Johanna Pyykkö, Jesse McLean and Diana Vidrascu are all filmmakers who hail from different parts of the world, but one other thing they have in common is that their short films have been selected for the “International Competition” program at this year’s Winterthur International Film Festival.
Tara Karajica caught up with them at the festival and discussed their relationship with filmmaking and the short form, their respective works, women in film and their next projects.
How did you get into filmmaking and what inspires you to make films?
Jesse McLean: I was always drawn to film and television and storytelling, but it took a while to realize that many creative acts like writing, sound, art design, editing, etc. and research could be realized under the umbrella of filmmaking. I had studied painting, but when I first made a short film, something just clicked, and it felt intuitively right. My mother studied film and was making films when I was a small child, so the equipment was around our house and I’m sure it planted a seed of interest at a young age. It was messy and chaotic, but editing allows one to make sense out of it all. I enjoy that.
Diana Vidrascu: Still photography was an early passion, inspired by my mother who would process black & white films at night in our house, where magical things used to happen in chemical tanks under dim lights. In parallel, when I was in high school, I developed an interest for art-house cinema and started studying the work of certain directors I found fascinating, with growing hope of entering the National Film School in Bucharest. I later graduated from this school as a director of photography and have been working in film ever since. After I moved to Paris, I started directing films and approached a more experimental style of filmmaking. Cinematography is still my driving force, but lately I’ve become more engaged in writing my own scripts and finding the means to break the visual language that I so thoroughly applied in more classical fiction projects before.
Johanna Pyykkö: I track my interest in films back to when I saw Lars von Trier’s drama-series Riget/The Kingdom as a ten-year-old. It was imaginative, not at all judgmental, but still talked about power structures and I found the cruel people in the series similar to the cruel children I had met in my young life. I wanted to both use and push my imagination as far as I can, in the most challenging way, and that ended up being making films. For me, film feels like the most complex art form and it motivates me. Being a woman from a Finnish-speaking minority group in Sweden, where I grew up – I now live in Norway –, really made me think about power, injustice and belonging/alienation. When I start to analyze my filmmaking, I feel these are the subjects I try to reflect upon in my films.
Can you talk about your respective short films that are screening at the festival?
J.P.: For me, The Manila Lover is an intimate portrait of a Norwegian working-class man in conflict with both himself and the modern world. The main character, Lars, is in the Philippines and has started dating a Filipino woman, but during the day the film covers, nothing goes according to plan. I feel many films want to tell stories about masculinity, but they often fall into the trap of only focusing on the “violent behaviors” of different masculine identities and forget to gaze at all the vulnerable and intimate sides that every man has. I wanted The Manila Lover to show all the emotional sides of Lars. At the same time, I wanted the film to reflect upon parts of the Philippine society and Filipino women’s lives that we usually don’t cover in European films.
J.M.: I’ve researched and worked with celebrity culture/popular culture in previous projects. For Curious Fantasies, I wanted to use the glut of celebrity perfumes as a subject as they mostly exist to generate income for already wealthy people, which I find grotesque. I really don’t like the idea of celebrity “branding.” I have a genuine interest in the sense of smell, but here I was more inspired by the language used to describe perfumes, from classification and categorization, to the actual names of scents. It’s upsetting that a perfume called “Unforgivable Woman” exists! And absurd! What does “Power” smell like? I doubt it smells like peach blossom or whatever. So, I began with language and went from there. I knew that color and music would factor in, and that there would be a turn from the saturated, overtly sexual world of perfume advertisements to something plainer and more naturalistic. Humor, appropriated media and critique of consumer culture are regular themes in my art practice.
D.V.: Vulcão: O que sonha um lago is my latest experiment in 16mm film, a medium that has accompanied all my personal projects. I felt the need to explore its potential even further than simply illustrating a story, so I developed this as a research project in geology and structural cinema. The premise was to imagine the possibility of a fictional volcano but approach it in a documentary form that I would later confront through visual experiments. Working with film like it had a material body, progressively destroying my negative originals to create special effects in the optical printer, reflected the geological processes that take place in the Azores. A magical touch was added when a Brocken specter appeared during the shoot. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments when a rare optical phenomenon happens and there’s still film in the mag. I will never forget seeing the shadow of the camera projected onto the cloud, my eye in the viewfinder. I just happened to be in the correct trajectory of the light, between the setting sun and the opaque fog, projecting my silhouette on a gigantic natural screen. For a fleeting moment, the camera replaced its subject, becoming part of the picture in an unexpected way. The fog disappeared as if on cue and I knew this was probably the best metaphor for cinema I could ever capture and also the best ending to my film.
How do you see the short form today?
J.M.: I’ve only made short films, so it’s a vital form for me. There is a pervading belief that you start with shorts then graduate to features, but I hope that isn’t the only accepted model. Although it’s still not common for audiences to go to the cineplex to see a collection of shorts outside a festival, the general public is interested in short forms and also extreme long forms due to the effects of streaming video. I think the short form is still going strong.
