Madeleine Sims-Fewer

Madeleine Sims-Fewer studied film production at York University and completed an MFA in acting at Drama Centre London. She met Dusty Mancinelli at the 2015 TIFF Talent Lab and experienced an instant convergence of minds, quickly joining forces as a filmmaking team. Highly focused on a naturalistic performance style and visual aesthetic, their films explore gender politics, the selfishness of human nature and abuse of power. Their first collaboration together was the short film “Slap Happy,” which screened at the BFI London Film Festival, VIFF and Slamdance, among others. Their next short, “Woman in Stall,” won the Jury Award for Narrative Student Short at the Austin Film Festival and the Narrative Shorts Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance. Their latest short, “Chubby” had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and won the Silver Dragon Award for Best Director at the Krakow Film Festival.

Tara Karajica talks to Madeline Sims-Fewer about her first feature film, “Violation,” co-written and co-directed with Dusty Mancinelli, where she also stars and for which she has also been selected as a TIFF Rising Star. The film premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win the Emerging Canadian Artist Award at the Calgary International Film Festival, the Emerging Canadian Director Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and has been nominated for a Directors Guild of Canada Discovery Award.



How did you get into filmmaking?

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I think the earliest memories I have of filmmaking was a camcorder that my parents had and I was five or six and I would make movies just with my dolls and with my parents acting in them. I’ve always been inspired by film and I wanted to act and direct, which has always been tricky because people are constantly pushing to find out what it is you actually do: “So, are you an actor?” “Are you a director?” Or, “are you a writer?” “What’s your thing?” And, I’ve always wanted to do both and only now feel more comfortable being like: “Yeah, I do both.” That’s OK to do both. I grew up in the UK and then, I went to film school in Canada. I’m half-Canadian. I started to play around and make films there and all my films were terrible, but I made them in film school and then, when I finished film school, I actually was really disillusioned. I really felt like maybe filmmaking isn’t for me. It was so hard in film school. I didn’t know what my voice was. I didn’t know what I wanted to say and, honestly, I was one of maybe six women in a program of about fifty people and looking back on it, it was really hard because you have to push that extra mile to get yourself heard, to have people want to work on your projects and it felt like a real struggle. So, at the end of film school, I thought: “I’m just going to be an actor. I’m just going to let other people tell me what to do, give me their character and I’ll just delve into that side.” And, I went to drama school and it was wonderful, but at the end of drama school, I really missed making films and I didn’t like that world of just going into characters and being told what to do. I wanted to control the stories I was telling.

So, I started to make films again and initially it was to create roles that were interesting to me, that I could act in and now just for the love of filmmaking – I really rediscovered my love for it. And, in 2015, I came back to Canada and took part in the TIFF Talent Lab, which was a program for twenty emerging filmmakers from around the world and there, I met Dusty Mancinelli, my creative partner, and we just immediately clicked as creatives and as people. We became friends really, really fast and we both had been looking for a collaborator. That’s the way I like to work. I like having different ideas and being challenged and having someone else have a different perspective that then forces me to really distill what it is that I want to say. We started making short films together. We made three short films and through that process, we just really enjoyed working together. It was a really fun experience making those shorts and we got funding to make Violation through Telefilm Canada’s Talent to Watch Program, which is for first features, and by that point, we just decided that we just wanted to work together and properly form a creative duo and we had so many ideas and projects that we wanted to do together, so we were like: “Let’s just make this a permanent thing!”

How did Violation come about?

