows. For example, in her bipolar lows, as Jade speaks of being trapped, we pictured her underwater with darkness surrounding her. In a couple of flashes to her bipolar highs, we showed her holding a bouquet of roses while flashes like paparazzi photographing sparkle around her.
Magic has always been part of cinema’s history, and why not have things happen on-screen that can’t happen in the real world. This is probably the reason I became interested in visual effects, which is where I spent a few years of my life — working for TV and film productions as a Visual Effects Supervisor and a visual effects artist. I’ve always been interested in how you show the subjective experience of a character when you have access to all the magical wonders available in film production.
Who are three of your favorite filmmakers and why are you inspired by their work?
I have to start with Jim Henson. His films, stories, and characters deeply influenced my life from a very young age. His career and work were so grand and so vast. We generally think of him as the puppet master or Muppet master, but he also directed scores of things and two films that were extremely influential to me as a child: The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) with David Bowie. These films were set in fantastical worlds but had dark, scary undertones. They were children’s films with consequences. They let us kids know that the world was magical but also scary as hell, and that tone is something I desperately want to emulate in my own work. That is how I actually feel about the world — it’s magical and scary.
Joshua Oppenheimer is my favorite documentary filmmaker. His masterpiece, The Act of Killing (2012) was the most extraordinary (and horrific) documentary I have ever seen. If you haven’t seen it, go now and watch it. It’s about real Indonesian death-squad leaders who are kind of tricked into re-enacting the mass-killings they committed in these lavish Music-Video style re-enactments. It’s absolutely incredible, breathtaking, and brave. I want to be that brave in my own documentary filmmaking. I also, of course, want to make something that attracts the attention of the legendary producers who signed on Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.
Lastly, as cliche as it is, I always say Stanley Kubrick. I think on a chronological experience of my life, 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first time I experienced a fully meditative experience while watching a film. I just remember watching it in a theater (in a film history course) and losing myself. I didn’t know what I was watching. I went through all these stages of emotions while watching: boredom, anger, confusion, bliss. It was something beyond film and beyond anything I'd ever seen. It was art, and I read my own meaning into it. I felt like I walked out of the classroom changed, and that’s the goal of any artist. We want to change something in the viewer. Give them something they can remember — forever if possible.
How can cinema and films have an impact on society and change the world? Films are empathy machines. They literally put us into the lives of other people. They give us experiences we could never have. They give us perspectives on the world we have never known. This changes us. Film and TV absolutely already transform culture, society and impact the world. Now it’s up to us filmmakers to do that in an interesting and responsible way.
Why do you want to make films? I don’t think I can help myself. From the time I held that first video camera (that I shared with my parents) in my hands, I kind of knew that was it for me. I would always be fascinated with creating time-based media. I also, of course, want to be one of those responsible filmmakers to make memorable films, give you fresh perspectives, and change the world!
What’s next for you? 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, full circle, 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.