Virgin Tales by Mirjam von Arx
Virgin Tales is about evangelical Christians are calling out for a second sexual revolution: chastity! As a counter-movement to the attitudes and practices of today’s culture, today one in eight girls in the US has vowed to remain “unsoiled” until marriage. But the seven children of the Wilson family, founders of the Purity Ball, take this concept of purity of body and mind one step further; even their first kiss will be at the altar. For two years the filmmakers follow the Wilson's as some of their children prepare for their fairytale vision of romance and marriage and seek out their own prince and princess spouses. In the process, a broader theme emerges: how the religious right is grooming a young generation of virgins to embody an Evangelically-grounded Utopia in America.
Mirjam von Arx, director and producer of Virgin Tales was born 1966 in Weinfelden, Switzerland. After studying at the Ringier School of Journalism, von Arx worked for 18 years as an editor and freelancer for a number of German language magazines. In 1991, she moved to New York and produced the road movie BLUESIANA together with Polo Hofer. In addition to regular contributions to Swiss television, von Arx executed two documentaries for SF and Sat1. In 2001, she moved to London and began filming the documentary BUILDING THE GHERKIN. In 2002, she founded the production company ican films gmbh. In 2003, her first documentary ABXANG was shown in cinemas. In 2005, BUILDING THE GHERKIN (CH, DE, UK) followed. In 2006/7 she produced the documentary SEVEN DUMPSTERS AND A CORPSE for Thomas Haemmerli , shown in cinemas in 2007. The film was awarded the Zurich Film Prize 2007 and was nominated for the Swiss Film Prize 2008. Her documentary SEED WARRIORS was theatrically released in autumn 2010 and nominated for an Int. Green Film Award at the Cinema for Peace Gala in Berlin in 2011. VIRGIN TALES will be theatrically released in Switzerland in June 2012.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you first encounter the idea and the subject of "Virgin Tales"?
Mirjam von Arx: I was interested in the subject of virginity for a number of years. And it was really important to me that my documentary talks about all different aspects of virginity, the physical, the spiritual as well as the political. I thought about this for a long time, how to make a great film, that would not just be bits and pieces from all different places. So when I met the Wilson family I knew that they were the perfect protagonists because all of the qualities I was looking for are present in this family.
Bijan: How challenging was it to make this film and to get the people on the camera and working with them?
Mirjam: We had a number of long discussions before we started filming because as a filmmaker I knew I wanted to follow them over a couple of years and so I wanted to make sure that they knew what that really means. Plus, as a producer, I did not want them to drop out after half a year because that would have been a problem for me financially. Right from the start the Wilsons were quite open. I believe they felt at ease because they knew I was honestly interested in learning about their philosophy and their rituals although I am not religious and have a very different point of view to theirs.
I also have to say I had a really brilliant documentary film crew that made working and shooting as stress-free as possible. We visited the Wilson family over the course of two years and it was getting easier and easier for us to blend in and become a fly on the wall because we really wanted this film to be observational.
Bijan: You managed to make this film without being judgmental, how did you do that?
Mirjam: From the start I wanted to show the Wilsons in their world and I was confident that their characters were strong enough to speak for themselves. I always knew I wanted to make this film without any voice-over or commentary.
My aim was for the audience to be able to make up their own minds. My role as a filmmaker is to try and truthfully present what I experienced while filming but not tell the audience what they should think.
When we premiered the film at Visions du Reel in Switzerland the audience’s reactions were very emotional: some people were crying others got upset and or even cursed. This full range of reactions again confirms to me that people bring their own culture, their own philosophy and their own baggage to watch a film and therefore will react differently and take different things from it.
That's what initiates discussions and healthy debates. To me that is way more important than delivering my point of view or telling the audience what to think.
Bijan: Why are a lot of people with these beliefs politically off to the right and sympathize with the Republican Party?
Mirjam: They seem to yearn for more structure and rules and seem to be a lot more conservative. With the Wilsons in particular, everything they do and believe seems to be based in the bible. The bible certainly gets quoted a whole lot.