M.S.-F.: We came up with the idea for Violation, actually, again at TIFF. We were both at the festival one year, just watching films and we wanted to develop a feature script and all of our shorts have explored themes of trauma and gender balance and the power dynamics between men and women. The idea for Violation came from really personal places for the both of us – trauma that we had both been dealing with, that we confided in each other about and we initially wanted to make a film that was almost an anti-revenge film, where you watch the true ramifications of what it means to take revenge on someone who’s wronged you, sort of in a way to scare ourselves out of this kind of hunger for revenge. And then, we started to think about the idea of this sibling relationship and already in our last film we explored the idea of sexual abuse within a family and how complicated it is to deal with that and how when your abuser is someone who’s really close to you, it makes things so much more difficult to talk about. So, we wanted to expand on that idea and really delve into this sister relationship and what does it mean to have an instinct to protect your sister, but also feel this resentment towards her. That’s how the idea began.

Can you talk about writing, directing and acting in this project?

M.S.-F.: Initially, when we were writing it, I was going to play the character of Greta and we wrote that character for me, so there was a lot in her that I related to. And then, as we were starting to think about making it, we started to have conversations and, actually, Dusty was the first person to bring it up, suggesting that I maybe play Miriam instead because it’s such a difficult character and required so much commitment and physical and emotional depth. Initially, he felt that I would be able to really delve into that and we would be able to work as a team together to bring things out of me, much deeper than we maybe could with someone else. And then, I started to get excited about it, so I started to think about how far I could go and I knew that I’d be able to really challenge and push me much further than we could with any other actor. So then, I started to think about Miriam and, initially, I didn’t relate to her very much, but the more I worked on the character and thought about her, the more I started to find the things that really connected me to her. It also meant because I was playing Miriam who’s in almost every scene, that Dusty and I had to do a lot of prep, so we worked with a storyboard artist; we really pre-visualized the film, creating floor plans and mood boards and shot lists and really thinking very, very deeply about how each scene would play out so that when we got on set, I could just trust that that vision of ours would be carried out when I needed to completely go into character and not have the headspace to think about lighting and shots and anything like that. But it also meant that I had to work a lot harder than I would work just as a director because I would have to watch dailies at the end of the day and it’s a weird thing where you’re splitting yourself up in two almost.

How was it to work with Anna Maguire?

M.S.-F.: Anna and I have known each other for a really long time. We met at the London Short Film Festival years and years ago and then just kept in touch. We would see each other now and then like we’d see each other at TIFF and we would be just watching each other’s work. We are fans of each other’s work. So then, I brought the idea of her to Dusty and he also really liked her work too and it made sense because we’re both British-Canadian as well, so we already had that real commonality with each other and I called her up and I was like: “Hey! What are you doing this summer?” And she said: “I don’t know!” I was like: “Do you want to be a lead in our feature?” and she immediately said yes without even thinking about it. It was really, really awesome! Working with her was amazing and we spent so much time on our relationship as sisters. She came to the location a few weeks before to rehearse and we had a lot of in-depth rehearsal time where she and I would just live in character and learn who we were as Miriam and Greta and then just have long, long discussions about our own lives and our own histories and relationships with our sisters so that we could build those roles together.

Can you talk about the relationship between Miriam and Greta?

M.S.-F.: It’s really complicated because they love each other and they’ve got these wonderful memories and were very, very close growing up, but they both see their relationship differently and they both see each other differently. Miriam believes herself to be Greta’s protector, but Greta resents that role that Miriam has taken on. And, I think that although there is a permeating love between the two of them that will never go away, there are these resentments that have built up over the years. I think when you grow up with your siblings, you get locked into this idea of who they are, which is hard to then shake as adults. Even though you’ve become different people, you still see them as that person they were when you were kids and I think that’s sort of what’s happened to Miriam and Greta – it’s that they’re locked into these ideas of who they are and they can’t break out of them.

The film goes back and forth in time. There’s sort of a dance between the past and the present, and between a dream-like surrealism and reality. Can you talk about this approach?

