PODCAST — Episode 4, recorded
Jessica Dunn Rovinelli and collaborator Anika Kash in conversation with BFMAF programmer Ana David about the film ‘Marriage Story’.→
Jessica Dunn Rovinelli (1988) is a film director, editor, colourist and critic based in New York. Her second feature film So Pretty (2019), a literary translation/transposition focusing on gender and the utopian imagination, was screened at numerous international film festivals including Berlinale, IndieLisboa and Anthology Film Archives (New York) and awarded Best International Feature from FIC Valdivia. Her first feature, the performative documentary Empathy (2016), premiered at FID Marseille and follows a heroin-addicted escort across the USA. Rovinelli is also a recipient of the Development Funding Award from Centre national des arts plastiques (Paris) and New York Foundation for the Arts. In 2019, she was selected as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film.
Ana David is a film programmer based in Berlin working between Germany, Portugal and the UK. She is a member of the shorts selection committee and industry manager at IndieLisboa, a member of the advisory board of the Berlinale Panorama, and associate programmer at Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival. In 2018 she programmed at the BFI London Film Festival with a special focus on documentaries. In the past she has held positions at Portugal Film – Portuguese Film Agency, Lisbon Docs – International Financing and Co-production Forum, Festival Scope, and Queer Lisboa (2010-2015), the latter as co-director and programmer.
Hi, I’m Ana David, Associate Programmer at Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival 2020. You’ll be listening to an interview with Jessica Dunn Rovinelli, Director of Marriage Story, and Anika Kash, with whom the film was made in conversation with. Marriage Story is Rovinelli’s third short, which is having its very first public screening in the New Cinema Competition at Berwick. The film is one of the 12 shorts part of this reshaped and reduced section. Based on our conversation, we can most probably expect more shorts coming from Jessica. We look forward to them. Jessica and Anika joined us from New York City.
Hi Jessica and Anika, thank you for joining us. Congratulations on the world online premiere of Marriage Story, I’ll jump right into the first question for you. You wrote, directed, shot, edited, and starred in Marriage Story. What came first, was it the poem that Anika recites or was the idea for the film that came first?
Actually, yeah. Anika’s text was the last thing to be written, I knew sort of what it would be, but usually with collaborators, I do give them a fair amount of freedom. So she actually delivered the final text very soon before shooting, so I was scripting and conceptualising the film alongside her.
And you wrote the film collectively, or you kind of created it on paper collectively before the pandemic arrived and then filmed it under the quarantine. Which is really great to know that it’s a very pre-pandemic film and it was delivered, even if during that process, it sounded like it was delivered as you intended it to be. Or was it actually something that had to change from what was initially planned because of the circumstances?
Yeah, so it was something that I had been conceptualising, we’ve been working on, and playing around with, but originally it was going to be shot on 16mm, with Bill Kirstein, there was going to be a moving camera. Those aesthetic decisions had to go out the window. I kind of went back to shooting like I had shot on my first feature, Empathy, with these very locked off looks, but the lighting effects and all that was pretty much… We didn’t shoot it until we could get our hands on the satellites. So there were certainly alterations to what we were going to shoot, but functionally, the shots are more or less the same. There’s just certain elements of what we were able to use to get those shots that had changed. But then that opened up the realm of like playing with… I always have loved these bad film conversion softwares. I mean, they’re not bad. They’re okay. But I really liked the texture that they generated. And so ideally at some point there’ll be a 35mm screenings, so we continue this play. So we’re using a 720p camera with a very nice colour gamut that I really liked, so playing between some image that is very refined in some ways and sort of very crude in others.
So that was something that a more restricted shooting scenario forced upon me, but it was kind of nice because it allowed me to go deeper into this play with the colour red that I… The text, I did not write at all. That’s entirely Anika.
I’d love to talk about those red flashes, the very cool setting, red flashes, you’ve added to the film that also obviously, really go strongly and hand in hand with a super powerful techno track that both… that starts and finishes the film. And it’s just… It’s marvelous to me that a film made within an interior of a house and kind of stripped down in a way, because very few elements are used to make this film. And yet there’s this ecstasy body that you feel this ecstasy energy coming out of the film itself. Was it always in your head, something that it had to be done this way, that you wanted this energy to come out or is something else that is discovered while shooting the film?
Yeah, that was something that I toyed with, shooting interior scenes with these Kwazar lights, these coloured lights and getting that sort of heightened unreality of a very, very mundane scene. We associate this kind of music with light music. They go together, you have these pulsating lights and you have these pulsating sounds. And I really liked the idea of splitting those completely so that the music would become a frame. And then the lights carry this sort of pulsation of the music, but you don’t need the music anymore. So to strip down the intensity and to give us this intensity of the mundane, which is something Anika and I were talking a lot about, can you import that intensity into a situation that is very domestic.
It’s also very beautiful. The fact that you both in front of the camera and you’ve done it before as well, Jessie, with So Pretty. So it’s not the first time you’ve placed yourself in front of a camera of your own film. So, this text is yours, Anika, and then… So therefore you might have felt that it was important for you to read it yourself.
