We could not have had the year we had without you. 2020 was hard for many reasons and in many ways, but we stuck together as a filmmaking and womxn in film community, and that made it all worthwhile. In the spirit of the holidays we wanted to highlight 12 “days” or “events” of 2020 that celebrate our community. Thank you all for your support this year and Happy Holidays!
Kyra Jones is a force bubbling up in the industry. Her directorial debut “Go to the Body” (which is aiming for a 2023 release), has been winning pitch after pitch contest (Chicago International Film Festival, Screencraft), along with raising over $20K on its GoFundMe page. Kyra’s trio of producers, Angellic Ross, Aimy Tien, and Taylor Wisham, are the force behind the project and are equally passionate about getting this story onscreen. Head producer Angellic Ross took Kyra’s script into the Full Spectrum Features Independent Producers Lab, which gave the film the momentum it needed to succeed.
The 2014 graduate of Northwestern University, who now holds a position there as Assistant Director of Sexual Violence Response Services and Advocacy, has been working as an advocate and educator for quite some time. Her work in Sexual Violence Advocacy has been infused in her creativity and writing. “Go to the Body” is born from that and sheds new light on it by exploring, as Kyra puts it, “the ripple effect of sexual violence” in the Chicago Black community. Kyra said, “it’s not so Chicago that people can’t relate to it from other cities,” and likened her film to Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”. Both films have personal stories, which have led to Kyra’s success in pitching a film that is personal to her. Her advice for emerging filmmakers who are starting the pitch process is, “There is going to have to be some kernel of you in the story, somewhere. Find that, lead with that, lead with what inspires you to write the story, and why it is important.”
“Go to the Body” follows Sanaa, a rising racial justice organizer who is sexually assaulted by a fellow activist and tries to push past her trauma and return to her normal life. The only thing standing in the way is her fiancé, Kendrick, an overprotective boxer who has his own idea of justice.
REBECCA MARTIN: What was your journey in making “Go to the Body”?
KYRA JONES: In addition to being an artist, I do work as a Sexual Violence Advocate, and a Sexual Violence Educator. I’ve been doing that even before the Assistant Director position at Northwestern. I did that during college while I was an undergrad at Northwestern, where I was a Peer Educator.
I ended up doing a double major in theater and gender studies and had an independent study in sexual violence in the Black Community. That was really inspired by the volunteer work I did at a Chicago-based anti-rape organization called Resilience. I was training to be a volunteer medical advocate, to go to the hospital to meet with survivors with an evidence collection kit. We had to go through a 60-hour training session. One of the first trainings that we had was about the history of sexual violence. The person that did that presentation was fantastic. They talked a lot about the history of sexual violence in the United States really being racialized sexual violence, and how white men had the impunity for raping black women for a really long time.
They talked about this woman named Recy Taylor who was gang raped. This was in the pre-Civil Rights era, during the 1940s. She was gang raped by six white men, and there was a lot of organizing happening. Her case got seen in front of two grand juries. They were ultimately all never indicted, but the fact that they made it to the grand jury was a big deal at that time. What really struck me was the fact that the main organizer that was doing all the work to get this to happen was Rosa Parks. And this was a decade before “the bus”. I was astounded that I not heard about this story. It just brought to light how much Black women’s experience with sexual violence has been downplayed or even erased from our historical narratives. That prompted me to do my independent research and to continue working specifically with sexual assault survivors. That’s where a lot of the inspiration for “Go to the Body” came from.
There was a mix of things I wanted to explore in “Go to the Body” with sexual violence in the Black community. First, the experience of secondary survivors who are friends and loved ones of people who’ve experienced sexual violence. A lot of people don’t know that’s a trauma in itself to witness a loved one go through that, the psychological impacts. I wanted to explore that through Kendrick’s character. The story follows a couple, Sanaa and Kendrick, in the aftermath of sexual assault. Addressing sexual violence and preventing sexual violence should not just be seen as a women’s issue, we need to think about how men fit in here. That is also something that is explored through Kendrick’s character.
The character Sanaa is an activist. There’s been a long history of men in the movement who are in positions of power, abusing that, and using a Black woman’s silence as a way to help move along the movement. And to use Black women’s silence not to perpetuate stereotypes of Black men being rapists.
MARTIN: How did your team come together for this project?
JONES: My team is super-passionate. They are so on it, and so innovative, and dedicated. They are all my friends, which is really lovely, and they are all the producers. The head producer is Angellic Ross, and then there is Aimy Tien, and Taylor Wisham.
I wrote the first draft of the script two years ago. I wanted to hear it out loud, which helped me as a writer. I had a little table read with some of my actor friends and both Aimy and Angellic were there. They loved the script and they immediately were like “this is amazing”, and “is really impactful.” But then I got swept up with other projects and convinced myself that this would never get made. I put it aside for over a year. Angellic was applying to this program that Full Spectrum Features has for producers, the Independent Producers Lab, and she posted on social media, “hey, does anyone have a full feature script?” To apply to the program you need to apply with a full-feature script. And I was like, “I have one.” And she asked, “Is it ‘Go to the Body’?” I totally forgot she went to the reading. She assumed I already had a producer because it was so good. So she took my script and she ended up getting into the program, which launched the process. I did not have a clue of what to expect. Then she brought Aimy on, and subsequently brought Taylor on as the impact producer. That’s all how it came about.
MARTIN: Is this your first directing project?
JONES: Yes, this is my first feature effort as a director, but I also directed a Zoom play during quarantine. It was a virtual production of Leelee Jackson’s play Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave). This was a way for me to cut my teeth on directing, so I could see that I could do it and that I’m not biting off more than I can chew.
MARTIN: When will the trailer for “Go to the Body” be out?
JONES: It will be out in January. We shot five scenes from the full script. And we are cutting them all together so we can show them to potential stakeholders, and for all the people who donated to our crowdfunding, we want to show them what is happening in the process.
MARTIN: How’s it been going filming during the quarantine?
JONES: It was not as bad as I thought it would be. We just filmed during three days in October. We all had to get tested 3 or 4 times. Everyone on set, except the actors, had to wear masks, and we had to all be socially distanced. All drinks had to be individually bottled. It was just small things like that. We were waiting to hear what the protocol was going to be. There are a lot of scenes that require contact, like boxing, and there’s also romance, so they’ve got to kiss. But as long as the actors got tested and they were comfortable with it, it was fine. For a smaller production it’s not so bad, but I’m sure for these big motion pictures, it’s a pain in the ass, like hundreds of people will need to be tested regularly.
MARTIN: I wanted to read you a quote from Anthony Kaufman, programmer of the Chicago International Film Festival, which he made in response to your win of their pitch competition: “‘Go to the Body’ is a sensitive look at the complex dynamics of race and sexuality within a Chicago Black community that is both emotionally resonant and completely of-the-moment.” What are your thoughts on that quote?
JONES: I cringe because I think about how I had to turn in an early version of the script, but I’m flattered by Kaufman’s thoughts about the film. This movie is very Chicago. I can’t imagine setting it anywhere else. But it’s not so Chicago that people can’t relate to it from other cities.
I was watching an interview with Barry Jenkins about “Moonlight” and he was saying that even though the film is very Miami, people across the seas in Europe felt it, and could really relate to the film. I think it’s that same situation where it’s Chicago, but it’s also everywhere. The film is timely now, but also was timely when I wrote it two years ago. When it’s finally released in 2023, it will still be timely. Sexual violence and racism will still be an issue.
MARTIN: What filmmakers and creators really excite you?
JONES: I love Michaela Coel and I May Destroy You, that finale I feel is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television. I wrote my script before the series came out, but there are some similarities in tone, which kind of moves in and out of comedy, that I feel people don’t anticipate. I feel I need to talk more about the tone of “Go to the Body” because I think a lot of people will see the film as super heavy and depressing. I’m like, “actually, some parts of the film are funny.”
MARTIN: Do you have a timeline for production for the film?
JONES: Sort of. The biggest thing is raising the money. The film is going to very expensive, especially because it involves boxing. The stunts make it pretty expensive. The film is going to be close to a million dollars. It’s going to be a lot of pitching to investors.
