We had the opportunity to speak with activist and filmmaker Maria Judice about her directorial feature debut “Elephant,” which will have its in-person premiere at the Ann Arbor Film Festival on Sunday, 3/27 at 3:15 PM ET. You can watch it at the fest virtually now. Buy tickets here.
It all started four years ago, around the time of the Ferguson riots, when Maria Judice got the idea for her debut feature, “Elephant.” As a female activist working a full-time job who had family members who were not only connected to the riots, but also had known people who were murdered, the compounding of these factors took its toll. “I feel that every five years, we have another uprising,” Maria told me in a recent conversation via Zoom. “I just got tired, and I was tapped out. I was like, ‘Sorry y’all, I ain’t got nothing left in me.'” Her family wanted her to get it together and move on. “I found this huge disconnect between how I live as an artist and how I have to move in the world,” she noted, “such as when I’m going to work every day, showing up to family functions, being presentable and having my hair done.”
This reminded of a scene in “Elephant” featuring Maria’s character, a woman who witnesses the murder of a young boy by a police officer, and endures a mental breakdown that prevents her from leaving her apartment. In this scene, she is talking with her mother about her feelings, and she keeps mentioning that she should wear lipstick. When I mentioned this to Maria, she laughed and said that both her mom and her grandparents are highly into presentation and representation of yourself. “As a Black woman, I’ve just started to think about these things, such as what does it take for me to push back?” said Maria. “What does it take for people to accept and support my vulnerability and healing? There’s no exact murder that I saw, but as I was doing my research, I was finding so many pieces that were disconnected. And so many pieces that were invisible, lost in the archive in the memories of us all.” By the second year of development, she compiled a bunch of materials, brought the script together, and assembled a community of artists that she knew. From there it began.
The title of the film “Elephant” started with the basic idea that there was an elephant in the room, and she saw it as a symbol of what was happening and not happening within her community. “Even as a community that is under a lot of assaults and violence and oppression, we still have these elephants around because we’ve got to go to work, we’ve got to take care of the kids, and we’ve got to eat,” she said. “We put all of this violence in a box that we’ve witnessed.” These truths were revealed even more so to Maria during the making of the film. The actors would come to set and be worn out, causing them to have difficulty getting through a scene. “I reminded them that we’re not on anyone’s time schedule, this is my money and my time,” she stressed. “We don’t have to be here for twelve hours. You don’t have to immediately dive in. Let’s talk about you and the elephant in the room. It made such a difference to become aware of these elephants that I kept seeing.”
Maria went on to say that in her research, she found a lot of truth in elephants through the prism of Eastern religion, specifically an Indian fable about eight blind men and an elephant. “There are eight blind men, and they see an elephant is in the square,” she said. “And they’re like, ‘What’s an elephant?’ Each blind man explores a part of the elephant, which leads them to describe the elephant differently. One says, ‘The elephant is big and wide,’ another says, ‘No, it’s a long tube,’ and another feels a toenail and says, ‘The elephant is like a rock.’ Until they come together, they can’t really understand the elephant, but instead all they do is bicker about what the elephant is. I feel the same thing happens when it comes to racism, to oppression, and to understanding diversity. We are always just bickering, and we really don’t know all the sides of the issue. Even for myself, it took me a lot to even do this film because it was really hard to swallow a lot of truths that I feel exist while just trying to get through my day.”
Maria shared how it can be unhealthy when your work as an artist and a filmmaker comes first, and everything else comes second. This includes your health, and neglecting what happens to you on a set, whether it’s sexual harassment or racism. The reason, she explained, is “because you want to win, and you also don’t want to be the person to cause any strife.” This motivated Maria to embrace those elephants and understand them. “If I’m aware of the elephant and I’m aware of the size and mass, I understand how much I’m losing,” she affirmed.
The plants also played a significant role by their persistent presence in the film, serving as a protection for Maria’s character while she’s dealing with her trauma. “The plants are really helpful to me personally,” she said. “When I started to dive into that world, I really understood this biomimicry. I looked at these plants sustaining themselves, holding on by tooth and nail, and it gave me a sense of hope, regardless of how deep my depression was getting. When I would pay attention to them, water them, and take care of them, they’d bounce back. So this resiliency became really important to me. I think she is also learning through the plants about how to expand, grow, blossom and bloom, and be seasonal. You know you’re not always in a state of blossoming, sometimes you’re just in a state of maintaining because it’s winter and it’s cold. You do need to hibernate, and you need to rest. So all of those pieces are written in there because of the plants, and also because of the green. I feel it’s very reflective and beautiful as a color palate in the scenes.” The plants teach us how we are all connected, Maria added, and how we need to learn from each other. It’s a reflection of this chaotic universe that we all live in. “I don’t think we spend enough time diving into nature, and understanding what it has to teach us,” she said.
How the film transitioned from its main character in isolation to bringing different people into her life was really interesting. I was evocative of Richard Linklater’s film. “Waking Life”, where there are vignettes of these intense and deep conversations, such as when Maria’s character is talking to her mom. “As an artist making my debut feature about a handful of shorts, the aspect of community is very important to me,” said Maria. “It has been a key to my survival, allowing me to thrive and grow as a person. As I was making this film, I was thinking about various people in my life who I had these conversations with, which aren’t always warm and fuzzy in that “Pollyanna” sense. Sometimes they are rough, you know? Also, we get caught in the bubble of social media. I’m in my own bubble here in San Francisco. We do need things to challenge us and our ideas, especially in regards to inter-generational issues. I was making sure I had these inter-generational conversations to understand what pieces were missing. Again, back to the truth, what elephant does Mom hold, what elephant does Grandpa hold, and what part of the elephant does my ex-lover hold? I wanted them all to come together and share these truths.”
