The following short interview with Joanna Arnow took place during the run-up to her new film's premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, where last week it won the Silver Bear Jury Prize for the Best Short Film (Narrative).
KELLER: Your first film, i hate myself :) — which you assert must be spoken as "I Hate Myself Smiley-Face" — struck many viewers in the last year or year-and-a-half since it came out. Had you expected the kind of response you received — not only for the nominal shock-factor of the content — which responses are already documented within the film itself — but also for the praise and support provided by the cinephile community?
ARNOW: Thank you, yes, I do insist on pronouncing the smiley face – it’s crucial to the film’s meaning and I am very taken aback whenever people leave it out!
I didn’t know what kind of response to expect, although in my rough cut screenings it became clear people were divided about the film. Some were incredibly enthusiastic, but others, when pressed, said they would have walked out if I wasn’t in the room. It took a year of submissions before the film was accepted at any festivals, so I was happy for it to be more widely seen and to hear the different responses.
KELLER: Did you receive any correspondence or praise/press from overseas for the film? France, etc.?
ARNOW: The film hasn’t played in France yet, but we did have a great response and positive reviews in Germany and Canada. We screened in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich thanks to Unknown Pleasures Film Festival.
KELLER: Before going into Bad at Dancing at length, what were your wishes for the film that would follow up i hate myself :)?
ARNOW: I guess it’s something of an oxymoron, but I really loved making i hate myself :). And if it’s not too self-congratulatory to say, I loved how that film turned out too! I just hoped I would feel nearly as strongly about my next film, and I wanted to make a piece worth sharing with others.
KELLER: But you've got to say a bit more than this. "A piece worth sharing with others"? Your film Bad at Dancing is a grenade. Do you actually consider it just a piece-of-work?
ARNOW: The film portrays the complexities and sexual intrigue within the off kilter friendship of two women – especially because there are not enough films out there with multi-dimensional stories about women, my hope is that Bad at Dancing will add to the conversation. I'm happy with how B.A.D. turned out and feel lucky to have worked with such a terrific cast and crew.
KELLER: You had to know that i hate myself :) was going to be a divisive work. And that invitees to its rough cut screenings were perhaps not going to anticipate what the film ends up being. Let's assume the default setting for invitees is: "Oh cool, I want to see this person-I-know's film that will be projected... It will be fun." — Further, you had to know that you were going to be judged for the on-camera behavior of the nominal boyfriend; viewers would perhaps be projecting themselves, potentially, into the situation of, I don't know, having to interact with him at a Thanksgiving dinner or something.
ARNOW: In making the film, I hoped that others would be able to relate to the story, and that it would cause people to think about their own relationships. i hate myself :) also explores questions about gender and sexuality, and follows my experience as I learn to be more open about aspects of my identity that I previously found shameful. By exposing myself in this way, my aim was for others to be able to connect with what is universal in all of us. In making the documentary, I also hoped to show the complexities in the film’s characters – of course everyone will interpret the film how they want, but I don’t see it as a story that invites any kind of black and white judgment at all. I want my films to challenge, excite and push into new and uncomfortable territory. Divisiveness is not my goal, although it can be a side effect of having those aims for my films. I admire Caveh Zahedi's work and his films are often divisive, but I’m interested in them because they are innovative, uncomfortably humorous and [they] subvert norms of filmmaking, not because of their divisiveness.
KELLER: How do you feel, in general, about the acceptance and rejection of the film, vis-à-vis festivals etc.? All of my cinephile friends know your first film, and it has been a touchstone, even, at the least, conversationally, for us — much more than many movies we might have seen at Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, SXSW, etc., blah blah. The year-end best-of's come out, and it's all a load of shit, of course. I want you to answer this question directly, and don't hedge: What is it like knowing in your heart of hearts that you have made a film more substantial than Under the Skin?
ARNOW: I feel moved when I think about all the support the film has received, and how generous people have been along the way. The film didn't play at Cannes or Sundance etc, but the festivals we did screen at were all special and felt very personal. Rooftop Films and LES Film Festival were the first two where the film was accepted – they're both independent-minded champions for radical cinema and I'm glad i hate myself :) first found a home with them. I of course wish the film could have screened more widely, but feel grateful it has reached many in the film community - thanks to you among others!
KELLER: On the topic of Bad at Dancing: I have a lot to ask about this, but to begin: Did you start with the idea of the film/scenario by way of the actors, or were they only cast later after the idea?
ARNOW: I did have Eleanore [Pienta] in mind when I wrote the film, although the character in the film is not based on her actual character.
KELLER: Do you think it's easier to direct a (fiction) short rather than a (fiction) feature because there is less commitment required from the actors, purely due to the compression of time filming?
ARNOW: It’s less of a time commitment to act in a short film rather than a feature, but I don’t see it as any less of an artistic commitment.
KELLER: The black-and-white provides a sculptural quality to the naked bodies fucking at the outset, which is beautiful while at the same time being farcical. Please tell me about this, and whether you think the relationship portrayed in the film by Eleanore Pienta and Keith Poulson stakes out any kind of real-world observation.
ARNOW: The story’s narrative has absurd and surreal elements – I chose to shoot the film in black-and-white, because it immediately signals a layer of separation between the film’s world and every day reality. I also barely had any budget for art, so it was a cost-effective way to stylistically accomplish this separation as well. Because the film is not naturalistic, I wanted to minimize the feeling of ordinariness or casualness in the images – the black-and-white look gives Bad at Dancing more of a cohesive and formal stylization.
KELLER: There are moments in your film where I feel that it's almost a kind of sitcom, but without a laugh-track. Maybe this is the new given (none of us like laugh-tracks) but I can still feel the moments in which the introduction of such would underscore a kind of ironic take on the action. I feel the same when I watch '80s Godard.
ARNOW: I was avoiding signaling to viewers how to feel about the material by not using any non-diagetic music, sound bridges etc. – it’s a more comfortable viewing experience when you’re told what to think, and I wanted people to be more off-balance while they’re watching.
KELLER: What necessitates the end credit for an acting coach? I vaguely remember you putting this out there months and months back. Was this because you felt you needed an acting coach?
ARNOW: I’ve collaborated with Hye Yun Park on a number of projects. She is a performer-director who was great to work with as the film’s consulting producer and as my acting coach. I can’t fully direct myself while I’m acting in a scene, so it was helpful to have her perspective on set. We also had an extensive rehearsal process together, and you can check our her awesome web series Hey Yun here. (I was just a DP on season 2.)
To me, the film is a surreal manifestation of the jealous rivalry between the two women – it takes the idea of being a third wheel and pushes it to the extreme in order to more fully explore the dynamic. I did not want the sex scenes to be realistic or overly graphic, but more a recurring element of the set which adds humor and tension because it is so minimally acknowledged. One film that was a reference was Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’Amour.