MARTIN: You are really good at pitching. What advice do you have for emerging filmmakers who are pitching to investors?
JONES: It is so funny that I keep winning these pitching competitions, because I hate pitching. But it’s a necessary evil. My biggest advice is to find your personal connection to the story. Not that the story has to be autobiographical. “Go to the Body” is not autobiographical, I’ve never dated a boxer. But whatever it is, there is going to have to be some kernel of you in the story, somewhere. Find that, lead with that, lead with what inspires you to write the story, why it is important. Answer the questions, like “why you? Why are you the best person to tell the story and why now? Is it timely?”
Pitches vary in the time you’re allowed to do it, and they vary in what you’re pitching. If you are pitching the story and you’re just pitching the script, that’s going to look different. My pitch for Screencraft was just the script, and I had only three minutes. When I pitched for the Chicago International Film Festival competition, you were also pitching the whole production. We had to talk about where we were in the timeline and what our budget was, and how we were going to make that happen. Also, if you can have some kind of pitch deck that you can share with some kind of promotional materials that will be very helpful, especially for stories like “Go to the Body” that are very unique. We got a lot of feedback that people couldn’t even imagine what the film looks like.
It was really nice to have photos to share for the proof of concept. You don’t have to shoot a whole proof of concept, you can just stage photos, or make a look book and find images from other films that are similar. Comps are also really good. Find a couple other films or television shows that you can say, “this film is a mix of this and this”, that will give people a really good reference. For one of our pitches, we got feedback that there was no comps for our film. But I call it a mix between “Creed” and I May Destroy You and “If Beale Street Could Talk”. That may not be super accurate, but it elevates the tone and visualization of the film.
MARTIN: What do you hope people will see in this film?
JONES: What I’d like people to see in this film is first, the ripple effect of sexual violence. I feel like when I have watched the limited television and film about sexual violence, it’s really focused on the survivor and their internal struggle. But also it’s just about one type of emotional reaction, one type of trauma reaction. I want people to see that you can have a varied array of reactions to sexual trauma, and none of them are wrong. Everyone knows a survivor, whether they know it or not. Somebody could be acting completely fine, or maybe a little closed off, and maybe that’s because they’ve experienced something traumatic that they have not disclosed to you.
Two, I want people to see, as I mentioned, the ways in which Black women are silenced even more than survivors of other races. I’ve said in my pitch the central thesis question, “What do we really mean when we say protect Black women, and what happens when physical protection is not enough?” Boxing kind of comes in with the idea of fighting back physically. We talk about protection and we automatically jump to physical defense, especially for men, “I need to protect my girlfriend, or my partner.” In the matter of sexual violence, no one else is usually there, which makes it difficult for a survivor to physically fight back. I really wanted to dive into the messiness of that question.
Those are some of the big things I hope people get from the film.
MARTIN: Final thoughts?
JONES: I wanted “Go to the Body” to be really purposeful in that it was not treated as a crime drama. I think I almost never see shows that had some sexual violence that didn’t have some reporting to police or a court storyline. The vast amount of people do not report it, especially Black women. There’s so many reasons why women don’t report sexual violence. The system is not set up to give survivors justice, it’s set up to protect men from being accused of sexual violence. It’s even worse for Black women. And the police are not safe for a lot of us. That was something that was really important for me to portray in this film, one of the many reasons why Black women do not feel safe reporting to police and what it looks like to heal outside of the criminal justice system, and to look at other types of accountability.
“Of Fish and Men” is a transformative film that is part thriller, part drama. In some cases, the film is not easy to watch with its traumatic moments, but there is so much beauty we see in the setting of the Swiss countryside. The basic plot is about a mother, Judith, and daughter, Milla, whose solitary and peaceful existence gets interrupted when a stranger, Gabriel, comes to work at the fish farm with Judith. Soon after his arrival, there is an accident when Gabriel is trying to rob a gas station, and accidentally kills Milla. Judith does not know that Gabriel is the one who killed her daughter, as he was wearing a helmet during the incident. She turns to Gabriel during her grief, and he agonizes over how to tell her. This film is riveting and you will be at the edge of your seat.
I had the pleasure of not only watching the film for the Chicago International Film Festival, but also speaking with the filmmaker Stefanie Klemm. English is Klemm’s second language, and her first is German. Because of the language barrier, for clarity I have abbreviated some of her answers.
“Of Fish and Men” had its world premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival, and is expected to have the US release next year. Visit Bluebox Film site for up to date information about the film and Stefanie Klemm’s work.
“It’s quite a tragic thing,” Stefanie Klemm said, while recalling how she came to her film. “Once I was attacked and I was a victim of a robbery at the petrol station.” Klemm then opened up about the details of this tragic experience. She and a friend were there to get gas for their vehicle. It was nighttime, and the surveillance camera was not in their view. Two or three guys came at them, knocked them out, and took everything from their car. The journey to “Of Fish and Men” would start there, at a place of tragedy.
Klemm said, “I suffered from PTSD. It was 10 years ago, and I decided to not let the situation take me down.” As a creative, writer, and filmmaker she channeled her pain into the story. It was difficult for her because she explained that usually you bring your characters into terrible situations, but because of her own, she was also struggling. “During this time, I wrote a diary, and I was full of these thoughts of revenge,” she said. “I was really torn apart, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my revenge, so all of these experiences went into my script.”
The script started out with a woman who is attacked by a man. She later falls in love with that man. Then she finds out the truth about him. “I realized it’s too close and I have to make a shift,” she noted. The shift was for the woman to lose a child in a tragedy. “All of these experiences went into the script, and my experience as a mother,” she continued. “My son is an adult already, but I am familiar with that feeling to have a child and to always be a little bit afraid of what could happen to them. This is how the project began.”
Reading the statement of producer Sereina Gabathuler in the press notes, I was curious why there was a few years gap from the creation of the script to the beginning of production. I wanted to hear more about why she transitioned out of this project. “There were a few reasons for that,” Klemm said. She had to overcome doubt in herself for the project, as she was too close to it. Also, she had to take the time to trust her intuition and follow her heart in her development of the two main characters.
The two main characters of the film are Judith, played by Sarah Spale, the mother who loses her daughter in a robbery gone wrong, and Gabriel, played by Matthias Britschgi, the robber, who is also her friend, lover, and co-worker. Both characters have to deal with the death in different ways. They are tied together by this moment. I am so glad she followed her intuition, because she had received feedback that Gabriel’s story was much more interesting and that she should transition to him as the main character. Klemm said, “Both of these characters are the main characters, but Judith is a little bit more in my heart. I love Gabriel very much, but she is my main character too.”
Also during this time, Klemm switched to another project and it was quite successful. She received an award for this project, and she had to put all of her energy in to it. After this three-year period, she returned to working on “Of Fish and Men”.
Now Klemm had the script, and she had to fill those roles with actors who could embody these passionate characters. “Yes, they all were terrific,” Klemm said, “I’m so lucky. Sarah’s a brilliant actress.” She had Sarah Spale in mind for the role of Judith from the beginning. She had admired her from her work on television. She had the main role in a series where she was a police woman. “Of Fish and Men” would be Spale’s first major onscreen role in a film. Klemm was so happy she could find Spale for the role, as Switzerland does not have a wide selection of actors. Klemm sent her the script, they met for coffee, and Spale said, “Let’s go for it.”
It took a longer time for Klemm to find the right actor for Gabriel. It was important that she found Matthias Britschgi. He stood out to Klemm because, “he is a bit younger. Also, he’s not the typical ‘older strong guy.'” I mentioned that he had a great chemistry with the actor who played Milla [Lia Wagner]. She said that it was natural for him to connect with her because he also is a father, and has two young children, one at that time.
Nature is another character in Klemm’s film. The story takes place in the mountains in a northern region of Switzerland. She describes it as, “a small valley, a one-way valley, with a one-way road. You have to take the same road to go in and out of the region.” The main character Judith works at a fish farm in this remote region. I thought that was a fascinating choice within the climate and the landscape of the film. “One thing I really like watching in a film is characters in real professions,” she observed. “I enjoy learning more about something that I didn’t know before.”
