As part of our webcam series, Girls On Film talks to Kathy Gatto, editor extraordinaire of indie documentary Cam Girlz. Cam Girlz enters the digital landscape of webcamming as a worldwide online sex industry. Staring unique female cam artists such as ventriloquist Veronica Chaos and mime-artist Aella, the documentary shines a positive light on a relatively unknown and unspoken sex trade. While many assume that the women at the end of the webcam pop-up screen are trafficked or at an economic dead end, Cam Girlz illustrates the lives of US webcam girls who enjoy the economic freedom, creativity and empowerment they receive online. Kathy shares her experiences as an editor, her friendship with standout director Sean Dunne and her passion for story telling.
How did you become an editor and what was your training/experience?
I studied film production and cinema studies at Hunter College in New York City. Ultimately, I really wanted to become a filmmaker. I was an avid movie-goer growing up, I never played sports, really didn’t have any hobbies (except watching movies), so it seemed like the obvious step was to explore film production and work towards becoming a director. However, in film school, when working on my student films, editing became the part of the process that I enjoyed most. There was something intoxicating about spending hours upon hours going through footage and crafting a story. I found my calling. When I graduated, I took a job as an assistant editor at HBO Studios. There, I had the unique opportunity assisting many different editors, sponging up every bit of advice they would throw my way. I was fortunate to learn from so many editors, so many teachers – each with their own distinct style and experience – it was as though I went to graduate school. I guess you could say I got a PhD in editing at the school of HBO Studios.
What drew you to documentary film over other forms of film?
This was more happenstance than conscience. I’m still very much interested in all forms, however not only does documentary give me a lot of leeway in the cutting room, but also it’s a beautiful form. It’s honest. The human condition is captivating. I actually started my career cutting TV promos for networks, and then short form/behind-the-scenes/ featurettes/ webisode type pieces. Most of the work was on-the-fly edits with some semblance of a script, but nothing I could write home about per se. Then, I teamed up with Sean Dunne. This was a turning point in my career. He is a visionary and a true collaborator. Together, we took our short form experience and parlayed it into more meaningful projects. Ultimately, I found that I really enjoyed working without a script, telling a genuine story and authoring that story alongside him. There is a lot of creative freedom. We can approach the edit a variety of ways, rather than following a script. This is what I love.
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Much of your work revolves around America’s “fringe” communities and shines a light on those who haven’t had a voice. As a Brit, it is fascinating to see glimpses of the American melting pot that you definitely wouldn’t see unless you searched for it. Having explored communities overrun by drug addiction, or misunderstood sub cultural groups such as the Juggalos, how would you describe your relationship with America?
I believe there’s not much that separates us as people. I might be considered “fringe” myself; I felt compelled to move from Marietta, Georgia to NYC, with absolutely nothing, where I could blend in with the rest of the transplants. Yet, I never stopped feeling like a small-town girl from the South. I was always just a phone call away from the insanity. While I was maturing as a human being, I was also struggling to make a future for myself. It was a duality of being a professional career woman in the big city coupled with the insecurities of being an outsider, a dreamer. And I gleaned a lot of good and bad from everyone I encountered during those years. So, as my experience relates to America, I see a little bit of myself in EVERYONE. Did that make any sense? It sounded good in my head.
How closely do you work with Sean during concept stage and filming? Did you know much about cam girls before the film came about?
I knew everything starting from the genesis of the film; we work pretty closely on every project. Typically, Sean and I will discuss a project to death before the first frame is even shot. He usually has a concept that he shares with me. From there, we will start bouncing ideas off one another. Other films, music, culture inspire us, and we’ll swap those inspirations with each other all the way throughout the making of the film. Once everything has been shot, the story and the original idea might be modified time and time again. Ultimately, we are at the mercy of the story that unfolds before the camera – not the story in our heads when we conceived it. But, that’s all part of the fun. As for how much I knew about cam girls before the idea was born…zero. I’m a suburban mom now. I sort of live under a rock.
