Feminist filmmaker and ‘Maniac’ actor Ariel Kavoussi brings raw female characters onscreen with ‘The Poet and The Professor’ and ‘Birdshit’

Ariel Kavoussi

I heard about Ariel Kavoussi through one of our featured filmmakers, Haroula Rose. Not directly, but through socials, I saw they did some collaborative work and had been featured on the same podcast. I did my research on her, watched her film “The Poet and The Professor”, and then watched one of her stand-up routines. I also saw that she played a part in one of my favorite mini-series in the past decade, Cary Fukunaga’s “Maniac”. Being known for her unique voice and her independent feminist flicks, it was important for me to feature her and her story on Cinema Femme. Read my conversation with this inspirational, uncompromisingly raw, filmmaker.

REBECCA MARTIN: Was there an experience growing up that impacted you or inspired you to be a filmmaker or actor? What ignited your passion for film growing up?

ARIEL KAVOUSSI: When I was growing up, I had access to an independent film channel that showed unique films. I was just drawn to watching everything that was on that channel. I was discovering this alternative way of telling stories that I really responded to. And I always have this joke that I’m cool now, but I wasn’t always so cool when I was in high school. So watching these films took up a lot of my time. Growing up in New York, it’s great because there’s access to all kinds of cinema, it’s never-ending. Also, my mom is a graphic designer, and my brother is an editor. So it’s kind of in the family. My dad showed us a lot of films.

MARTIN: That’s great!

KAVOUSSI: We watched films at a young age I know we probably shouldn’t have. I think I watched “Rocky Horror” when I was six. I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker around sixteen, because I was like, ‘These movies are so great, but it would be nice if there were more women directors.’ I mean it was once in a blue moon that I saw a film out there by a female filmmaker, and I was just so confused about that. Nowadays, things are changing for the better, hopefully, for women.

MARTIN: Hopefully.

KAVOUSSI: Yes, maybe not for all things, culturally, but at least there is starting to be change in this arena of film. We still do have a long way to go, but things are different, at least compared to when I was back in high school. It was just like nobody cared. They didn’t talk about it, but at least now there is the conversation. 

“Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” (1954)

Regarding films that inspired me when I was young–when my boyfriend broke up with me, I was really depressed. For a month, it was horrible. But I rented these two movies, one was “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday,” which is a Jacques Tati movie, and it seriously helped me get out of my depression. It’s my favorite film. It inspired me as a piece of art, and I looked at that film how you look at a religion, even though I’m not really religious.

MARTIN: I get it. I’m the same way. Beauty, art, and film is what inspires me. Film is the medium that I relate my life to. I tell people I have movie vision. I’m always comparing my life to films.

Can you talk to me more about your experience at Prague Film School when you attended Williams College?

KAVOUSSI: Yeah, Williams College. It’s a liberal arts college that doesn’t really have a film department. I went to go study abroad to get more of a technical background with film in the Czech Republic. Actually it’s interesting, one of the filmmakers you featured was my teacher, Penny Lane.

MARTIN: Wow, that’s awesome. 

KAVOUSSI: Yeah she was my professor and so was the filmmaker Liza Johnson. They both are amazing feminist filmmakers. So I was so happy. 

Right off the bat, I didn’t apply to go to film school. I could kind of teach myself. In my seventeen-year-old brain, I was like, ‘All good filmmakers study philosophy. I’m not going to teach myself philosophy, that’s too hard.’ That’s why at school I went really hard at philosophy. And that’s what I ended up studying at Williams. 

MARTIN: Philosophy is not easy, I admire that you pursued that subject.

KAVOUSSI: Yeah, hopefully it’s all still up there. 

MARTIN: Do you have a lot of quotes you share? Philosophical quotes? I’m all about those.

KAVOUSSI: I’m really about using my philosophy for accessibility and storytelling. It’s really it’s own language. The language is limiting, so there’s only so many people you can communicate with that get the language. I want to make things and write things for everybody. 

MARTIN: That’s great.

Judith Butler

KAVOUSSI: At the time I was interested in the feminist continental philosophers. I wasn’t into the whole logic side of it. I’m definitely interested in philosophy that talked about gender. I mean I dig philosophers like Judith Butler.

MARTIN: I’ll have to read some of her work!

KAVOUSSI: Growing up in New York, it’s relatively liberal, but I didn’t know about feminism. I didn’t know about feminists until I went to college, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe all of this.’ You know, that’s why I went to a liberal arts school. I’m like, ‘This is amazing, I’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy this whole time.’

MARTIN: I feel I haven’t fully grasped feminism until recently with my magazine and with the whole #MeToo movement. It changes your way of thinking about everything. I mean even in the bedroom, you’re like, ‘is that okay that I say these things’, or you’re in a group of people and how you address women and men. It’s completely a mind flip, you know?

KAVOUSSI: Yes, Judith Butler, she’s definitely my top feminist philosopher. 

MARTIN: What got you started on your path into filmmaking? Was it writing? Was it acting?