Another reason for having Judith work at a fish farm is the metaphor of the work she does with fish. The metaphor plays on the title of the film, “Of Fish and Men”. Klemm explains, “Fish can’t speak. They have no words, and I think that it’s a metaphor for what happens to my main characters. What happens in the film is so tragic and there are no words that can express that.” She went on to explain Judith’s transformation from being like a fish and then coming to a place where she can really be a full human being again. “Judith’s feelings are so enclosed in her, they are so locked within her,” she said.
Following the tragic death of her daughter, Judith’s feelings carry on through the stage of shock and paralysis. We talked about some of the research Klemm did on the subject with Death Researcher Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Klemm’s reason for focusing most on shock and paralysis, and not going through the rest of the stages, was because, “I thought the stage of shock and paralysis is what is very visible to the viewer. We can see her reacting and we can understand her more. She is remaining in this state of anger. In this anger, come thoughts of revenge.”
As Judith is on the side of anger and revenge, we see that Gabriel is also going through his own stages as he is the reason for her daughter’s death. Klemm says that the film’s story is only functional because we have both characters, Gabriel and Judith, “knit together.” And it was important to Klemm to add a thriller element to the film, to keep people guessing, “It’s not only a film about mourning or overcoming this type of horrible situation, but also a film that will keep you at the edge of your seats.”
Though the film was based on a real life tragic situation, Klemm brings an element of hope and fantasy into the film. Early in the film, the character Milla keeps talking about this bird, a heron, that keeps visiting her at night. Judith dismisses the heron as a dream. After the tragedy, the heron represents Milla and her spirit. “When you get to the end, and the heron visits Judith, it’s little bit like Milla coming back, like a metaphor,” said Klemm. “Judith can have Milla come back through this heron, let go, and move on in some way.”
Closing the interview, I asked Klemm about her advice for emerging female filmmakers. “One of the most important things is not to give up,” she said, “along with the importance of breathing, making small breaths.” She also encouraged emerging filmmakers to try new things, and to not feel like you have to wait for money in order for your vision to be realized on screen.
This is a time when we all need a Mama Gloria in our lives. Gloria Allen, also known as “Mama Gloria”, is a 70-something transgender woman who’s paved and is paving the way for the younger trans generation. Her story links to a history that has been forgotten, connecting to the trans community that was out and proud in the 1940s and 1950s on Chicago’s South Side. Gloria’s story was brought to the attention of journalist and filmmaker Luchina Fisher through an article shared by a friend about a charm school that Gloria had started in the Center on Halsted in Chicago. Luchina was struck by Gloria and her story by learning that she had a mother and grandmother who supported her transition, which preceded Stonewall. The fact that Luchina has a daughter who identifies herself as transgender made Gloria’s story resonate on an even deeper level.
I was honored to speak with Luchina during the Chicago International Film Festival about her directorial debut centering on the story of Gloria Allen, the impact Gloria is making for the younger trans community, and how her journey demonstrates the importance of being seen and heard onscreen. Gloria’s story is timely in light of this year, which had the highest reported number of trans people being murdered. 2020 has been a dark year. Gloria’s story brings a little light into this darkness, and we’re grateful that through watching “Mama Gloria,” we can be in the presence of her light. I leave you with Gloria’s words, “I’m a good person. I am a trans person. And I have a beautiful spirit.”
Visit the film’s site to keep up to date about upcoming screenings and releases.
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?
LUCHINA FISHER: It started with my dear friend E. Patrick Johnson, who is the Dean of the School of Communications at Northwestern. He has a film that is out right now called “Making Sweet Tea” about Black gay men in the south. Patrick reached out to me with this very interesting text that said, “I’ve found your next project.” I was intrigued immediately. And then he sent me a Chicago Tribune story about Gloria and her charm school. I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is incredible.’ What particularly struck me was that she had the support from her mother and grandmother, knowing that she grew up in the ’40s and the ’50s, and she transitioned before Stonewall. I thought that was amazing.
It was especially striking for me because I am the mother of a daughter who identifies as transgender. My daughter Gia was fifteen at the time, and she and I were on our way to Chicago because Gia is a Champion. She is the member of The GenderCool Project, which is Chicago-based. It’s a non-profit storytelling campaign that talks about who transgender people are, not what they are. It is a fabulous organization, and we were one of the first families to be a part of it. That was our big trip to Chicago for Coming Out Day. It was two years ago around this time and we headed there to have Gia speak. She spoke at three companies, Citibank, Conagra, and All State along with other Champions to tell their stories.
I got word to Gloria that I would be in Chicago that weekend, and asked if it was possible to try and meet her. As it turned out, we were going to visit the Center on Halsted, and Gloria’s residence is literally on the same block in the senior building, the Town Hall apartments. It was totally serendipity that our universes aligned. I believe that it was just meant to be. We had an instant connection. After that initial meeting, I felt like Gloria was going to be in our life. I think she felt the same way. She has so many kids that she’s adopted. I count myself among them, although she sometimes calls me her lovely younger sister. [laughs]
A month later I was back filming in Chicago, and Gloria just opened her life up to me. Because of her openness, I feel the film feels so honest and real. She didn’t hold anything back.
MARTIN: The history you piece together around Mama Gloria’s story is fascinating to me, with the Drag Balls, and the trans community in the ‘40s and ‘50s. That part of history, or at least Chicago history, I’ve never seen before, or even knew it existed. How was it digging deep like that?
FISHER: I knew that Gloria had lived this particular history, and I knew that she was probably the best person to tell her history. We see that she is an amazing storyteller. I really wanted to put her front and center, and almost make it feel like we, the viewers, the audience, were in her charm school. Because that is how she related often to her kids by sharing her life and her stories. And she listened to them as well.
I thought it’s so important for people to know Gloria’s story. I was just thinking about my daughter being one of the most important audiences. I wanted Gia to know that there were people before her who identified as trans or queer or unusual, and were open about it, and lived openly. I wanted her to know that history.
When I lived in Chicago I don’t think I knew about the balls, because the ball scene had kind of gone away by the 80s. These balls are what you may think of as the same scene that Pose shows, the New York scene that grew out of Harlem, or from the 1990 film “Paris is Burning”. But Chicago was doing things well before.
MARTIN: I had no idea.
FISHER: Chicago has a long history of these clubs on the South Side where there were female impersonators. That’s how they identified themselves then. A number of them probably were trans or would have identified that way if given the chance. And some do tell their stories later. You can find those stories in the archives in the Chicago libraries.
When I started digging about the balls in Chicago, I was just like, ‘I need to find this information and I need to find these images.’ There’s this one website online called OutHistory. The site has really sought out to preserve some of this history in the US from Black LGBTQ communities in particular. They did have a section on Bronzeville, so I knew there were images. I just didn’t know how to find them.
So I was digging and digging, tracking people who had posted in this OutHistory site. Ultimately I struck gold. I forget what led me to the Chicago Public Library, but it’s the location on the South Side, the Woodson library. I struck gold when I visited The Vivian Harsh collection at the Woodson library.
I just happened to get the right researcher on the phone, and they said, “we do have something like what you’re looking for here. And it’s not listed under LGBTQ, and not listed under trans.” They said, “I think it’s listed under “Finnie’s Ball”, which dates back to the ‘30s.”
They had images that were taken by a photographer who worked for the Chicago Defender, Tony Rhoden. When I got into that library, opened these folders and started looking through these photos, I was just ready to scream. It was like finding treasure. It was so exciting to see, just in black and white, and in sepia. They were beautiful images of people in their wonderful ball gowns, posing, smiling, and being very proud. There was just this sense of being out and open which is amazing because we often think of that period being a closeted time.
And the fact that the Black press were covering those balls is amazing, and were covering those clubs, and those night club fares. Petite Swanson recorded a song about all of this. And I wanted that song. I want people to hear those folks, to see them, and see that they existed. That is part of my daughter’s history, part of the South Side history, part of the Black trans and the LGBTQ community history, and it’s part of American history. I just felt that was very important to be able to show it so people can believe it. Because if you see it, you can believe it. I was so grateful that was preserved.
