Amina Sutton and Maya Tanaka are filmmaking partners who met during undergrad at Boston University. Amina grew up in the tri-state area and has worked on HBO’s “Problem Areas” and Fuse’s “The Read with Kid Fury and Crissle West.” Maya hails from the Bay Area and most recently directed the music video “Elsewhere” for Lotushalves. Both currently live, work, and play in Brooklyn, NY.
Tara Karajica talks to them about their short film, “The Price of Cheap Rent,” that screened in the Short Cuts section of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival as well as the current situation of the short form, women in film and their next projects.
How did you get into filmmaking and what inspires you to make films?
Amina Sutton: I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid, but hadn’t thought about filmmaking until I was in Middle School. I would bargain with teachers to substitute book reports and essays with video projects. I was obsessed with comedy, so I’d always do a satirical take on whatever the assignment was. And it felt so fulfilling to see my classmates laugh at the videos I made. My late father worked in television. For my sixteenth birthday, he gave me my first camera as a way to encourage me to keep making films. My stepmother was an artist and wanted me to go to art school so maybe his intentions were less about me becoming a filmmaker and more about winning a bet with my stepmother, but who knows?! Either way, he won! As for what inspires me or us now, I think Maya and I probably have very similar inspirations. We both grew up not really seeing ourselves or stories in mainstream spaces. I think we’re both inspired by our communities and feel a responsibility to continue to showcase more diverse stories.
Maya Tanaka: I didn’t have a television as a kid – my mom thought it would make me illiterate –, so on weekends my parents would rent a VHS player and two movies. Just two. It was a big deal! Because my Dad is from Japan, I grew up on a lot of classic Japanese Cinema and Westerns, and then my mom was all about Purple Rain. When I got older, I was obsessed with the indie theaters in my town. They would play every type of movie that wasn’t at the local giant cineplex. That and the library were my favorite places to be before I could drive anywhere. They were the perfect solitary escape from my home, school, the tortuous pain of adolescence. As you can imagine, I was very cool. I agree with Amina about what inspires us to make films today. I also think Film is ultimately a very hopeful medium, since it imagines new scenarios and worlds. And if we get to make these imagined worlds for our communities, our friends, the people we care about, that’s a huge win!
Can you talk about your short film The Price of Cheap Rent?
A.S.: The Price of Cheap Rent is a mockumentary about an aspiring artist who finds a cheap apartment and later learns that the reason it’s so cheap is because it’s haunted. It is a story about her resourcefulness while subtly looking at gentrification in New York City. The short was inspired by my old apartment. I was struck by something the broker had said to me when I initially looked at the place with my roommate at the time. The place was really under market value, and was one of the few remaining Black-owned buildings in a historically Black neighborhood in Brooklyn that has been rapidly gentrifying. The broker essentially told my roommate and I: “We’re rooting for you to get this place” and we did. But my brain immediately thought: “What would happen if we didn’t? Is this place cursed in a way that protects it from gentrification?” And that’s where the idea came from. Maya was working in branded content. And I had worked on reality and documentary. We thought it would be fun to tell this story by satirizing spaces we understood really well. And, we ended up sort of treating the shoot like we were shooting a documentary. Scripting parts of it so we could control where the story was going, but leaving some things open for improvisation. And even though I was playing this character on camera, Maya sat next to the camera and would ask questions like in a normal documentary.
M.T.: I loved the idea of talking about the spiritual world in this absurd way that tied back into the difficulty of trying to make it work in New York City. When you’re a working artist in New York, you’re always kind of struggling, and we had both had our fair share of wild apartment situations. It was natural to shoot in our own homes and just rearrange pieces of our lives to fit the scenes. I was really pleased that we managed to shoot the entire thing in one day with an all-female crew. Our DP, Alexa Mignon Hiramitsu, who I had just met on a previous project, was a huge part of the final creative and decided to light it with almost all practicals, which added to the visual comedy. Amina and I both grew up loving mockumentaries, and had been working on doc-style work for a while, so the rest came easily. When our actress backed out last minute, Amina stepped up to play the artist. We were both wearing a lot of hats on set, so we were nervous, but I think it really adds to the improvisational moments in the short – it’s just the two of us playing off each other on and offscreen and trying out whatever came to mind.
How do you see the short form today?
AS: It’s always been about creating art, but with a lot of restrictions. Usually the budget is small, there are a fewer locations and characters, the story has to be simplified. And, you have to find a way to convey so much with so little. Not to sound cliché, but because of how much the Internet and social media have changed how we watch things in general, I think that’s sort of expanded the visual language and techniques that can be used in short form storytelling. In fact, we pulled a lot of visual language from that world when making our short film. For us, how we engaged with the Internet inspired what possibilities we could find to share a lot of information in a consumable bite.
M.T.: I think the short form is where you really get to play! Play and push yourself to make it all work in this really dense, concise way. And I like that it can be a finished thought or it can just be the beginning of a longer story.
What is your opinion on the situation of women in film today?
A.S.: I feel really grateful to live in a time where women feel more empowered and supported to tell their stories or speak up about unequal pay, mistreatment, being overlooked and bad representation. But the film industry is a reflection of the world around us. And, systems take time to change. And, usually, those changes can feel threatening to those who have benefited and maintained the status quo. It’s going to be a difficult task to change an entire institution and the culture around it, but I’m hopeful.
M.T.: I’m hopeful, but I think I’m also a bit impatient. I think Film, as an industry, needs to kind of rip open and reimagine itself. We’re all creative people trying to visualize entire worlds, translate them on screen and make strangers feel something because of them. I wish more people would apply that same energy into shifting behind the scenes as well. I’m excited by all the female identifying and non-binary artists of color making it work. I’m excited that we can see classic stories told from different lenses, or lenses we’ve historically overlooked or set aside. I just want to see more. I’m hungry for more.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
A.S.: I can’t pick one! I love everything! I was a huge fan of both “The Farewell” by Lulu Wang and “Atlantics” by Mati Diop last year. I’m really excited to see what they do next. I think Janicza Bravo has a really unique voice as a filmmaker. I love Melina Matsoukas’ work. I’ve been thinking a lot about women who came before us and films they could make versus the ones they never got a chance to. And I feel lucky to be here at what feels like a major turning point.
M.T.: I agree with Amina’s list, and I can’t pick one either! I’d add Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sandi Tan’s Shirkers, Desirée Akhavan’s The Bisexual… Melina Matsoukas was a huge inspiration to me early on when I was first directing music videos; her films are always beautiful. Then, there’s Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White, Houda Benyamina’s Divines, which Amina originally showed me, and of course Agnès Varda, Kelly Reichardt… There are too many!
What are your next projects?
A.S.: We have been talking about doing another collaboration. I don’t know if we’ll do a proof of concept first or dive right into a feature, but I’ve been working on a script that’s a low budget hybrid of sci-fi and satire. And I think right now, we’re looking for collaborators and funding.
M.T.: The absurd sci-fi romp is next on our plate together, but of course we have ideas for many more. As soon as we get the funding, we have enough projects to keep us busy for the next forty years or so!
Photo credit: Maya Tanaka & Amina Sutton.
This interview was conducted at the 2020 (virtual) Toronto International Film Festival.