KAVOUSSI: I was always interested in performing. At Williams I did not have a good social experience, but academically it was great. I was very depressed. The theatre people didn’t look at me like an actor, because I didn’t perform in the same structure they did. The video people though, I thought these people are cool, so I just figured that I would make my own videos, and put myself in my own video. Then I can just do what I want to do. When I graduated, I wanted to meet other filmmakers, cinephiles, just people who like what I like. There were no people like that at Williams, although I had professors that I looked up to. So after graduation, back in New York, I would go to film screenings and hang out. I’d go to everything. I’d speak up, I’d try to go out of my way to meet people. And through that I’d meet filmmakers, and they’d see my videos, and then they’d ask, do you act? Do you want to be in my video? 

“The Deflowering of Ariella Von”

So right after I graduated, I was cast in a feature film just because somebody heard my voice in a Q&A. It was an art film, “The Deflowering of Ariella Von”. That’s how I got cast, by this married couple, Marianna Ellenberg and David Louis Zuckerman, who heard my voice at this Q&A.

To this day I still enjoy performing. I put myself in my own work. So people see me in my work, and they ask me if they want to be in their work. I’ve only pursued getting a manager in order to get acting gigs in the past few years. 

MARTIN: It seems like it’s going pretty well for you.

KAVOUSSI: Yeah, one step at a time. And I really enjoy the acting, but the goal is to get hired as a director. So far, I’ve just been hired to act. 

MARTIN: I was so impressed with your work in “Maniac.” I’m sure that’s the one that comes up the most often. That was such an interesting series. How did you get involved?

Ariel Kavoussi with director Onur Tukel at TIFF for “Catfight”

KAVOUSSI: Thank you for saying that! Yeah, that was just an audition. So here’s what happened, I told you about the organic way I was just meeting filmmakers. That is how I met the director Onur Tukel, filmmaker, who put me in his film “Catfight” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s now on Netflix.

MARTIN: That’s the one with Sandra Oh and Anne Heche.

KAVOUSSI: Yep! He put me in a pretty big part. I just knew him for years and he was like, ‘I want you in this.’ After that, the film got really good reviews from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter about my performance. Also, at the same time, I was making “The Poet and the Professor” with Kevin Corrigan. Everybody was telling me great things about my acting specifically. So I thought maybe I need to take my acting career more seriously, because I could make money off of it. It’s like any business, you need to put work into it. There’s this false idea that you are going to be discovered, somebody planted that. It happens, but come on, realistically it’s a business, and you have to be really strategic. I figured I need to get a manager, I need to go out on auditions. I didn’t think I’d be a movie star, but I thought I’m good enough to get one or two lines. A lot of actors, they make a good living that way, and nobody knows their name.

MARTIN: That’s the best of both worlds, you do what you love and not be bothered by the cameras.

KAVOUSSI: So yeah, basically I’d go and that would pay the rent, and that’s it. I knew some friends, and got a manager, who got me this audition for “Maniac.” I literally just went in for one line. Then they were like, “While you’re here, do you want to read this other part?” And I was like, okay. And I didn’t know what I was getting into. The language in that show is very strange. You have to watch it a few time to grasp it all.

MARTIN: Yes it is! That’s what I love about it.

KAVOUSSI: So I didn’t know what I was reading, 

MARTIN: You were so good in this show.

KAVOUSSI: Thank you. So days later after the audition, they said they wanted to put me on hold. And I was like, “what does that mean?” Then the costume person got in touch with me. I found out that once that happens, you’ve got the job. 

MARTIN: Nice!

Emma Stone and Ariel Kavoussi in “Maniac”

KAVOUSSI: So, yeah that was the audition. And I didn’t really go on many other auditions. I got only fifteen auditions that year, and that’s not good. But yeah, the “Maniac” part grew into something bigger than it was supposed to be. I was only supposed to have one line, and then the director Cary Fukunaga had me come back, and then we did the voice over work. I mean Emma Stone had just won the Academy Award for “La La Land” (2016), a bit surreal.

MARTIN: I just watched your reel, and watched the parts you were in the series. I love that scene where you are her friend. She hires you to be her buddy and asks you to go to Portland with her, and you are so excited. That was so funny. You played the part so well, and it was on point.

KAVOUSSI: Thank you so much, and it was thanks to Fukunaga too. I was there on day one, for seventy-five days. Everybody was nervous. Emma Stone hadn’t slept because she was so nervous. Since I had worked with Kevin Corrigan, it kind of got me past working in a surreal place. I didn’t feel I was as nervous as everyone else. I was nervous, but eventually I realized I was there to guide the lead character on their journey. And I felt that Emma’s character and mine complemented each other. 

MARTIN: Now I’d like to discuss your film “The Professor and The Poet”, everything in this film seemed intentional to me. I know you wrote and directed the film. Could you go into your process of making the film?

“The Poet and The Professor”

KAVOUSSI: Thank you so much for saying that and watching the film. The short film was put out there back in February of this year, and we had a good festival run. I made the film for myself, but also for other people who were having these isolating alienated experiences. I thought maybe this film could make them feel better, kind of like some movies have made me feel better. I wanted to make a movie about someone who was not doing well, and she doesn’t have her shit together. 

