Milena Aboyan was born as a Yezidi in Armenia. In 2010, she began a four-year acting training program in Germany. During the program, she played parts in several theatrical productions. After receiving her Acting degree, she changed disciplines and began to focus on writing. She started working as an assistant dramatic advisor for an early-evening ARD series. In 2015, she began studying Screenwriting at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg.
Tara Karajica talks to Milena Aboyan about feminism and film and her debut feature, „Elaha,“ an empathetic exploration of cultural pressure and bodily autonomy in which Elaha, a young Kurdish-German woman, believes she must restore her virginity before her wedding. The film premiered at the 2023 Berlinale and is now screening in the Europe! Voices of Women in Film program at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Milena Aboyan: I come from a working-class family. Art and filmmaking were done by others. I had no contact with it. Then, I won movie tickets at school. I went straight to the cinema. That day, War of the Worlds by Steven Spielberg was playing. The cinema enchanted me instantly. The thought never left my mind to become a filmmaker. But, above all, I always wanted to tell stories about people who are underrepresented in film and television.
How did Elaha come about?
M.A.: For centuries, women’s bodies have been under observation and control. The specific issue of women having to prove their virginity is absolute control over their bodies. It was very important to me to talk about this problem. Another facet of a system of domination.
In Elaha, you break the “Madonna and Whore” complex. Can you elaborate on that?
M.A.: The woman is often categorized into two extremes – the woman who represents a supposed purity, that is the Madonna, and the woman who is sexually attractive, the whore. While the woman is admired in the first category, she is devalued in the second. Elaha is both. A sexually active woman can equally embody purity. But, fundamentally, a woman cannot become impure. Never.
Restoring the hymen – or just even checking it – is a form of violence against women and girls with the aim of *supposedly* safeguarding their virginity and innocence and the parental pride. This is a concept of innocence that is not scientifically justified. Can you talk about choosing the go beyond this particular taboo in your film?
M.A.: The concept is based on a system of domination. All over the world, there are concepts that control women and their bodies. And if we name these misogynistic concepts, I hope that someday we will not have to talk about them. Change can only happen if we become loud. That’s what I tried to do with this film. I don’t have any solutions. Just to put the topic up for discussion.
Virginity is a social construct and not a medical or scientific term as virgin women in a patriarchal society are considered “chaste” and “worthy,” so they have to keep their virginity for their husband. That way, control (over women and their sexuality) and oppression and violence against women are fostered. Can you delve deeper into this aspect that you are denouncing in the film?
M.A.: Controlling a woman’s sexuality is an extreme form of violence against women. Mothers are also forced to control their daughters because otherwise they will be held responsible for their daughters’ disobedience. It is not only men who oppress and women who are oppressed. The brutal structures of patriarchy are very complex. I wanted to tell with Elaha’s story that all involved suffer under this system and not to talk about victims and perpetrators. But, of course, the biggest sufferers are women.
You stay very close to your complex and very authentic protagonist who is a very vibrant, sexual young women with her own ideas of freedom, feelings and desires. How do you see her? Can you talk about choosing never to betray her and condemn openly the community?
M.A.: There is a line in the movie where the main character says, “I love my family and my traditions, I just don’t agree with some of the rules.” The culture and traditions in the film are portrayed beautifully and warmly. Only some of those traditions are difficult. For me, it was not a balancing act to portray the culture on the one hand and an emancipatory aspiration of the main character on the other.
You show Elaha’s claustrophobia and lack of privacy with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Can you comment on this choice?
M.A.: First and foremost, we didn’t want to tell a social study about a milieu. It was supposed to be a portrait of a powerful woman. That’s why the aspect ratio fit very well. At the same time, it also reflects the extremely tight structures in which our protagonist lives.
What were the challenges of making this particular film? And, the little victories?
M.A.: The challenge was the cast, which we wanted to make as diverse as possible. We spent almost two years casting. And it was important for me to cast a boy – Elaha’s brother – who has a walking disability, to create representation for people with disabilities here as well. The search was very challenging. The greatest and most beautiful moment was when we found little Réber Ibrahim for the role of Sami despite opposition.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
M.A.: It’s important to me to tell stories where women are not sexualized. We can talk about violence against women without portraying this brutal force against women. We can talk about rape without putting another rape scene of a woman into the world. Women over forty should be able to play more leading roles without being reduced to their age or bodies. I always try to make sure that there is a strong representation of women in front of the camera, but also behind the camera.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
M.A.: The Virgin Suicides by Sofia Coppola, Frances Ha by Greta Gerwig and The Piano by Jane Campion.
What is your opinion on the situation of women in film today? How is it in Germany now?
M.A.: As long as women are not equally represented as male directors, the situation is bad. At the same time, I feel a breeze of hope that female filmmakers are now claiming what is rightfully theirs.
What are your next projects?
M.A.: My next film project is an episodic film about three women living in a big city. They are confronted with domestic violence, war trauma and migration law. They decide to break their silence against the injustice that happened to them. Bayan Layla, that actress who has already played Elaha, takes on a leading role again in the new film project.
Photo credits: ©Michael Kofler.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: