“She” Documentary Transforms True Crime with Aimée Baker’s Poetry of Missing and Unidentified Women [INTERVIEW]

On this episode we welcome poet Aimee Baker and filmmakers Jason Greer and Vanessa Cicarelli to discuss the award-winning documentary “She” based on Baker’s collection “Doe” which tells the stories of missing and unidentified women through poetry. “She” is available to stream for free on Tubi, Plex, and Roku.

Aimée Baker is the author of the Akron Prize-winning collection of poetry Doe (University of Akron Press, 2018) which was the subject of the documentary She (Birdy & Bean Films, 2022) starring Kate Mulgrew, Coco Jones, and Raven Goodwin. As a multi-genre writer, Aimée’s work has been published in journals such as Guernica, The Southern Review, and Black Warrior Review. Currently she teaches at a university in upstate New York and is working on her next book.

Jason Greer and Vanessa Cicarelli are high school sweethearts that have been together for over 25 years. Jason was born in Bozeman, Montana and Vanessa in Montreal, Quebec. They now live in Upstate New York where they raise their children and run a family business. They started Greer  Cicarelli Photography in 2000 specializing in commercial photography and video production. Their work has been featured in numerous magazines and publications both nationally and internationally. Jason and Vanessa believe in telling authentic stories through photography or film. “She” is their first full-length film. What began as a passion project has taken on a life of its own, interweaving the weight of the forgotten with feminine beauty and the power of knowledge.

Below are excerpts from the interview with host James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James: Aimée, to provide listeners context, what inspired you to research and find the poetic voices of missing and unidentified women? 

Aimée: While living in Arizona, I came across an article about an unidentified woman found in Phoenix nine years earlier. I was stunned by her case and realized I hadn’t heard of her before. This prompted me to investigate her story, which led me to numerous other cases of missing and unidentified women. I felt compelled to do something, so I decided to use my writing skills to raise awareness for their cases in any way I could. 

James: Aimée, “Doe” tells such a wide range of tragic stories, from widely reported stories such as the disappearance of 1940s aspiring starlet Jean Spangler to the unidentified remains of women whose stories have barely been told. How did you make the difficult decisions of which stories to capture in poetry? 

Aimée: “That’s a difficult question. I must have researched thousands of women, which means there are still many stories I didn’t encounter, and more women have gone missing since I wrote “Doe”. Initially, I followed stories that struck me visually or resonated with me personally. However, I soon realized I was focusing on cases with more available information, which often involved younger, white women. To address this bias, I made a conscious effort to accurately represent the landscape of missing and unidentified women in the United States by being more inclusive in my selection process.”

James: Jason and Vanessa, how did you first become aware of Aimée’s book and poetry, and what drove you to take on the complex project of transforming the collection of poems into the documentary “She”?

Vanessa: “We come from a small town and knew about Aimée and her book. After reading it, I was struck by the individual stories of missing and unidentified women, which are often presented as cases rather than personal stories. I suggested to Jason that Aimée’s poetry could be an interesting subject for a documentary, so we approached her with the idea.”

Jason: “Initially, we planned for a short 15-20 minute documentary, as our background is in photography and videography. However, after filming Aimée’s interview, we realized there was so much more to be said on the subject. This led us to produce a full-length feature film, which took about two and a half years to complete.” 

Filmmakers Jason Greer and Vanessa Cicarelli

James: Jason and Vanessa, take us behind-the-scenes and discuss how you approached transforming “Doe” into the documentary “She”, in particular how you took advantage of the additional tools available when making a film. I’m thinking of elements such as having a narrator and the background vignettes.

Jason: “Initially, we started with just an interview with Aimée, but we wanted to find a unique way to incorporate the cases, the poetry, and Aimée herself.”

Vanessa: “We aimed to make the film as beautiful and personal as possible, reflecting Aimée’s work and what she stands for. We used three voices to incorporate as many women’s stories as possible, ensuring that the project focused on honoring these women rather than just the tragic aspects of their disappearances.”