MARTIN: How special for Mama Gloria to see those pictures, and to have her history represented.
FISHER: It was so special. When she looked at the photos, she was like “everyone was so beautiful.” It was especially special for her to see pictures of her mother. She had not seen those outtakes of her mother posing for Jet when she did her centerfold picture in 1958. She was just blown away by that. Her mother was just gorgeous. Gloria said that she was the “Black Marilyn Monroe”, and she really was, just gorgeous.
You could see that maybe in another time Gloria’s mother could have had a dancing and an acting career. She did classes with the Katherine Dunham dance company and another company on the South Side of Chicago. Her mother was also in beauty pageants, and I looked through archives, something like “Miss Black America”. I found some images of her pageant in Philadelphia. All of those things Gloria treasured, and she was so grateful.
MARTIN: We touched a little on this in the beginning, but I’d like to talk more about the impact that Mama Gloria has on the younger trans community.
FISHER: Like you said earlier, Mama Gloria has this grandmotherly presence. Young people just take to her. They just do. That was apparent to me from the moment I met her and when she sat down and talked to our young people with the GenderCool project. It’s that way every time she enters the room with young folks, and it’s so beautiful. I think that’s what we need, we need that kind of cross-generation conversation. And that’s certainly what I hope will continue to take place with the film.
For young people who are just now starting to discover her story as we launch the film, the response on social media has been incredible. A lot of it is driven by young folks who are like, ‘wow, thank you Mama Gloria’. Some of them are trying to push for her to get a cameo on Pose.
MARTIN: That would be amazing!
FISHER: Now there are these beautiful and amazing “out” actors and young folks. But she’s the one that really paved the way for them. Ultimately her message to them is that you can grow old too. To feel that you have a future.
Too often right now, Black trans women especially are aware of how they are under attack and how likely they are to be discriminated against. They have higher suicide rates. They have higher homicide rates. This year particularly we have surpassed the worst year for homicides. The Human Rights campaign started keeping track of transgender killings, and it’s already been the deadliest year. There is this belief within the Black transgender community, especially Black Trans women, that they will not live past 40. And it’s terrifying how this belief is so strong. It’s a shadow hanging over our community. Even my daughter is aware of it. And that troubles me.
So I really wanted Gloria to speak to that generation, and say that you can have a long and meaningful life. It does start with support, honestly. Support is crucial. If anything, I hope the parents and other family members will see how important it is to support our trans family members. That support starts at home. Because that’s the support I believe carried Gloria through her life. It’s what she is giving to her “chosen” children. Some of them are not getting that from home. Support is very important. And it’s not just that you have a long life, but you deserve to have a long life, you deserve to be here. As Gloria said, “I’m a good person. I am a trans person. And I have a beautiful spirit.” I feel that is the ultimate message that she leaves with the audience to remember.
MARTIN: Looking at the organizations that have supported the film, it’s impressive! Can you talk about groups that have stood behind this film?
FISHER: Absolutely. A film does not get made by one person. It’s such a team endeavor. And I’m very grateful. Originally I wanted to start out very small, very intimate. I thought it was just going to be a short. But as Stephen [Stephen J. Lewis, Director of Photography] and I were filming it, it became apparent that the story was so huge. Stephen kept saying to me, “I don’t know how you’re going to cut this film down.”
One of the first things I did was put together a little sizzle reel and I sent it to Yvonne Welbon, who is one of the producers. She made this film called “Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @100”, about a Black lesbian she interviewed in her late nineties. Yvonne also took this very long historical approach to telling Ruth Ellis’ life. So I knew she would get Gloria, and she did. She has this organization called Sisters in Cinema, which is Chicago-based. Yvonne told me, “We’re about to do an inaugural documentary fellowship, and I’d like to have you apply for that.” I was delighted to be chosen as a documentary fellow.
MARTIN: That’s amazing.
FISHER: That was really the first support. It was so important. Always outside of the industry, you have to find those ways to get people within the industry into what you’re doing. She got me that attention. She also got me my editor, Caroline Berler, who directed and edited the film, “Dykes, Camera, Action!” (2018). Caroline was looking for a film to edit to get to that next level. She also got Gloria. She saw her in the same light that she saw her own Grandmother. So she came aboard.
From there getting into the Athena Film Festival, Works in Progress Program, was probably when things started to really take off. Early on I did have some interest from a major studio. They ultimately passed and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what do I do? How do I re-work the film?’
But sometimes you just need to sit and let things simmer. And that was hard for me. I’ve done television documentaries, and those projects get done in three months. I’m used to doing things on a deadline. And sometimes in independent film you just have to give it time to work its way out. So getting into Athena in March was when things really started to snowball. I pitched the film as part of the works in progress program to a room of potential funders and people within the industry. Black Public Media happened to be there. I had already been in touch with them. But now we were meeting in person, just before everything shut down.
It was perfect timing, and they were like, “I really want to encourage you to apply for some funding.” And they gave me the first major support. And that gave us the permission to say, “now we can finish this film. We know what to do.”
Around the time I was editing the film came the reckoning with the protests and outcry around George Floyd. People were reaching out from the industry and offering to help. One of those people is Isidore Bethel, who is an experienced editor. He offered to take a look at the cut and really gave us some feedback. That was so helpful and again got us to that next level. Suddenly all of the pieces came into place.
We’ve also had support from Women Make Movies as a fiscal sponsor from the beginning. They’ve also given great feedback on the film. It’s really just been a wonderful process. We’re still getting some support coming on board.
What’s wonderful about Black Public Media is that it has enabled the film to make its broadcast debut on PBS next year.
FISHER: Thank you, yeah for me that was a goal. I really wanted the film to be available to the trans community. I knew that for a lot of folks, streaming could be expensive, and out of reach. Public television is accessible to everyone. I really want this film to be seen, first and foremost.
MARTIN: Anything else?
FISHER: One more thing I wanted to add. I’m pushing for our original song, “Presence of a Legend,” sung by Shea Diamond, to be considered for the Oscars. Shea wrote the song with Justin Tranter.
It is difficult for me to write an introduction for this piece, not because of the amazing interview I had with Maya Zinshtein about her documentary “‘Til Kingdom Come’, but how I’m having to grapple with some of the sad truths that my religious background paved for me, and how these shared “truths” have given America a complicated and misguided relationship with Israel. Growing up in the Evangelical Christian world of the 700 Club, Pat Robertson and the Left Behind book series, I was taught that our relationship with Israel, as Christians, was very important to our story. Some Evangelical Christians who take the Bible as literal believe that Israel is the last hope to our end of days, which is pulled out of Revelation. So much money is being directed to Israel based on this belief, and what from the outside can be seen as a positive form of unity and love, reveals itself–once you dig a little deeper–to be a misguided political agenda that is being pushed by our current president. Now we are seeing some scary realities come to fruition that have influenced a deeper divide between Israel and Palestine.
With all of this money going towards Israel, Maya Zinshtein started with the question, “why?” “Why do these Evangelical Christians ‘love’ us so much?” As she dug deeper, it brought her to the organization , International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and one of their largest donors, the Binghamtown Baptist Church in Middlesboro, Kentucky. Maya likened her experience of making this doc to making a layered cake. She wants her documentary to be what you see when you cut the cake. As we discussed these layers, I asked her what she hopes the viewer will take from this film, and her response was powerful: “I just want the Evangelical Christian community in the US to watch the film and think about it. There are people here who are just living and they want to live in peace between Israelis and Palestinians. These people in Washington are advocating for something so big that has a huge influence on our future in Israel. They need to see beyond this ancient book. That’s really my dream.”
“‘Til Kingdom Come” is now playing virtually at the Chicago International Film Festival until 10/25. Learn more.
REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?
