“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” – Jean Luc Godard
Yeah…what he said.
...because her work shows how web comedies and “in-the-street” takes can explore real issues. Like many creative voices who have found success on the web, Jessie Kahnweiler blends her talents as a comedian, performer, writer and director with her own personality and experience. Through her street interviews and web content, Kahnweiler uses her own sexually charged Jewish girl persona to explore social taboos like police racism and the stigma of rape. Her comedy series “The Skinny,” which fictionalizes Kahnweiler’s own struggles with eating disorders, was executive produced by "Transparent" creator Jill Soloway and earned a special entry into Sundance.
When you think about funny videos on the web, there are probably a few ideas that come to mind. Silly pets? Thumbs up icon. Epic fails? Click. What if life were like an old school Nintendo game? LOL SO TRUE! Whatever your personal taste for a quick laugh on YouTube, traumatic issues like rape and eating disorders definitely aren’t the topics that run through your brain. Kahnweiler shows how comedy can actually ask provocative questions. In some of her work she literally does this, such as when she asks police officers if they want to buy her prescription pills or asks men if they want to grab a certain part of her body using an expletive no future president would ever use. In a short like "Meet My Rapist," she takes a more figurative approach in examining how society treats survivors of sexual assault, implicitly challenging her audience to question their own complacency towards this issue. While the subject could not be any more serious – or for that matter, any more personal as it’s derived from her own life experience – she still manages to approach it with a sense of humor and understanding. As the web helps shape our concept of what comedy can accomplish, Kahnweiler’s work suggests that there’s more potential to online content than a few easy laughs at the expense of a confused animal or common meme.
Whether consciously or not, Kahnweiler fits into a lot of what succeeds in online content. Even though she deals with dark topics, she still manages to tell her stories with a positive slant, often trying to empower individuals rather than criticizing everything that’s wrong in the world. In the marketing videos she made to accompany her web series “The Skinny,” she discusses her own struggles with bulimia as a type of victory and asks girls of different ages about their own body issues in a way that encourages them to accept and embrace their own self-image. Again, she’s able to accomplish a lot of this because she is asking these questions and exploring these issues from a position of personal experience. Indeed, even in something like "Meet My Rapist," she’s focusing less on the villainy of the man who sexually assaults women and more on her fight to come to terms with the trauma in her own life. Kahnweiler has also done a good job of forming partnerships with established creators like Jill Soloway and emerging web platforms like Refinery29 that are actively seeking out young female artists like her. “The Skinny” also ran in the Special Events section at the Sundance Film Festival, while also being distributed through the web, combining old and new media channels. Kahnweiler is also developing "Meet My Rapist" into a feature length film through the Sundance Lab, though it will be interesting to see what type of distribution model this project would use.
A lot of the creative risk taking in web content involves individuals opening themselves up to the world. In that sense, Kahnweiler succeeds, exposing herself (sometimes literally), her own issues and her flaws to an extremely wide audience. Even more impressive, with a series like “The Skinny” she manages to tell a personal story that could potentially impact the lives of so many young women – and probably more men than we would imagine. It’s the sign of Kahnweiler’s bravery that she would film herself stuffing her face full of food in an extreme close-up, especially considering her own admitted issues with food binging as part of an eating disorder. Kahnweiler even jokingly refers to her own work as a form of therapy. At a certain point though, we have to worry about the cult of authenticity in online media. Kahnweiler has proven that she can tell stories which relate to her own life. But can she also tell stories about characters and individuals who aren’t necessarily like her? There’s some suggestion that she can. Her stunt video in which she tried to get arrested was such an imaginative take on a really tired genre of web video, one that laid out the complex issue of white privilege and police power in a really funny, insightful way. What’s more, she clearly stated at the beginning of that video that it was an attempt to understand a topic that wasn’t immediately accessible to her own experience. If she can apply this type of creative thinking towards telling fictional stories, she could really emerge as an important artist.
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