Jason: “We were also committed to staying true to the cases by conducting extensive research, finding actual photos, videos, and newspaper articles from the time and locations involved. With the poetry, we tried to bring visual aspects to complement the words, displaying the poems on the screen as they were read, allowing viewers to both read and listen to the poetry.”

James: Aimée, how did you help decide which stories and poems to include in the film? Were there any factors that influenced these choices based on the possibilities presented by film?

Aimée: “Initially, when it was planned as a short documentary, I focused on cases that resonated with me and those that people responded to during public readings of “Doe”. From the start, I emphasized that the film should be its own creative vision, separate from the book, while maintaining certain guidelines. For instance, we all agreed that it shouldn’t be graphic or rely on reenactments, which are often seen in true crime stories.”

James: The absence of sensationalism or exploitation in both the book and the film is commendable. The final product is touching, moving, and powerful without resorting to shock value. 

Aimée, the poems in “Doe” so delicately capture the spirit of the women profiled, poems that are deeply moving but not sensationalist. In “Patron Saint of Orchards”, based on the disappearance of Nancy Wilcox. 17, missing since October 2, 1974 from Holladay, Utah, you write:

"Pray that the orchard stripped bare of fruit
does not cloak her body in its hollows,
that her limbs are not rooted in its undergrove.

Stay her from his cunning tongue,
the one that would hiss along her ivory neck,
and sheathe itself in the sockets of her limbs." 

How did you approach achieving a balance between the stories of these women and the tragedy of their disappearance? 

Aimée: “Achieving that balance is incredibly difficult, as I find much of the true crime genre uncomfortable. I feel like my work is transforming what true crime can be. While researching these women, I tried to strike a balance between capturing their stories without making them sensational or graphic. It took great effort to stay true to their stories without fictionalizing or supposing what might have happened. Over time, my approach evolved, and for the Patron Saint series, I focused on capturing the collective voice of women in the United States. I aimed to explore how our collective voice could transform what’s happening in these poems.“

James: Jason and Vanessa, could you talk about the vignettes you created in the film, the narration, and how you achieved the balance between Aimée’s work and the context and history of these women? How did you approach maintaining that balance?

Vanessa: “Aimée and her husband Jeremy wrote the narration based on Aimée’s notes and research, which Kate Mulgrew voiced throughout the film. We wanted a separate voice for the facts of the cases and the background of the poems. Aimée’s portion involved discussing her thoughts on each poem. For the visuals representing the poetry and the cases, we aimed to create a natural feel that conveyed the mood of each poem.”

James: Getting Kate Mulgrew to do the narration was quite a feat. How did you connect her to this project?

Jason: “As a first-time filmmaker, I reached out to many people through various avenues. Surprisingly, we had a lot of interest in the film and several options for the voices.”

Vanessa: “We wanted distinct and different voices to represent women of different ages and backgrounds.”

Aimée: “Kate has such a powerful and distinct voice. I never imagined I’d be watching her read a script I wrote on a Zoom session.”

James: Her involvement adds credibility to the project, which must be thrilling for a first-time filmmaker.

Aimée this is more of a technical question. You employ a variety of forms through “Doe”. “The Body in Motion” is one of several prose poems. “Scorpiris” is a variation on a contrapuntal form, “Here, the heart” incorporating what reads like found poetry from police reports, and so many other forms. How did you approach finding the form that best captured each story? 

Aimée: “My background is in fiction writing, and I took a single poetry class on prose poetry. Initially, I envisioned the entire book as prose poems, but as I wrote, it felt like I was doing a disservice to the stories by having the same form throughout. So, I challenged myself to think about how form could better represent each story. Over time, the poems became more fragmentary, especially for the women about whom we know little. I aimed to have the form represent the disconnected feeling I got from their stories.”

James: The disconnectedness and the unknown details in many cases work effectively with the forms you chose.

Aimée: “When I started writing “Doe,” prose poetry was quite popular, but for this particular project, I’m glad I moved away from solely using that form.”

