Director of ‘Who Do We Have Here’
As I ascended the iconic red carpet stairs at the Cannes film festival a few weeks ago, I had a thought. “Has anyone who looked like me ever walked this famed pathway before?” In all candour, I didn’t get to walk the entire red carpet. Rather my group was brought in from the side of the red carpet walkway, but we did walk up those famed red stairs, that recognisable and coveted landmark for anyone in film.
There was something powerfully significant for me standing on those steps, not only as an emerging filmmaker attending Cannes for the first time, but also as a woman with a facial difference. When I got to the top of the stairs, facing the theatre doors, I turned to look back over my shoulder, down the stairs and to the crowds and paparazzi below. I thought about the decades of The Who’s Who of Hollywood who have premiered their films here and the incredible hard work it takes to complete a production. The cast and crew of a film would ascend the stairs at the same place I was standing, pause, take their cast mates’ hands and now in unison, bow to the press and have their images transmitted to TV and newspaper and internet news outlets around the world. Standing there, ready to walk in to the packed theatre, to show their film to the world symbolises determination, grit, braun, and vulnerability. They would prepare to walk in to a theatre where they might literally be boo’d at the end of the film if the audience didn’t like it, as is the tradition at Cannes. I could empathise with all of the emotions going through their minds.
This is what I go through on a daily basis, summoning the guts to risk rejection or facing the inquisitive stares and comments from strangers just walking to work or going to a restaurant.
When I was accepted to attend Cannes this year, my first reaction was a combination of shock and joy, followed quickly by fear. Who was I, this relative nobody in the filmmaking world, to be going to this event? We know what happens to mortals who try to play with the gods on Mt. Olympus, and Cannes represents that for me—where the most important filmmakers in history have gone, and where the most beautiful people in the world converge. Who am I, this scarred-up girl with frizzy hair from farming country, who never went to film school, to even consider showing my face in this destination of luxury, beauty, boundary-pushing storytelling, physical symmetry, and perfection?
By the time I was four months old, a tumour the size of a grapefruit had grown on my face. Haemangioma tumours are pretty common. About 20-25% of kids are born with them. They are also known as strawberry birthmarks, angel kisses, stork bites. Most are small and all eventually go away on their own. Something happened with mine though that made it explode. No surgeon knew how to treat me or wanted to take my case, until my family serendipitously came to meet Dr. Milton Edgerton, Chief of Plastic Surgery at the University of Virginia. He walked in the room for the first time, looked at me first and said asked, “Who do we have here?” My mother said, “This is Jennifer.” Dr. Edgerton said, in his soft, warm, soothing voice, “Jennifer has a big haemangioma.”
He took my case and frankly, worked miracles over the four decades and 20 operations it took to rebuild my face. I may not be alive today if not for him, and I definitely wouldn’t be in as good a shape emotionally if not for his determined, and pioneering, philosophy, and that ‘deformity is dis-ease’ and anything that can be done to fix it or help it should be done at the earliest possible opportunity. He understood the world’s cruelty and did what he could to mitigate what was no doubt going to be a whopping portion that I would be served as a child.
There are many moments in a day when I am reminded of what I look like. Frankly, I forget what I look like until I see confusion or even a little fear reflected back at me in the faces of strangers I pass on the street or people I’m meeting for the first time. I feel like a fraud, or that I have something to apologise for when I meet someone while I’m wearing my big sunglasses. We drop in to the opening pleasantries and social conventions executed in the first few minutes of getting to know each other. Then. Then I take off my sunglasses and we have to start all over again, because their reaction to my face is like a reset button.
Most people do a good job of processing their confusion internally while maintaining the conversation and trying, a little awkwardly to keep the momentum going. But I feel that split second rupture in the moment. I can sense when they have recovered their social equilibrium. Eventually, if they become a friend, they say something like “the first time I met you I thought you (in descending order of popularity) had a car accident, were bitten by a dog, were burned, were a victim of domestic violence, and even were stung on your face by a scorpion. It’s been this way my whole life from when the little boy on the playground pointed at me and yelled “OOH! You are the ugliest baby I have ever seen! I’m getting my mom.” Sure enough, he came back with his mother who said, “You are right honey. That is the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!” I knew what the kids said about me behind my back in school. I know how people describe me in private today. “You know, the woman with the scar on her face.”
The surprising thing about being at the Cannes film festival, now as a 44-year old woman, with an incredible life I have worked so hard to build—a loving husband, a fierce and hilarious group of friends, a wonderful career, an emerging film production company with two films in the works, volunteering for an international arts advocacy organisation, was that I didn’t have one moment where I felt someone looking at my face, vs. at me. I’m sure it happened but the whole 8-days I was there, I didn’t have one exaggerated head turn, or one two-beats-too-long look at my face. Because Cannes is a vetted festival, meaning to attend you have to apply and be accepted (not just to have your film show there—just to attend), only people who are actively working in the film industry are invited. What I discovered is that the majority of the people there, or at least the ones I interacted with, were all warm and wonderful, highly-attuned and sensitive creatives. I had a sense that all of us had at least a little twinge of not fitting in well in school, or if we did it was with just a small tight group of friends. By the second day at Cannes, I felt like asking everyone at every gathering “Where were you all when I was looking for my tribe in high school?”
By the second day of the festival I found I was relaxing in to the event, having dropped my preconceived notions that I’d have to deal with a lot of self-absorbed shallow people with big egos who were unaware and overly curious, blatant and unapologetic in their staring as if I were a novelty. Being on the receiving end of that takes a toll emotionally, psychically, and even physically. The good news is that I was wrong. The people were welcoming and lovely. Not only did I feel like I fitted in, I felt like I was included—and there is a difference. Because I was so comfortable, at ease and having fun, I felt my creativity, my authenticity, my contentment with life come out even more. It only took 44 years but I’d finally found my tribe.
I was also aware that overlapping with my time at Cannes was International Face Equality week, supporting the Campaign for Face Equality. The joy, the freedom, the unguarded authenticity I had just a small taste of that week is what we are working to build worldwide, and to be the norm, not the brief Brigadoon-esque break in time that suddenly vanishes dropping us hard on to the tarmac of reality.
Standing on those red carpet stairs, on my way in to see a film premiere, I paused just slightly. When I looked back over my shoulder at the crush of onlookers and star watchers gathered, hoping for autographs, waiving their papers and pens, the paparazzi camera flashes exploding capturing images of people way more important than me to the situation at hand, I had another thought. “I know I’ll be back-with my film or part of the cast and crew of another film. I’ll be back. And more people who look like me will be here too, but for right now, I’M STANDING HERE for us.”
People can’t be what they can’t envision. If I can make it back here, I can help continue this conversation about diversity and show that folks with facial differences have every reason for standing on this iconic spot, participating in roles behind the camera and in front of the camera. They’ll have their image broadcast around the world, holding their cast mates hands, steeling themselves as they walk in to an unknown reception in the theatre. For those with facial differences, walking in to that theatre will be familiar and easy. We could be the ones helping our facially-normative cast mates through their anxiety, saying “OHHH! I know how this goes! It’s OK. Boos only hurt for a minute. Just remember who you are, who loves you and what you stand for in the world. Let the rest go.”
You can view a trailer of Jennifer’s documentary “Who Do We Have Here”
Or follow Jennifer and the making of “Who Do We Have Here” at: