Factual fantasy

Keith Gallasch

Janet Merewether’s Jabe Babe

Janet Merewether’s Jabe Babe

Writer-director Janet Merewether has created a film evoking the magical aura of childhood, for a childhood never really had by its subject, Jabe Babe. To do this, Merewether and her collaborators meticulously craft a fantasy world, richly theatrical in its detail and colouring and insert into it classic documentary detail—personal interviews, experts, medical information and old photographs.

Jabe Babe, at her elegant best, addresses us directly, framed by radiant green foliage and against a pink background. But soon she appears as a giantess dwarfing a technicolour maquette city, stretching out langorously between buildings, manipulating vehicles, and lifting the roofs off houses to reveal a monitor in each. Here we see her, in black and white, before a series of homes where she had lived as a foster child to short-term parents who were either wonderful (once) or appalling (most of the time), after being taken from her brutally cruel and schizophrenic mother at 7 years of age. In between these reflective moments, of memories of families into which she could never fit, vivid scenes suggest a rich fantasy life as, among others, cowgirl dominatrix and neo-Gothic mortician. In an hilarious King Kong episode, Jabe Babe peers into a skyscraper window, smashes it, plucks out the man inside and swallows him. She comments that she’d been destructive in relationships.

What the documentary material reveals is not just the problems of the foster child or the very tall child, trouble enough in themselves, but the delayed awareness that Jabe Babe suffers Marfan Syndrome—bodily disproportions of various kinds, damaged eyesight and a dangerously enlarged aorta. As a geneticist explains, had she be born a generation earlier Jabe Babe would now been dead. Even so she lives with the prospect daily. It’s not surprising then, she says, that given her childhood (including sexual abuse) that she adopted the role of dominatrix to exercise control over others, and that given her sense of mortality, she began to pursue a career in the funeral industry.

The carefully structured alternation between onscreen narration, numerous fantasies and ample documentary material gives the film a firm rhythm but never lessens the surprises as we see a life taking positive shape, and a wiser, friendlier 31-year old Jabe Babe emerging from the “spiteful, nasty” girl her best friends encountered in the 17-year old. She later leaves the life of the dominatrix behind (it clearly served a purpose), embraces a heterosexual relationship, studies for a career as a mortician and thinks about having a child (a surreal moment with her dressed as Alice in Wonderland cradling a piglet), although she is utterly realistic about the implications of that as a fantasy.

Wonderfully shot by Jackie Farkas and exquisitely (and epically) designed by Kari Urizar, Jabe Babe is exemplary, inventive documentary filmmaking, a rich hybrid of imaginative projection and documentary reflection. Every level of production (including editing, music, sound design) commits to Merewether’s vision of life as a contemporary fable: “This story belongs to Jabe Babe, who started small, but grew and grew…” It’s a great addition to the body of experimental work that Merewether has created over many years, a work to which she brings both her sense of humour and formal inventiveness.

Jabe Babe, A Heightened Life, writer-director Janet Merewether, director of photography Jackie Farkas, editor Roland Gallois, costume & production design Karla Urizar, sound designer Liam Egan, composer Felicity Cox, producers Janet Merewether, Deborah Szapiro, Georgia Wallace-Crabbe, in assocation with AFC, FTO and SBS Independent

Jabe Babe—A Heightened Life, official site
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RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 18

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005