James: Jason, Vanessa, and Aimée, the documentary and book so perfectly complement each other. After watching the documentary “She”, I immediately wanted to read the book “Doe”. What do each of you hope readers and viewers will take away from what you’ve created? 

Aimée: “My hope is that the poetry in the book and the documentary allows people to linger longer on these stories and spend more time thinking about the women. I want the experience of the viewers and readers to be a catalyst for them to consider women’s stories more deeply, and to not just scroll past or dismiss them. I also hope that they feel moved to look up more about these women and become more engaged in amplifying their stories.”

Vanessa: “One of the things that struck me from our local screenings was the impact the film had on male audience members. They began to think on a different level about the dangers women face on a daily basis. For me, spreading this awareness and letting men know that these things happen is crucial. One unexpected benefit was our 15-year-old son’s reaction. He said that the film should be required viewing for boys in high school so they can learn not only how to behave around women but also how to look out for their female friends in various situations. This was an unintended outcome, but a very valuable one.”

Jason: “For me, one of the key objectives was to reshape the true crime documentary genre. We wanted to show that it doesn’t have to be salacious or exploitative. During the filming process, I learned that it was easy to fall into the trap of sensationalism, but we wanted to stay true to our vision. We spoke to other directors and publishers who suggested adding more about serial killers or well-known names to make the film more marketable, but that wasn’t our goal. We wanted to create something that could stand on its own, focusing on the stories of the women themselves, and prove that this type of storytelling doesn’t need to rely on shock value to be effective.”

James: I’m glad you resisted the temptation, especially as a first-time filmmaker anxious to get a project funded. Aimée, in “Bone Woman”, about an unidentified woman discovered May 7, 1990, in Rogers, Arkansas, you write:

"Even on the ground, the collector
could tell the trajectory of the bullet,
one sharp burst through the skull.
This is what it is called, not head
or brain, but skull. A matter of bone."

So much of the poetry in “Doe” is beautiful, sad, melancholic; but there are also moments where the horror and terror of the stories is captured. How did you balance an unflinching telling of the stories with respect for the victims and families?

Aimée: The first step was not to focus on the killers, but instead, center the stories of the missing or unidentified women. When creating the poems, I avoided using graphic and gruesome images, as families of the victims often have to confront these disturbing visuals. Instead, I leaned into descriptions of nature and place. When I had to include details, I tried to do so with kindness and care for the individual. The book resists the graphic nature that might have made it more marketable but would have been ethically ungrounded.

James: It would have been easier to write those graphic elements, but the poetry would have lost out by taking that easy path.

Aimée: Yes, I believe that one of the strengths of poetry is the ability to turn away from those graphic elements and transform the stories into something else. 

James: Jason and Vanessa, what advice do you have for first-time filmmakers?

Jason: “The main thing is to have passion for the project you’re working on. It’s important to work with a good team and not give up. I reached out to many people in Hollywood; even though some didn’t contribute to the film, they offered valuable feedback and direction. Stick to your guns and stay true to your vision. It’s easy to lose track and compromise for the sake of making a dollar, but the impact wouldn’t be the same if we had done that.”

Vanessa: “I would also say, don’t be discouraged by naysayers who question your experience or resources. Just start and deal with the challenges as you go. It’s important to get the ball rolling and figure things out along the way, instead of having everything answered beforehand. So, if you want to do it, just get started.”

James: And Aimée, a similar question for you, what’s your advice for a poet embarking on a project book? 

Aimée: “One thing to consider is that a project book can be emotionally challenging. For me, it involved stopping and collecting myself repeatedly throughout the creation process. A project book requires returning to the same theme over and over, so the thrill of creation that comes with writing individual poems is somewhat delayed. It takes more planning and dedication to see the vision through to the end, without changing your mind or abandoning the project. You really have to be invested in the idea long-term to bring a project book to life.”

To hear Aimée recite lyrics from “Doe”, listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

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