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Interview: Jonathan Narducci talks about Love Me

We talked to Jonathan Narducci about his film Love Me, currently screening as part of hot Docs 2014. Love Me is a fresh and honest look at the often clichéd subject of mail-order-brides. Narducci manages to give viewers a multi-faceted look at this controversial industry whilst simultaneously questioning the idea of romantic love.

You begin the film by asking the subjects what love is. Which I thought was a good way to start off since they all have their own ideas about love. Do you have a definition of love; do you feel that it’s important for people to have one?

No I don’t have a definition of it. I think that’s why I probably asked the question, because I knew there wasn’t a real answer to it. It’s such a subjective thing and it’s probably where you come from. Obviously these were all American guys and there was some general thematic things and you know they kind of said the clichéd stuff. But it was more to have a general through-line.

I used that question to give a little background. I think how each character answered that question reflected what their fantasy might be. I think you can’t really ask that question to the women that were involved because it’s a much different notion, it’s more pragmatic.

I don’t know if there is such a thing as you know the fairy tale love story. That notion of love might not be the same in Eastern cultures as it is in this Westernised culture that we live in.

What made you choose these six men specifically for you film?

I shot a lot of people so I shot probably like 50 people in Ukraine. Then it whittled down to about 12 once we were back from Ukraine. I cut six guys out. I just was looking for differences in each character that could still be one character. So all the guys kind of form together to be one man from America. It’s the same with the women you know. Certain aspects I follow them and it leaves off and it becomes another kind of story for somebody else.

Why did you want to make a documentary about mail-order-brides from Ukraine? Did you have an objective or a thesis before you started filming?

No I don’t think I had an objective or a thesis except for I knew that I didn’t want to make an expose because that would have been pretty cliché and pretty lame. I like narrative documentaries.

It wasn’t necessarily black and white subject matter; it was kind of grey and really muddled with morality and desire. It’s something that anyone can connect with as long as you’ve wanted to be in a relationship or find love you can identify with the story. But it’s hyperreal because it’s put into the context of these guys going into this crazy dating world and then doing this colonialistic appropriation of women.

John Adams’ wife Tanya jokes that she has the upper-hand in their relationship. Is that true? What can you tell us about their dynamic?

I think that they’re pretty happy to be honest with you. I think they have a genuine, good relationship, probably better than anyone else in the film.

OK because I felt kind of cynical about it wondering if they really were that happy.

I think that is the final, You know where Tanya’s speaking, you kind of have that question a little bit and you’re like why is she even crying? Because she is in love or she’s not had it or she has regrets?

I think that they’re genuinely happy though. They their son that’s in college now and their daughter. They’re a pretty all-American family.

So as happy as anyone?

As much as the next person. It’s just weird because he uses his relationship as a massive marketing tool and those guys buy into it. It’s totally bizarre. Just because they worked out doesn’t mean that somebody is going to be able to go over there and have it work out for them it’s just not that easy.

I think there are a lot of variables that he glosses over.

Absolutely! But the thing is he’s kind of a good guy in a really bad industry. That industry – I’m just talking about Ukraine – he can’t control it, it’s much bigger than him. They can’t have those kinds of you know westernised check marks to verify everything. It’s just not possible they would go out of business.

The common complaints we always seem to see from these men especially in exposes is that they can’t find a woman that is serious about being in a relationship or that they’re from a small town and they just can’t meet any women at all. Then we get the honest complaint that they just can’t find a woman that embodies this antiquated notion of femininity. What are your thoughts on that?

For me it’s pretty clear. Those guys are not in reality, they’re not looking for a real woman. They are more of the mindset that they are entitled to a very young, beautiful woman just because they are American. I don’t know where this entitlement comes from but it’s really weird. Maybe it’s just a reflection on culture in general.

I think these guys are just making excuses and I think it’s pretty clear in the film that they’re pretty much making excuses that are somewhat absurd. Travis, even though he’s in the middle of nowhere he could still drive to Madison, Wisconsin and meet a girl. Bobby, all he has to do is probably change his lifestyle.

Like join a gym or something?

Yeah but he had excuses for himself, he had bad knees or some white like that. People just have these excuses that they put in their head or Eric…actually I don’t…Eric, was just socially awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin. Sometimes in his case I felt like he had to just get out of his own environment.

I think that the industry supports them and kind of perpetuates the notion that they are deserving of that or that these women are willing to give them that. Whereas like Ron, even though he might come across as a little bit of a dick, he was totally like, this is bullshit.

 Ron was like the voice of reason, I was like thank you Ron.

In some ways, yeah. I mean he’s got his own weird things going on but yeah he was definitely like, this is bullshit, these people are fucking whack and I’m going to go back to America, this is totally not what I’m looking for.

And he was looking for someone his own age too. I was like really Ron? Good for you.

He’s not dating the same woman anymore but I think his girlfriend now is 60.

