Women have always been fans of Star Wars. To many that might be an obvious, no-brainer statement, but to others, that’s still hard to believe.
A new documentary titled Looking for Leia will make that fact clearer than ever when it’s complete. Created by filmmaker and Star Wars fan Annalise Ophelian, Looking for Leia is an in-production documentary, unaffiliated with Lucasfilm, that highlights the generations of women who love the franchise. It's set to feature interviews with a variety of fans about their passion for the series and what it means to them, and is currently raising funds on Kickstarter, where as of publication it's at nearly $17,500 of its $25,000 goal (one-fifth of the total budget, according to Ophelian), with 15 days to go in the campaign.
CBR spoke with Ophelian about working on the film, her own path to becoming a Star Wars fan, why she wants to create this documentary, and what she's discovered from the fans she's spoken with so far.
CBR: When did you first discover Star Wars, and what about it made you a fan?
Annalise Ophelian: I’m original class of ’77. I saw the film when it came out in theaters. I was four years old when I saw it for the first time, so I don’t remember those viewings as much as the next summer when I was five.
In the ‘70s, movies stayed in the theater a bit longer than they do today! I went back and saw it basically every week for the next summer and was Princess Leia the Halloween that happened in-between. My mom made me a Princess Leia costume out of our curtains. I was hooked from the very beginning. There was a sweet spot around adventure and leaving your home to go and find something broader, and there was something relational in the characters that I was just compelled by. Something about this group of people coming together even in the midst of different personalities and conflicts to go on this quest. All the basic hero’s journey stuff. It completely struck a chord and I was captivated by it, and maintained a steady fandom from there.
How did Star Wars and its characters impact your life?
Ophelian: In a few ways. I think my love of fantasy and science fiction absolutely came from Star Wars. That imagination and creative storytelling, and also venting anxieties through magical storytelling was totally influenced by Star Wars. I also was drawn to filmmaking because of Star Wars, because when the first VHS tapes and documentary behind-the-scenes stuff came out, the process of how they made it was mesmerizing to me. It definitely fostered this deep desire to do that. I do that now in a very different way -- I make documentary films, I don’t make narratives, but it definitely lit a spark. Also being crafty. I’ve always been a very crafty person and understanding that the Star Destroyers and Millennium Falcon were models and people made those was hugely influential.
I think on a story level, while it might not have seemed as obvious at the time, when I look back at the influence of having this sort of bossy strong woman in leadership, Princess Leia gave me a lot of permission to be a bossy girl. We don’t use language of being assertive or being a leader with girls, we call them bossy. In the ‘80s I was a bossy kid and it was nice that I could see that in a heroine that was central to the franchise.
How did the idea for Looking for Leia come about, and why is it a film you want to make?
The idea for the documentary came about in 2015 when I attended my first Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, which was the Celebration right before The Force Awakens came out. It was a great Celebration to be at, because it was not sort of incredibly busy. The panels were all pretty accessible. I went expecting to be one of very few women, and to be on guard around inappropriate behavior from men because this was my experience at conventions up until then, and was really struck by how wonderful Star Wars fans were. How well behaved, thoughtful, considerate, and also by how well represented women were there and how many great conversations I would have with women in line; and then I’d be talking with guys in line and they were never weird. At other conventions, I would often have this sense of people not so used to seeing women there, so they don’t know how to react. I felt like there was just this incredible gender parity happening, even though it was still majority guys in attendance. That sparked a curiosity in me about who the other women in Star Wars fandom were because I always felt I must just be an anomaly. You get told messages about what’s for boys and what’s for girls. I always felt like I’m basically one of those weird women who’s into Star Wars like that’s very rare and going to Celebration 2015 made me realize no it’s not.
Then I went to Celebration in 2016 in London, and there were even more women there because The Force Awakens had come out and we were in the run up to Rogue One and again [it] just made me think, “OK, these stories are so compelling, and I don’t see them being told anywhere.” I was kind of shocked, actually, that somebody hadn’t made this project, and that was the thing that led me to want to do it.
Originally, I conceived of it as a sort of road trip in which I would go around and talk to female Star Wars fans, and I was convinced I would culminate with finding some way of getting Carrie Fisher to sit down and talk with me on camera. I was already starting to think, "How do I get Fisher’s people to let her be a part of this? How much of the film will I have to show her to get her to come on board?” Then when she passed last December, I was just gutted. I don’t know that I’ve ever grieved so much for a person that I didn’t know, like so many people. I already had my tickets to Celebration Orlando and I said, "That’s it. I can’t make the film now,” and my partner’s like, “Absolutely you have to make the film." So it shifted with my imagination of what the narrative was going to be, but also been kind of wonderful, because I do feel like Carrie Fisher’s been looming like a Force ghost over the whole project in this really beautiful way.
In your discussions with fans, what are some of the things that have stood out to you the most, and what are some of the differences if any you’ve seen between generations?
