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Through Her Lens: The 2019 Tribeca Chanel Women’s Filmmaker Program

Through Her Lens: The 2019 Tribeca Chanel Women’s Filmmaker Program
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Through Her Lens: The Tribeca Chanel Women’s Filmmaker Program is an annual three-day program for emerging women filmmakers presented by Tribeca Enterprises and CHANEL, in collaboration with Pulse Films, and facilitated by the Tribeca Film Institute®. The writing mentors during 2019 included Semi Chellas (Mad Men, American Woman), Tina Gordon (Little, Drumline), Liz Hannah (Long Shot, The Post), Aline Brosh McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Devil Wears Prada), and writer/director Olivia Milch (Ocean’s 8, Dude).

Creative Screenwriting Magazine caught up with the five writers of the 2019 Through Her Lens program to discuss their stories and experiences.

Bane Fakih –  Keep It Together

 

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Bane Fakih

What is your screenwriting and filmmaking background?

I wrote and directed my first short film Assil and Jad in 2015. It won Best Short Film at the European Film Festival of Beirut, Best Student Film in Nadi Li Kol El Nass and Best Original Screenplay at the New York City International Film Festival. I hold a BA from the Saint Joseph University of Beirut and an MFA degree in Screenwriting/Directing at Columbia University where I was awarded the Ezra Litwak Award for Distinction in Screenwriting. During my time at Columbia, I wrote and directed Vibes which got selected by OutFest, The Palm Springs International ShortFest, Berlin Feminist week, FilmOut San Diego, Reelout Charlotte, NC Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, Berlin Short Film Festival and OutWest Film Festival. I am now developing my first feature Keep It Together which was selected by the Tribeca Film Institute for the Tribeca All Access 2019 program and for the Cine Qua Non 2019 Screenwriting Lab.

How would you describe your writing sensibilities?

I tend to find humor in the dark moments. I write characters, mostly women, with contradictions within them, and the opposite forces they struggle to reconcile. My protagonists are warrior women.

What was your submission entry and why do you think it won you a spot on the program?

Inspired from the feature film I am currently developing, Keep It Together is a short film set in Lebanon 1976, in civil war-torn Beirut. It’s the story of May, a fierce woman who defies the sniper terrorizing her neighborhood. One day, while sprinting through the sniper street and flipping him off, her favorite sandal falls off. She is determined to get it back, despite the danger and her brother’s overbearing protectiveness.

What inspired this idea and why do you think it’s filmworthy?

I grew up in Lebanon where it was, and still is, difficult to find a woman role model in the midst of this seemingly unshakable patriarchy. My role model gave birth to me, empowered me and inspires me still. When I moved to the United States, my connection to home and my mother metamorphosed. The more I discovered about America’s culture and its history, the more I reflected on Lebanon’s.

I noticed that I had very little knowledge about my home country’s past. I knew that my parents and several other generations endured an atrocious fifteen-year long civil-war which they agreed not to talk about since 1990. But the civil-war foreshadows every aspect of the Lebanese status-quo. The post-war generations witnessed the unfolding of the repressed traumas and, like myself, inherited them.

As this Cultural Identity crisis was simmering in the back of my mind, a coincidence shook me. I decided to discover what happened in the civil war and to write about it. While looking for different historical perspectives, I went around asking my parents, their friends, and strangers about their experiences. One story really marked me which became Keep It Together.

As a teenager, my mother lived on the Green Line during the civil war and repeatedly crossed the street controlled by the Holiday Inn sniper. One day, while heading out to run an errand, she sped through the sniper-controlled street and dropped her flip-flop in the middle of it. Once in the safe zone, my mother couldn’t let go of the flip flop. Her family was working-class and couldn’t afford a new one, plus her mother would “kill her”. She decided to run back for it, but the neighbors stopped her because the sniper would kill her. She insisted and ended up convincing them to reel the flip flop in with a fishing rod. This is where Keep It Together, the short, came from.

What is your personal connection to this story?

I had already witnessed my mother build an incredible career from scratch in a man’s world, irrepressibly expressed her exuberance in her outfits and unapologetically wore her fluorescent orange lipstick with absolutely no fear. However hearing the stories of how she became this warrior, charged me with urgency. I had never seen on screen a woman speaking my language, roaming my city with the same care and loyalty my mother had to what’s hers; the determination in getting what she wants; the refusal of being controlled; the defiance of the Holiday Inn sniper which I saw as an indiscreet metaphor of Society, The Other, and the Patriarchy. My mother was a fierce woman.

Inspired from her fascinating past and mixed with her generation’s inability to deal with their trauma, I wrote the story of a female warrior in the making, confronting what’s holding her back – denial of the past and the terror in the face of loss.

