Tapping the "FEED"
In 2004, out filmmaker Mel Robertson wrote and self-published a book under the pen-name Maura Knight that launched her on a five year long project and would become the basis for a viral hit web series and a feature-length film, FEED, to be released this year.
FEED follows the fictional Maura Knight as she uncovers grotesque truths behind the scenes when the production manager of a hit reality TV series gets sacked for sleeping with one of her female production assistants and is forced to pick up shifts as a waitress at a generic Americana restaurant (think Applebees) to make ends meet. Maura spends her insomniac nights glued to the TV, watching the news, becoming more and more disenchanted with the media’s inadequate coverage of current events, and her days slinging hash at the crusty eatery, complete with a sleazy boss who hits on anything with breasts.
The shit hits the fan when Maura witnesses her boss and his cronies attacking one of her co-workers in an attempted rape that she catches on video. In a fit of indecision Maura posts the tape on the web and it gets picked up by the local news network and broadcast for the whole city to see. With the click of a button she goes from powerless waitress to vigilante journalist, and the consequences are more than she bargained for.
The web series took off when the first season was launched in 2008 on feedseries.tv and AfterEllen.com. It was quickly picked up by Logo Online and the CBS affiliate 365Gay. “It started a dialogue,” says Robertson, “which is exactly what I wanted to do with this series. To get people talking about ‘is this right or wrong? What are we really being told?’ ”
Robertson knew she’d struck a chord when the blog she was writing, under Maura’s name, got noticed by NPR. “I was pulling directly from the novel,” Robertson recalls, “and so I was having her talk about her life experience, which, part of that was my life experience. And people really responded to her. NPR came along at one point and asked me/Maura to write a blog for them as, like, the voice for her generation. I felt bad being like, ‘Oh she’s not real.’ ”
But Maura’s story is real enough for the thousands of fans following the series, now in its second season. Shot on a shoestring budget, with Robertson acting as writer, director and producer, the format of the series, with its grainy footage and handheld shots, self-reflexively echoes reality TV.
“You know, the first Real World, they really wanted to dissect people from all over the country and how they interacted with each other,” says Robertson. “It was documentary in style. Now it’s become celebrity in style and there are story producers and there are directors. I think there’s still a part of the world that doesn’t really quite understand that, and they think that they are being sent something that’s really real.”
By holding up both reality TV and mainstream news coverage, the series interrogates the way information is presented and asks what’s really real? Can we trust what’s being shown to us? And it’s also a critique of the status quo and the nation of apathetic viewers that America has become, lapping up whatever is fed to them. It equates mainstream media with the overcooked hamburgers and mushy fries served up in chain restaurants across the United States.
Maura’s character, played by Amanda Deibert, stands in for each of us as she struggles with the day-to-day drudgery of life and then is sideswiped by a situation that she doesn’t know how to handle, but which forces her to act. “You have to watch her make a choice. And the choice is not necessarily the right one,” says Robertson.
Another bad decision she makes early on is letting herself be seduced by her gorgeous female co-worker, Charlie. She ends up out of the job over the incident, but Robertson insists that she doesn’t want FEED to be seen as a lesbian drama. “[Maura’s] definitely a sexual being, which I wanted her to be,” says Robertson. “[But] we’ve made a very specific point to not say the word ‘lesbian.’ And not because she’s not a lesbian but only because I feel like the media in film and in series is changing so that not everything is a coming out story, or if a girl kisses another girl we have to talk about the fact that they are lesbians. It should just be who she is, a part of the story.”
Instead, Robertson plays Maura up as a strong female character whose politics are more important that her many sexual exploits. “What does it matter what she’s doing in the bedroom? This is what she’s doing in the streets,” Robertson says.
In fact, it’s the political gumption of her main character that has won over some of Robertson’s most ardent fans, a group she calls “the moms.” “I never expected it. I get these letters from moms who are like, ‘Thank your for writing a character who starts off as sort of weak, because that’s how a lot of women are portrayed, and then turns into someone who forms an underground army of people who look up to her and she’s a leader.’ It was really interesting to me because I expected those comments to come from the early 20-somethings or maybe early 30-somethings and the teens. I never expected the moms. My mom won’t read past page two of the book because I said ‘cock’ on the first page.”
So, what else does this powerhouse filmmaker have up her sleeve? In addition to the film version of FEED she’s got two more feature-length films on the way. One is a love story with the working title Queens of the World, which follows a teen soccer star as she falls in love with her teammate and struggles with the pressures of being an out adolescent athlete (queensoftheworld.com). Robertson describes it as “A League of Their Own meets Love and Basketball.” She’s got the newly launched Women’s Pro Soccer League on board, which may mean some high-profile cameos, and for the leads, she’s booked some familiar faces from AfterEllen vlogs—Meghan Hall from Nat & Meg’s Sweet Adventures and Nikki Caster from Cherry Bomb. Robertson’s other film, Heroine, which tells the story of an HIV positive lesbian artist, was a winner at the New York Independent Festival in 2001 and begins post production in 2010.