I had the opportunity to speak with Lillah Halla (she/her/them) about her beautiful film “Levante,” which centers on a promising 17-year-old volleyball player named Sofia, who is faced with an unwanted pregnancy. The film takes place in Brazil where abortion is against the law. She seeks to have her pregnancy terminated, and becomes a target of a fundamentalist group. Her teammates, father and family friends surround her with love in the process. It’s so beautiful seeing all these teammates come together to support Sofia in this struggle, and through the pain, we see hope through their camaraderie.

Like we see in the film, the director is a collaborator and likes to have her crew behind the camera work together as a team. The film took seven years to make, and gone through many forms, continuing to evolve with the participation of all who are involved. The end result is a gem. The film screened yesterday at Cannes and is part of the films in the critics week in competition for the Queer Palm award.

Lillah Halla

What was the inspiration for this story?

There’s never just one inspiration. Inspiration comes from an array of encounters and perspectives. I could speak for an hour about that.

Reading over the press notes, it seems that you have a behind the camera “team” mentality. You can also see that team spirit reflected onscreen too. Can you talk about that?

“Team” is a very important word to me, and it almost ended up being the title of the film. For me, “team” is the most beautiful thing and the hardest thing to manage. It’s not for everyone, it’s not without conditions, and it’s not something that happens by chance. It’s a lot of work with constructing, deconstructing, and then reconstructing until you really find what you can call synergy from both sides.

To be a part of a team takes certain personalities who like this kind of dialogical way of working. You have to be open to the process. Because for me, I’m not imposing the story on anyone. I’m receiving so much from the cast and my crew that continues to evolve our process and our script. This collaboration is essential in the work I do. This requires a lot of coming and going, a lot of rewriting the script, and getting out a first proposal before rewriting it. 

Can you talk about your writing process with María Elena Morán?

When I started writing, I wasn’t even taking the director’s position. For ten years, María and I were the writers. And the arrival of the cast had an huge influence on the work we did when we were going through the process of rewriting. We were constantly rewriting, even when it came time for ADRs. It was a non-stop process. María and I are the soul of this film. For quite some time, every Sunday I would send María a different cut of the film to review and to get her thoughts. The film is our baby, and it’s rare in this industry to have a person with you throughout the whole process, which in this case took seven years. When we’ve worked together, it’s magic.

Ayomi Domenica Dias in “Levante”

Can you talk about how you found your Sofia (Ayomi Domenica Dias)?

This was a two-year process of casting, interrupted by the pandemic. We lost some of our cast along the way because many of them are volleyball players and they needed to keep on with their life. Some of them could only be with us for a specific period of time. Working with athletes in the film can be a marathon in itself. After the pandemic started, we had to re-sync our calendars. Magical things were happening which led us to finding our group for the film. When we found our group, I didn’t know who was going to play whom. We had more people than we originally planned to cast in this group, but they were all the right people for the film, so we were still undecided who would play each role.

There was great chemistry between all of the actors. 

They are great friends now, and this volleyball team vibe is still with them. They are all coming to Cannes. They are similar to their characters in the film in that they raised their own money to pay for their travel. Having them all together for the screening is going to be historic.

Ayomi Domenica, the main actress, was a part of this group. During production, I had a week to work with the cast more freely to get a feeling of which people should play certain roles. For Sofia, there were many elements to the character that we were looking for. So we had this week to choose our Sofia. I came up to Ayomi and said I had chosen her to be Sofia, but she also had to feel she was the right person for the role. I then shared with her the whole script, which I hadn’t done with any of the other cast members because we were working off of improvisations. They understood the through lines of the story, and I gave them bullet points of the story so they had the room to improvise in order for it to be more fluid between the cast. But I gave Ayomi Dominica the full script to read because I wanted her to be able to feel the weight of the role since it requires a lot from the actor.

Yeah, it’s intense! 

I wanted her to take the script home, discuss it and think about it. This process was a partnership between Ayomi and myself because the collaboration is deep, and it needs to be. We need to both be able to elevate our voices in this process.

What do you hope people see in your film?

I hope people see that we’re better when we’re not alone. I hope that people see that joy is an important form of resistance and existence and that we should not lose this independence in the midst of such an important time in our world. Brazil has been paralyzed by its depression over the past six years and we can’t move forward like this. It’s all political. There needs to be change for reproductive rights. If people are really worried about saving lives, they should take care of these lives. This is also a class and racial issue, and it cannot keep going on in the way it has been going.

I feel like the volleyball team in the film is the hope for the future, with everybody being free to be who they are. I love how the bathroom had “they” on it.

Thank you so much.

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