Mariia Ponomarova, Victoria Malinjod, Jessie Ayles, Paula Gustafsson, Monica Mazzitelli, Andrea Sand Gustavson, Shira Kela and Marie Louise Taarnskov are all filmmakers hailing from different parts of the world, but one other thing they have in common is that their short films have been selected for the “SISTER” Competition program at the very first edition of the Reykjavik Feminist Film Festival.
Tara Karajica caught up with them 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?
Mariia Ponomarova: I studied Directing at the Karpenko-Karyi Kyiv National University of Theatre, Film and Television and then did a Master’s in Film at the Netherlands Film Academy. I’m inspired by authentic “little stories” of the people around me. I like to interpret them and imagine how they could spark a contradiction or even a story that I would like to explore. Also, I love to make films that are shifting the perspective on things that I already know in order to discover them from another side through the cinematic approach. It’s great to have the tool of cinema to do that!
Victoria Malinjod: That was really unexpected. I am firstly an actress, which I’ve been doing since I was eleven years old. Basically, I started writing scenes for my own acting showreel five years ago after moving out of Paris. I then did the same for my friends and I put a team together to shoot. Step by step, I started directing my own stuff as material for my showreel. I finally wrote my first short film as a director, which is Don’t Burst My Bubble. My own life experiences and the society we live in is what inspire me the most. There are so many stories out there! I believe we can make a change by making movies and live in a better place.
Jessie Ayles: I’ve always been a huge cinephile! I followed this passion and studied Film and Literature at University. I gradually became more interested in films that explored the relationship between reality and fiction, until I found myself in the world of documentaries. I did a documentary summer course at EICTV, a film school in Cuba, which was my first foray into production or filmmaking and really loved it. From there, I went on to a Master’s in Screen Documentary at Goldsmiths, University of London, and then into the world of filmmaking. I think documentary filmmakers are quite complicated people. We want to understand the world whilst also using our filmmaking to explore or express our own understandings or relationships with themes or subjects. With this in mind, filmmaking for me is definitely an expression of my dissatisfaction with certain injustices or behaviors in the world.
Paula Gustafsson: I have been a film lover since I was in my teens. In my twenties, a documentary film I saw met a yearning for more existential questions. I started writing about film, and then working with distribution and screenings of art-house films or helping others with their films before I, myself, late in life started first looking for projects and then making films myself. What inspires me to make films is to tell stories that need or should be told. There is this saying that the world is not made by atoms, it is made by stories. And stories about female experiences are very important in order to make the world a more equal place.
Monica Mazzitelli: If I told you the whole story, it would take a long time… The short answer is that I thought I had something to say with images and not only words. I am a writer, too, and at a certain point I felt I wanted to translate thought into movement, colors, sounds… My biggest inspiration is usually women. There are so many untold stories – they keep me awake at night, literally!
Andrea Sand Gustavson: As a child, I drew, made comics and graphic novels and started making short films in my early teenage years. I mostly get inspired by human situations or thematic episodes. Everything from a mundane scene on the bus to a deep marital conversation. I love situations! I work visually from the very beginning of a project – I start thinking of an idea through the color palette that inspires me. I ask myself how I can tell the story through the right colors and how they affect the mood of the scene/situation. Setting a tone is what I am interested in capturing as a framework before I start writing. I also get immensely inspired by good collaboration. When I “click” with my cast and crew members and together, we create something beautiful.
Shira Kela: Ever since I can remember, I loved this medium and time-based media. Moving images and movement are an important element of how I like to express myself. My emotional state is a big part of my inspiration, people and cultures with their stories that are asking to be told.
Marie Louise Taarnskov: Initially, I think I was drawn to the glamour of the film and TV world, to be honest. I studied Television and worked with documentary series and different entertainment formats. Then, I decided to treat myself to a year off to go to art school. The more I experiment with other art forms, the clearer it becomes to me that I express myself best through the moving image. Expressing myself through words is an example of something I don’t feel very confident doing. The other day, I tried to explain to someone how different soy sauces taste and I found myself using my hands instead of searching for the right adjectives.
Can you talk about your respective short films?
