Filmmaker Ali Weinstein isn’t a mermaid, but she has spent several years documenting what it takes to be one. For Mermaids, her “deep dive” into a subculture of people who feel and affinity for and identify with these fish-tailed mythological sea creatures, Weinstein travelled in search of people who could best speak to the mer-sperience.
Making its world premiere at Hot Docs this weekend, Mermaids follows several vastly different types of people who like to put on tails, clamshell bras, and go out for a day at the beach. Weinstein goes back in history to look at the mermaids of the Weeki Wachee theme park in Florida, talking to older women who in the 1950s and 60s would perform song, dance, and synchronized swim techniques in an enormous water tank with minimal amounts of oxygen for hours at a time, and somehow, they still loved their jobs. Then, there’s Cookie, a woman from Harlem, and her supportive husband, Ralph, who see mermaiding not only as fun and a binding force in their relationship, but also as a therapeutic treatment for past traumas. Julz, a recently transitioned transwoman, finds a sense of identity in being a mermaid, and now helps in the construction of some of the most elaborate tails fellow mer-people can buy.
Overall, Mermaids isn’t just a film about dressing up for a day of fun in the sun, but of community, acceptance, and empowerment, something Weinstein figured out almost immediately upon her initial research.
We caught up with Weinstein over the phone earlier this week to chat about what she knew about mermaids going into production, the physicality of putting on a tail, the friendships within the mermaid community, and one of the most memorable wedding scenes audiences will ever see.
Were you someone who always had a special fascination with mermaids? It seems like people who have a particular attachment to them have loved them for most of their lives, but it also seems like there has been a huge resurgence in this sort of mermaid culture and fascination in the mainstream in recent years.
Ali Weinstein: That’s a good question. I was SUPER interested in mermaids when I was a kid, much like many young children. I was obsessed with the movies Splash and The Little Mermaid, and I then went on to become a synchronized swimmer after that, probably because of that obsession with the water and performing in the water. But I always had forgotten about it in my adult years. I always loved to swim, but it never occurred to me to try on a tail or two and continue to research mermaids as an adult.
But the film started for me when I learned about Weeki Wachee, which is a mermaid theme park in Florida that’s been open since 1947. I read about it in the summer of 2014, and I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know anything about it because I was so obsessed as a kid, and if I had known I would have made my parents drive me down there to see the mermaids for myself. It just got me fascinated with this idea of what it was like for these women who worked there and got to become mermaids for their jobs and perform as mermaids and what it did for them psychologically.
“There’s always this duality with mermaids where wherever I look, that they’re simultaneously both strong and independent, but also in some cases sad and lonely, and the mythology of them has been written that way, too.”
I just started researching mermaids from there, and there was this huge subculture that seemed to be growing. It was sort of crazy, actually, because as I got into the making of this film, this mermaid trend really started to blow up. It’s everywhere now. There’s mermaid fashion, mermaid hair, mermaid schools. There’s just something in the air right now about mermaids.
When you’re doing your research and going back through mermaid history, you paint this interesting picture that mermaids have never really gone out of style. Was the surprising for you considering that your love for them trailed off a bit when you became an adult?
Ali Weinstein: Yes and no. I’ve also always loved those Esther Williams films from the ’50s where you have this kind of Busby Berkeley-styled choreography underwater. She’s not in a tail, but there’s something very mermaid-like about that. And then there was Annette Kellerman, who played mermaids in silent films in the ’10s and ’20s, and I feel as if men and women connected with the idea of mermaids in cinema, but also before cinema through literature. It’s not surprising to me that it’s always been popular. I just sort of suddenly got obsessed with trying to figure out WHY that was. I never put my mind to why this archetype exists and why mermaids are loved all over the world, not just in North America. That was maybe what was most surprising for me: seeing how global the love for this mythology is.
Were you taken aback by the physicality it takes for people like the Weeki Wachee mermaids to perform in the ways they did? It takes a lot of specific skills and dedication to become that kind of performer.
Ali Weinstein: Absolutely, I was, and it’s amazing what they do. You’ve seen in the film that the Weeki Wachee mermaids were underwater for half an hour at a time in cold water with minimal air, and it’s incredible. It’s almost like being a cinematographer in that you almost lose sense of what’s happening around you because you become so focused on what you’re doing. You just become so engrossed in that lens. So if you’re one of these women performing underwater, you’re taking on this identity that you become so engrossed in that the physicality just comes so naturally that they might not even think about it. It’s difficult, but they’re completely amazing.
I should add that the people in the film who are a part of the mermaid subculture that might not be putting on paid performances in theme parks like Weeki Wachee and are just wearing their costumes at the beach, even that’s hugely difficult, too. Some of those tails weight 25, 30, 45 pounds. They’re difficult to put on, and you basically become immobile. You need someone to help carry you to the water. Some people joke that they have “mer-wranglers” or “mer-tenders” to move them around. You raise a good point. There’s a lot involved with the physicality of it
You show just how much help some of these people who need help with their costumes in the film quite well with Cookie, the mermaid from Harlem. Her husband is basically her right hand man for everything she wants to do with her tail.
