For her latest short film, I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain (which makes its premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of Short Cuts Programme 3), writer and director Sofia Banzhaf wanted to look at dating, love, desire, and the pitfalls of being a young woman in the modern era from a perspective she hadn’t seen on screen before, and with it, she has yet another visually stunning and emotionally moving credit to add to her increasingly fascinating and well rounded young resume.
I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain looks at moments in the life of a young woman (played by Micaela Robertson) who’s barely out of her teenage years and finds herself being sexualized in different ways by the men she’s dating. It’s a unique sort of character study told through memories and specific incidents of dealing with men; none of them particularly pleasant, but some of them hide darker truths behind their seeming banality.
It’s the kind of film that poses more questions than it answers, and it’s clear while we chat over coffee in the lead up to the festival that Banzhaf has clearly thought about all of the incidents in her film in great detail, but that she prefers viewers draw their own conclusions and look within themselves to find deeper meanings. It’s a satisfying approach to filmmaking that works well for the German-Canadian Banzhaf.
It’s also apparent that I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain isn’t the work of a rookie or novice artist. In her short, but stacked career, Banzhaf has branched out considerably. I Am in the World… is Banzhaf’s third directorial effort (fourth if you count another short that she has been working on for quite some time), and although she doesn’t appear in her latest foray behind the camera, she’s probably better known as an on screen performer with over two dozen credits to her name. She’s also a published author who had her first print effort, Pony Castle, published back in 2015.
I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain isn’t even the only project that Banzhaf is involved with at TIFF this year. She also has a supporting role in Nicole Dorsey’s outstanding first feature Black Conflux, which shares a lot of thematic content with her short. Banzhaf has been a frequent collaborator with Dorsey, most notably as a writing and directing partner.
We talked with the Newfoundland raised, but Toronto based Banzhaf about her experiences as a female filmmaker, her passion for writing, what she wants to express with her latest film, and her working relationship with Nicole Dorsey.
I think when a lot of people set out to make a film depicting young people and their sexuality, a lot of lesser filmmakers naturally try to paint these experiences in a comedic light. What you do really well with this film is that you never try to make an easy joke or try to speak down to the experience. If something funny happens, it evokes sort of an uncomfortable sort of laughter that arises from a situation that isn’t inherently funny. Was that something you were conscious of while writing and directing this?
Sofia Banzhaf: I just felt like I hadn’t seen this kind of character before, and that I hadn’t seen these sorts of experiences depicted on screen. It was important for me to not sexualize the main character at all, but to show everything from her point of view. I had seen coming of age stories that involved a teenage girl, but I always felt uncomfortable for the girl on screen. You might feel uncomfortable watching this, too, but I really wanted to make sure that she wasn’t sexualized in any way.
When I was writing it, these were things that felt very familiar to me. I think that’s just kind of my style. I like riding that line between being super serious and this sort of latent comedic element that just exists naturally in life. I think you can’t take yourself too seriously. I don’t like films that do that, and I feel like a story like this could fall into that sort of trap. You need those moments of levity because that’s just life, especially when you’re dating. Dating is full of awkward moments that aren’t necessarily funny to you in that moment in time, but if you’re observing it, you both identify with it, and you can sort of laugh about it.
I also didn’t want to sensationalize sexuality, either, because you can go pretty far in the other direction, too. You could end up with something like Euphoria, which is pretty non-stop in its approach. Sex can be seen as either melodramatic or hilarious, and sometimes both at the same time. You might even be able to take this script and play it in either emotional extreme. I’d actually be interested to see that play out, either in a super comedic or dramatic fashion. But I just have the feeling that the funny version of this would be too broad. There would be scenes that would lose all of their tension. I want people to have more complicated emotional reactions than easily identifiable ones.
There’s a great cross-section of relationships depicted in your film, and all of them speak to a lot of common mistakes and missteps that people make when they’re still getting to know someone, particularly young, straight men. There are scenes where a guy thinks that “negging” a girl will get her to like him or others where guys try to play aloof and not say what’s on their mind. What’s it like exploring those facets of dating and hooking up and getting to the heart of those attitudes?
