Interviews

Cannes 2021 Women Directors: Meet Anita Rocha da Silveira – “Medusa”

Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Anita Rocha da Silveira has written, directed, and edited three short films: “The Noon Vampire,” “Handball,” and “The Living Dead.” Her first feature, 2015’s “Kill Me Please,” was screened at the Orizzonti section at Venice International Film Festival, New Directors/New Films, and SXSW, among others. “Medusa” is Rocha da Silveira’s second feature film.

“Medusa” is screening in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. The fest is taking place July 6-17.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

ARS: “Medusa” is a horror-musical-comedy set in an alternate universe — but very close to reality — about a young woman who grows up in an ultra-conservative environment, where she is expected to keep control of every aspect of her life. And in order to keep control of herself, it is vital to control other women around her.

After being slashed on her face, and feeling threatened with the loss of one of her main attributes in this society — her beauty — she will be able to distance herself from what is expected as standard behavior. After that, she will find her way to a special encounter.

This experience, instead of turning her body into stone, will awaken new sensations and desires. And the desire to scream – and ultimately to confront the world with the rage that she has kept inside for many years – will be unbearable.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

ARS: In Brazil, we have noticed a conservative rise since 2013, with part of Brazilian society advocating for the return of the demure female – one who is devoted to her man. Around 2015, I read several reports in the news about violent attacks on teenage girls carried out by other girls that attack in a group, in most cases because they regard the victim as promiscuous. Sometimes the victims’ hair was cut off, and the face slashed, which was essential to make the victims look “ugly.” The reason claimed for such violent acts ranged from believing the victims were “too beautiful,” to them “hitting on” a boyfriend of one of the attackers, to “showing off” with provocative clothes, “getting too many likes” on their Instagram pictures, or being perceived as “easy” or “slutty” – all in a world where social networks have become the primary surveillance tool.

After reading it, I instantly thought of Medusa. In the most known version of the myth, Medusa is described as a beautiful maiden, a priestess of the temple of Athena. But one day she gave in to Poseidon’s advances, angering Athena, the virgin goddess, who transformed Medusa’s beautiful hair into snakes, and left her face so horrendous that those merely gazing into it would be turned to stone. Medusa was punished for her sexuality, for desiring, for not being “pure.”

By combining myth and reality, it occurred to me that, even with the passing of the centuries, women wanting to control each other became part of the very foundation of this civilization. And perhaps, it is a way we find to keep control of ourselves.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

ARS: I want people to reflect about how the engines of machismo operate inside all of us, and about how the conservative rise we experience in Brazil — but also in many countries around the world — can affect teens and young adults.

However, mostly I want “Medusa” to bring some laughter, tension, joy, and a bit of lust to people. I want people to free themselves from the control others have on them, even if only for a few seconds, and enjoy themselves for a while.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

ARS: The biggest challenge was making a film in Brazil nowadays. With the dismantling of many cultural institutions in Brazil, and specifically of the Brazilian Cinema Agency, we struggled a lot to get support with the finances, and even today we are waiting to access the final part of the fund that was designated to “Medusa” almost three years ago.

In Brazil, a part of the society that unfortunately now has lot of political power perceives those who work in culture as “tramp” or “slackers.” And so, an entire sector is struggling a lot in Brazil, for whom it is a challenge to continue and to persevere every day, and with the pandemic the situation is even worst.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

ARS: The film was partly funded by Brazilian Cinema Agency, through a prize my first feature, “Kill Me Please,” received in 2018. It was also co-produced by two TV channels in Brazil (Canal Brasil and Telecine), and two local production companies also helped with the finance (MyMama and Brisa Filmes). Cajamanga, the post-production company where we made the color grading, VFX, and DCPs, is also a co-producer.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

ARS: I am the daughter of a math teacher completely passionate about cinema. Since I can remember, my mom used to take me to movie theatres and read the subtitles in a low voice to me. Growing up I would go twice a week to the video store and rent a lot of VHS tapes. A film that I rented “by accident” when I was nine years old was “Blue Velvet.” At first, I couldn’t understand it, but I could feel it was something special, so I watched the VHS tape over and over, until I made my sense out of it. “Blue Velvet” impacted and inspired me tremendously, and until today I am one of the biggest fans of David Lynch.

Later on, when I applied to college, I knew that I loved cinema and wanted to be part of that world, but I didn’t picture myself as a director — maybe because of some introjected machismo I didn’t see myself in a leadership role — and so I started to focus my studies in becoming a scriptwriter or an editor, and maybe an assistant director. Then one of my closest friends died, and for some time, I was devastated and angry.

As a way to cope with grief, I decided to do a short film called “The Noon Vampire,” which tells a story about celebrating life and following your desires. I made it with 250 euros and the help of a lot of friends. The act of directing and telling stories brought me joy and fulfilment.

Later on, this short ended up winning some prizes – and some money – which made it possible to do my second short film, “Handball.” After that, I just couldn’t stop.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

ARS: I received tons of bad advice during film school, especially since most my teachers were male. I remember one in particular telling me that I should focus my career on editing because “women are amazing in editing since it’s like sewing.”

After making my first short film, “The Noon Vampire,” I received the worst advice from a famous Brazilian film critic that said I should stop making my own films since the topics I was trying to talk about — human sexuality, pleasure, etc. — were not relevant.

I tried really hard to think about it, but I can’t recall a “best advice” someone gave me or anything like that. I got most of my advice from films. A quote that has helped me a lot when I am writing scripts and editing films is this one from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”: “To be free, one must give up a little part of oneself.”

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

ARS: Don’t listen to other people’s advice, follow your own intuition, and watch as many films as you can.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

ARS: “Clueless,” directed by Amy Heckerling. I watched this film at a young age, and it made me go a lot of times to the movie theater and then to the video store. I remembered being surprised when I realized it was directed by a woman. “Clueless” is my favorite Jane Austen adaptation ever made, and it’s a film that makes me laugh and enjoy life. Even today it’s my go-to movie when I’m feeling sad. Also, I’m really fascinated by the camp aesthetics.

As someone that grew up during the ’90s, movies with a female heroine weren’t common, and “Clueless,” even if on the surface it seems to be about love and “finding your better half,” it is really about friendship between women and following your own heart.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

ARS: I just arrived in to quarantine before Cannes, but I stayed in Brazil during the pandemic, which unfortunately counts over half a million COVID related deaths, most of which could have been avoided if we didn’t have a negationist president.

I was mostly focused on staying safe and helping out my parents and my friends. However, I was able to start developing a treatment for a new feature film while I was also working on the post production for “Medusa.” Luckily, we were able to shoot “Medusa” in November 2019.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?

ARS: In Brazil I’m perceived as white, but outside Latin America I’m perceived as a Latina. I will answer this question as a white person since I didn’t grow up struggling with racism, and tell a bit of my experience in “Medusa.”

In my short films and in my first feature, “Kill Me Please,” the main characters are somehow very similar to me, to my upbringing, and care for dilemmas that I have experienced. For “Medusa,” I felt that was about time to nurture a character that was different from me, a multi-dimensional character with a lot of conflicts. Mari Oliveira, the main actress in “Medusa,” is a Black young woman from a peripheric neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. She had a secondary role in “Kill Me Please,” and since then I was fascinated by her. She is an amazing actress, someone incredible to be around, and extremely smart. So, I always had Mari in mind when I was writing “Medusa,” and half of the cast is formed by people of color.

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