[Videolib] Mpls. indie filmmaker and activist died

Steve Fesenmaier (fesenms@wvlc.lib.wv.us)
Tue, 24 Feb 2004 14:03:51 -0500

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I saw Sarah Jacobson's film Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin
Anymore AND LIKED IT....she was a real rebel.....the world will miss

PS I grew up next to Edina where she grew up........

Sarah Jacobson (1971-2004)
A maverick film voice falls silent.

One afternoon a few weeks ago, I watched the videotape of Sarah
Jacobson’s 1993 film I Was a Teenage Serial Killer
and found it just as raw and exciting as it had originally been
described to me. I was particularly impressed by a
remarkable scene in which Sarah’s heroine shoots a man who has angered
her, one that includes numerous close-ups
of bullets ripping through his bloodied chest as he lies on his back.
It’s the perfect, indelibly stylized representation of
a sort of angry, punk feminism that was so prevalent in those days.

That night, I attended a screening of Monster, featuring Charlize
Theron’s powerful portrayal of prostitute-serial killer
Aileen Wuornos. Astonishingly, the images I’d seen only hours earlier
in Sarah’s film were here as well: There was
Theron’s Wuornos shooting one of her johns point-blank in the chest,
glaring over him as he laid in the dirt near his
parked car. Surely, I thought, Monster’s director, Patty Jenkins, must
know Sarah’s work.

But this was not the only Sarah Jacobson coincidence I experienced last
month. Weeks before I saw the two films, I
was a patient in St. Vincent’s Hospital being treated for non-Hodgkins
lymphoma, a disease that struck me suddenly
and without warning. I learned shortly thereafter that 32-year-old
Sarah was in St. Vincent’s at the same time, fighting
a uterine cancer that had spread to her pelvic bone, a cancer that had
not been detected by her doctor at an earlier,
more treatable stage.

Although I was released from the hospital and she was moved to a
hospice at Beth Israel, we had experienced many of
the same traumas: invasive treatments, endless rounds of chemotherapy,
demeaning encounters with some doctors
and nurses and that soul-destroying sense of powerlessness that can
overwhelm even the strongest during a
prolonged hospital stay. Sarah is a filmmaker; I am a novelist. We were
both watching our artistic ambitions—to which
we’d devoted our lives—overwhelmed by life-threatening disease at an
unexpected age.

Sarah’s spirit and essence seep from her work; they seem to breathe in
each frame of her films. When I visited her at
Beth Israel, she described films as liberation; salvation came after
her high school years when she’d felt geeky and

"I was a liberal Democrat growing up in Edina, Minnesota," she told me,
"and that is a very conservative, Republican
town. Of course I was alienated."

She was introduced to what she calls "cool" movies by the tv program
Night Flight, which presented a series of
independent films from New York filmmakers—movies like Stranger than
Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It and Susan
Seidelman’s Smithereens. The last, in particular, inspired Sarah, since
it had been directed by a woman, something
rare in both Hollywood and independent movies.

"I decided then that I wanted to make films in which women didn’t get
killed, raped or married—cool films about cool

She was also discovering the indie rock scene in nearby Minneapolis.

"I met kids in those places who were more accepting of me, at least
when I compared them to the people I knew at

Unfortunately, the sexism she found elsewhere was just as ubiquitous at
these clubs, disguised though it was by the
"hip" progressive veneer assumed by many male rockers. For instance, in
bands composed only of men, "I always felt
like I had to fuck them or something." She befriended the girl bands
and found a new circle of friends.

In the early 90s she attended the San Francisco Art Institute, and it
was there that she met her instructor, legendary
underground filmmaker George Kuchar, "the Movie King of Trash" who was
"the first filmmaker who was nice to me." It
was Kuchar who told her that when it came to movies she should do
whatever she wanted, rather than follow any
preconceived precepts. Under his guidance, she made I Was a Teenage
Serial Killer, which the institute’s film
department refused to show at the year-end student showcase. According
to Sarah, "They hated the B-movie esthetic
combined with the militant feminism."

Inspired by indie record labels Dischord and K, she decided to
distribute her films via mail order. She was very
aggressive in her marketing strategies—sending review copies to her
favorite magazines and maintaining a database of
anyone who ever ordered a film.

With more experience and confidence, she was ready to make a feature.
She wrote and shot Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin
Anymore about a high school girl experiencing problems with
chauvinistic male attitudes while dealing with her own
emerging sexuality. It’s hard to forget the opening shot: a man’s bare
butt thrashing about as he lies on top of a
woman, clumsily deflowering her in a deserted cemetery. When he turns
over after a thoroughly unsatisfying fuck, the
audience is treated to what is surely one of the most unflattering
full-frontal nude shots in film history.

Moments like these helped give Sarah her reputation as the "Queen of
Underground Cinema."

She raised money for this film just as aggressively as she had promoted
her earlier ones, hitting up everyone on her
mailing list for anything they could spare. Kim Gordon and director
Tamra Davis invested, and Sarah was also
awarded a $3,000 grant. In the end she made the film for a miniscule
$50,000, and it went on to open the 1996
Chicago Underground Film Festival and then play at Sundance.

Around that time, though, she lost her producer. She asked her mother,
Ruth Jacobson, for help, since Ruth had an
extensive background in sales and marketing. A tireless and energetic
team, the new team traveled the world, booking
Mary Jane in as many cities, countries and film festivals as they

It’s hard to imagine Sarah’s energy stilled, even for a moment. She had
several ideas for movies, including a
completed screenplay, Sleaze, about an all-girl band confronting
women’s issues while attempting to cope with the
whole indie scene. I can’t help but compare the frustration Sarah must
have felt in the hospice with the way I felt when
I was hospitalized, right after I’d just completed two-thirds of a new
novel. Sarah’s spirits, however, were lifted by an
upcoming retrospective of her work to be held at the Pioneer Theater.
It prompted her "to get to work and fight my
ass off every day."

Helping her with her struggle were her mother, her sister Lee Jacobson
and her boyfriend, Aaron Zisman, who were
usually with her in the hospice. When Sarah lost most of her hair
during chemotherapy, she and Aaron gave each
other mohawks, a process that Sarah filmed for a movie entitled True
Love Mohawk.

"I’d never been able to have love in my life before," she told me,
"because everything had seemed so vicious. I’d
always wondered, ‘Why not me?’ But now, suddenly having cancer has
taught me so much. To be able to feel love
while going through this horrible experience."

She stopped, grasping for words, then closed her eyes. Aaron took hold
of her hand.

Sarah Jacobson passed away on Fri., Feb 13. A web forum has been
created so that people can share their
memories of her and her films. It will be passed on to her family and
Aaron Zisman, her boyfriend. The address is

Sarah Jacobson’s films will be shown at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater
on Wed., Feb 18. 155 E. 3rd St. (Ave. A),
212-254-3300, 7 & 9, $9.

Volume 17, Issue 7

©2004 All rights reserved.
No part of this website may be reproduced in
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without written permission of the

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