P.G.: Well, it’s a love story not very often told, about elderly women, and it starts where most love stories end, at the wedding. I wanted to capture and communicate a particular quality of love, based on the respect and intimacy that I saw between these two women. I had known the women in the film for many years, since I was making a longer documentary about one of them. She has been a famous Swedish sexologist and sex educator since the 1950s and was very active when I got to know her, working everyday even though she was over eighty years old and seemed very happy both in her work life and in her relationship. But as it takes years to finance a longer documentary, her life changed, and her beloved partner Helle got sick. I decided to hang out with her, as a friend, with a camera, to talk to her and see how things were going to turn out. So that material, not fitting very well with the form of the longer documentary I had shot before, became the film The Promise.
V.M.: Don’t Burst My Bubble is a film about puberty based on real testimonies from many women all over the world. It’s also based on my own experience. This film follows Mia as she is going back home on her own for the first time. Mia faces “the real world” on her way and realizes the impact that her body that is changing can have on men. Confused, she wonders what is going on with her.
M.M.: The Wedding Cake is a kind of “pilot” for a larger docudrama project about sexually exploited women bodies, be it in prostitution, porn or sugardating. My aim is to tell difficult stories using a different medium – artistic creation instead of a normal filmic narrative – in order to reach as broad an audience as possible despite the sorrowfulness of the content. I was working on this project in parallel with other stuff, but when I read about this festival, I thought I really wanted to participate, so I hurried up to complete it by the deadline and ta-da! I was selected! You can imagine my happiness and surprise!
A.S.G.: I wanted to make a true story about motherhood and examine the topic of postpartum depression that is a common struggle for many new mothers – more than we know. I wanted to shine a light on all the mothers being exposed to this in any degree. And to make these mothers feel heard and supported, by telling this story about a mother feeling lost in her new role, feeling an inner need to rediscover her womanhood and her own sexuality apart from her role as a mother. The film is called Tie Me Up.
S.K.: Zygota is the purest work I have done so far. I felt something and just went for it. I feel it relates to many internal questions that I had inside of me at that specific moment. These themes made me shed layers in my mind and strip them down to the simplest form of being a human, where we first felt safe – the womb.
M.P.: It’s a short film co-produced by Ukraine and the Netherlands that we shot in the summer of 2017. I wrote the script during the course of my Master’s in Film studies at the Netherlands Film Academy and developed it further with my key collaborator and a lead role performer, Danya Zubkov. The film is based on real events that happened to Danya, so it was a very personal work and we wanted to make sure that the story is told in an honest yet cinematic manner. Besides everything else, Family Hour is also my personal attempt at talking about the need for acceptance, unconditional love and recognition.
M.L.T.: At the beginning of 2019, I was forced to go on sick leave because I suffered a long-term concussion and I Went to Miami and Hit My Head was a channel to express the emotions I went through during that time. It’s not a film that’s built with a classic narrative of beginning, middle and end, but more of a collection of small vignettes. It’s not often I allow myself to make projects that don’t obviously cater to the audience, so it’s been a fun challenge.
J.A.: Waves is a short documentary that I shot in Cape Town, South Africa. It looks at the lives of three young girls on the cusp of adolescence, and what it is like to grow up as a young woman in one of the country’s most violent communities.
How do you see the short form today?
V.M.: I might be wrong, but I have the feeling that the short film industry is getting better. In my opinion, it used to be underrepresented, but there are a few channels that support and screen short films on TV now. The audience isn’t the biggest though, but I believe we are headed the right way. That could be much better, of course. I truly believe short films are a way of expressing and telling stories and they are not about making money. It’s an investment in your career.
M.M.: It has always been difficult for shorts to gain their own space in cinemas, but I think that there are two new factors that can improve that situation: the first one is that people watch much more from their TVs right now and so, it is not so unfamiliar to watch shorter films, quite the opposite, in fact. The second one is that younger generations are more used to short formats, so I guess they are going to be a larger and larger part of the audience as time goes by. Personally, I love short films. They are much more difficult than features; you have so little time and no forgiveness from your audience in case something does not “work.” But when it does… Wow!
P.G.: I love the potential of the short form to tell stories or show images that would not be shown otherwise. From my own experience with The Promise, a short film can have a larger impact than I could have ever imagined and reach people all over the world.
J.A.: That’s an interesting and tricky question! I love the short film form. I think it’s incredibly challenging to condense a story’s essence into a few minutes, and it’s also a great starting point for filmmakers to practice and play within a limited time frame. For some projects, it’s all you need to explore the themes, but I would love more opportunities for short film distribution or commissioning. In the UK, there are not many platforms that would have funded a film like Waves. I’ll continue making short films, but in terms of longevity and distribution, I feel that feature films are a more viable option.
