#FemaleFilmmakerFriday: A Prickly Woman, An LGBTQ Anthem, and the Importance of Intersectional Representation Onscreen

Wrapping up my posts about the Athena Film Festival that took place a month ago now, I’m sharing the tips I learned from three film directors about motherhood as a filmmaker, intersectionality in politics and activism, and the importance of wide-spread representation of all people in film.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post directed by Desiree Akhavan.

Writer/Director Desiree Akhavan

Cameron Post is a teenage girl who, after being caught kissing her female best friend, is sent away to a conversion therapy camp to correct her “poor” and “inappropriate” behavior and sexual confusion.

The auditorium at Barnard College was packed with students eager to meet not only the director, but film characters who were just like them. Raw, truthful characters who are being forced to hide their sexuality. The students were avid fans of Akhavan’s series The Bisexual and looked up to Akhavan so profoundly for creating series and films that allowed them to see representations of themselves onscreen in an environment where they were utterly and completely normal for being who they are.

The film depicts a couple of sex scenes with the Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) and when asked about how she went about shooting and directing those scenes, Akhavan explained that her direction came from a place of vulnerability and caution for her actor. “She had never gotten the opportunity to make her own decisions with her body onscreen, so those scenes, that’s Chloe. And that’s the trust between the performer and the trust between us.”

Akhavan went on, “I think people want to see themselves reflected. If you make something that speaks to you it’ll find its place in the world. People want to see–I don’t know what people want to see… We want to see the truth of living and fucking and the messiness of it.”

Then she was asked what the hardest part about shooting this film was:

“We shot two very difficult scenes on the day after Trump was elected. So we were shooting when the election happened. And it was so sweet, one of our producers threw like an ice cream social and we were so naive. It was funny, but it was sad, because when we were driving around there were all these Trump-Pence signs. Like, we were shooting in Woodstock, which I didn’t realize was so conservative. But when we drove around, it was becoming-it was weird because I live in London and Brexit had happened earlier and I went to the suburbs outside of London and I saw all of these “Leave” signs and I was like, “What the fuck? What kind of weird anomaly is this?” ‘Cause when you’re living in a city like New York or London you’re in such a bubble and you don’t realize the world around you. When I went upstate and saw all those Trump signs I was like, “Where are we, what’s going on? What a weird place. After the election I can laugh at all this.” But then it just, it became a reality, and we had been so naive and in so much of a bubble and the film took on a whole different meaning.

When we were writing it we felt like it wasn’t relevant, but it mattered to myself and to my co-writer, which is what drove us. And then it became relevant over the course of the shoot. And the day after the election was the day we shot Chloe jumping on the table and singing “What’s Up?” and she had to bring so much passion and energy and everyone was so dead and it was sort of just Chloe and I who were there that day. And that was definitely the hardest moment on set, is to take a break to watch the concession speech. Everyone took a lot of time, we dispersed, we came back together. And later that day we shot the scene where Cameron confronts Rick and says, “You guys don’t know what the fuck you’re doing here.” And that was, I mean, that whole day was really significant and those were really intense scenes. One was really triumphant about finding your voice and one was about the realization that the adults in your life don’t know what they’re doing necessarily and that was what we were writing the film for, and to me it was a John Hughes movie. What I loved about Sixteen Candles and what I loved about Breakfast Club was that it was about that moment that every person has where they realize that the adults in their life don’t necessarily have a guide book of like, this is right, this is wrong, this is how to live, this is how to do everything. And that was reflective of why I wanted to make the film is that I love my family so dearly but they were so horrified with me for being the way I was. And my parents are from Iran and I trusted them so wholly with every part of my life and then for this aspect to be a non–just, you know, a no-go. No understanding in any respect. It was like saying I’m a leprechaun. We don’t even have a point of reference, we don’t have a point of conversation. I’m like, I’m a cannibal, hey mom love me anyway. That’s what that moment in the shoot and in our lives represented.”

Akhavan closed the Q&A by sharing her experience with both directing and acting, and why she chooses not to direct herself anymore:

“When you’re on-set you completely open yourself up to sucking up all the energy around you. Saying like, ‘what does this person need? What do you need? What do you need?’ It’s like being a conductor. It’s like, you crescendo here, you shut the fuck up here. You figure out what each department has and what they could use and when to step in and not to step in. It’s how to help them make the film that’s in your brain. They make the film, you supervise it, and you just keep your eyes and your senses open.