Sofia Banzhaf: It’s crazy how many guys think those sorts of things work, and it’s a hard thing to really convey or put into words, but I give a lot of credit to the male cast for understanding what it was I was going for. I didn’t actually have a lot of discussions with the male actors. Most of my conversations about the film were between Micaela and myself. For the most part, they just showed up to set ready to go. I had worked with all of them before, and I knew they could do this, except for Andy [McQueen], but he was a friend of mine and I just knew he could do it. To be honest, a lot of this film just came down to the right casting, and I didn’t have to do very much once we got around to filming. I would tweak things here and there, but sometimes it was as simple as putting people in their wardrobe – almost none of it being things any of them would wear normally – and they just got what the character was supposed to be like from that point on. Everyone I worked with on this had such an amazing ability to visualize what needed to be conveyed from the simplest of details. Everyone kind of built off that.
But I also think that I tried to see everyone in this film as a real person. I never wanted this film to feel like we were walking through this presentation of different types of men. I wanted something more nuanced than that, and all of these characters are variations on people that I’ve met, and those are real people.
I know that you’re very passionate about writing, and I was wondering if the idea for this short part of a larger idea that you had or if it came together from bits and pieces that have been kicking around in your head for awhile?
Sofia Banzhaf: With shorts, I actually tend to write them in one sitting. The ideas themselves tend to come from notes that I’ll take for ideas that come to me. I’ll usually write them on my phone, and they’ll come together over a course of weeks or months. With this, specifically, it wasn’t floating around at all. It kind of just came out of me, and I actually wrote it quite a long time ago. I wrote it before the election, and when I came back to it afterwards, naturally it felt like the whole thing had taken on a completely different feeling.
I always wanted this to be a short. My producer, Julie [Baldassi], was actually the first person who thought this might be able to be a feature, but I wasn’t sure about that. With some of the other film’s I’ve done and written, I probably would’ve said yes to that immediately, but with this, I always felt it was meant to be a short. I love shorts, and I’m always trying to celebrate other people’s shorts because they tend to never get the exposure that they really deserve, but this was the perfect way to tell this particular story of this young woman’s experiences. Yes, the themes that arise from these experiences could absolutely be blown up to a larger movie, but I had this specific format in mind when I wrote it all down.
It kind of blows my mind that you wrote this in a single pass because all of the situations in the film are so different.
Sofia Banzhaf: I tend to edit a lot throughout the writing process, which I think is what shaped the film into what it is now. In fact, the order of the stories that you see in the film kept changing through writing, shooting, and editing. The content didn’t change much, but the order of everything was always changing. In the end, it’s very different from what I started out with, but then again, the script itself is only twelve pages long, so if something moves, it doesn’t change more than twelve pages. That’s why I like to write shorts in one sitting. It’s like a poem. You just get the feeling for something and you go ahead and write it. If I space myself out over a few days with a short, I just lose the feeling of it.
It has to be interesting to make something where you can change the order of things because it also changes the way audiences tend to react to what they’re seeing, particularly when you’re making a movie about flawed or bad relationships and dates, which are things that people already process in very different ways to begin with. How did you know when you got the film to a point where it had the desired effect you envisioned and then think about how an audience will react to it?
Sofia Banzhaf: That’s a good question, because in the mind of the viewer some people might think that things are getting better for this character, while others might think things are getting worse, and that all comes down to what the viewer brings to the film, and I always think that’s fascinating.
I had a lot of people watch it before I considered it finished, and more than I usually do with something I’ve been working on, and a lot of that came down to determining the order of things. Once the film was done, I was afraid that if I kept moving things around without seeing those reactions, I would lose perspective of what I wanted all of this to mean. It was interesting to see those reactions, and ultimately I had picture locked the exact opposite of chain of events that you see in the film now, and I ended up going back to the way it was originally scripted. I enjoyed that other version, too, but it had a completely different arc. This came to be in its final form through a lot of experimenting.
