You may not recognize the title “Hounddog,” but chances are you know about the “the Dakota Fanning rape movie,” which made headlines when it premiered at Sundance 2007 (and opens in NYC and Los Angeles today).
“Why do people even call this movie ‘the Dakota Fanning rape movie’?” says writer/director Deborah Kampmeier on the phone, sounding exasperated, days after a screening of the film in New York City. “Why does our society need to call it that, when that’s not what it is?”
Kampmeier isn’t being defensive; she’s being precise. The rape scene, during which only Fanning’s face and hand appear, is no more than a minute long, and it’s a subplot of the larger narrative.
So what is “Hounddog” about, really? It’s a touching and beautiful film about the tragedies that befall the broke but not broken in 1950s Alabama. It’s also a richly feminist film, one of the few movies in which a young woman’s burgeoning sexuality is not merely treated as titillation. Lewellen, played by Fanning, is coltish and charmingly immature — yet she’s bewitched by neighborhood boys’ genitals and rattles her grandma when she gyrates her pelvis to Elvis Presley on the radio.
Nevertheless, Concerned Women for America sees it differently. In a Sept. 12 press release, the CWA vowed to “halt distribution of the film” and called on its members to contact local theaters to ask them not to show the film, as well as to call the U.S. attorney general to complain.
But that’s just the latest bump: Kampmeier says it has been 12 years since she finished the script, and she struggled with financial backing for years. “Investors wanted the rape scene removed, and I would never take it out,” she says. “When we got Dakota attached to the film, my producers said we could get the money. But we got Dakota, and I [still] couldn’t get the money.” Funding woes twice halted production during filming in North Carolina. “I was raising money day by day, week by week,” she says. And then the press caught wind of the film.
“Once the controversy came out, which was a day before we finished shooting, it just snowballed into a nightmare,” she says. “It generated an enormous amount of [anxiety] inside my team — have we made a mistake? Should we have not done this film? There were petitions to have me arrested for child pornography; there were petitions to have [Dakota's] mother arrested. Talk about shame! What a brilliant performance, and she didn’t have a moment to celebrate. It became ‘you’re a bad girl, your mother’s a bad girl and I’m a bad woman.’”
That didn’t stop Kampmeier from finishing “Hounddog,” or another film that shows the face of sexual assault, her 2003 movie, “Virgin,” starring “Mad Men’s” Elisabeth Moss. “I think it’s scary for people to deal with female sexuality,” she says. “It is something our society doesn’t nurture, does not honor, in our daughters and our sisters. Female sexuality in our society is exploited, repressed and abused. I wonder why a girl like Lewellen is seen as asking for it when she’s innocently exploring her being and the power and creativity of her sexuality, which is her birthright.”
There is a lot of sex in our culture, yes, but it’s rarely sexy, far less honest. As Kampmeier says, “I often hear, ‘What about “Girls Gone Wild”? What about MTV?’ That’s not sexuality. That’s an acting out. That’s a desperate attempt to grab at something that’s not their sexuality.”