Good for Ron.

Whether or not he still comes across as a little bit of an asshole or not, he’s still probably the least chauvinistic, in some ways.

Where you shocked by the amount of money that the men spent on messaging the women? Bobby alone spent over $10,000.

It’s really expensive. I mean it’s like $14 to send an email and like $14 to receive an email or even more. Sometimes it’s like $18.99 if they attached two photos which they almost always do.

What are the main motivating factors for the women involved in this? I know that marriage for example, is a big deal for Ukrainian women. What are your thoughts on that?

Well the whole notion of patriarchy is like super, super, engrained into their culture. It’s so backwards there. First of all, women make a lot less money than men even more then here or any Western culture. So it’s like a very, very big discrepancy. So marriage is kind of like a survival mechanism in some ways, the women feel like they need to get married. It’s a cultural thing as well. They’re told from a very young age that they’re going to get married and have babies.

It’s definitely ingrained in the culture, I think in a hyperreal way than we’re used to here.

Elena was saying that due to high rates of alcoholism and a ratio of 87 men to every 100 women, Ukrainian women must seek foreign husbands. What are your thoughts on that?

Both sides are kind of being sold this myth of the other. Like the American man myth for the Ukrainian is, they don’t cheat on their wives, they don’t drink they don’t smoke, they’re good fathers. It’s a myth that’s sold there. The same myth that the men are kind of being sold, that all these women want to be 1950s housewives and all that kind of bullshit.

What can you tell us about Bob Wray, the Tour Director for A Foreign Affair?

He’s a total character in every way. We shot a lot of stuff with Bob Wray we just had to cut it down. It was hard to cut though. We spent Thanksgiving with him and his family…

He has a family?!

His cousins and their family.

Like you know he’s showing them his 18 year old girlfriends, he has two of them one in Colombia, one in Ukraine. You know I grilled him pretty hard and he finally admitted that he’s just having fun. He found a place to fit-in kind of. He was a musician in I think the early 60s late 50s. His family owned a pretty nig music store in the area. After he had some issue with his marriage, he just kind of rediscovered, or found a place. Guys call him for advice and he tries to participate in this whole industry. He’s a really bizarre guy. I mean he’s nice, I think his intentions are good; he’s just lying to himself like really severely.

But those lines are like totally ridiculous. The shit that comes out of his mouth, like are you serious man? I can’t believe you’re saying that. And he’s getting molested on the floor; it’s like a day after he says these women are like his mother.

His daughter won’t talk to him now because of this stuff.

Do you feel that more vulnerable people like Travis or Michael are the target customers of agencies like A Foreign Affair? Guys with baggage or who have experienced some kind of trauma?

Um ya, I feel like all the guys had some kind of trauma for sure. I would agree with that. They’re all kind of damaged in some way. Like either socially or emotionally I mean there’s something wrong for them to –I mean like this is it, this is the last ditch effort to try to like find somebody.

So what’s happening with these guys now? Obviously for Travis and Michael and Bobby it totally didn’t work out. Are they back at it?

They all continue to try it with the same women, first of all.

So Michael is still after Svitlana?

Yes. He continued to pursue her and went back again. I think he’s gone back to Ukraine a few times and finally now he’s trying to find other women. Even though he’s married.

So Michael and Svitlana are not going to get divorced?

I don’t know how he can. She’s pretty smart obviously. I don’t know what will ultimately come of it but if she wanted to you know she could probably take something.

Travis actually continued on with Vika after getting totally ripped and torn apart. He kept sending her money for a year and a half. He kept getting fleeced more and more. She just arrived in the states two weeks ago.

Bobby just recently went to The Philippines and found this very young Filipino girl that he’s supposedly engaged too. She looks like a 12 year-old girl.

I’m also wondering about Svitlana. I don’t want to make excuses for her but she does say twice in the film that it’s hard to survive in Ukraine and she also says that you have to choose your means of survival. What are your thoughts on that?

I think Svitlana is totally in the right, to do what she did. I mean Michael is completely delusional and he was forcing her into that. She got a free vacation out of it, got some free clothes. She never did anything with him, never told him that she loved him or anything like that. So he was creating the idea of their marriage and their relationship in his own head.

It’s like supplemental income, it’s like a second job dating. You know she gets her kids to travel the world and they get to go to other countries and that’s really rare in Ukraine.

Michael is just you know not a good person ultimately. He was just very forceful and there was little hints of paedophilia here and there.

I had wondered about that but I wasn’t sure if it was just me being paranoid.

He asked us to get him Rohypnol and we were like what is that? And he called it like “the rape drug” so I was like uhhh….

Did he tell you what he wanted it for?

He said he needed it to sleep. He would never stop talking about how beautiful her (Svitlana) daughter was it was just like really bad. It was a vibe but a lot of it was off camera so that was a whole ‘nother issue.