Documenting A New Moment — A Miniflix Interview With Ilana Coleman
Short Filmmaker on being in the moment, going to CalArts and blurring fact and fiction.
When first going to college in Mexico City, Ilana Coleman went in as a communications major….and she left as one too. However, the whole time there, she knew it was filmmaking that was her most specific passion, and what she wanted to make a career doing. Her already impressive filmography began with a 16 millimeter thesis film (Out of Earth) about an incestuous relationship in the wake of a mother’s death. Her early work declared the beginning of a vibrant new voice, and in many ways her work continues to carry many of the same elements: investigating the nature of identity, establishing (or blurring) the line between naturalism and the supernatural or otherworldly and using images to express the otherwise inexpressible.
Her next thesis film (this time from CalArts) is also her most recent short. And We Stood Still started out as a documentary project on the recent epidemic of disappearances throughout Central America. After gathering interviews however, and re-visiting a town she used to live in, Coleman realized that her next project should be narrative-driven. The result is a hypnotic and transporting look at a very serious crisis in current events.
Ilana talks to Miniflix about her filmography, what it’s like to teach film after being a film student and the ambitious projects she is working on next.
Miniflix: Let’s talk about your first short film, and your first thesis film,Out of Earth. Why 16mm? What was the inspiration or story behind this? Any particular film influences on this? The film feels both like a realist drama and a fable.
Ilana: I really don’t know what inspired the story at all, but we read Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. It is a story about two brothers who live together. So suddenly it clicked, and I went to write the script. It does have that feeling of Páramo’s writing, and the way he writes. It could be magical realism even though I feel it’s not. The 16mm was for the grain because of the earth. It was about the colors I was using.
M: As this was your thesis film, was there ever any moments during the shoot where you felt challenged or over your head?
I: It happens in every first film, but the fear of wondering if I’m gonna make it. The biggest challenge was time…but the actors were amazing. With me especially because it was my first time really directing.
M: Yes, this film is led by two very strong performances. I am curious what your process was like with them? Did you feel overwhelmed at all going into that, or were you pretty comfortable giving direction?
I: I was nervous, but Tenoch Huerta and Eileen Yáñez are both very kind people. They knew it was a short film, that we were starting out. I guess I didn’t try to over-direct them. I would make comments if I needed changes. But there was ultimately more freedom. We had some rehearsals before the shoot…the sex scene was a challenge because they both were wondering at one point why they had to do it again. Yes, I did make them do it several times. There were moments in that scene that were kind of difficult. At some point I got myself lost on the objective of the scene.
M: Do you think your shooting style, or the way you prep a set, has changed in any large ways between your first thesis film and your current work?
I: Yes. For my first thesis film, what you see is what we shot. Basically the storyboard was the film and the film was the final edit…With And We Stood Still, I took the liberty of being more present, or at least that was my goal: to be more present. To experiment — if something new is going on. To document a new moment. And I shot way more in that film. The first cut was 50 minutes. So I think that was it. I didn’t want to restrain myself to the storyboard this time. I really wanted to re-imagine the image. Because I do know that I’m stronger in the image and I wanted to push myself into another route. Still trying.
M: In what way do you feel like you’ve grown as a filmmaker by going to CalArts?
I: It changed me completely. Besides the films that I watched, the mentors that I had…they care alot about you as a person, and how you as a person views the world. So right now I’m a teacher and I’m trying to do the same thing for my students. Get them to open their eyes to what is around them and to see things differently even though they’re in the same space. So I think CalArts has helped me to open my eyes.. That freedom I talked about earlier, to pursue the image, and to do things I’m not as strong in, comes from CalArts.
M: So are you teaching right now? Is that high school or university?
I: I’m teaching an undergrad and a master’s class. An undergrad class in visual communications at the same college in Mexico City that I went to, and a class for the master’s program in Cinema. It’s called Fiction, even though I’m actually trying to do the opposite.
M: How does it feel to be teaching film students instead of being on the other side?
I: I think it’s great when you see students excited…because you can clearly see that that person is feeling something just because of being present and watching and thinking. When you see someone responding to a film, or to the making of a film. That’s amazing. I like teaching because it keeps me thinking.
M: There are certain images or ideas that follow your films. For exampleDe Agua and Theory of Color both dominantly feature blue and red. Fish appear in both De Agua and Woman and the Fish. Do you intentionally mean to carryover certain visual ideas from film to film, or does happen more intuitively?
I: So De Agua is a co-direction. So many of the things in that film were a decision between two people. I was more in charge of the image and Israel León was more in charge of directing actors. And it was his script. So I know that that film overall comes more from him. But Theory of Color was actually the short I used to get into CalArts. They asked for a personal documentary and I did that film and I wanted to represent identity with those colors, which for me was the easiest thing. The Woman and the Fish was more intuitive, but also a collaboration. This time it was with Chy Chi and Russell James.. And that started because the last shot of that film was a shot that I’d always wanted to do with Out of Earth. But I never did and I guess it was something that was stuck in my mind and that’s how the story came about. It’s an experimental thing.