A.S.G.: I see it as a changing playground for creative storytellers. I enjoy following the development, but I am definitely a supporter of storytelling from other decades – allowing to tell the story in the time frame that it deserves to ripen, not as a tool to drive forward to a certain goal. I do not see myself as a very modern storyteller, but I am curious about new platforms. Like making short films as a part of a longer episodic tale. That would be an interesting approach to play with if I ever got the chance.
M.P.: I love the short form for its playfulness, for its time constraints and for its ability to get you to so many different yet fascinating worlds so quickly. Therefore, I’m grateful to the short film festivals and bigger festivals with short film programs for keeping this form running, making sure that “short” doesn’t mean “smaller.” It’s like in any other art form – the sonata can’t be less worthy than a symphony. Or I, at least, deeply believe in it.
S.K.: I think that each medium had its purpose and meaning. From my point of view, short film has less boundaries and less expectations. It gives room for more experimentation and questions. The narrative is not a must. I believe it is a format that fits our society today and can give a feeling of freedom with creativity.
M.L.T.: Coming from the TV world, where all episodes had to hit those 28:30 minutes exactly, I think it’s extremely exciting to move into the digital realm, which has really opened up to playing with the formats of stories in moving images. Obviously, it’s still a form that is extremely hard to financially profit from or move into the commercial world, but the growing platforms of the Internet make it possible for shorts to have a life outside festivals, which I think gives a different freedom to the filmmaker.
What is your opinion on the situation of women in film today?
S.K.: As women, we allow ourselves to come forward and take space and place where we want to. The most important thing is that fear is not our starting stance. Zygota, for me, was based a lot on this gender question. That was one of the reasons I wanted to show women in very feminine situations and metaphors. I want us to change the way we define ourselves. I want to believe that I can do anything I set my mind on. As long as it comes from an authentic place and true will, it can happen.
M.P.: It’s great to have so many amazing female professionals in the field. Year by year, the number of female students in film schools grows. However, in my opinion, the weak spot of the current gender imbalance in the audience is the capacity building for the female filmmakers. How can the industry support best women filmmakers in transitional moments, moments when it’s important to go on and not give up, such as the transition from shorts to the feature, from the first feature to the second, from documentary to fiction and vice versa, from maternity leave back to work, from low-budget to bigger budget productions and so on? If those weak spots were taken into account, I believe we would reach the much needed gender balance in the filmmaking industry faster.
P.G.: Even though I am glad awareness is rising about the extreme inequality in the film industry, I still find the situation a disaster. It is a very significant mirror of the structural inequality in our society. Historically, we have had ninety-seven male winners of the Golden Palm in Cannes and only one female – Jane Campion. With the Oscar for Best Director, it is more or less the same: ninety-one male winners and one female. That being said, there are, of course, many excellent female directors nowadays both in Europe and all over the world. I recently watched the lovely Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma and there are many more films coming up.
V.M.: In my opinion, we don’t see enough female filmmakers. We need more of them and more diversity in general. I feel there are more obstacles for female directors and women in this industry. Of course, we filmmakers want the best films to be selected on merit and not on gender parity. However, I feel we have to work extra hard to prove we are good enough. In my opinion, there is still a lot of sexism even though it’s getting slightly better. Hopefully, we will have equality soon.
M.M.: It is improving albeit at a very slow pace. But I can see a tiny change here in the Nordic countries and also in other parts of Europe. Fingers crossed!
A.S.G.: This is the question of our time. I believe we always have to trust our instincts and never give up, even though we will be told we are not enough and we will be pushed down by the industry. We must never allow ourselves to forget that we are enough, and that we have to keep fighting for our stories, our flaws and our strengths.
J.A.: I feel like there has been a growing shift in the last five years around women in film. When I started in the industry, it was pretty much unheard of to have a female director, DP, sound recordist, etc. Representation of women in production was non-existent, and portrayals of women within films were often riddled with insidious sexism. So I think we have come a long way since then. The #MeToo movement has rippled through companies across the world, making men question working environments, and there is now at least an attempt, or conscious shift, within production to seek diversity – you may get one female director out of a roster of twelve white men now, whereas before there wouldn’t be any. There is, of course, still a huge legacy to balance out. The decision-makers in the majority of companies commissioning work are still largely from the same backgrounds: white middle class men. So change won’t happen overnight. I think as well as gender imbalances in the industry there is perhaps an even larger chasm with class and race, that we as women should also be aware of and contribute to rectify in discussions.
