Samantha Aldana is an award-winning Belizean-American director-writer based in Los Angeles. She is inspired by stories that use genre elements to explore the human condition and is heavily influenced by the storytelling traditions of her multicultural upbringing in South Mississippi and the Caribbean. Samantha is an alumna of both the NBC/Universal Diversity TV Director Program as well as the 2020 Gotham Labs. Samantha is the recipient of the Belize Film Commissioner’s Emerging Storyteller Feature Film Award for her in-development horror feature “Little Lying Wild.” This film was also selected to participate in the Tribeca Film Institute Network, “Breaking Through the Lens” and the Emerging Voices Program. Most recently, Samantha directed a short film titled “Angels” with 20th Digital, Disney that is streaming on Hulu. Her past short film “The Melancholy Man” screened at Comic Con, premiered as a top pick on “The Film Shortage,” and was awarded Best Narrative Film in the Audience Awards Women’s Film Challenge. She received the Best Director Award for her short film “These Wild Things” at the NYC Damn! Film Series, and the Jury Award for Best LA Short Film at the New Orleans Film Festival. Her short “Si” was featured on PBS and was awarded Best Short Film and Best Cinematography at the International KIDS FIRST! Film Festival. Her film “Porcelain” won the Jury Award at the Boston Independent Film Festival. Aldana holds a BA in Film Directing from Columbia College Chicago and is a member of WIFT and NALIP.
At this year’s RVK Feminist Film Festival, Tara Karajica talks to Samantha Aldana about her debut film, “Shapeless,” that premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, feminism and film and what she is up to next.
What made you want to be a filmmaker?
Samantha Aldana: As a kid, I was always captivated by movies, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon the behind-the-scenes footage of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that I truly fell in love with the art of filmmaking. Witnessing the intricate coordination between the hundreds of crew members and cast as they worked tirelessly to create something literally magical left me in awe. I was particularly drawn to the director, who seemed to be at the heart of the action, answering questions and orchestrating the chaos with both exhaustion and enthusiasm. At just twelve years old, I knew right then and there that I wanted to become a filmmaker, and I have been pursuing that passion ever since.
How did Shapeless come about?
S.A.: Kelly [Murtagh] shared with me her personal experiences with bulimia and her desire to create a film that would start a conversation about eating disorders. I was compelled at the opportunity to make something original on the subject matter as we agreed that the portrayal of eating disorders in mainstream media was often inaccurate and sensationalized. I signed on to the project, and we set out to offer a more authentic and nuanced representation. We aimed to convey what living with this mental illness truly feels like.
Shapeless raises uncomfortable questions about our society, care, empathy on an individual and collective level. Can you comment on that?
S.A.: Shapeless was always intended to be a provocative film that asks tough questions about our society’s attitudes towards mental illness, body image, and self-worth. Through the character of Ivy, we explore the devastating impact of eating disorders on the individual and the people around them. Ultimately, I hope that Shapeless prompts viewers to think critically about these issues and consider how to be more self-aware and supportive of themselves and others.
How important is it to talk about eating disorders, body image, beauty standards today? How do you think your approach differs from that of other directors and other films?
S.A.: These issues are pervasive and have real consequences for millions of people worldwide. Unfortunately, they are often stigmatized and misunderstood. In my approach to Shapeless, I was inspired to combat these stereotypes, I wanted to create an honest film by committing to authenticity and experimental interpretation. The film uses stylization through visuals and sounds to build an intimate atmosphere that helps convey the complex emotional landscape of Ivy’s state of mind that hopefully provides a nuanced experience.
You also distance yourself from Ivy’s character and you never judge or sensationalize her struggle and reality in particular and the struggle and reality of being a woman in general. Can you delve deeper in that?
S.A.: It was important to me to approach Ivy’s story with empathy and understanding rather than judgment or sensationalism. I hoped the film would resonate with people who have experienced similar struggles while also being accessible to a wider audience who may not be as familiar with the subject matter.
Do you think your film will have an impact on young women?
S.A.: I certainly hope that Shapeless has a positive impact on young women and really all audiences who are struggling with body image issues and eating disorders. I hope audiences feel seen.
You manage to juxtapose this burning issue with the colorful music of New Orleans. Can you talk about that?
S.A.: New Orleans is home. The textures and sounds of the city are so familiar to me. I knew I wanted to bake the spirit of the city into the film to make the setting feel like an extension of Ivy’s psyche. We had an incredible art department that helped create a feeling of dread and decay fitting for Ivy’s spiral.
What is your opinion on the situation of women in film today? Where do you see yourself in this discussion?
S.A.: There are so many incredible women working in the film industry who are pushing for change and working to create more opportunities for women in the field. These women are using their voices and their work to challenge existing norms and promote diversity and inclusivity in all aspects of the industry. There is still a long way to go, and I believe that everyone can all play a role in shaping the future of the industry and creating a more equitable and inclusive environment for all filmmakers. It’s an exciting time, and I am proud to be part of growing it.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
S.A.: At the moment, I’m obsessed with Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman.
What are your next projects?
S.A.: I am developing my next feature film, Little Lying Wild, a horror fantasy film set in Belize, Central America.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Samantha Aldana.
This interview was conducted remotely at the 2023 RVK Feminist Film Festival.