Lillah Halla is a Brazilian filmmaker who graduated from EICTV in Cuba. In 2020, her short film “Menarca” was one of the ten short film selected for the Critics’ Week sidebar program of the Cannes Film Festival and was licensed by Canal + and MUBI. “Menarca” was awarded at Tirana, Toulouse, Winterthur and Curta Cinema. “Levante” (“Power Alley”) is her debut feature film. Her second feature, “Flehmen,” currently in development, was part of the Full Circle Lab Nouvelle Aquitaine and the Sam Spiegel Jerusalem Lab in 2021/2022.
Tara Karajica talks to Lillah Halla about her beginnings as a filmmaker, her debut feature, “Levante,” premiering in this year’s Critics’ Week, and feminism in film.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Lillah Halla: I’ve always been a cinephile. The small town I come from didn’t have a cinema and all the contact with Cinema I had was through my mom. My mom had those classic VHS tapes in a wardrobe, which we would open every now and then and watch as a kid. Then, when I moved to San Paolo, I was seventeen and it was the time I really started visiting film festivals, really digesting a lot and really getting in touch with a lot of art house films and cinemas. Most of them don’t even exist in Brazil anymore; they’ve either become shopping malls, parking lots or Evangelical churches. For some years, I studied Psychology and stopped because I thought I should travel around. I saved up a little bit of money and arrived in Germany. At the time, I was twenty-one and I started working in a movie theater as a projectionist. It was super expensive for me to go to the cinema and, with that job, I had a projectionist card, which allowed me to go everywhere, to every cinema and take someone with me. Even in the movie theater we were working at at the time, we would close at night after everyone had gone and all the projectionists from the different cinemas would meet and we would do sessions in the middle of the night for ourselves. Meanwhile, I was also working at a regular theater, so I was a filmmaker doing live cinema; cinema that acts on the stage of life. I did that for a long time between Brazil and Germany with many different theater groups and I guess that there are very big parts of this theater formation in my filmmaking in many different ways – in the way I look at collectivity, in the way I look or not at hierarchy… I had been working for six or seven years with theater groups between Brazil and Germany when I decided to apply for the Cuban Film School and to systematize my knowledge of film a bit more. At the time, I didn’t even know everything I didn’t know until I really got there and dove in. The course in Cuba is also a very important turning point for me because it is a place where cinema is seen collectively, every head of department is an artist and we’re co-creators; we’re watching the same films, we’re speaking of the same cinema, we’re exchanging on a similar level depending on our functions. And, I guess, after those four years, I was already merging all this knowledge that had come from before, all the passion for Cinema, and the knowledge that I was bringing from the Cuban Film School and making films with it.
How did Power Alley (Levante) come about?
L.H.: The Film School in Cuba is a small place. There used to be a farm, which receives one hundred twenty students from all over the world for a three-year course. It’s a very intensive immersive experience in terms of both humanity and cinema. The bonds you create with people from that school are very deep and strong. And, as I left the film school, I started a collective called Vermelha in Sao Paulo with other people from the film school. Our collective was dealing with gender issues, and political representation in front and behind the camera and through that, I also started diving a bit into the political aspects of it and organizing actions. And, on a second level, I dove into mythologies and stories that have been foundational to misogynist cultures, hegemonic gender perceptions and this is how my first short film, Menarca, was born. I worked on that with another scriptwriter who’s also from the film school, while I was already developing Power Alley with María Elena Morán, who’s also from the film school, and working in the collective. I think that everything led to the same place. The story has many starting points. The person who I was in 2016 and what I was looking for coming out of the film school. I also went to Canada for a postgrad program and came back. The starting point for the short film is very similar to the starting point of Power Alley. They are just very different films. Menarca is a lot more of a genre film. Somehow, I think the interesting thing is how there are ideas that were born in 2015, positions in the story that were born after the coup d’état in Brazil. When the pandemic came, there was another perspective. So, the story is pretty much a compilation of political experiences and how I have personally been responding to all of this throughout those years. The film has been growing and, luckily, both María Elena and I were not afraid of turning things around. The essence of the film is the same, but it was super important to us that it became a porous way of working. In seven years, the story cannot not dive into everything that has happened and it is very much a mirror of contemporary Brazil, especially as the film is set in September 2022, which is a month before the elections in Brazil. It’s a very important turning point, which I’m very happy to be able to document even though it’s a fiction film, along with the need for collective organization to go through fascism.
Power Alley is about abortion, women’s voices and the right and freedom of choice over our bodies, which is a very timely global issue. Can you elaborate on that?