How does this program fit in with your career advancement?

I connected with women kicking ass in the industry and got advice from their experiences and hardships.

What did you learn from the writing mentors?

That expository dialogue isn’t necessarily a sin in screenwriting and it isn’t something to be terrified of doing when the audience needs clarification. Also, we tend to underwrite the protagonist’s subjectivity and reactions to what’s happening.

What were some unexpected benefits of the program?

To see people from different backgrounds being interested in a story taking place in such a specific context, so different than theirs, and yet connecting with the main character’s fears and angst.

What inspires you creatively?

The current unsustainable state of the world.

Kantú Lentz – Coche Bomba

 

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Kantú Lentz

What is your screenwriting and filmmaking background?

I have a bit of an unconventional path to writing/directing as I am completely self-taught. I grew up in a family of photographers, therefore visual storytelling has always been part of my life. I started out as a performer but felt like I wanted more control. I wanted to tell my own stories.

How would you describe your writing sensibilities?

I create stories that take place in alternate realities with magical realism elements. They usually have an element of romance – usually heartbreak – or characters who want a big life against all odds. I am obsessed with the beauty of sadness and how it is inescapably necessary to our existence as human beings.

What was your submission entry and why do you think it won you a spot on the program?

Coche Bomba tells the story of twelve-year-old Rosa who loves aliens and hates everything else, including her annoying little sister Lu. When a car bomb detonates while she’s babysitting, Rosa must take her sister to safety. It’s a story of a young girl against the world who finds the strength she didn’t know she had. It’s a classic coming-of-age story with an unconventional hero. I believe that unconventional heroes are rare and needed in our current world.

What inspired this idea and why do you think it’s filmworthy?

I wanted to take a moment in my life in which the surreal became normal and chaos became ordinary and make it universal through the story of Rosa’s coming-of-age. I want to tell the story about how resilient the human spirit in the face of great darkness. When the idea came to me, I discussed it with my producer Roja Gashtili and together we decided that this was a story we wanted to tell.

What is your personal connection to this story?

Coche Bomba is based on my childhood. I grew up in Peru during the ’90s which was one of the most violent periods in Peruvian history. My mother documented this period as a photojournalist. She once told me that the reason she had become a photojournalist was so that no one could say that the atrocities she witnessed didn’t happen. I am looking to do my version of this idea. Too many times it feels like there are only two narratives of Peru – either the violent darkness of the terrorist groups or the sad tales of the victims. And for me, if you make people only a villain or a victim then you are not making them full human beings.

How does this program fit in with your career advancement?

Being able to participate in a program of this caliber, with these amazing mentors and teachers is a rare opportunity that I was honored to be part of.

What did you learn from the writing mentors?

Our mentors were extremely generous and insightful. In our case we had two incredibly accomplished writers read our script and give us detailed notes which helped us polish and make our script better.

What were some unexpected benefits of the program?

So many, but the main one was meeting eight other incredibly talented filmmakers.

What inspires you creatively?

I have always been fascinated with visually representing things that are invisible to the eye. The way my brain works is, it’s always trying to create visual metaphors for how things feel. I like to start with an image in my mind. Once I have the image, I create a story and a world around it. I am inspired by the dichotomy of how intensely things can feel, yet the only visual trace that exists of them are the aftermaths.

Charlotte Martin –  Melisssa

 

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Charlotte Martin

What is your screenwriting and filmmaking background?

I’m an actor by training, which was sort of the gateway drug to screenwriting. Acting school – even at the Atlantic Theater Company, where I was a student while I was at NYU. I felt that acting wasn’t as creative or collaborative as I wanted it to be. We were all encouraged to create our own work, which resonated with me in the way of writing. It started in a sketch comedy class, where the semester assignment was to write something like 4 sketches. I think I wrote two dozen. They weren’t all good (not even close), but I was obsessed, and haven’t stopped since.

How would you describe your writing sensibilities?

I’m very drawn to subtlety. In the dialogue, in the action, in the details. Maybe it comes from being an actor, but nothing makes me squirm harder than when characters go on long, syrupy monologues on certain themes and really hit you over the head with their obviousness. I used to write like that, but recently I’ve unconsciously been competing with myself to see how LITTLE I can write and still tell an impactful story.

As far as the ACT of writing goes: my mantra is “don’t push”. When I feel like I’m getting bogged down in the details of something, I leave it and take a walk and do something else. A simple story can (and should) be extremely layered, but when I notice myself trying to bend over backward in the name of exposition, I know it’s time to take a break.

What was your submission entry and why do you think it won you a spot on the program?

We submitted with a script for the short film, Melissa, about an up-and-coming queer theater director, Cleo, whose mentor, Melissa, develops an unhealthy and destructive fixation on winning Cleo’s admiration and respect. When Melissa crosses a line by kissing Cleo against her will, Cleo is suddenly engaged in a battle she never wanted to be a part of.

The strength of the script is in the dialogue, I think. It’s tight and suggestive without being too mysterious, or conversely, too obvious. It’s also relevant, unfortunately. As all the #MeToo and #TimesUp stories of the world are coming to light, Melissa brings same-sex predation into the conversation. That’s a new variation on a disturbing theme — one that absolutely must be included in this movement.

What inspired this idea and why do you think it’s filmworthy?

The story is based on a real-life event, as experienced by me. I once had a female boss, straight-presenting, married, who locked me in a bedroom with her at a staff holiday party.

I intended to write the story as a novel, at first. But that didn’t work for me because so much of the inappropriateness and confusion came from the interactions and texture of the silences and innuendo of conversation. I also didn’t want to TELL the audience what to feel and when. I wanted their red flags and gut instincts to fire on their own.

What is your personal connection to this story?

It happened to me, but also I realized that there wasn’t a visual touchstone for a “woman preys on woman” story that isn’t some kind of thriller or horror or outright comedy. This is a story and a phenomenon that needs to be taken seriously – not abstracted by genre.

How does this program fit in with your career advancement?

It put me (US, dare I say it) on the map and in the room with very important people. It also put us in touch with our contemporaries. What I’ve been craving the last couple of years (after a couple of interstate moves that have taken me many miles away from the central hub of NYC) is a network and community of collaborators. I’m so inspired and empowered by the women in this group. I feel overwhelmingly lucky to count them as friends.

What did you learn from the writing mentors?

The small details and turns of phrase that delight me also delight the reader. Sometimes those gems are in the action and not the dialogue, so no one will “see” it except if they read it. But those are the details that make a script memorable. Don’t go crazy with the screen direction, but use it as a tool to make it YOUR story and not A story.

What were some unexpected benefits of the program?

Hearing the script! We had the unforgettable and WILDLY fruitful experience of reading our script aloud with Catherine Keener during the one-on-one sessions. She brought so much to the character that we hadn’t really considered were necessary but are so NECESSARY. She followed up the cold read with a seriously insightful and generative discussion about gender politics, betrayal, and theater that all but lit me and Cynthia and fire. Catherine: if you’re reading this, I was so serious about that read-through shaping what Melissa is becoming. I’m so serious I’m putting it in print. Thank you.

What inspires you creatively?

Art forms I have no interest in pursuing professionally. Particularly food, clothing, and investigative journalism podcasts. I try to not rely on any one thing in particular for inspiration because I don’t want to accidentally pigeonhole myself into any one kind of story or style. When I’m feeling stuck or stale, I go out of my way to use senses I don’t usually use when I’m sitting at my desk writing or on my couch watching movies.  A change in space -headspace, especially – is extremely powerful.

Laura Moss – Over and Over

 

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Laura Moss

What is your screenwriting and filmmaking background?

I started out as a PA and then worked my way up in production through the art department. I think it’s a blessing and a curse as a screenwriter to have a production background, to have a hands-on understanding of how the thing you’re writing will actually be made.

How would you describe your writing sensibilities?

Dark, visually driven, restrained but with a sense of humor. Stuff that straddles a few genres, but doesn’t fit neatly inside a single genre.

What was your submission entry and why do you think it won you a spot on the program?

My entry was Over and Over, a short about Evelyn, a young woman who is terrified of a climate apocalypse, and who starts to think she might be the next step in human evolution, a bridge that will get humanity past a coming extinction.

What inspired this idea and why do you think it’s filmworthy?

I’ve actually co-written this short with a playwright, David McGee. The film is inspired by his play of the same name. It was written years ago but the subject matter has unfortunately become increasingly timely. The scope of our visuals are pretty cinematic in nature (we will depict resurrected species, climate events, etc), but more importantly Evelyn, our main character, has a singular point of view, and I’m excited about using the unique tools of cinema to be able to view these major events through her eyes, really root the film in her experience.

What is your personal connection to this story?

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I started to have intense feelings of climate anxiety, as I experienced how climate change was undeniably affecting the place where I grew up. After the cleanup, day-to-day, a lot of folks seemed to just bounce back and act like nothing cataclysmic had happened. I went to a therapist and managed to talk him into his own existential crisis. I felt crazy, and I knew that I needed to channel those feelings into my filmmaking, grapple with these huge events in a way that was creative and active. When David and I decided to partner up for this project it all just came together. I felt an urgent, personal connection with Evelyn.

How does this program fit in with your career advancement?

