Watching “New Flesh for the Old Ceremony”, the Audience Award-winner for narrative shorts at this year’s Reeling Film Festival, I was pleasantly surprised that it opened with a passionate love scene. Usually that is something that is thrown in towards the middle of a romance story, but you knew this one is going to be different, taking you straight into an intimate moment between two women. Each frame is intentional and the Russian native filmmaker Elizabeth Rakhilkina is wasting no time. I was fortunate to follow up with Elizabeth after the festival to talk to her about her unique film. We talked about her star, Ana Maria Jamolca, her influences, and what she hopes people will take from this film.
What brought you to this project, and where did this story come from?
I came up with the idea for this project with my husband who was my boyfriend back then. I was always very entertained by stories of exaggerated feelings in love stories. I’m also drawn to using will power metaphors visually and also linguistically in films to present these ideas. I really wanted to pollinate the film with as many dogs as I could. They usually symbolize loyalty, but they are also really masculine symbols. I wanted to take that symbol and put it on its head.
How did you find the star of this film?
Her name is Ana Maria Jomolca, and I found her through another filmmaker. Back when I was shooting this film last year, it was my thesis project at NYU, and she was recommended by Abigail Zealey Bess who is also a lecture professor at the university. From the first minute I met Ana Maria, it seemed we had a great rapport, and we actually stayed friends even after the shooting. She just felt very right for the role. I felt she had a very grounded energy about her. At the same time, she has a certain look, a certain physicality that is kind of timeless. Because I wanted to have the look of the film to make it seem that it wasn’t necessarily set in the contemporary times, I didn’t want to put a finger on a particular era. To me, Ana Maria has the appearance of a person who could be existing now or 50 years ago.
I’m curious about the production design. Can you talk about the space you used within the composition of the story you were telling?
The house belonged to our sound mixer, who was also a professor at NYU. The house was extremely lived in. I don’t know for how long this person owned the house, but I would say for several decades. Most of the rooms were kept in place. But then my production designer Sarah Moscowitz remodeled the kitchen floor, and we put a lot of new paintings on the wall. We definitely wanted to have a feeling about the house that showed the personality of the relationship between these two women. It’s a short film, so there is not a lot of time for a backstory. We want the house to be able to present the story by itself, and hopefully it did that.
What was the reason to have the sex scene to open up the film?
I think everything should be straight to the point. In that first scene, I wanted to set the mood of the essential themes. To me, the themes are the human physicality and the passion. We hear the barking of the dogs during this opening scene. There is an animalistic presence in this cramped claustrophobic space where these two women exist in. Also, this movie is very intimate. It’s about intimacy, and I wanted to push the audience into a world where passion is not hidden. These women live in this house by themselves and they have nothing to be ashamed about. They make love wherever they want. I feel a lot of films tip toe around ideas like that. I think you should just go for it.
When I was in development and pre-production, I was thinking a lot about Pedro Almodóvar’s films and about the ways he portrays womanhood, specifically queer womanhood. I was thinking more about his thriller-esque films, like “The Skin I Live In” and “Live Flesh”. And when the movie was already shot and I was in post, I was thinking of a contemporary French filmmaker, Yann Gonzalez. Several years ago, he did this queer horror film, “Knife + Heart.” It’s a wonderful film, and people can find it on Shudder. It’s a really beautiful film, and very bright and vivid. It also has a lot of macabre virtualistic elements about it.
What do you hope people see in your work?
I hope they see new ways to portray intimacy, especially queer intimacy. It bothers me sometimes when I go to see more mainstream films, and I feel like queer narratives are so often tied to suffering. These are things that should obviously be talked about, but I feel like queer communities are not shown in their glee and variety that they have in real life. So I want the audience to take that from my film and to take a fresh look at the human body, the way we interact with the human body, and how twisted and beautiful the body can be.