L.H.: First, there is nothing trendy in speaking about abortion. This is a topic that has to be discussed at every dinner table. Even the Semaine de la Critique’s Jury is presided this year by Audrey Diwan, the director of L’évènement, which has been a very important film about the topic in the last year, as well as Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always [by Eliza Hittman] and so many different films with different gazes on reproductive rights coming from different countries and dealing with the different issues because it is not a political topic and not a topic that you can deal with independently from the place you’re at. I mean, how many films about broken hearts have been made in the world? As long as there are not enough films about abortion as there are about broken hearts, I’m not going to be satisfied, but there is one thing that I think is special about this one, or one thing that is very important for us in this film, and it’s the fact that her condition is not treated in the film as a condition she needs to go through by herself. Because the collective support that she has is, for me, the premise of the film. This is not a film only about abortion; it’s a film about how to overcome those violences collectively.
Exactly! It’s a film about sisterhood, the power of female togetherness… Also, it’s not only a female issue, but it’s a universal and collective issue.
L.H.: It’s funny how even in Brazil there was something in the media yesterday that went like this: “Feminist filmmaker who studied in Cuba is premiering a film in Cannes.” I’m very careful with boxes. I’m very careful with sisterhood. I’m very careful with feminism as an empty word. Of course, it’s not only about females who are in this group and it’s not only cis people, it’s not only people who recognize themselves as female, there are non-binary people, there are people who recognize themselves as male… So, it’s about solidarity and it’s about family in a way. But I am being careful with the boxes because there’s been a lot of damaging white feminism, there has been transphobic white feminism, so I don’t want to stamp myself without asking what is the sisterhood you’re talking about. It’s more the idea of a chosen family in this sense and that is, of course, made of dissident voices, dissident bodies, dissident existences that connect and support each other. If this is sisterhood, then yes. But it’s not only sisters in there. That’s what I mean.
It’s also about moral dilemmas, dangers and fighting against extremism.
L.H.: Can you hear how violence against certain existences in certain bodies has become absolutely naturalized? This is what this is screaming in the film. If the film was a series and the second episode was about another issue of any one of Celeste’s team members, they would not act differently.
Do you think that the film will have an impact on changing the minds all over the world?
L.H.: I don’t know. I mean, I cannot say yet. It’s always a very big discussion about how much a film actually reaches certain audiences. This has also to do with the choices you make, the audience design you do, the way you’re telling the story and the language you are using to tell the story. You’re choosing your partners, so there are already choices that are taking you there. But let’s say I know cases of films that have had an impact after being shown at a big festival like the Berlinale or Cannes and have raised debates internationally, putting pressure on specific national laws to be changed and they have been changed. But those were very few cases. I can count them with my fingers. I just hope the film reaches as many people who are open to the debate as it can, but now the film has its own life. Maybe there’s an answer in three years’ time.
In the press kit, you talk about the “orchestration of voices and desires.” Can you delve more into that?
L.H.: Yes, it’s because everyone has many things they bring to the project. You don’t mold people to fit the story. The story I was bringing was already an encounter between two people who were impregnated of so many personal stories, so much research, so many political events and then this living instance, which is the script, had another phase of encounter, which is the cast and the team. So it would be a shame to impose something in this sense. It’s about co-creating and collaboration. It’s something extremely important in the cinema I do. And what I call orchestrating in the press notes is more in the sense that because sometimes my job is to align the beats of the story into a line that will show something that is the encounter of all of this, but that also goes back to the skeleton of the story. So, for that, of course, you need a safe space of work. You need time. You need trust. And I call that “orchestration” because I’m not the one who;s doing it. There’s a very different vision in what a director does. So, for example, just to be a little bit more specific, when we started the rehearsals, I didn’t give them the scripts, but I told them the points of the story. I brought the 101 pages back to our twenty-page treatment and this was what I was working on with them so that they could bring it forth through improvisations and a lot of talks, a lot of personal experiences, a lot of triggers as well, because it’s not easy to dive into such a story. Also, for these triggers, we had many allies and people who were consciously wanting to be part of this film for what the film is about and the way it is dealing with these topics and the people.
Can you expand more on the feminism in your filmmaking?
L.H.: I know that we know that filmmaking is not equal. We know that society is not equal in terms of gender, of politics… So, filmmaking is a very hierarchical and hegemonic field. And so is society. So, everything you want to do in a different way, will require a fight or struggle. In this film, I’ve tried, for a while, with all my forces – and sometimes beyond my forces – to have, I am not even going to say feminist, but our humanist space in which, if I’m making a decision that affects my cast directly, I’m going to sit down with them in a circle, and we’re going to discuss it before I make it. And I represent them, I represent the team in the huge patriarchal structure that is called filmmaking – the time, the rush, the decision-making, the knowing what you want and what not. Not considering this as an artistic project takes quite a punk attitude. And it is feminist, but it’s also queer and it’s also punk. I am a feminist, but I’m also a lot more than this and filmmaking is not easy.
I can imagine that!
Photo credits: Courtesy of Lillah Halla.