MAYA ZINSHTEIN: I’m an Israeli, and I’m also a filmmaker and a journalist. I had been asked to look into some other project that Christian Evangelicals were just a part of it. I think many Israelis, and of course myself, are involved with the politics in Israel. This is what interests me. When I came across this phenomena of Evangelical Christians’ involvement in Israel, I started to look into it. The more I looked into it, I wanted to know more. I wanted to know more about what was actually happening. This was in July 2017, and Trump was already the president. But that was before everything happened later that was shown in the film. Back then, it was very clear to me that there was this huge influence happening, and it’s happening totally underneath the surface.
As a journalist, and I’m sure you’ll understand what I’m talking about, you become slightly obsessive in the beginning about your subject. You’re just reading, reading, and reading. After a month of reading through the nights, I realized I was fascinated by the subject, and it’s fascinating to explore. I started from this big subject, with the Christian Evangelical involvement in Israel, and I started to look at what story I should tell.
I started to reach out to all the different organizations based here in Israel that were involved with Evangelical Christians. It was funny because one of the heads of these organizations told me, “Listen, if you’re patient, by the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020, you may see Trump recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”, and then it all happened in half a year. People who were so deeply involved in this process didn’t understand that Trump was really into it, and that he was going to make the announcement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
This person at some point told me, after the announcement of the US Embassy moving to Jerusalem, after all of these gifts started coming in–because there were much more gifts–he told me, “Listen, if things keep going in this direction I can just quit my job and move to the Bahamas, because everything we’ve dreamed of, and pushed for for so many years, they’re just giving it to us.”
It started with that, on a political level. It was clear to me that the way that I like to tell stories is like making a layered cake. When you cut it, you see all the layers. I wanted to start with these people that are Evangelical and very faith-driven. I heard about these churches all across the US that raise the Israeli flag and kids praying for Jerusalem before they are going to sleep. You need to understand for us, this is like, “what and why?”
MARTIN: I love how you put it in your director’s statement how you are exploring this “love” between Evangelical Christians and the Jewish people in Jerusalem and Israel. This love is obviously flawed, and you’ve touched on that with what is seen and what is layered beneath. There is that “Elephant in the Room” in terms of what that really means. Can you comment more on that?
ZINSHTEIN: When I was doing my research, the word “love” would keep popping up. “Love” is a specific sentiment based on when you have emotions towards someone that you know, and this idea that someone loves me so deeply without knowing me, not personally of course, but as an idea, I found this “idea” fascinating. Like what does it mean, this “love”? If you keep saying you love me, and not me specifically, but the Jewish people in Israel, what does that mean?
MARTIN: Yeah let’s get into the specifics of why you “love” me.
ZINSHTEIN: That’s why I think it’s so interesting. At the beginning I met this really nice Evangelical guy and at some point he was honest enough and said, “Listen, you need to understand, they don’t ‘love’ you, they love Jesus. You are the way to Jesus. You are the key, we just can’t make it without you. We have to have you within our story because you’re a part of it.” And that was helpful and answered for me the question I kept asking, “why do you love me?” Once I understood that, it was a breakthrough for me. You have to understand that it’s not about us, the Jewish people in Israel, that’s the thing. And if it’s not about us, what is the problem?
Many Israelis here are happy with cooperating with the US Evangelical Christians. They’re thinking is, “finally somebody loves us, thank god, let’s take it.” For Israelis, it’s a very emotional thing. The Jews in Israel within the last years of the occupation are raised in the state of mind that the world is against us, and everyone hates us. It’s almost like the psychology of this Jewish nation is that everyone hates us. So when finally somebody “loves” us, “we” take it.
MARTIN: How did Pastor Boyd Bingham and Yael Eckstein become the main subjects of this documentary?
ZINSHTEIN: Once I finished mapping this world between the Evangelical Christians and the Jews, I met Rabbi Eckstein, who passed away, and we started to learn more about the fellowship [International Fellowship of Christians and Jews]. I asked them who are your biggest donors?
To my surprise, their biggest donor was this church in this very tiny town in the US. Usually the fellowship gets donations from private people, usually dollar to dollar donations from across the country. They don’t really get involvement from churches. The people from that church came to Israel, and I asked, “can you make an introduction?” We called and met them, and I asked “can we join you for your trip in Israel for a couple days?” So we stayed with them for the whole trip. It was really a journey. We were fascinated by this group that we met, and then we said we’ll come with them to Kentucky. And they said, “yeah right, you’ll never come”, and two months later I landed there with my team. I remember the moment when I arrived in Middlesboro, and I saw this huge Israeli flag in front of the church. Then I saw the Star of David on the cross and I was like, “whoa”.
It was a journey. First we thought we should focus on Rabbi Eckstein more because he is the guy who actually started all of this, but then it was very clear that there was this generational comparison that we can make with Yael and Boyd taking their fathers’ missions forward. For me, actually with all of these stories, there is this line of indoctrination or how this idea (Evangelical Christians in the US supporting Jewish people in Israel) is passing on generation to generation. For me, creating this comparison of the pastor’s son and the rabbi’s daughter and the ideas of their families and their parents added another layer. And as you know, I like layers.
I think Boyd is a very smart guy. He knows how to articulate his thoughts. In some way, I think that he can represent himself, but also represent a broader idea. In the beginning it wasn’t easy because how strange it was for me to be in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and also strange for Middlesboro, Kentucky to have me there.
MARTIN: Yael is fascinating to me. She seems so intelligent. Something she said in the film that stayed with me is that, “My dreams are nothing like what I dreamt them to be”. If she didn’t have her father’s legacy to live up to, I feel she would have chosen a more independent path. She seems to see through “the charade” or “the elephant in the room” regarding their relationship with the Evangelical Christians but she keeps moving on and following her father’s footsteps. What was it like working with her for this film?
ZINSHTEIN: You create a relationship, you know? We’ve been filming her for a long time. She knew my work and she understood that I was not making an infomercial for the fellowship. She asked me one question, “How do you want me to feel after I watch the film?” I told her, “Yael, I want you to feel that I saw you.” Her response to the film was positive. She texted me after she watched it and she said it’s fair and it’s smart.
In regards to Yael following in her father’s footsteps, once you’re on the train that’s going, it’s difficult to jump from it. I know she feels a huge obligation, and an emotional obligation to her father. She wants to continue his mission. That was everything in his life. To come onto this path that someone made for you, and you want to play differently, there are not many people doing that. Of course, you’d love for your subjects to see the light, but that’s what happens in Hollywood movies, not necessarily documentaries. This is real life, you know? And she is a very intelligent woman. I think her goal is to succeed.
You know, I’m an immigrant. My roots have been cut, and I needed to start from scratch. If I had stayed in Russia, I would have probably been a third generation of something, and I’m glad I’m not. But this idea of what it’s like to have a legacy on your back, like do you have free will, was interesting for me to explore. And of course she has free will. She can do whatever she wants, but maybe she doesn’t want to.
MARTIN: What do you hope the viewer will take most from your documentary?
ZINSHTEIN: I think it depends on who is the viewer. My dream is that many Evangelical Christians will watch this film. I think a lot of their “love” is loving this ancient book. But we have a reality here in this country.
I’ll answer your question with a story. We were in a Christian Israeli summit, and I had a conversation with a few young members. I spoke with them after I saw them advocating for cutting the support for the Palestinian refugees, alongside the fact that these people need help. The Israeli community sees this advocacy as very dangerous. The Israeli security community really doesn’t want this. I told them, “Listen, my brother is in the reserve special forces. He will go on to fight the next war. Why do you think you can have an influence on my next war?” When you speak with some Americans, they will tell you Russians have a heavy influence on the United States government. My belief is that every single country has the right to decide on their own future. So I say to them, “You’re sitting there in Washington and you think you can influence my future. You’re not going to fight this war, my brother will.” And he just looked at me and said, “I never thought about it.”
That was a moment for me. I just want the Evangelical Christian community in the US to watch the film and think about it. There are people here who are just living and they want to live in peace between Israelis and Palestinians. These people in Washington are advocating for something so big that has a huge influence on our future in Israel. They need to see beyond this ancient book. That’s really my dream.
