Chain Letter Queen

Remember chain letters? Back when you were a kid, if someone sent you one you probably followed their instructions slavishly, hoping that if you sent copies to six of your friends, your mailbox would soon be bursting with packages from around the world. That hope, and the feeling that you were somehow part of something larger than yourself, was thrilling. Whether you actually received any of the promised bounty was secondary.

Miranda July, a Portland, Oregon-based actor, performance artist, and filmmaker, remembers the power of chain letters. In fact, she’s started one of her own. The only difference is that July’s chain has a mission, and those who take part actually see a payoff.

A chain letter with a mission? A few years ago, when July, now 26, was just getting started making movies, she was looking for a way to encourage other young female filmmakers. “It felt like there weren’t that many of us out there,” she says. “But I knew there were, somewhere.” Because it would be logistically and economically impossible to gather a symposium of grrl directors from all over the world, July came up with the idea of creating a video chain letter.

“I made up this pamphlet,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Send your movies to me and for five bucks I’ll send you back a tape that has your movie and nine other lady-made movies on it.’ ” She called her chain letter Big Miss Moviola, and at first she just passed the information on to people she met at clubs. It didn’t take her long to realize that she needed to broaden her audience.

“It took a year to get 10 tapes,” July says, “so I wrote to Sassy, trying to target the kind of people who might most need something like this. Once I got in the teen magazines, I started getting hundreds and hundreds of letters.”

In the years since, Big Miss Moviola has grown–and so has July’s directing career. She’s now produced four short films and a number of performance art pieces (which have screened at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the Whitney Museum of Art, and the New York Video Festival, among other venues). Interest in Big Miss Moviola has become so great that she’s produced 12 video chain letters. “And I keep getting more tapes in the mail every day,” July says. “I’ve even had to take on interns.”

Not all of this attention has been positive. Last year, J&R Film/Moviola Digital threatened to sue July for trademark infringement. July launched a campaign to keep her name and Web site, but later decided to back off. “I was really angry at first,” she says, “but then I realized I have more important things to do, like keep my business going and make my art. So I decided I didn’t want to be a poster girl for this issue and I came up with a new name.” (Changing names is nothing new to the Berkeley native, who dropped her given surname, Grossinger, in her teens.)

Under a new moniker, Joanie 4 Jackie, July’s projects will continue. Recently, she directed a video for the girl band Sleater-Kinney and had a bit part in Alison Maclean’s film Jesus’ Son; she’s creating a new multimedia performance called The Swan Tool. More than one critic has compared July’s performance style to that of a young Laurie Anderson.

No matter how successful she gets, July says, she’s committed to keeping Joanie 4 Jackie going. There are thousands of girls out there who are dying to show their movies to anyone who will watch. “This project is important to me,” she says. “We’re out there supporting each other and making movies and getting the word out. Ultimately that’s what I’m all about, and it’s so satisfying. I’m not just a film buff, I’m a girl buff.”

More information on the video chain letter can be found at www.joanie4jackie.com

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.