MARTIN: I appreciate that so much, you don’t really see those kind of female characters who don’t have their shit together, or at least in a realistic way, onscreen.

KAVOUSSI: Yeah there’s just a lot of films about artists, like how cool people are. Everyone is hot, you know? I’m okay with that, and I sometimes enjoy it, but it’s not so inspiring. 

MARTIN: Agreed. And your film was just so raw and real. I could see some of myself on the screen. There was a time when I got out of college and I didn’t really know my worth then. I would bounce around from guy to guy. I was really influenced by how guys perceived me, and I reflected that on myself. I felt that pain, I could see that pain that the character was feeling in the film. I’ve been there.

Kevin Corrigan and Ariel Kavoussi in “The Poet and The Professor”

KAVOUSSI: Yeah, it’s unfortunate, but sadly it’s really common, that kind of thing. You know the character was intentional for female-identifying people, but going to screenings, oddly enough, some men also relate to the main character. The film is about loneliness, doing things out of desperation, not wanting to be alone. People would ask me, “why is she with these guys?”  Well, people do crazy things not to be alone. 

I wrote the film, I directed it, and I acted in it, but I had a lot of great collaborators. It’s cliche to say it, but a lot of people made this movie, not just me. Valerie Steinberg, my producer, was integral and the DP, Charlotte Hornsby, had a lot to add. We all inspired each other.

Ariel Kavoussi on set of “The Poet and The Professor” with DP Charlotte Hornsby

MARTIN: That’s awesome, so a female crew?

KAVOUSSI: Yes it was mainly a female crew. Because of the content of it, it was going to be weird, otherwise. It would have not been comfortable for that project.

I am working on other projects, like I have my own websisode that I’m producing, so I have a lot of guys on that project. But it’s totally different, not as sexual as “The Poet and The Professor”. 

MARTIN: Do you perceive any change regarding the landscape of women in film? What advice would you give to emerging female filmmakers?

KAVOUSSI: I’m still figuring it out too. Not sure if I’m ready to give advice. But there are certain things I see for younger female filmmakers just starting out. Based on this short film I made specifically, the main thing is just do it, don’t think about it. I overthink things too. Older women I feel most often overthink things. That sounds stereotypical, but it seems that guys don’t care so much, because they get more opportunities. As women, when we do things, it has to be perfect. I’m a victim of this too, feeling that I have to be perfect. So I think women have to be okay with just generating work, and it being not necessarily good, and generating a lot of garbage.

MARTIN: Yes, just do it!

KAVOUSSI: What I’ve noticed is that women are just a little more scared to go through that process. This is very stereotypical, it’s just what I’ve observed. Of course, I can be timid in the same way, and I know a lot about that too. That’s my advice, make not good things.

MARTIN: I love that!

KAVOUSSI: And perfection does not exist. It’s not going to be perfect, but you’ll learn and get better. And then the other thing, which is something I often have to tell myself, is that money is a big part of it. You need at least some money to make films. And this goes for a lot of people, who make the excuse of, ‘I don’t have money, so I can’t make the movie.’ You can’t use that excuse. If you want to make a movie, and Werner Herzog talks about this, you have to do whatever it takes. Herzog stole a camera to make a movie. I mean, it’s a bit a radical. Maybe there should be a feminist filmmaker radical movement where women are going out there and stealing cameras.  

MARTIN:  Count me in. Love it.

What are your thoughts about female representation onscreen in independent film?

KAVOUSSI: The independent film scene is very male-dominated. There are a lot of male filmmakers I look up to, like Alex Ross Perry. I look up to their movies, but sometimes they seem a little bit naive in terms of gender dynamics. I feel like they almost have it right, but not quite. That’s another reason I wanted to make “The Poet and The Professor”, to have a dialogue with other filmmakers. It’s not that hard to be original if you just switch genders, races–It’s pretty pathetic in a way. Representation is important. I mean there’s enough films being made, and I just try to take that in. 

MARTIN: What I love is that you’re making a difference for women in cinema through representation. I’m really excited for whatever you have coming up. What’s coming up?

KAVOUSSI: Down the pipeline, I’m acting in a lot of indie projects. I am writing, directing and starring in a new webisode project called “Birdshit.” We filmed a trailer and the first episode will drop online soon. “Birdshit,” is a new episodically-linked project that follows the trials and tribulations of a socially awkward but ambitious young woman named ‘Birdy Roznack’ as she attempts to find meaning, success and love in Ridgewood, Queens and the surrounding areas. Lola Bessis (star of “Picnic at Hanging Rock”) will co-star with me in our first episode.

MARTIN: Thank you Ariel for sharing your story with me. So excited about what you’re doing for film and for women in general.

Please follow @birdieroznack on Instagram for updates. Photo: @willrahilly.

Ariel Kavoussi on “Birdshit”

Ariel Kavoussi’s links: 



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