Also, there is a Jewish community that is a huge audience for this film. I feel they are dealing internally with so many questions about Israelis making Christian Evangelicals their best friends. And I know there is a huge conversation going on in the American Jewish community about this too. They’re thinking, ‘Should we cooperate with that, and how should we respond to that?’ I see my job as highlighting the dark side of the room. I want to highlight this dark side, and hand it over, and say “Here, think about it.”
MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?
ZINSHTEIN: Find your allies. One of the producers of this film, who was also the DoP [Abraham (Abie) Troen] has been a great ally. I’m specifically using this word because if you want to start a project that doesn’t have any funding, you need to find someone as crazy as you, and as bold as you to discover with you, like in Middlesboro, Kentucky. It’s my second time learning this lesson [“‘Til Kingdom Come” is Maya Zishtein’s second directorial effort as a documentarian, following her debut, “Forever Pure” (2016)], that’s really the key. And then you need to build your team, and have the best team that you can have. Finding these allies to be running with you, that’s something that is really crucial. You can’t make films alone.
Greta Fernández delivers a powerhouse performance in Belén Funes’ “A Thief’s Daughter”. Her character Sara takes us through so many pieces of her life. While we follow her, we are exhausted, but we choose to stick around for the ride because we fall in love with her character. This film from Spain is a unique and important gem that I hope will be seen on screens all over the world, including the United States. I had the opportunity and pleasure of speaking with Fernández at the Chicago International Film Festival back in October for their US premiere. Like her character, Fernández is a strong and powerful woman. I’m very excited to to share our conversation below.
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought to you to this project?
GRETA FERNÁNDEZ: I did a short film with Belén, long ago. I think it was two years before we did the film, and I auditioned for the short film. She said, “I don’t really have a part for you in the short film, but I’m going to write a character for you.”
The character was really really small, but we just got to know each other a little bit more during that time. A year after the film, she reached out to me saying she had this script she had been working on for five years, and she’d love for me to play the main character.
And I was like, ‘Wow, this is the first time anyone has given me a part without asking me to audition.’
MARTIN: So she wrote the film with you in mind for the part?
FERNÁNDEZ: Yes. I read the script and was like, ‘This is an amazing opportunity for me,’ so I said yes to the part. Then I thought of my father [Eduard Fernández] to play my father, because my father is one of the best actors in Spain. So I asked her, ‘What if my father plays my father?’ She thought it was a great idea and my father accepted the part.
MARTIN: Can you talk to me about how you put your energy into the main character Sara? She’s so intense, in a good way. Like go, go, go for the whole film until we reach the end.
FERNÁNDEZ: I think that was something Belén had really sought for in the character. She really wanted to have the audience feel exhausted–to have you and the film feel exhausted. It was really important that we had lots of locations for example, to feel that she doesn’t stop at all.
MARTIN: How was it for you to be a part of that, being an exhausted character?
FERNÁNDEZ: I didn’t know it was going to be that exhausting. I read the script and I was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be really heavy to play.’ But it was a lot easier to play than I thought because Belén is a really great director. We were rehearsing all the scenes for five months, and I understood what Belén was trying to convey through the character, how Sara had to be. Sara is so different than I am. We are totally different people, but–
MARTIN: You sometimes need to take a break sometimes?
FERNÁNDEZ: Not in that way, because you always find things in common with the character. I think I’m a powerful woman too, as Sara is, just in different ways. It was very exciting to play a character that has lived so many different lives that I hadn’t.
MARTIN: Throughout the film I could see a constant theme of the idea of “home.” It seems to me a lot of the anxiety and strain she has in her life is because she is looking for that place she can call home. Could you share your thoughts about this idea of “home” for Sara?
FERNÁNDEZ: That’s why Sara has a baby. That’s why these girls have this kind of life. They have children, but they don’t have any kind of attachment to them because they don’t know how to love them, because no one has taught them how to love their babies. I think she had a baby because she wanted family, between her, the baby and the father Dani. She is able to take care of the baby, keep it clean, give it food, but to love the baby is something else. Her parents never loved her.
MARTIN: Can you share more with me about your process of working with Belén? Cinema Femme is a platform for women in film to share their stories and to inspire emerging filmmakers.
FERNÁNDEZ: Somebody asked me yesterday, ‘What do you think happened to the mother of the film?” And I think it’s best not knowing all the answers. That’s the best thing about the film, it leaves you with a lot of questions.
But me, I needed to know. In the beginning, Belén explained to me about the film. I was writing everything, like where Sara had lived, where she was born, what happened to her father. It was important for me to understand where Sara came from, and how that got her to the end of the film.
That was the first step. My job was to listen to Belén closely about what she wanted for the character. She probably wanted me for this part because we connect well as actor to director. My way of acting is always really realistic, kind of like documentary-type of acting.
MARTIN: When you say “documentary” type of acting, what does that look like?
FERNÁNDEZ: I would say it’s like when you’re watching a character, the actor, you feel like it’s real life, it reflects real life. The way of shooting is in some way like a journey. It’s not like cinema, it’s like following someone during their daily life.
MARTIN: Yes, we follow Sara to so many different places–one minute she’s cooking, then she’s bathing her baby, then she’s hosting a party…
FERNÁNDEZ: She never stops. That’s why when she stops at the end of the film, it’s so meaningful.
MARTIN: Who was the cinematographer?
FERNÁNDEZ: Neus Ollé, she’s a good friend to Belén and is amazing. We knew each other from another movie, but my part was very small in that film. So it was great to work with her more on this film. She was really generous with me, because I didn’t have to be aware of the camera most of the time. She was like, “you do your thing.”
MARTIN: She did a great job capturing you and your character.
FERNÁNDEZ: Doing this movie, there were moments we wish we had more time. There were a lot of people, and it was stressful. I remember there were a lot of times where she was like, “I’m here, I will do whatever you need to support you in the scene.”
MARTIN: What are your thoughts about women in film, representation on screen?
FERNÁNDEZ: I think it’s really hard to find really interesting female characters. Until now, all the characters I’ve been doing through auditions, or the ones that are sent to me, are not really rich, they are one-note. I don’t mind playing that kind of character, but…
MARTIN: You want a fully dimensional character. Sara has so many different facets to her, and that’s why this film stands out so much. Sara is representing such a unique person, an individual character that not many people see onscreen. I can’t really grasp what that is, I just know that I’m hooked with your character. I want to follow her and see where she is going. Like, yes, ‘she might be a chef, that’s so exciting.’
FERNÁNDEZ: I think there was really something important about this character, and I knew that I had to make her magnetic. I needed the public to be with me and to love me. It wasn’t that hard, I have to say, because the script is amazing.
MARTIN: There was another writer on the script with Belén, right?
FERNÁNDEZ: Yes, it’s Marçal Cebrian, her boyfriend. He is great. They are a family together, I love them.
It wasn’t hard to play what they had in mind. I just had to understand what they needed from the character.
MARTIN: This is Belén’s first feature, right?
FERNÁNDEZ: It is.
MARTIN: I can see you being her muse in future projects.
FERNÁNDEZ: I hope, I tell her, ‘I want to do all the movies with you.’
MARTIN: Yeah, you’re the Dunst to her Coppola.
FERNÁNDEZ: I hope I can work with her forever. She’s now working on a film with someone else, because the character has to be really young. But I hope she writes more movies for me.
MARTIN: Can you share more with me about your festival run?
FERNÁNDEZ: This is our only stop in the United States.
MARTIN: Really?! That makes me sad.
FERNÁNDEZ: But we’ve been going to festivals all over Europe. Recently we were at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, where I won the Silver Shell for Best Actress there for my character Sara.
FERNÁNDEZ: And we went to a festival in London.
MARTIN: This is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen. It’s such an emotional and important film.
FERNÁNDEZ: I hope it will be able to be seen all over the world. The response of this film is amazing. It was really important for me to play this character.
