Last summer, the Danish filmmaker Maja Bugge got exclusive access to an American men’s group, here she reveals what happened.
As a Danish woman, I was given unique access to film an American men’s group in the summer of 2012. Since my father’s mid-life crisis six years ago, I have been interested in exploring what it means to be a man today. While I knew little about men’s groups and how they work, I thought they might hold an answer.
How does a man deal with being a man?
In my undergraduate education in Cultural Encounters, I analyzed masculinity in the context of gender theory and found that abstract theories are difficult to relate to everyday people. In my personal life, growing up in Scandinavia, I experienced not only my father’s but also my male friend’s challenge to understand and express their emotions.
The female dominated gender discussion most apparent in Scandinavia of the Western democratic world seem to call for men to engage in the discussion. Inspired by these observations, my argument is that, within the framework of the contemporary women’s movement and its focus on gender equality, men are challenged to reexamine their gender and what it means to be a man. When I moved to New York to pursue my Masters in Media Studies, I decided to make a documentary film about men. I asked people on the streets: “What does it mean to be a man today?”
In 2011, I was introduced to men’s groups through a radio interview on Michael Taylor’s BlogTalk Radio “A New Conversation with Men” with Owen Marcus and his upcoming book “Grow Up Men, 9 steps to being a man”. A men’s group is a group of men who meet regularly to explore their emotional experiences in an exclusively male safe space. I learned that some of these men participated because they felt like they could not express their emotions – essentially what they felt to be their individual truths—in their everyday social environment. They joined the men’s group to find a place to express those feelings.
I was inspired to explore what a men’s group entailed, to discover what kinds of men became members, and what types of man was attracted to this kind of gathering. More specifically, I wanted an insider’s view on what the men’s group does, and how it helps men in their personal lives. After a year of searching for a group, I was invited to a small town in Northern Idaho to observe a men’s group behind closed doors. A fly on the wall, over the course of a month I filmed the group’s weekly four-hour meetings and interviewed the nine members and their partners.
The men’s personal stories were inspiring and it was incredible to experience the openness of their hearts, their passion, and receive support of my project. They committed to showing their vulnerability in the open—showing the world how men can face and overcome emotional experiences, love or hate. Chris reconnected with his father after an entire life time feeling held down by his father’s view of him, while Thomas let go of his past beloved father, and Robert risked taking on a father role for his girlfriend’s two teenagers.
My father being my motivation for meeting the men’s group dovetails with the importance of the father/son relationship in all the men’s personal stories. Being in the living room with these nine emotional men, witnessing the strength of their vulnerability, touched me in a way that is impossible to describe. Each man expressing his own journey and exposing his insecurities around personal relationships, the emotions were contagious, so much so that I left the meetings shaking and crying.
The mens’ complete openness, honesty, respect, acceptance and love toward each another was more than real; it was clear to me that such experiences are rare for men (and women) in everyday life. As a witness to the group’s dynamic, I felt that they were creating the ultimate connection for the human experience—something that seems to me only to be ascribed to psychedelic experiences.
These men reached for a state of completeness simply by getting in touch with and sharing their inner self. I learned a lot about what it means to be a man today, but more than that, I learned what it means to be human: that every person benefits from engaging with their emotional self in an honest way. With the support from the group, these men were able to tap into emotional states that are generally difficult to face or access.
Each man was able to understand not only his peer’s past experiences but also present and future goals, simply by listening and asking questions without judgement or giving advice. Speaking for myself, I understand how we as people tend to hold on to socially constructed beliefs about how we are expected to behave and who we are expected to be.
I have now realized how such beliefs can limit me in reaching my fullest potential and honoring who I am beyond those limits. That said, I have yet to expose myself in the courageous manner that the men were able to, as my position kept me protected behind a camera. However, meeting the men definitely inspired me to do so. Through making the film ABOUT MEN, I have provoked a personal exploration and I hope the film will do the same to others.
For more information about Maja’s film see www.aboutmenfilm.com