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Last Updated: Friday, 3 March 2006, 08:41 GMT
The highs and lows of being tall
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website age & disability correspondent

When documentary maker Janet Merewether spotted an exceptionally tall woman in a nightclub, she immediately suspected that her excessive height was due to Marfan Syndrome - a rare genetic disorder that also results in long, slender limbs and fingers, a long face, partial blindness and a weak cardiovascular system.

Over time, Merewether gained the tall woman's trust and spent a number of years making a documentary about her life - Jabe Babe - which will have its UK premiere as part of the London Australian Film Festival this weekend.

Photo of Jabe surrounded by a model town
Jabe dominates a model landscape of her childhood

Janet Merewether had an uncle with Marfan Syndrome which is why she recognised the condition in Jabe.

Coincidentally - being of above average height herself - she was considering making, "a very short film about very tall women".

The result of her collaboration with Jabe, who is 6ft 3ins, is a film which crosses the boundary from documentary to fiction, and tells the story of Jabe's life very much in her own words.

"Jabe embodied a whole lot of different issues which I wanted to explore," Merewether told the BBC News website.

"She was a strong character, quite eccentric, and I felt that I could talk about the social issues around tallness and women's bodies along with opening up ideas of difference - social difference."

I felt that the giantess films of the 60s were a good starting point because they allowed the character to express difference visually
Janet Merewether
Born to a schizophrenic mother and not knowing her father, Jabe had a troubled and disruptive childhood, characterised by physical abuse, a series of foster homes and a growing feeling of alienation made more acute by her height.

Express difference

In the film she strides around a model town, lifting the lid on a series of suburban houses, in which she lived, to reveal a small screen on which is projected a part of her life.

"I wanted to delve into B-grade movie territory," said Merewether.

"I felt that the giantess films of the 60s were a good starting point because they allowed the character to express difference visually."

Merewether believes that scientific documentaries about rare genetic disorders can often render the subject passive - a victim of the condition.

By making Jabe the giantess, the director thinks that medical experts and other characters are seen through her own eyes.

The control and the discipline really affected my choice as a dominatrix
By her late teens, Jabe had become disconnected from her family and was told that she would be unlikely to survive beyond the age of 25.

And in order to have any chance of survival, she had to face the prospect of open heart surgery - something which Merewether felt was made even more difficult to bear without the support of close family.

But Jabe was able to reconstruct a sense of family by calling on a circle of close friends.

Having recovered from the surgery, but still believing the doctors' prognosis of an early death, Jabe used her stature to her own advantage and began a seven year spell as a professional dominatrix.

Photo of Jabe dressed as a dominatrix
Jabe found her height an advantage in the sex industry

Some of her foster homes were run by Christian fundamentalists and others who insisted upon impeccable behaviour and meted out physical punishment for failing to live up to the mark.

Medical advances

"The control and the discipline really affected my choice as a dominatrix," Jabe said.

Standing 6ft 8ins tall in very high heels, she felt that she had found her vocation.

"Not only was I in control, I was in control of somebody else."

But advances in medical knowledge have meant that people with Marfan's Syndrome can now expect a normal lifespan.

As Jabe realises this, the end of the film looks at her attempts to pursue a career outside the sex industry.

She also begins to contemplate motherhood, although she is strongly advised to consider having a surrogate carry the baby because of the risks to her health.

The film of Jabe's strongly first person story - Jabe Babe: A Heightened Life - has already won critical acclaim and awards in Australia.

The London Australian Film Festival is at the Barbican in London. Jabe Babe will be shown on Saturday, 4 March.

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