When I turned thirty everything changed for me. My boyfriend of three years was not ready to make the kind of commitment I desired and was definitely not ready to help make me a mother. My body told me, “It’s time, you are ready for motherhood,” and my circumstances were telling me, “No it’s not time to be a mother.” What was so strange was that I had no desire to be a mother until that age. Then I was like, “Oh, this is the biological clock thing.” But this clock was almost like a wake up call, like it’s time to end your twenty something mentality that I was going to live forever, and there was no rush into commitment, adulthood and motherhood.
So I broke up with my boyfriend, I got my own apartment, and I left my life open for commitment. Then a year later, boyfriendless, I no longer had that desire to be a mother, and I was okay having that open space. When I spoke with Maura Delpero at the Chicago International Film Festival about her film “Maternal” (“Hogar” is the spanish title) we talked about this weird moment when women feel like it’s time to be a mother. We also discussed all the complexities and contradictions that motherhood represents. I love that Maura made this film, and I think it should be required viewing for all women whose biological clocks are ticking.
“Maternal” takes us through Sister Paola’s journey, a young nun coming from Italy to Argentina to take her vows at a convent that is a home for unwed teenage mothers, called a hogar. Her interactions with the girls, specifically Lu and Fatima, lead to her discovering her longing for having her own children. “Maternal” is currently in the festival circuit, US release to be announced.
REBECCA MARTIN: Can you start by sharing your process of creating “Maternal.”
MAURA DELPERO: It was very, very long. In the beginning, it started with my personal questions about maternity, which gave me contradictory feelings, with doubts, troubles and fears. Then I did a lot of interviews with women, mothers and pregnant women. And I realized it was not just personal, it was universal. There are many women who feel contradictory about this revolutionary event. We were like, ‘Okay, let’s go deep into it. We always talk about maternity, and the idea that everyone who has children is happy. It’s right of passage, but it’s not like that.’
MARTIN: No, it’s not.
DELPERO: I think overall in today’s society, women fear to confess their maternal troubles, because of the expectation that they are always to be happy. I was attracted to those maternities that were not easy in itself. I’m a high school teacher, in my class I had a teenager, and I noticed she was pregnant. I thought, “what is happening to her?” Being a teenager is very intense, especially when becoming a mother. And so I live between Argentina and Italy, and through my research, I found there are a lot of centers for teenage mothers called hogars. I was fascinated that there were centers where they all lived together, and I asked to work in these places. I gave cinema workshops for the teen moms.
MARTIN: So you taught film, that’s great!
DELPERO: Yes, cinema workshops. It was a beautiful experience doing this with the young mothers because it was a moment of entertainment. Because being a mother, it’s so-
MARTIN: Time consuming.
DELPERO: Yes. Being a mother is very demanding, and doing the workshop gave them a moment to be just teenagers.
MARTIN: That’s great.
DELPERO: And it was my excuse to be there and to absorb their world. So I took a lot of notes, and then I wrote the script, which is completely fictional, but it was really absorbing the world that I was serving and feeling. It’s interesting because the characters are completely invented, but I was in charge of casting and I chose Lu/Luciana (Agustina Malale), the blonde one. She completely found herself in this role.
I worked in several hogars, and it was there where the film turned itself around. There I saw a young nun hugging a little baby. My gaze was captivated on this image, and I thought, ‘Is something happening to her?’ And then I realized something was happening to her. So in a way, in my writing, I was being led by this image of this nun hugging this baby.
MARTIN: I love that.
DELPERO: In the beginning, I thought the only contradiction was teenage motherhood. Then I understood that the big contradiction was this nun who had the desire for motherhood.
MARTIN: Sister Paola (Lidiya Liberman), what an amazing performance. I also loved Fatima (Denise Carrizo), she was such a sweet character, and her friendship with Luciana was just really interesting to me. I saw myself in the Fatima character.
DELPERO: Me as well.
MARTIN: Because I’ve had friends like that, where I love them, and they are so much fun, yet I feel so different from them, but I always want to be with them and want to support them. I really appreciate that relationship. I thought that was great. Especially because they are doing it together, the motherhood thing.
DELPERO: It’s interesting what you said because it really confirms that the relationship translated. It was inspired by one of my friendships growing up. I think it’s archetypical in a way, teenager friendships, but it’s also like love. Looking at the other one, it’s somewhat complimentary. But they are so opposite. They love and they hate one another, and in their particular case, they also are the only family they have. They are the only ones that know what it’s like to be a teenage mother. Outside of the hogar walls, they do not have the emotional support. They don’t have parents or family to go to, which make their strong teenage friendship is even stronger.
It’s also the reason why they cannot be free from one another. Fatima, in a way, suffers from Lu’s personality. But in the end, she frees herself. The one that could not really help her was the young sister who gives her more trust. She can accept a little more, because this sister changes her way of seeing her own maternity, from negative to positive. This is confirmed by this child she has, who is the only male figure in the film.
MARTIN: Yeah, I wanted to talk about that, there are practically no men in the film, and I appreciated that with the subject matter.
DELPERO: The film is completely inspired by these teenage women, and having so many women shown onscreen was important to me, because of the subject. There are so many films where there are barely any women.
MARTIN: It’s so beautiful. One of my favorite scenes was when they have the dance party. I love that because they’re like, “We’re going to keep the nuns out,” and they hold the door closed with a chair. They’re like, “We want to be free and be teenagers again.” That was a very freeing scene.
I wanted to talk about the little girl, Nina. Where did you find her? She just lights up the screen.
DELPERO: Working with Nina [Isabella Cilia] was such a critical process, because no one wanted me to choose her for the role. She was four years old. And they’re right to be worried, she was very young. Being four, she does what she wants. They were like, “We already have a difficult set, we don’t have a lot of time.” They thought an older girl would be easier to work with. But when I met Nina, I fell in love with her. And that was it.
MARTIN: I did too, and you get it why Sister Paola loves her so much. She just has this connection with her, and so do we.
DELPERO: I really needed her, I needed someone who could create a strong connection for Sister Paola, so we could empathize with her, and understand why she is breaking her vows in order to protect this little girl. I thought if I fall in love, others will fall in love, and Sister Paola will fall in love. You can see and believe this. It was a big deal for me as a script writer. I had to step back to understand that things were difficult for her.
MARTIN: I feel Nina was the heart of the film. Was that your intention?
DELPERO: Yes, completely. The set was influenced by her presence. No matter what the interests were of the professional actors, the child came first. In a way it was difficult because we had to build the sets around her. But I did it for her.
MARTIN: I was curious about your connection with religion, because you kind of touched on it in the beginning of our interview, in regards to the nun holding the baby, and the contradiction and the complexity of that. It’s always interesting to me about how religion looks at motherhood with having children or abortion. I felt the nuns were understanding of the mothers, but there was like this invisible wall between them. Sister Paola seemed to be the only one who could connect on a human level, you know?
DELPERO: The Reverend Mother, who is very wise, she understands everything. When Sister Paola is going down a wrong path, she doesn’t punish her, she guides her. She tells everyone they will have their votes on what to do with Sister Paola, because it’s their intention to keep her. In a way I feel she knows that this is a big difficulty for a nun, and she tries to do what she can to help her with this new vocation. It’s hard to find younger women becoming nuns these days, like young men taking the vocation as priests. They have to understand the vocation.
All of the nuns I spoke to said it’s a calling, a spiritual calling. They feel it. But to me, it’s a mystery. So I looked for an actor who could embody the mystery for Sister Paola. I think Sister Paola is somebody who can demonstrate unconditional love, more like a relationship with a man or the earth. Very imperfect, but unconditional. With nuns, there is this unconditional love for Christ, but it is not of this earth. In the end, Sister Paola finds that she has an unconditional love for a child.
MARTIN: Well said.
DELPERO: In a way, I always think she goes from Italy to Argentina [where the film takes place] for a honeymoon with her Christ. She finds out that this man she’s marrying is not sharing the feeling she’s feeling. I don’t think she’s even annoyed. It’s like she has a big, big, crush, and this is a theme of the film. It’s a question of how this institution clashes with one’s personal desires by telling nuns that they can’t have any children. This is what I spoke about with a nun who is not a nun anymore.