And I like being able to tell a story that can trick the viewer into thinking it’s going to be one specific thing, and then it changes direction, and then it changes again. It’s my hope that people have that feeling in a good way, and I think it’s something you can get away with more in shorts. I think you often don’t know what you’ve watched with a short until a few hours after you’ve seen it and you find yourself still thinking about it.
Your main character is kind of the perfect constant throughout the film because she’s the exact same person when she’s alone as she is around other people. The men in her life change, but with her, what you see is what you get. What’s it like telling a story that runs counter to what most people think about relationships, which is to think that people tailor their personalities to better suit the needs of their partner?
Sofia Banzhaf: That was extremely important to me. We talked about that a lot, and I never wanted this woman to exude any sort of charm or any kind of manipulation over these people, other than the fact that she’s already a young woman that these men are sexualizing. I wanted this character to be giving an absolute minimal effort with all of these people, and the result is someone who’s being true to themselves. That’s something that I admire because it’s a difficult thing to do, especially when you’re trying to date or hook-up with someone, and you often feel this burden, like you have to perform up to the expectations of the other person and give them what you think they want. She doesn’t do that.
I can tell that you like to create things that linger in the memory of the viewer and force them to think about what happened long after the film is over, particularly your work with Nicole Dorsey. Is that something you always have in your mind when you’re writing, either with her or by yourself?
Sofia Banzhaf: Well, I can’t speak for Nicole, even though she’s my biggest writing partner, but I definitely think that’s just naturally how I feel about storytelling. I think the point of making films is asking questions instead of answering them, and that’s really what I do with all my work. I’m just posing all of these questions that I have about my own life. My hope, of course, is that they think about it because I am asking them questions rather than answering them.
And I think Black Conflux does the same, even though that’s entirely Nicole. It’s asking a lot of questions, and it’s not answering all of them.
As a young female filmmaker, how do you combat people who might have a knee jerk reaction and say that something like your film isn’t fully thought through without providing answers? I tend to see more older, male critics dismiss films like this when they’re made by women than if something similar had been made by a man.
Sofia Banzhaf: I mean, you’re not wrong at all. I think you’re right. This definitely isn’t the most mainstream way of making movies, and you can run into challenges that are totally based in the unconscious biases that some people might have. I can’t really argue with that, but I can’t change anything because this is just how I tend to make things. You’re either into it or you aren’t, and I wouldn’t want to change that. I don’t operate any other way, and I don’t ever want to change my approach to the medium because then it would be inauthentic, and why would I bother making anything at all? But that’s a good point, and I definitely think about it as my career moves forward, especially since I want to write and direct more in the future.
Before we go, what have your experiences working with Nicole Dorsey been like, and what do you think you guys have picked up from each other across your working relationship?
Sofia Banzhaf: I love Nicole so much, and I love talking about her. We just compliment each other so well. We overlap in a lot of crucial ways, and in others we’re the exact opposite. That always makes for a strong working relationship, I think. Mainly, we’re just great at bouncing things off of each other, and then taking those ideas and making them stronger. We give each other an idea, and then the other person will take that idea five steps further than we could’ve imagined. We push each other to extremes, which gives us all of these ideas that we can pick and choose from.
And she’s also very good at keeping deadlines. (laughs) She’s one of the most disciplined people I know. If I don’t have something ready by a certain time, she’ll be really unhappy, and that pressure helps me a lot. But that’s also why I like writing with other people in general. I think that pressure helps me. If there’s pressure to put onto myself, I tend to take things a lot more seriously. I think now more than ever I enjoy working with other people, just because I feel that it’s easier to make things happen. It keeps you focused. It keeps momentum going. There are some times when that’s not the case, but that hasn’t really happened to me, and I think all my work with Nicole has definitely helped shape that feeling for me.
I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain screens as part of Short Cuts Programme 3 at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.