Any type of support for a project with this scope is invaluable, and Tribeca provides financial, screenwriting, and producing support, and generally connects filmmakers in so many other ways. I loved being a part of this program because it was both immediately practical in terms of supporting Over and Over, but also took a long view and exposed us to the lessons and mentorship from women in our field that we can take into our careers in a more long-term sense as well.

What did you learn from the writing mentors?

A vital order of priorities for this particular film – heart connection to a character, then story logic, then spectacle/fun.

What were some unexpected benefits of the program?

The greatest benefit of this program (and this is saying something considering our fabulous mentors), was connecting with the other directors and producers who are at similar stages in our careers. I feel like I have not only made new friends, but I have a resource pool of women who I can reach out to for advice, emotional and professional support, who I know will be there for me. It’s a short few days, but the program is intense, and Mali (Mali Elfman, my producer) and I were surprised at the depths of the relationships we were able to forge with these other women in such a short amount of time.

What inspires you creatively?

Imagery most of all. If I have downtime, I tend to scour filmgrab or visual archives of photographers for inspiring imagery. I keep a library, I catalog everything by color/artist/theme and then scroll through the images when I’m starting a new project or need to feel re-inspired on an ongoing one.

Hannah Peterson – Champ

 

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Hannah Peterson

What is your screenwriting and filmmaking background?

Film happened a bit later in my life, but I have always had a love for creative writing. I ultimately completed my undergraduate degree at the New School and studied screen studies, it was a theory-based degree. I worked for a documentary filmmaker for a bit after that and then got into graduate school at California Institute of the Arts where I received my MFA in film directing, it was really there that I learned how to write and direct films, how to distill the theory I had been brewing for many years prior. I was able to work with some really amazing filmmakers while at CalArts who showed me the ropes of production, and that really set my mind on a mission to make films for the rest of my life.

How would you describe your writing sensibilities?

I have a very associative brain, so my writing often starts with a seed of an idea, something or someone that moves me, and then I begin associating memories and ideas with that. I think my writing tends to be on the sparse and un-dramatic side, or rather I see drama in very small things like looks, and am not as interested in big drama like car crashes.

What was your submission entry and why do you think it won you a spot on the program?

My submission entry was Champ, a short film that centers on a high school point guard, Genevieve who has an unwanted encounter with her basketball coach while on a train to an away game. Wielding her strategy and grit off the court, Genevieve finds a way to retaliate. I like to think it won a spot because it was a personal and timely story, but I think I had a lot of luck as well.

What inspired this idea and why do you think it’s filmworthy?

I first wrote this short film in a workshop with the filmmaker, Jennifer Reeder! I was given a prompt that included a train, and a basketball and I began from there. It turned out to be an incredibly personal story, it’s funny how prompts work that way. I decided to place it on a train because I do have an experience of being stuck on a train that has broken down in the middle of nowhere, but I also felt the train could be a metaphor for an antiquated system that breaks down and is ultimately taken over by the young women on board.

What is your personal connection to this story?

I loved sports when I was growing up, for many reasons, one of which was that it was a way to get out of the house and to feel ownership over my body and my time. When I look back, I remember the strong bonds I formed with the other girls around me, and I really wanted to make a piece that dealt with a serious topic but was also an ode to girlhood and what it feels like to come of age in sports.

How does this program fit in with your career advancement?

It was a great time in my career to participate in the Through Her Lens program because I have one short under my belt and a feature in the works. So, to have the opportunity to make a short film in between the two is a huge gift that will help propel me toward that feature. The level of mentorship in the program was incredible, and I was able to seek advice not only on the short that I brought to the program, but on my career and what it means to be a woman in the independent film industry today. To be taken seriously as an artist, at a time in your career when not everyone is doing that for you, is an extraordinary gift.

What did you learn from the writing mentors?

I learned a lot about being economical with storytelling in any form, but especially in a short, there is really no room for things that don’t lead to the evolution of the story. I was really encouraged by my mentors to think about the big picture emotionally and then build out the characters from there. Since my script involves a team of girls, in my original draft I had more of an ensemble piece and the mentors helped me to narrow down who was most important to develop and who could be relegated to the textures of the story.

What were some unexpected benefits of the program?

Getting to know the other filmmakers in the program was a huge gift to the program. We all had such diverse projects, and it didn’t feel like a competition, rather each woman was so supportive of each other and I really felt I made close connections with the other filmmakers.

What inspires you creatively?

The world outside as hokey as that sounds, just meeting people and traveling to different parts of the world, and seeing how other people live their lives is incredibly inspiring to me. I am also very inspired by fashion, I watch runway shows all the time for inspiration on productions and themes.

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