MARTIN: I thought that was interesting because I feel when you get to a certain age, your biological clock goes off, and you feel the desire to be a mother. That happened to me when I turned 30. I wasn’t going to, but my body was telling me it was time to have children. Now I’m 36, and I don’t feel that way anymore. But it’s fascinating to me that moment when your body is telling you to produce.
DELPERO: I told my team that the nun had to be around thirty because that is when women, most women, feel the need to have children. And here she is surrounded by babies and children.
MARTIN: And Nina-
DELPERO: It’s a biological thing.
MARTIN: Can we talk about that ending, when Sister Paola comes back with Nina and is confronted by Lu when she’s headed to the cab?
DELPERO: It’s strong for Lu and it’s strong for Sister Paola. And when Sister Paola opens the door, there’s a look.
MARTIN: You can just see it.
DELPERO: It’s meant to be happy. The lost sheep has come back. I think it’s a big moment. Earlier in the film, when Lu goes to the window to see Nina, in the kindergarten class, Nina just looks at her without any expression. This destroyed Lu.
MARTIN: Yeah, that was insane.
DELPERO: The emotions overwhelmed her. At that moment, it changed her. Before she was more like a sister to Nina, because she was a child herself. I think then Lu understands what it means to have a child. So when she sees Sister Paola, she’s like a lion.
MARTIN: She’s like a mother lion.
DELPERO: For the first time, we don’t know if Lu’s able to, but she’s willing to fight for her. Like, ‘Okay, I’m the mother, and she’s the child.’ I think Sister Paola, in a way, has this crazy moment as a woman. At that point, she is an anxious woman.
MARTIN: And she realizes it’s not right to take Nina.
DELPERO: It’s at the point when Nina asks about her mother. She says, “where’s mom?’ It’s such a defining moment for her. She could take Nina to Africa or China, but it’s still not her child. In a way it’s her conscious saying she must return Nina to Lu, because she is not my child. I love when Lu and Sister Paola meet again. When you see the two women at the beginning, they seem to come from different planets. Sister Paola is all covered and more reserved. Lu dresses up and she goes out. And at the end the two are similar. Both women have a similar ambition. They follow their desires. Lu follows her boyfriend and Sister Paola fills her love with Nina. So they were similar at the end.
MARTIN: How was that for you? I know this came from a place of passion. What was your initial attraction to the idea of motherhood? Are you a mother as well?
DELPERO: Not now, but maybe down the road. I tackled this idea of maternity because I was not sure how I felt about it, so I worked it through my art. It seemed like everyone who was doing this film was pregnant or became pregnant. One of the actresses’ became pregnant after shooting.
MARTIN: To me, the film felt like a personal piece. I feel art is a great way to work through things. It is therapeutic in a sense, to deal with those things that you can’t quite figure out in your head. You just have to figure it out in a creative way. I respected that.
DELPERO: The film was a metaphor for giving birth. I felt from the beginning that this was something I had to do.
MARTIN: What was something you were trying to leave with people in this film?
DELPERO: I really wanted to have these women who were imperfect, and imperfect mothers. And you always hear, ‘She’s not a good mother’, and ‘She’s a good mother’. I think women feel a lot of pressure about that, and some women don’t have children because they feel this pressure. So it’s like a big question. I wanted to have women who could just be themselves. If you’re a teenager, of course you want to go out and dance. You want to have sex and you want to have fun.
Then society tells you that when you are a mother, now you have to be perfect, and we feel all alone in this. It’s like a depression, where you’re afraid to ask for help. In a way, I was like, ‘Let’s talk about this thing that happens more to women than to men.’ For example, older teenagers are alone because the fathers are not there. How can a teenager of 18 face the responsibility of raising a child? Sometimes the father comes back years later because they say the baby has their name. And they are like, ‘Okay, where were you when I needed you?’
MARTIN: What are your thoughts about the landscape of female filmmakers? Do you see change?
DELPERO: I really hope there will be more female directors, because there are feelings that are not so represented and there will be more variety in stories. Because we have so many stories told by men.
MARTIN: Films like yours I feel are so important to be seen. And for that, I want to thank you for making this film.
DELPERO: You have to believe in society when you’re making a film. There were so many years where women didn’t even have money in their hands. It’s important we see women go out there and doing it, so women have the confidence to pursue filmmaking and their dreams.
MARTIN: Well you’re doing it and thank you.
“Jojo Rabbit,” based on the book Caging Spies by Christine Leunens, pushes the boundaries in satirical storytelling in ways that only director Taika Watiti can do. His bold and daring satire about a little boy whose pretend friend is Hitler hits all the right notes. It makes us not just laugh, but think and even create sympathy for our little friend Jojo, his mom, and more importantly, Elsa, the little girl hiding in the walls of his house. You might even draw a few parallel lines to today’s political unrest.
The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and most recently at the Chicago International Film Festival, it continues to entertain and create quite a controversial buzz. I had a chance to sit down with Thomasin McKenzie who portrays Elsa to discuss her background and her role in this memorable film. (Edited for space and clarity)
PAMELA POWELL: Can you tell me about your role and how you prepared for it?
THOMASIN MCKENZIE: My character Elsa is a young Jewish girl who is hiding away in the walls of the main character Jojo’s house. She’s being hidden by Jojo’s mum played by Scarlett Johansson. In preparation, I read books like The Diary of Anne Frank and I used the internet to find out as much as I possibly could about that time. I also learned about WWII and the Holocaust at school. My main goal arriving in Prague to film was to fill in a lot of the gaps and to understand what the day to day life was like during WWII. I spent a lot of time in the Jewish Quarter in Prague with a historian who was able to walk me through everyday life and I visited different Synagogues and the Jewish Cemetery. I visited Terezin, the Jewish concentration camp just outside Prague, just kind of absorbing the energy, I guess. It was important to be in those places that hold so much history. Also just being in Prague was an education in itself because it was occupied by Germany during WWII. Even Barrandov Studios, where we filmed, was used by Nazis to film Nazi propaganda.
POWELL: That had to be quite impactful, emotionally.
MCKENZIE: It’s a period of our history filled with so many horrors, the things that people believed back then. It makes you feel sick and it’s just so unbelievable that people could be so manipulated and brainwashed by a guy spreading such disgusting ideas and beliefs. It was a very heavy, heavy film, but I think it’s a comedy and it’s a film that finds so much happiness and joy in an otherwise really horrible time.
POWELL: Tell me about having Taika Waititi as a director.
MCKENZIE: It was amazing working with him. He’s got his style and way of approaching things that is very different from any other director I’ve ever worked with. He taught me how to open up and how to look at characters in an unexpected way, which is something I think he’s done in all of his films.
POWELL: What message do you hope viewers will take away?
MCKENZIE: I think there are so many messages in the film people can take away, but I think the main ones are acceptance of people for who they are, what they believe, and where they come from. Also, especially given the current kind of political climate we’re living in right now, it’s a reminder to people of the past, and the atrocities of the past, and a warning to everyone that we can’t let these things be repeated.
I think there are so many messages in the film people can take away, but I think the main ones are acceptance of people for who they are, what they believe, and where they come from.
POWELL: There’s a pivotal scene where your character must present her papers to the Nazi soldiers.
MCKENZIE: That is a very important scene in Elsa’s story because it is kind of the moment where we fully see her strength and how gutsy she is. You have to have a lot of bravery to stand up to people who told so many lies about you and are actually terrified of you. I think that scene definitely helps us to understand Elsa and we also get to see more of how fearful she is as well as how uncertain she is about her future. In what we had seen of her before, she was a lot more confident and she holds so much power throughout the film, so it’s kind of unexpected when we start to see her freak out a little bit.
POWELL: You come from a filmmaking family. How did this impact you in your profession?
MCKENZIE: Acting isn’t what I wanted to do. I was more interested in anything else, really. But it was something that really grew on me. I’m a third generation actress, so just being around my mom and my grandma and also my dad and my siblings, I learned a lot by watching them and being inspired by them. My family’s full of very strong female characters and they inspired me to take control of my life and do what I’m passionate about.
My family’s full of very strong female characters and they inspired me to take control of my life and do what I’m passionate about.