To act is to shut it all down. It’s to be in the moment with the person you’re in a scene with. And it’s to completely pretend that all the circus around you is not happening. And to direct is to be the circus. And those two skills are so different that to do them both is to half-ass them. And I’ve half-assed them a lot so far in my short career and it’s been really hard. And doing the TV show was like this realization of not wanting to. And I think some people do it really beautifully and probably really painlessly. But I’ve discovered that I experience too much pain doing it so I’m not doing it anymore.”

Can You Ever Forgive Me? directed by Marielle Heller, starring Melissa McCarthy.

Me with Marielle Heller after the screening of her film Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Lee Israel (played by Academy Award Nominee Melissa McCarthy) is a writer struggling to pay her bills, she drinks too much, and lives alone with her cat having never been married. For a female character, she’s not very likable. In life, Lee Israel was also very much so a real person and the film is based on her autobiographical memoir of the same name; a retelling of her biggest (and most illegal) mistake she made during her lifetime.

After the screening, director Marielle Heller sat down with Athena Film Festival founder, Melissa Silverstein, to chat about it.

“If this was a man you wouldn’t ask me this question.”

-Marielle Heller, film director

On Lee Israel being such an unlikeable woman character, Heller “just didn’t approach her with judgment. We don’t get to see women characters like that. Nobody asked if Tony Soprano was likable. If this was a man you wouldn’t ask me this question, but the truth of the matter is it’s not just that she’s a prickly person. It was really important that we connected to her humanity and her struggle as an artist, these really universal things. When you wake up and you’re 51 and you’re obsolete, what would you do in that case? She was very alone.”

While on set of the film, Melissa McCarthy gave Heller some helpful European advice on being a filmmaker as a mother, with the dreadful long hours that don’t allow you to tuck your kid into bed at night and actually feel like you’re being present as a parent.

“Melissa asked if I had ever heard of French hours. It’s where you don’t take a lunch and instead work ten straight hours; it’s done in Europe a lot. So it allows you to be able to end the day early and get home early. On my next movie, we shot 7am-5pm or 8am-6pm and I got home to put my kid to bed. This could really help more female directors.”

If the concept of no lunch makes you nervous, just think about how often you find yourself picking at the craft services table throughout the day. The trick here, Heller said, is to stock up on craft services so the cast and crew can graze throughout the day and power through the shoot.

This is Personal, directed by Amy Berg, produced by Ruchi Mital

This is Personal, directed by Amy Berg, produced by Ruchi Mital

This is Personal producer Ruchi Mital, Athana Film Festival founder Melissa Silverstein, and Director of Communications and Digital Outreach for the Women’s March Sophie Ellman-Golan.

This is Personal was the documentary centerpiece film of this year’s Athena Film Festival. The film follows Women’s March organizer Tamika Mallory and immigration rights activist Erika Andiola through their lives as activists in the new era of the feminist movement. The film introduces viewers to the idea that the personal is very much political and how the concept of intersectionality can guide us towards a new social justice movement. The film is a very vulnerable portrayal of these two women as they learn from other oppressed communities, share their own personal stories, and continue the long, hard fight for equal rights in spite of death threats and possible jail time.

If the word “intersectional” is a word that you’re unfamiliar with, or one that you’re still confused by, producer Ruchi Mital and Women’s March Director of Communications and Digital Outreach Sophie Ellman-Golan explained it pretty well for all of us.

“Intersectionality is really misused,” Ellman-Golan explained. “It’s set up to not actually look at multiple identities of people but to look at ways the systems of oppression overlaps. With workplace discrimination, there are no legal ways ways for black women to file workplace discrimination suits because not all black women were experiencing it. So it looks at these overlapping systems, all of the forms of oppression we see in action, and how the levels of burden we carry are interdependent on each other. We can’t speak to identities we don’t have rather than empathizing and learning from them.”

Ellman-Golan went on to discuss the frustrations of those working to make intersectionality a more fully-realized concept, saying that in both progress and growth, neither are linear. If we believe that they are linear or don’t allow our work to take a couple steps back before moving forward again, we are setting ourselves up for failure. There is no way to meet the expectations of millions of people who have different expectations than your own.

Producer Ruchi Mital furthered the conversation by adding, “When you’re reacting or only resisting, you’re still playing in the sandbox with the oppressor because you’re accepting the rules. So if you step outside and say, “I’m going to do something new,” it’s going to be messy. You’re going to get sand outside the box and it’ll be inherently messy, and that’s something outside of the rules that are set up for us.”

Mital and director Amy Berg’s biggest challenge with the film was keeping up with the blows that kept coming throughout the Trump administration. She had to figure out how to make a movie that wasn’t just rehashing the news but instead showing the impacts that the activism and protests are having on American politics.

“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” are both streaming on digital online platforms. “This is Personal” premiered at Sundance 2019.

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