Grrrl, Interrupted

DIY filmmaker Sarah Jacobson was a straight shooter to the end

On February 13, agit-pop film punk and indie-art activist Sarah Jacobson died of uterine cancer. She was 32. Her decade-plus career, which in many ways dovetailed with the ascendant riot grrrl culture of the early and mid-'90s, was characterized by a single-minded desire to tell girl stories, and by a fearless if indelicate approach to spreading the word.

"Sarah is a filmmaker," my friend told me in 1994. I had just moved to Minneapolis, where everybody seemed to be playing music, painting, sewing, making a comic, putting out a 'zine, shooting a video. Still, amid the hive-buzz of house parties and Entry shows, it was rare for anyone to own the vocation of "musician," "artist," or "publisher." I would find out over time that Sarah Jacobson--who graduated with honors (and five suspensions) from Edina High School in 1989--was on another trip entirely.

By '94, the memorably loudmouthed Jacobson was studying with experimental-film god George Kuchar in San Francisco and had already made "I Was a Teenage Serial Killer," the $1,600 short that put her on the DIY map. Slapping a promotional one-sheet on every surface within spitting distance of a hotspot, she'd screen her flick--a shaky, girl-punk tale of a lipstick-tough outcast who offs a few bad men--just about anywhere. I met Sarah once, and remember thinking that everything about her contrasted with her teenage hometown's indie gentility. She got in your face and stayed on your mind.

She came, she filmed...: Sarah Jacobson on the set of 'Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore'
Lee Jacobson
She came, she filmed...: Sarah Jacobson on the set of 'Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore'

An outspoken Jewish kid in a largely Christian suburban milieu, Jacobson saw film as her ticket out. Later, she would proclaim that her camera made her feel protected. Most of all, she was driven to make movies for girls. She wanted to rescue Molly Ringwald from John Hughes, to tell stories about girls who speak up, get off, and don't need Judd Nelson to help them rebel. She wanted more toys in Babeland: cameras, dildos, guitars, and microphones.

Her feature Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore, made with help from her supportive mom Ruth, screened at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in '96. Critics from Roger Ebert to Amy Taubin praised its girl-positive energy. The no-budget film ("one camera, one tape recorder, one mic, and, like, four lights," Jacobson said) went on to screen at Sundance (and Walker Art Center) in '97. Based on Jacobson's high school job at the Uptown Theatre, Not a Virgin follows a suburban girl whose disappointing "first time" leads to candid sex chats with movie-house hipsters and other hangers-out. Oh, yeah--and Mary Jane learns to masturbate. In one interview, Jacobson vented about Pretty in Pink's stealthy fixation on the male Ducky. "I could give a shit if that geek gets laid," she said. Not a Virgin can thus be seen as her not-so-pretty answer song. (Ironically, the real Ducky--actor Jon Cryer--was seen at Sundance in '97 sporting a "Not a Virgin" promo sticker on his lapel.)

Seeking seed money for a follow-up feature, Jacobson took a job with New York's Oxygen Media, but left to work freelance for the Sundance Channel and VH1. Other projects in the last few years included "Summer Concert Safety," a PSA-type short that revisits the 1999 Woodstock rapes, and High School Reunion, a confrontational extraction of overdue apologies from Edina High classmates at the predictably stuffy event of the title.

The accelerated illness that stopped Jacobson in her tracks less than a year ago came as a shock to everyone--friends, family, her boyfriend, her colleagues on various indie circuits, and those who met her only in passing, but found her energy striking and indelible. How is it that such a tireless clarion for women could have been silenced by this particular disease? She who had been so critical of feminist narratives that culminated in death, including Thelma & Louise, told the Star Tribune in 1993, "I'm sick and tired of strong women dying! I just saw this movie Shame with Amanda Donahoe who comes in on a motorcycle and avenges the town and the young girl she's helping dies. Let the men die."

Whether speaking at festivals or writing for Punk Planet and indieWIRE, Jacobson always advocated for productivity over perfection. Her art was as messy and cathartic and blurted as a frantic conversation. In fitting tribute, the online bulletin board provided by indieWIRE.com for posting memories of Sarah has much in common with her films. There's outrage ("This seems particularly unfair"), giddy cussing ("She came, she filmed, she fucked shit up!"), bald honesty ("Sarah hated my films and told lots of people about it"), boy-busting ("I put a couple of guys to the feminist test by making them watch it!"), girl talking ("We discussed kissing and its merits..."), and boosterish exuberance ("Chutzpahdik!"). The forum is apt, too, since Jacobson was an early adventurer in cyberspace, bombing lists back when America was not online, back when prodigies still used Compuserve.

Sarah Jacobson's relationship with Minneapolis--where she had moved from New Jersey at the age of 12--was complicated. But nearing the end of her life, she told a friend that, while there was music she had stopped listening to, she was finding the Replacements "surprisingly uplifting." We might imagine her now, camera-strapped and barreling through some cosmic china shop, her iPod shuffling between her beloved riot grrrl rock and the enduring "I Will Dare."

 
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