Hot Docs 2013: Interview with Ruth Leitman, Co-director of Wildwood, NJ
In the mid-nineties, Ruth Leitman and Carol Weaks Cassidy trod the weathered boardwalks of venerated Jersey Shore summer locale of Wildwood, NJ taking the time to listening to what those denizens of “down the Shore” had to say about life, love, sex and New Jersey. The result is the collage documentary Wildwood, NJ, originally released in 1994 but featured in this year’s Hot Docs redux programme. When I sat down to speak with Ruth Leitman my first question was “Why now?” The answer was surprising.
The short version of this story is that Wildwood, NJ has gone rouge. In the internet age of social media and viral video, Wildwood, NJ has take on a second life and slipped out of Leitman’s control. “In 2009 a blogger email me and asked to use 4 minutes from Wildwood for something, but I didn’t respond,” says Leitman. “I just wasn’t paying attention. But he used it anyway and it turned out he was a syndicated blogger. It went to 300 other blogs.”
Actually it turns out that blogger was Rich Juzwiak, a sort of internet meme Jedi master and the genius behind the “I’m not here to make friends” reality tv mashup. After his original post on fourfour, Wildwood, NJ went wild. Letiman struggles to explain why. “It was the 4th of July weekend, it was just before the premiere of The Jersey Shore, someone spotted Dina from the Real Housewives in there as a 14-year-old,” says Leitman. “It was a whole lot of things I guess. But the authenticity of something going viral – you can’t make that happen, you cannot affect that.”
At some point in this saga, Leitman’s fourteen-year-old daughter pointed out that even Lana Del Rey had appropriated images from Wildwood, NJ for use in her “Diet Mountain Dew” video, a surprising and conflicting turn of events for Leitman. “Documentary filmmakers think about issues of fair use and the legalities of that all the time. It’s an important issue, but I’m on the other side of it now,” says Leitman. “At this point, I’m embracing the loss of control and seeing the different paths that it will take me on.”
For Leitman the fascination with Wildwood and the Jersey Shore came organically. She grew up in Pennsylvania and spent some time down the Shore herself, surrounded by the very kind of girls featured in the film. “We have this idea that teenage girls, particularly these girls, aren’t introspective and don’t have much to say. They’re people who are often overlooked,” says Leitman. “They’re seldom asked for their opinion. But it turned out when they were asked, they had a lot to say.”
“You know, they have certain bravado and they’re unapologetic about who they are,” said Leitman. “For me, Wildwood was this forbidden New Jersey beach town, but when I listened to them they were very free – they do have something to say. I was able to capture something I saw.”
Leitman and Wildwood, NJ happen to be riding a wave of larger cultural attention paid to these kinds of girl. What was a revelation in 1994, is now the backbone of reality tv. Leitman happened to have paid attention first and we’re all so hungry for Jersey updates, we’re all paying attention now. Leitman is philosophic about the loss of control of her film and positive about the exposure it has brought to all her work. In the spirit, I urge you to visit Leitman’s website ruthlessfilms.com to check out her other work and get your very own copy of Wildwood, NJ.