M.S.-F.: That choice was actually at the script stage. We always wanted to explore the idea that trauma blurs the line between the past and the present and it brings a small little trigger. A sound, a smell, or a word can bring you back physically; it’s like a feeling, it brings you back viscerally into this moment of trauma. So, we knew that it was going to be a little bit disorienting, but hopefully the audience is willing to go on that journey in order to really experience the film. Also, another thing that was important to us and has been integral to all our work is this idea of recontextualizing who people are. So, you initially see and think you know someone and then, you go back to the past or you go forward in the future and you see a new side, you see something else and you see a new motivation or a reason that causes the behavior. And, in that way, you’re challenging the audience to empathize with characters who you may initially hate or think are awful and just giving you these different contexts for these people.

The story is told from Miriam’s perspective. Can you talk about that?

M.S.-F.: It was really important that although we’re trying to humanize each character, it is Miriam’s story and it is her trauma that we’re interested in and her specific reaction to it. And, one thing that’s important to us is this idea that sometimes when you experience trauma, you don’t react straight away, you’re frozen, you’re unable to process what’s happening and it’s almost like an out of body experience and that’s a really hard thing to capture on film. I think it was crucial that we were with Miriam in those moments and really use these soundscapes and the visuals to bring you into that feeling, that disorientation and that stagnation and that fear that she has that makes her freeze, almost like an animal in the headlights.

In that sense, I like the way you use music and sound, especially sound that is connected to nature and then there’s the editing also that is focused on her emotion and it makes us experience things that maybe we don’t want to experience. All of this has a big impact and it’s very effective. Can you elaborate on that?

M.S.-F.: It’s encouraging what you’re saying because what we really wanted to achieve with the editing is this really putting it inside her emotions and creating an emotional state that you hopefully feel a part of as well. The editing is very deliberate and focused and it is definitely guiding you as an audience member into places that are uncomfortable and into places that you might not want to go. What we really wanted to do is just create empathy for people who have experienced these kinds of things and hopefully get the audience members to think about what that would feel like.

The film is a dark family drama, but also a psychological thriller and there’s horror in it as well. How did you blend all the genres together? Moreover, you have a new way of presenting the revenge story with real-world implications that a revenge entails, not the typical ones that we are shown in films. Can you delve into that, too?

M.S.-F.: Yes, we started calling it an anti-revenge film, more like a cautionary tale because we are definitely not interested in making another revenge film that glorifies revenge or that has this build-up to a cathartic release, where the character gets their bloody revenge and the slate’s wiped clean and everything’s OK. It’s so much more. I really hate the idea that violence is the only way to deal with the shame and trauma of a sexual assault and I think a lot of films perpetuate that idea and it’s not the only way. I think what we’re trying to explore in Violation is what is revenge really like. How does this obsession with getting retribution erode this woman’s morality and character? And, we’re seeing her emotional and psychological unraveling through the film. There are so many moments in Violation, where things could go right, things could be OK if only the characters did something slightly different and there’s something in there that’s really tragic. In terms of the genres, I think horror is a really wonderful genre in viscerally impacting people. Most of the films that have really impacted me in a physical way and in a really kind of gut-punch emotional way are horror films. But both Dusty and I are definitely drawn to a horror that is more of the drama side, films like Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg. It’s a film about a couple’s grief at losing a child, but then there are these horrific elements to it as well. Or, Michael Haneke’s Caché, where the horror is in this sense of dread and being watched. What we tried to do is use violence not to glorify the idea of revenge or not to just purely scare or shock the audience, but to make you feel the humanity of the characters.

The male body is very present. I assume it’s to give a female gaze, to reverse and change the narrative in terms of the male gaze. Would you agree with that assumption?

M.S.-F.: You’re absolutely right! It was something that was very important to us from the beginning – that we don’t sexualize the female body at all in the film, that there’s no shots that are lingering on the female body and the female form. We’re really flipping the tropes on their head a bit and focusing on the sexualization of a male body and the way that Miriam takes that power back in those moments.

What do you think the film’s place can be in the post #metoo moment in history and can it have an impact?