I would have chosen not to be in it, if that was an option.
But it did have to be you. Working together was certainly interesting because we had to be all of our own crew. So you’re in her daily life. So it wasn’t entirely important to both of us, but it is a weird switch to be making this intimate domestic space. And for me, with So Pretty, I was a very reluctant actress. That only happened because somebody had dropped out of the film. And so I was kind of forced into it, but then there was something nice about taking my body as legitimate semantic material. And with Marriage Story, it’s kind of stripping down my films down to their barest essentials. So you’re left with nothing but two bodies in a room. And I liked the idea that you could build a space out of that, you could reformat the idea of what couples felt like or what marriage could be, to sort of dive into this space with just two bodies. And there’s a certain vulnerability that we associate with nude bodies, but then we’ve removed the vulnerability of the face. And I think that was important to me to try to get away from this identification. I’m very frightened of the concepts of marriage and love. So this was kind of trying to continue our project of investigating what on earth is going on in there.
So would you say, for instance, that investigating the institution of marriage and what it means, could have also been a seed for you to do this film, the creative seeds, a reason why you also wanted to do this film.
Yeah, for sure. I think both of us were sort of fascinated by… There’s a certain element of leftist culture, right? Where marriage is assimilation and this failure to be political. It’s definitely something that I held for a very long time, and I think you agree with in certain ways, but then you’re… then it’s the forbidden fruit, right? And you want to really… leaning on that Christian references there, but you really want to sort of dive into this forbidden space. There’s this desire to stand aside and to be better than an institution, but then we exist and we live in this world that is created and shaped by Christian morality and our sexual patriarchal family structures and whatever. And that exists all around us. And that’s where we come from, right? So it was kind of fun to be… rather than just stand aside and shake a finger, what if you investigate that space and see what is going on in there.
You’ve mentioned Christianity and at the very beginning, when there’s the coffee scene, there’s an image of the Virgin Mary, or I assume it’s a Virgin Mary glued to the kitchen wall.
It’s a holographic image. So if you move your head, she moves. So, Anika did most of the production design, but didn’t want to be credited for it because she felt like it was in the credits too much.
No, it’s just…it was filmed in my apartment so…
But, that was intentionally placed there, obviously.
I’d like to go back to the representation of your bodies. And one of the first things that I was impacted by was obviously the honesty and the beauty of two bodies entangled, and then really feeling that it was an intimate moment that was being portrayed with honesty and also with powerfulness. It’s still so rare and… that queer bodies and queer intimacies are portrayed in real… in a way that feels real. And it feels authentic. I wondered if… Because it was a vulnerable place for you to be at… If there was… This might be a very intimate question, but if there was some degree of preparation or pre-scripting the scene itself, to make sure that both you felt protected and not super vulnerable.
When we’re conceptualising the film, how to shoot that scene, we’re already blocking and staging how to do that in a way that feels like a comfortable exchange of power dynamics. Are we comfortable with our bodies being in a position, is it a frame that we will… that we want to see our bodies in? So there’s lots of negotiation about what that would look like. It’s really hard when you’re also trying to get a graphic element. You’re trying to get this sort of… Because the red blurs out and makes the bodies kind of melt. So, it was really… That was hard. Usually shooting sex is very easy for me, but I mean, I guess this is the first time that I was in front of, and behind the camera. I think I’ve always really been drawn towards… I have these two drives between, to sort of be, I guess, more provocative imagery, and then really non-provocative presentation of that.
The owners of it might also be placed in the view and the person who sees it, in the sense that what might be felt as provocative by someone might not be by someone else.
I mean sex before marriage is not very provocative.
That’s true. What is less provocative than sex within marriage?
True. So, I’m also curious about the text itself. It was mentioned at the beginning that the texts that you wrote, Anika, came after its postscript creation. Do you want to tell us a bit more about the sources or the seeds that provoked, ignited, this text? Because it’s such a beautiful text and it’s so real, it’s recited with such beauty in it as well.
The text… It’s just a mixture of various love letters I’ve written to Jessie. And then a lot of research I’ve been doing, which is mostly focused on the narrative of virgin martyrs, saints that have been martyred for preserving their virginity and chastity. A lot of their writings focused on this feeling of ecstasy they get through their relationship or marriage to Jesus. So I’ve been reading about this for a while. So the text is mixed between quotes from writings from saints, and then also my hand writings.
And very, very last question. I’ve noticed that all your other films… I’ve noticed that they feature coffee or the process of making coffee at the very beginning. Was that really on purpose that you’ve also done it in this film?
Yeah. It’s every single film. I mean, at this point, it’s a joke. Every scene starts with coffee and I just keep coming back to these like simple tasks. I love watching people do tasks.
Beautiful. I hope whenever the film gets to premiere in a proper cinema and in 35mm, I hope you… the audience can also drink a coffee while actually seeing you preparing the coffee.
Thank you. Thank you so much. It was really, really brilliant.