D.V.: Feature films are statistically getting longer and directors are more interested in making series… while we claim the attention span of our generation has decreased significantly. At the same time, short film seems more established as an object of its own, now more than ever. Maybe because the two categories are no longer competing for the same market and have been better marketed at their audiences, be that in festivals, alternative screening venues or VOD. I strongly believe any story or idea will impose its own rhythm and length and it’s only in the best interest of the filmmaker to remain honest to that pace. Compared to literature, even the most brilliant short stories would be tedious in the long form, while Proust isn’t supposed to be read in a day. But I don’t suppose anybody would withhold from reading short stories or novels alone. Maybe short films are also more indicative of our contemporary dynamics – in any case, I see them as a crystallized form of cinema that can be as magical as a daydream and as brief as a memory you can’t let go of.
J.P.: The short form should be an artistic stepping stone where the filmmaker can explore and deepen their artistic voice. The economic risks are low with shorts and therefore, production companies, producers and financiers should have in their interest to lift new filmmakers in that way. But these days, I see that companies are not willing to take that risk because they sometimes only care about economic growth, meaning features and series and the already established filmmakers. It is necessary to lift new voices in all countries; it is about planning for the future. Short form filmmaking doesn’t have to just be a stepping stone, though – you can make shorts for the rest of your artistic life and today you can find a platform online where your work can be seen by an audience.
What is your opinion on the situation of women in film today?
D.V.: Improving. That’s the first word that comes to mind. Still a long way from what should be ethically and economically correct, but it has definitely picked up the pace. It’s sad to still confront myself with stereotypical images of women in the industry, but I think the patterns of the past will break soon.
J.M.: I think there is a long way to go. Yes, things have improved and right now, there is pressure on industries for new faces, but I would still guess that major media outlets and studios are still stocked with male faces and that male directors are given advantages and opportunities over women and other underrepresented groups. Roles for underrepresented groups have gotten better; there is less tokenism, but the bulk of films are still rife with sexism, homophobia and racism. Improvements have been made, yes, but let’s go much further.
J.P.: It’s gotten better. A lot has been done, but women still don’t get the big budgets and it is problematic. In big budget films, mediocre men are still chosen over highly qualified women, which has been happening for far too long. It has also gotten better after #MeToo. You don’t get sexually harassed as much anymore. You can actually have a better time at festival parties and mingle. Something I thought a lot about in the Nordic countries is the language used when talking or writing about women’s films. I find that here, audiences and film critics don’t talk much about the artistic expression and film form in women’s films. If anything, they mostly focus on the subject matter and the actor’s performances. When I screened The Manila Lover at the Semaine de la Critique in Cannes, the audience and film critics commented on the cinematography, the mise-en-scène, the rhythm, the editing, the sound, the music and so on – but in the Nordic countries, that doesn’t happen often. It feels like too few people in the Nordic countries take time to comment on the form women develop in their films – this leaves us feeling that only men can be the “big auteurs.”
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
J.P.: There are many female filmmakers whose films I truly enjoy seeing like Claire Denis, Jane Campion, Lynne Ramsay and I loved Mati Diop’s new feature Atlantics. It is difficult to say which films are my favorites, though; it is easier to say which films I can’t forget or have seen many times. I just saw Jane Campion’s Sweetie. It felt so forbidden, funny and with such unique turns – I won’t ever forget it! I’ve seen Claire Denis Nénette and Boni several times; it is a big inspiration and has a truly great and complex portrait of masculinity.
D.V.: I’ve always found it difficult to choose one favorite… I’d rather say I was deeply moved by many films, from directors like Lucrecia Martel, Kelly Reichardt, Deborah Stratman, Sally Potter, Holly Fisher, Andrea Arnold or Céline Sciamma… If I were to choose a single film it would be Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles by Chantal Akerman.
J.M.: Favorites are hard for me. I love Agnès Varda and Claire Denis. I’m more in the experimental world of cinema, so folks like Marie Mencken, Gunvor Nelson and Deborah Stratman had a big effect on me. And still do.
What are your next projects?
D.V.: Lately, I’ve been researching my first feature film in a more journalistic way. It’s more challenging than anything I’ve ever approached, so I have a lot of respect and a good dose of fear towards it. I’m currently writing the script and in parallel, I’m continuing my work as a DOP.
J.P.: I’m developing several longer projects, both features and drama-series, and two shorts – with production companies in Norway and Sweden. We also just found out that we got the main funding for one of the features I’m developing, so I’m happy to say that I’m planning on shooting my feature debut next summer. The working title for the film is Ebba & the Lover. It has similarities with The Manila Lover, but with totally different characters and setting.
J.M.: I’m working on an experimental documentary about plants who share domestic spaces with people. And an essay film about industrialists and natural disasters.
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Winterthur International Short Film Festival.