There are various explanations why the purity movement is so popular. One reason which makes quite a lot of sense to me is that there is so much chaos in life, politically, financially, socially, so there is a real need for structure.
Another explanation is the omnipresence of sex as displayed in advertising, fashion, television, and the media which pressurizes women and men to be attractive, desirable and always ready. As a reaction to this pressure some people decide to hold off on sex completely until they get married. Overall though I think there are different reasons why this is such a popular choice.
Bijan: Some of the films statements seem universal in their take on gender roles and not particular to one religion – what's your take on that?
Mirjam: It is very interesting that certain statements in my film could have also been made by fundamentalists from other cultures. They all believe themselves to be the chosen people and only those who worship their God will be in heaven. In one interview Randy Wilson told me that “based on scripture if a person doesn’t believe in Lord Jesus Christ, yet does all the good works, he says, he will not be in heaven.”
It was very important to me to show that fundamentalism also exists in a white Christian environment where sexual opportunity is everywhere, but sexual rights have been constantly eroded.
Bijan: Did you find any rebels in this purity community that had changed their minds or were totally against it?
Mirjam: They certainly exist and when I started filming I was looking for people like that.
But eventually, I decided to stay with one family and immerse myself into their lives. If someone in their circle had dropped out while we were filming, then I would have included that. But that didn’t happen. And I didn’t want to go and find someone who was not connected to the Wilson family and their community, just to have an opposing voice in the film.
I also always thought that it would not add that much to the film if I introduced an expert voice that puts things into a broader perspective. As an audience you already do that in your own mind, when one of the protagonists says something you don’t agree with.
In one of the first interviews with the parents Lisa and Randy Wilson I asked how they would react if one of their children changed their mind, broke out and had a sexual relationship without being married. They reacted really surprised because for them that was not a reality. I was a little cocky, because statistically, it seemed to be very likely that one of their seven children might break out. But the more time I spent with them, the more I realized that there was in fact a good chance that they would stay "with the program," so to speak. It is really all they know. They are being home schooled, their siblings are their best friends and all their other friends are members of the same church. They do not really have any other encounters or exchanges with people of a different mindset. They grow up in a kind of bubble and it would take a lot to break out of that.
Bijan: Do you plan to continue making films on this subject because I think that this is a very interesting subject to be followed maybe in other parts of the world and from different angles. Do you have any plans like that?
Mirjam: There is nothing planned right now, but I am definitely still interested in the subject.
Now that the film is released and I get to travel with it and show it to different people from different countries, my education continues: Virginity is one of the very few experiences we all share, regardless of our upbringing, religion and culture, but we all deal with it very differently depending on where we come from.
I would definitely consider another film about it. Maybe not in the next couple of years but I would be interested in going back to this family in ten years’ time when the youngest daughter turns 18, to see how things have evolved – and find out whether all their fairy tales worked out as princesses and knights in shining armor.
Bijan: What are you working on right now?
Mirjam: I’m still very busy with VIRGIN TALES. The film just had its theatrical premiere in Switzerland and is now being shown at different festivals. So right now I don't have much time to work on my next film. But I plan to start a new project called ALIVE in the fall. It’s a personal film about BASE jumping, an extreme sport that is very popular in Switzerland and attracts athletes from around the world. The film will look at some fundamental questions about life and death and how to live life to the fullest.
Bijan: Any chances VIRGIN TALES will be released in the United States?
Mirjam: I very much hope so. These are very interesting times right now with the upcoming Presidential elections in November. There are discussions that need to take place and this documentary could be a platform to allow people from all different backgrounds and completely opposing sides to come together and talk. So it would be great to find a distributor.
But to start with I am very happy that VIRIGN TALES will screen in the International Competition at the upcoming AFI-Discovery Channel SILVERDOCS Festival from June 18 to 24. I am very excited to be able to present the film personally in Washington and see how Americans will react to it.