M.S.-F.: I hope that it will spark some deeper conversations about sexual assault surrounding families and particularly people who are close to you. So many women and men that I know have been sexually assaulted by someone who they trust and who they actually love and who loves them. And, that’s so hard to talk about and it’s not talked about very much. So often, especially with #metoo, a lot of the conversations have been around strangers or people who are a bit removed and I think there’s more to this conversation that needs to be unearthed. It’s really tricky and horrible to talk about that relationship between your trauma and your abuser being someone and then being someone that you love and trust because there’s still a relationship there despite what they’ve done. And, I think that people need to be more open and honest about finding ways to talk about it and overcome it.

Can you talk about the title?

M.S.-F.: Someone mentioned that it should be called “Violations,” which is interesting because there are several violations in the film. When we found it, we just knew that that had to be the title. There’s the main violation between Miriam and Dylan, but there’s also the violation of trust between the sisters and then, there’s also the violation that’s carried out between Miriam and her husband after her own assault, which is, I think, also really important because these things have a way of begetting each other and when you are hurt, quite often, you’ll lash out in a similar way against someone else.

You’re also a TIFF Rising Star this year. Can you talk about that? How do you think it will impact your career?

M.S.-F.: I am absolutely honored and thrilled to be a TIFF Rising Star! It’s absolutely amazing, especially because I put so much into the role of Miriam and so, I feel very, very, very honored to have that recognized. I think it’s brought a lot more attention to the film as well, which is amazing! I can’t ask for more than that! TIFF has been a wonderful champion of the film and of my performance, which is really lovely!

Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?

M.S.-F.: Absolutely! I’m absolutely a feminist! And, in terms of it informing my filmmaking, I think what I’m really deeply interested in is human stories, but all of the work that we have done has involved this theme of gender dynamics and I find that very interesting. I would love to, in my lifetime, get to the stage where I’m referred to as a filmmaker and not a female filmmaker, but I don’t know when or if that’s going to be in my lifetime, but it’s something that I’m going to keep pushing for. I think that what’s important, from my standpoint, is this conversation between men and women. I think there’s a danger of alienating one side or the other side and I think that there needs to be a union and there needs to be men who speak up about feminism just as much as there are women who do.

I agree completely with you! In that sense, there has been so much talk about the situation of women in film in the past three years. What is your take on the matter? How is it in Canada?

M.S.-F.: I think, for me, it needs to start earlier. I think it’s great that there are these initiatives within the filmmaking community for women, but I think if we can encourage younger women to believe that they can be directors, writers and producers and their voices are just as important and valued and heard, then I think that will actually help a lot more. I know when I was young and in film school, it definitely bled into my subconscious that there was a certain way that women had to be, behave, react and interact with people and I think that’s what really needs to change – this idea that women relate to people in a certain way and that they should relate to people in that way. I think, when you’re making a film, what ends up happening is that women have to firstly know what they’re doing as a director, but then also, there’s this added pressure of having to prove yourself in terms of being a leader or not being overly emotional or showing emotion. There’s such a weird balance. You can never really get it right. And, I think that starts with changing all of our attitudes, which is maybe the harder thing than just creating more female-driven initiatives, which I also think should be done, but I think we need to look a bit deeper than just that.

Do you have a favorite female filmmaker? And, a favorite film by a female filmmaker?

M.S.-F.: I have lots! I think maybe my favorite female filmmaker in terms of her body of work is Andrea Arnold. I’m so inspired by her and I’ve learnt so much about filmmaking from watching her films. I think Red Road is an absolute masterpiece of Cinema and Fish Tank as well. Fish Tank to me is a horror film because the feeling that had watching it was just so horrific.

Times are uncertain right now, but do you have anything in the pipeline for when they are better?

M.S.-F.: Yes, so much, actually! We’re actually chomping at the bit to work on some new ideas. We have a white board that’s just full of ideas. We haven’t had the time because of everything with Violation to work on them, so we’re very excited.





This interview was conducted during the 2020 (virtual) Toronto International Film Festival. 

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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