What were your reactions after seeing the Cam Girlz footage for the first time?
“With this line of work, in absolutely every other scenario, someone else wields the control.”
What is the relationship between women/girls and webcams?
The webcam affords cam girls confidence and freedom. It’s their ticket to entrepreneurship. This liberty ceases to exist without the webcam. With this line of work, in absolutely every other scenario, someone else wields the control. However, for cam girls, the webcam is their medium for expression and power. They are anonymous. They are safe. They live on the Internet. They are not beholden to time or space. Can you think of any other profession that operates in a universe like that? Most of us have schedules, places to go, clothes we’ve got to wear, people we’ve got to meet. There’s always someone else controlling us, to a certain degree.
The male webcam “viewers” were introduced quite late in the film, why was this?
The men are essential to the film, however the women are driving the story. Even though the cam girls need an audience, the women are still the ones moving the needle, so to speak. It’s fascinating that the men opened up about their participation. And, their placement in the film was a natural progression. These girls do this amazing thing, and you get lost in it, like a voyeur. Then, you realize “Oh yeah, there are guys watching this, too!”
Overall, Cam Girlz had a very positive message and felt empowering for women and the girls themselves. Was it intentional to avoid the negative aspects, either at interview stage or the editing stage? Or did the women themselves have little negative to say?
No negative aspects were avoided. This was straight up in the words of the cam girls. They spoke positively about their profession and their experiences. However, after viewing the film, the audience may have a different reaction to it. The audience is intelligent. I believe there is a subtext there that will leave them questioning and wondering. I want the film to encourage discussion. Was the message positive? I’m not sure everyone would agree. If the film creates a healthy discourse with viewers, then my job is done.
The team employed the Kickstarter method to stay true to Sean’s vision and to avoid restrictions/control from “Hollywood money.” How was the process? Are there any comments you would make about Kickstarter or funding for projects like these?
The Kickstarter process can be a bit nerve-wracking. We were anxious, wondering if we are going to meet our goal and get funded. We were counting on so many friends, family and colleagues to help us attain that goal. Fortunately, in the end, everyone was so incredibly supportive, and we made it! The best part about Kickstarter is that it allows filmmakers to get their projects funded and still maintain 100% control over their film. The antiquated way would be to “shop” the film around to studios, hoping to get financial support from one of them, only to have the director’s vision spoiled by the studio’s restrictions. Imagine what a talented person or team could create without those boundaries? I was going to say “that’s the future” but it’s actually the present. And, it’s awesome.
What technology do you use for editing, and how do you think we can encourage more girls to experiment with filming and editing technology?
Other than college, where I used a Moviola and a Steenbeck, I have always cut on Avid. Technology has really advanced in just the short time I’ve been an editor, and the momentum is only growing quicker. The tools are cheap and within reach. So, the industry is flooded with filmmakers out there doing their thing. It’s fantastic, but with this explosion there is a lot of mediocre or unpolished content. Where we could all benefit most is learning to hone our skills as storytellers. To learn how to keep the audience captivated and entertained, but also knowing when to get out – leaving your audience wanting more. Not everyone can do this. Most films are made with the best of intentions, however the filmmaker may not have succeeded capturing what an audience craves. An audience wants to be taken for a ride. And, speaking specifically to documentary, the audience wants insight, humanity, relatability, conflict, magic. There’s definitely an art to capturing the right moments, making your subjects feel comfortable, getting the most out of them, and then crafting the best story in the edit. None of these qualities relate to technology. Tech is there for us whenever we need it. Empathy is not. I would encourage learning how to tell a compassionate story. I subscribe to the old adage that it’s not the wand, it’s the wizard.
Do you have any other comments about being a woman in film or any tips for budding female filmmakers?
Stay the course. Have confidence and approach every project with a fresh mind, with fresh ideas, even if you doubt yourself. Take risks. Never place boundaries on yourself. There are no rules.