Ali Weinstein: Absolutely. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this, too. There’s always this duality with mermaids where wherever I look, that they’re simultaneously both strong and independent, but also in some cases sad and lonely, and the mythology of them has been written that way, too. There’s this odd dichotomy in this kind of work that people find an odd connection to, but there’s also something common between all of the subjects of my film, in that they’ve all found a sense of community and acceptance through this hobby. That’s true for Cookie, who found this online community, and who’s connected further with her husband through mermaiding because he’s been so supportive of her. At the same time, there is this independence that comes with mermaiding, and there’s this private moment that you have while you’re underwater. There’s this peacefulness that they all describe. There’s this inability to hear anything else going on around you, so you’re in your own little cocoon. There’s a duality there that’s contradictory between what we think about with privacy versus community, but both sides of it are beautiful for the people that do this.
When you were interviewing subjects for this film, did you notice any sorts of differences in how mermaids were perceived between some of the older people who have done it for years and some of the younger people who might still just be starting out?
Ali Weinstein: It’s interesting because my producer Caitlin [Durlak] and I went down to Merfest, which is a mermaid convention, in 2015 before we started shooting the film, just to do some research and meet some people. We met four of our five main characters there, and we were blown away by how welcoming and accepting this community was. Neither of us expected anything like that. In terms of questions of age, body image, sexuality, or gender, this was an overwhelmingly accepting community, and people just seemed comfortable in their skin. Again, they were PHYSICALLY putting on a different skin, but half their body is still very exposed. Everyone just seemed so at peace with each other regardless of age and body size. None of that really mattered.
“In terms of questions of age, body image, sexuality, or gender, this was an overwhelmingly accepting community, and people just seemed comfortable in their skin. Everyone just seemed so at peace with each other regardless of age and body size.”
But there are some “stars” of the mer-community. There was this woman, Hannah Fraser, who was a pioneer in the mermaid community, and her videos were all out there early on, and she’s a mermaid model with a huge following online. Caitlin and I call her “The Mermaid Queen,” so people look up to her and follow her. She’s gorgeous, and she looks like a Barbie doll as a mermaid. (laughs) But I think that maybe some of the stars of the community in that sense look like your stereotypical image of what a mermaid might be, but in terms of once you’re in that community, and you’re at the beach, and you’re in your tail, people of all kinds are there, and there’s so much acceptance.
That sense of acceptance within the community is definitely exemplified in your film by the story of Julz, who’s a transwoman and very active in the community. What was it like getting to follow her around and get a sense of this community from her perspective? I thought she was the most fascinating, knowledgeable, and touching part of the film.
Ali Weinstein: I’m so glad that you enjoyed her story, and it was wonderful connecting with Julz. Caitlin and I met her together at Merfest 2015. She was there for the convention, and we were just interviewing a bunch of mermaids that we met, and several people kept saying that we needed to meet and talk to Julz because she has a great story. We did, and she was so immediately candid with us about her transition and what mermaiding meant for her in the context of that transition. We were pretty blown away by that, and she agreed to take part in her film further than we even probably expected at first. It was a pleasure working with her.
It’s interesting, because we did discover that there’s actually a very large sub-group of transpeople within the mer-community, possibly because of a lot of the reasons Julz describes in the film that are helpful for herself. She’s great at explaining what it means for her to be able to put her tail on and put on this other skin. It was great. It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to include her story, since trans stories are very present in the mermaid world. She was incredible, and we’re so grateful that she was so open with us.
Finally, I think the high spot for a lot of people seeing the film will be the footage of Cookie’s mermaid wedding…
Ali Weinstein: (laughs) Yeah, it will.
When you got the chance to view the footage of her wedding, did you wish you could experience it live?
Ali Weinstein: We were there! (laughs)
Oh! My bad! I thought it was a home movie!
Ali Weinstein: It looks that way. (laughs) Okay, so… That happened during that initial research trip that Caitlin and I went on in 2015. Caitlin shot that footage herself because we had brought a camera with us. Again, it was all primarily for research purposes, but we were so happy to be there. Cookie and Ralph are such genuine, wonderful people. They’re actually going to be there for Hot Docs, so audiences will get to meet them. But regardless of the cameras, they wanted us to be at their wedding, and they let us film it!
At first, we were worried that we would never be able to use that footage because we didn’t have a professional cinematographer, and it wasn’t going to look quite as polished as the rest of our film, but we just figured, like you said, that it was just such a tender moment, and such a nice culmination of things in their lives that we just wanted to show it.
We actually treated the footage a little bit to make it look even more like a home movie. (laughs) So that’s why it looks so different from the rest of the film, visually, but it was so awesome to see that. Their love is incredibly inspirational.
Ralph is also the only person I have ever seen wearing a tuxedo T-shirt and have it make sense in the context of a wedding.
Ali Weinstein: (laughs) Totally. He rocks that.