M.L.T.: Like any other field that holds positions of power, there are definitely not enough women represented. If you look back through film history, it’s so obvious that filmmakers have the power to create societal narratives which keep the affected minorities in ridiculous stereotypes. Women are still predominantly seen as overly manipulative or overly naive caregivers, who have no other ambition in life than to find a man to make them happy. We need female writers and female directors in order to change that narrative so women on screen can be allowed to be actual people with multi-faceted feelings and motivations. I’m so tired of seeing films with brooding men in the leading roles. We get it, you have history, you’re complex, but I’ve seen it a million times! At the very least, let women on screen have conversations with other women without the conversations revolving around men!
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
M.M.: There are so many! It’s hard to pick! When female directors don’t try to copy male directors, but have the courage of real female stories, they usually make brilliant films!
M.P.: My favorite female filmmaker is most probably Mila Turajlić. My favorite film made by a female filmmaker is We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lynne Ramsay
S.K.: I can’t applaud one woman, but I can say I really like Sofia Coppola, Agnès Varda and Maya Deren. I love Daisies by Věra Chytilová.
P.G.: I have many favorites. One of them is Jennifer Fox. I really liked her personal documentary series about female experience, Flying – Confessions of a free woman.
M.L.T.: Visually, I’m a big fan of Sam Cannon, although she makes very short films – as in gifs –, but I would love to see her make a music video. I can’t wait to see what Ava DuVernay comes up with next. It bothers me that I haven’t made time to see Queen & Slim by Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe yet. And then, I’m really enjoying watching the reboot of The L-Word that has an all-female directing roster. It’s hard for me to determine a favorite film, but I did shed a tear during Captain Marvel.
V.M.: My favorite female filmmaker is Ava DuVernay. I am not going to mention a film, but a TV show, which is When They See Us. It was released on Netflix in 2019 and there are four episodes and it’s by Ava DuVernay.
J.A.: Great question! I don’t know if I could pick just one, though! I love Jane Campion. My favorite by her is An Angel at My Table. Claire Denis is also one of my favorite filmmakers. White Material and 35 Shots of Rum are amazing! And more recently, I really love Greta Gerwig’s work.
A.S.G.: I absolutely love Andrea Arnold’s films, especially her fairytale masterpiece American Honey!
What are your next projects?
A.S.G.: I am working on several projects in both short and longer formats, but I have also been working on my feature, Aura, for a few years now. Aura is about disentangling from a controlling upbringing and the search for identity as a young woman today.
M.M.: I will continue to work on this docudrama and I love to explore so many different art forms I can use to narrate my stories, but I am also very keen on completing my script for a feature about a very brave woman that sets her life at risk to protect a young girl.
M.P.: Currently, I’m working on my next short film, Good Boy, that will be shot in Amsterdam this winter. Also, I’ve just started working on my first documentary feature. Its story is set in Ukraine.
S.K.: I am working on a screenplay for a feature film at the moment and I am very excited about it!
P.G.: I want to finish a longer documentary about Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan, a well-known Swedish champion of female sexuality and one of the women in The Promise. But this film is not fully financed at all.
V.M.: I recently directed a micro short for a famous competition in France and that will last for a few months. I am also working on another short at the moment and am planning to shoot my first feature in the next few years. Acting-wise, I have a few upcoming shoots, so I am pretty busy!
J.A.: I’ve got a few things bubbling away at the moment. I’m working on another short documentary connected to feminism in the Caribbean and music. I’ve also started to look into other ways/angles my work could tackle issues like gender-based violence, so rather than looking at women’s experiences as the “victims,” I want to explore the notions of masculinity that have led us here. I think it’s important to hear women’s voices and their stories, but I’m also interested in exploring the root causes that society, history, etc. have manifested to create the problems that we’re currently fighting against, and taking the work to that audience directly.
M.L.T.: I have been working on a project exploring the female gaze as opposed to the male gaze. I hate when project statements use too many fluffy phrases that basically boil down to the project saying “something about something,” so I’ll refrain from trying to give the project a definite description as it’s still in its early stages. The sketches so far involve a list of all the men I’ve slept with and a video of me carrying a man on my back through Central Park.