Maria continued, “In the scene with the mother and the daughter, the daughter says, ‘Tell me everything.’ But the mother and the generation she comes from doesn’t talk about trauma. Her generation holds everything really close when you are bringing up trauma, and they don’t want to keep talking about it. This creates a disconnect, because as a member of the younger generation, we’ve found ourselves running into these walls. How much can you protect your kids from these things? Can you share your experiences with them and not relive your own trauma? Trust me, I really was not trying to make another trauma porn movie. I was trying to hold back from engaging in really rough conversations, or causing anyone to relive their own trauma onscreen. Tonya Amos, who plays the mother, had some very traumatic things happen to her, and I just wanted to have her talk about her story in the film. But then I decided to have her live in the fictional world instead, because then she could feel protected. By wrapping ourselves in fictional storytelling, you can say the same things you want without having to re-live any of that trauma.
I appreciated how the film has a hopeful ending. The main character is dealing with some serious trauma, and it’s a dark subject, yet we end in an optimistic and even dreamy place in the film’s final moments. When I told this to Maria, she replied, “That’s such a good way to say it, and even when you’re saying it, I’m like, ‘Did I accomplish that?’ Because it was really hard. I didn’t write a traditional script, I wrote a very long treatment, and then most of the actors helped write and collaborate on their scenes. I would give them a couple lines about the background of their character and then we would go over the scene on our own and just rehearse it a few times before we shot it. Since there was no script to stick to, I had a hard time figuring out how it was going to end. I had to trust that it would come to me, and the end would reveal itself. The reveal was really about the study of the healing process. How do we expect ourselves to heal when we are witnessing this myriad of trauma, violence, oppression and racism. There is a sense that we expect ourselves to just get back in the world, get back on the horse, and get back to whatever you are doing, and make something fabulous and glorious. And that wasn’t going to work for me.”
“All I could really come up with was that she moves through, right?” she continued. “She moves through that door, gets back outside, and once again, gets to a place where she can play. Oppression can take away your playfulness, your joy and your ability to dream. You’ll be stuck in the nightmare, in the fear, as the main character is through most of the film. The moment when she can move through her fears and her nightmares, she can start to play outside, breathe in fresh air, have the sun hit her cheeks and be in nature with the people in the community. In the film, by her stepping outside, she can commit to showing up as a witness for the young boy who was killed. That’s huge. And that’s all I really want to ask of her. I don’t want to ask anymore. Of course I want her to get better year after year. Maybe in a few years, she is going to have something else that will hit her. Whether or not it’s more difficult, she just has to build the resolve for it, and to think about her own healing method. If I say the film is any kind of instruction manual for folks, it would be asking us to understand our own healing process. Let’s have a conversation about that. Sometimes somebody cooking for you is the best thing in the world. All of a sudden, you find yourself feeling better.
At the end of our conversation, I said to Maria that I felt this film could connect with all of us, especially when it comes to mental health, considering how we had all gone through being in a pandemic, stuck in small spaces, during the Black Lives Matter protests. “Thank you for saying that because it is scary,” she replied. “I think there’s two kind of places in society for me. One that our country has a hard time embracing is mental health, and understanding that there are so many different pathways when it comes to mental health. There are so many ways your mental health can be triggered, causing you to fall into a relapse of depression. The pandemic was a huge one for everybody at some level. In the film, the Black community says, “There ain’t anything wrong with you. You ain’t bleeding. What are you talking about? We good, we just go out and battle the day every day.’ I deal very much with that when I talk to my family and my friends who are the same age as me. I’m constantly the person who is like, ‘How about we take a mental health day? How about we just sit and talk about how we feel?’ That for me, plus all of the studying and reading that I’ve had over the years, has been really important. Talking about how you feel is the pathway to recovery. For a while, I didn’t talk about how I felt because nobody would talk about how they felt. Now as I’m getting older, I’m like, ‘Can’t we just talk about how we feel, so we can start enjoying life quicker?'”
“It was difficult to shape what mental health looks like, and it doesn’t look the same for everyone,” she continued. “When we see it on film, it’s never this full experience of what mental health is about. In a way, my character’s mental health is really mild. It’s isn’t sever, but it is still enough to stop her from living her life. You can have mental health issues and you can have a traumatic episode because you witnessed something that was crazy, it doesn’t directly have to involve you, which is what everybody experienced during the pandemic. You’re thinking, ‘I’m locked in, I haven’t seen my people in two years, it’s crazy! I need some affection, I need intimacy, I need connection, and I need to talk to people.’ And we were having mental health issues. A lot of us were having a problem saying that. I also lost people during the pandemic, and that was a hard thing because you couldn’t go to a funeral, you couldn’t have a ceremony. We weren’t able to practice that mourning like we normally do. This film also asks, ‘How do we mourn? How do we come together, even if the mourning is not about someone who is directly connected to you?’ When Trayvon Martin died, we all kind of came together to mourn. We’re all just trying to figure out what we’re going to do with our feelings, and that’s what mourning is for. There’s this whole place for grief in our bag of emotions. We have grief and we have mourning so we can move through things. Instead we don’t do them. So that sucks when people don’t take the time to do that. Instead they go, ‘Fuck the world. All right, gotta go to work, it’s Monday.'”