The generational entry point is really interesting to me. It’s been wonderful to talk with younger fans to hear these experiences very dissimilar to my own. Fans for whom the prequels were their entry point and there is this deep and enduring love for the prequels and people of my generation often don’t have that. It’s been wonderful to reconnect with those stories through fans’ experiences of them. There’s been a lot of great writing about why Star Wars is as influential as it is. That it hit so cleanly and purely on some of the resounding bells of our central mythologies, and that those actually play really well cross culturally. This notion of the hero’s journey, the heroine’s journey. There’s something about the imaginary and spectacular that is made accessible through Star Wars, so people can watch this fantasy and truly project themselves into it as not only an escape, but a way people can dream and wish for themselves. A lot of what I’m hearing from fans are the ways that these stories have been used at difficult points in their lives. To help them maintain faith in themselves or feel strong or feel healed and navigate moments of awkwardness because Star Wars is so much outsiders fighting for family of choice and of course that’s going to be my own reading of it [too]. That’s clearly how I relate to so much of the story.
It’s interesting to see one of the biggest differences of the generational points is that the newer generation of fans have so many more women to connect to, so much more diversity in character to connect to, than those of us of the original trilogy did where we had 1.5 women if you count Mon Mothma’s rare appearances, and really no representation of folks of color besides Lando. We don’t count aliens as people of color, which is an important point I feel like I’m always having to make. The newer generation that’s really connected with the prequels, but also especially with the animation and these new films, are also connecting with projections of themselves. I love hearing the multigenerational stories. Really significant stories of daughters whose mothers or fathers introduce them to the franchise so their parents were my generation and loved the original trilogy and then showed them the original trilogy and took them to the prequels. The number of parents who have shared the Star Wars saga with their children, being sure to preserve all the secrets, being sure to show the movies in the right order, and then YouTubing their kids’ reactions to finding out who Luke Skywalker’s father is. It’s amazing to see people cherish their own experience of those stories and then pass them along to their kids.
I love how those stories show how women have always been fans of the saga. Sometimes that still seems to surprise people to an extent that it’s not something that’s new. Talking to fans or in your own personal experience, why do you think that idea has kind of persisted over the years that women haven’t always been a part of the fandom?
I think it’s a matter of lens and narrative and who gets to tell the story. We tend to notice the things that look like us, and share our experience and are nearest to us. If that means guys are telling the story then they’re probably accurately reflecting their own experience which is that the guys they were hanging out with were men, mirroring their own personal subjective experience of not having a lot of connection with girls and women in Star Wars fandom. I also think that one of the axis on which misogyny functions is invisibility and on rendering women’s experiences less visible, less important, and as you become intersectional and understand that women don’t just live as a homogenous group but in fact have their own intersectional diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender orientation, sexual orientation, age, able-bodiedness, we hit even more levels of who’s visible and who gets to tell the story.
I understand why folks think their narrative of a homogenous fandom is a true narrative. I think they’re very subjective, and as a filmmaker who’s very interested in experiences of marginalization and how people survive and thrive within those margins, fandom’s really compelling because as you say women have always been Star Wars fans. I’m talking with women who were Star Wars fans in 1976 when the novelization of A New Hope came out and folks went into the theater in 1977 knowing who these characters were. The fanzine culture in general was tremendously female led. There was a huge amount of women doing fanzine contributions and editorial so when you shift the lens and the focus I think you suddenly get to see a lot more in view. There’s something compelling as well about women getting to tell their own stories, so while this is a story of folks who might be considered on the margin or on the outside, when you’re in that margin it doesn’t feel like other, it feels like the place where you live. I like being able to tell stories from that position.
Where are you in the process of making this film, and do you have a date in mind for its release?
A lot of that is going to depend, as all scrappy independent documentary film does, on our capacity to raise a budget. We are not affiliated with or sponsored by Lucasfilm in any way and so our budget is very much self-generated. [We launched] a Kickstarter. If it goes well and we get some good production money on board, I would love to be able to have something for folks to look at next summer. I’d love to complete filming this year and be in post-production by the start of the new year with something tangible that audiences can connect with in 2018.
That’s really ambitious, but I also think it’s a really timely story and would prefer to be able to do things in that expedited way so we can actually get it in the hands of fans. We’ve been filming since March and are planning on traveling around the country. We’ve got a pretty decent set up of participants lined up. We’re always interested in hearing from folks, but at this point the main folks have been pretty secured and we’re going to be traveling around speaking with them over the next five months.
What are some of the ways fans can help support the documentary or share their story?
Ophelian: They can certainly contact us through the website. We always love to hear from folks and we love to be able to keep people apprised. They can definitely follow us on social media like Twitter and Facebook.
This is very much a project about the phenomenology of fandom and we’d like to stay connected with community as much as we can through the whole process. If folks feel like they have a compelling area of fandom, a story, or an area of expertise that they would love to get on film they are welcome to contact us. I am hoping very much to be able to make a call for fan-generated video, audio, or photographs at some point during post-production because there’s going to be the folks we talk to in-depth but I would love to be able to give some semblance of a picture of just how vast and broad and diverse this fandom is. There’s some creative ways we can be doing that with a call to send videos and selfies. People can keep an eye on our social media for all of that. Signal boosting for potential donors is by far the most significant thing folks can do to support the project right now. Little known fact, documentary films made by for women are not usually ridiculously well-funded! So that kind of support even if the fields’ really small of the folks that are helping us out is huge so we’re able to do the story right.
The Looking for Leia Kickstarter will run though June 24.