Filmmaker fuses social justice, compelling storytelling

Jennifer Reeder

Jennifer Reeder: “My writing is my research, and it’s like simultaneously inventing and solving a puzzle.” — Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Jennifer Reeder has made an international reputation by making compelling films that convey, in a matter of minutes, how everyday people cope with common emotional traumas.

Her experimental short films present unconventional, personal stories of women who survive marginalization, including teenage girls from various walks of life navigating relationships with each other, their parents and teachers, and the power struggles of high school.

Reeder calls her filmmaking “a form of social justice” and describes her narratives as “borrowed from a range of forms, including after-school specials, amateur music videos and magical realism.”

“My writing is my research, and it’s like simultaneously inventing and solving a puzzle. The pieces are both imagined and observed,” said Reeder, associate professor of moving image. “It’s often the case that I need to call on an expert, who is usually a teenage girl.”

She’s won awards at film festivals throughout the U.S. and in 21 European countries, including the Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale. Her recent short, “Blood Below the Skin,” premiered at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival and won Best of the Fest at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. It tells of three teenage girls from different circles who bond in unexpected ways during the week before their prom.

In 2014, Reeder’s “A Million Miles Away,” about a fragile substitute music teacher who learns survival strategy from an edgy high school choral class, premiered at the Rotterdam Festival. It was screened at Sundance and several European festivals, where it won awards that qualified it for consideration for an Oscar nomination.

Among Reeder’s recent projects are “As With Knives and Skin,” a feature-length film about a group of rural, racially diverse girls who bond over one girl’s disappearance; “All Small Bodies,” a new take on Hansel and Gretel; and “Crystal Lake,” a fiction about a group of Muslim girls who take over a skate park in the middle of the night, wearing helmets over hijabs.

Several years ago, she founded a social justice initiative called Tracers Book Club, which won a Propeller Fund grant.

“Her strong commitment to the Midwest and a passion for depicting young women, honestly assessing the lives of the teen years, has developed into a new genre of representation,” wrote Steve Everett, dean of the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts, in nominating Reeder.