M: Can you briefly speak to the story behind And We Stood Still. Both the real life story and when you started to have the idea of making a short film.
I: It started as a different idea I had for a CalArts thesis. Then the 43 students [2014 Iguala mass kidnapping] happened. I started researching more about the subject and then I found out how many other disappearances there were. Like I knew, but I didn’t know how many. I started reading more testimonies and things. I didn’t want to talk about the 43 specifically, but I did want to talk about the disappearances happening in Mexico. So I wrote a script. It was a little different than what the film is now. Then I went back to Mexico and got 6 interviews with the mothers. My goal was to use those testimonies for the film, to make a documentary-narrative hybrid. While I was writing the script and listening to the interviews, I couldn’t get them to quite work, so I separated them. I left the testimonies aside and I wrote the script using the dialogue from the testimonials.
So some of the dialogue from the characters come directly from documentary footage. But it’s totally a fiction piece. The place that we shot is a town that I had lived for two months about six years ago. I love that place, because it’s beautiful and I know Pepe [Pedro González], who played Raúl in the film, for a long time, as well as his wife and sons and daughter. So I got in contact with them and I eventually did three scouting trips, more to get in touch with the people in town and to get to know the town again. The thing was, I knew I really wanted to do a film in that place. So my obvious thing was to combine the subject of the disappearances with a place that I’ve always wanted to shoot. Because actually in that place there are not disappearances. At that moment it was more in the north of Mexico, but I did not want to take myself and the crew to a place where we could be in danger.
M: One of the most interesting moments in the film to me was the loudspeaker announcement asking for participants for a film. Is there a specific historical reference for this, or was that your original idea? It felt like something out of Abbas Kiarostami, a director who loved playing with the idea of artificiality versus reality. It was very self-conscious cinema.
I: That was included because it’s something that happened during one of the scouting trips we took. I found it as more of an exploration of sound and…that’s what I told the DP [Aníbal Barco] initially. I wanted to make a moving shot about how the sound travels. I wanted to talk also about the process of the film within the film. But many people were confused a bit.
M: This definitely felt like an expansion or new direction for your work. There was an ensemble of characters, the setting was more expansive and cinematic choices felt more intentionally reflective and meditative. Do you feel like this was a new step for you creatively?
I: I think this film became like a mini-feature. Both in the structure and everything. It became more a mini-feature than a short. There was a moment where I did question if this could be a feature, but no..I’m just glad that I took the chance to really make the film…to make all the things I wanted to be there were there. The layers in sound, dimension, everything are there.
M: What was the shoot like on this film? How many days to shoot? What camera? Budget?
I: All the money came from Kickstarter. We raised $12,000. We shot for 8 days. Actually, the most expensive thing of all was getting eight of us there in a plane, then a 6 hour trip by car to get to the town where we were shooting. It was good that we had time…and we were in the jungle and never ran into dangerous insects…but there was the heat. The heat was pretty, pretty bad. Everything else ran pretty smoothly.
M: Was the crew just the five, and the rest locally-based?
I: We had 8 in total, including the main actress [Talía Marcela] from Mexico City.
M: One of the other shocking features of this film is how none of the family members (besides the lead) seem particularly shocked or horrified anymore by the disappearances of their family members. Did you find this to be true in those you interviewed too? Have the disappearances become fairly normalized?
I: I think for the families it’s always a shock. The thing is, I wrote the story and one of the mothers who I talked to said that she never thought something like this would happen to her family…but it did. She was middle-class, Mexico City, she was not in contact with the news or anything…but now she is an activist and really changed…This same thing was happening to me as I was researching. You start digging in a little bit and suddenly you’re finding out about all these disappearances. When you go into a town there is always this fear about going to the police or not, or whether the government is part of this or not. I mean, it’s organized crime, but who’s in it and who’s not? That was my experience, talking to the mothers….it’s just part of their daily lives now. They have to go to the authorities this week, just to see if there is any news. The shock has gone away and it becomes part of the routine.
M: What projects of yours are coming up?
I: I took the interviews that I did with the mothers and I’m starting a new project. It’s one I’ve been working on for three years now…it’s a fiction and a non-fiction. I’m using the testimonies but I’m also doing a fictionalization. It’s about language and the word disappearance…they start questioning the word disappearance and where it comes from. It’s intertwined with some Chilean and Argentinian archival footage about the historic disappearances. It’s absurdist, combined with really harsh, heartbreaking testimonies. So I’m still figuring out how to combine that. I’ve been workshopping the project and some people are really starting to respond positively.
M: What is a favorite short film of yours?
I: It’s kind of a cliche but I always go back to Gasman, by Lynne Ramsay. I just showed it to my class last week, so I guess that’s why it’s so fresh. I love how she uses the image and the composition to say something else. I think that’s what I’ve been doing, even though I’m trying to move in a direction that’s more story, more characters.
From the New Orleans Film Festival, I really loved Fence. I loved the dialogue, the characters, the one shot throughout; I loved everything about it.