A Filmmaker’s Attempt to Decode Sex
Interview conducted by Christina Schultz
Christina Schultz: Thanks for talking to Femfilmfans, Emma! I’d like to start by saying I noticed your short films, Void, Shiva Baby and Lonewoods thematize sex. Void is about a young woman’s crush on a boy in her class that is interfered with by her dependence on porn. Shiva Baby is about a young Jewish woman who runs into her sugar daddy at a shiva. Both of them immediately open with sex scenes, albeit in mediated shots (which we’ll return to later). Lonewoods is about an 8-year-old girl (!) who learns about sex. Why is this a recurring theme in your work?
Emma Seligman: Women decode sexual messaging from a young age, from eight years old to twenty-two years old. They have to process what sex means, what it can do for them, what it should do for them, what they’re supposed to do for it. Technology, for example with porn or dating sites, has made the sexual messaging more confusing, and I’m interested in how women figure it out.
CS: How do you see sex for the young women in your films? Should women use sex for leverage?
ES: I see sex in my films as a huge question mark; it’s confusing, intriguing, exciting and even sad. I think it feels that way for a lot of people. So I would never say women should leverage sex or that being sex worker is bad. I don’t attach that kind of message to it. Sex is just confusing.
CS: I agree! Let’s get back to the mediated shots. Whenever I see shots framed by doorways or with partially obscured views, I’m reminded of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder because he used mediation often to create an alienating effect. Are you familiar with his work? Why did you use the technique in your films?
ES: I am familiar with him although I should watch more of his work!
Part of the reason I used mediated shots is that when you show sex, especially with a young woman, you have to think about the audience. I never want it to feel like I’m shoving sex in your face - although intimate portrayals of sex, without intending to, could feel explicit - because it’s still taboo. Another reason is because in Void and Shiva Baby there’s a level of secrecy, guilt and shame, so I obscure sex to keep you from having full access.
CS: I think that lines up well with your thoughts about confusion; you’re not sure who’s doing what or why. With Void I was quite surprised to see that she was masturbating. I thought: Here we go, she’s opening with a sex scene! But I appreciated the fact that this was not the case.
ES: Thank you, I’m glad!
CS: To move away from sex for a moment, what does the filmmaking process look like for you?
ES: I tend to take a long time with writing and rewriting because I have to shrink down my big ideas before I get to filming them. Filmmaking is also super collaborative, yet fun and stressful. I like going through the shots as much as possible and I love working with actors - having the right cinematographer and actors is so important. Editing becomes its own storytelling process as well.
CS: Speaking of storytelling, how do you come up with the ideas for your films?
ES: I made both Shiva Baby and Void in school, but Void was for an experimental class. I was encouraged not to care about plot or structure. It was more about creating a feeling and it happened very organically. I thought about the images, sounds and emotions I wanted to include. Shiva Baby came about because I went to many shivas growing up and there were plenty of sugar babies at NYU. So it’s usually personal to some degree but with an observation about the world around me.
CS: Your film Void has no dialogue, which I think highlights the loneliness, confusion and fantasy of young women. Is that why you decided to make the film with sounds versus traditional dialogue or simply because it was an experimental film?
ES: It was a combination of different things. A practical reason was that I wasn’t ready to record sound; I’d seen so many short films with horrible sound. But I also wanted to create a state of mind. Obviously you hear speaking in your dreams but I wanted to create more of a visceral experience. Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) was a big reference with the black void and the great sound design; on a story level there is this loneliness and not having the ability to communicate or being too scared to communicate which shuts down your voice.
CS: Shiva Baby, however, has a different feel from Void with its comically awkward encounter at a shiva. Did you have a similar experience to the film character?
ES: No, thankfully nothing like this has happened [laughs]. Shivas are just awkward for me. It’s a lot of mingling with people you haven’t seen for a while. The situation in the film was inspired by one of the sugar babies at school who told me she ran into her sugar daddy Jewish lawyer with all his friends at an event. So I wondered, what if I was seeing a Jewish sugar daddy? Would I run into him? But I haven’t experienced it.
CS: Will you explore the Jewish culture in other films?
ES: Yes, it’s definitely something I still want to explore because it’s been so enmeshed in my life and there’s so much to take from. I also think culture, tradition and family are great antagonists, or at least a background to sex.
CS: Void was shown at the Future of Film Showcase in Toronto and Shiva Baby at SXSW. What kinds of responses are you getting from the audiences? How does that make you feel?
ES: Awesome. It’s been especially exciting to see where Shiva Baby lands with people. I get many young women who relate to the film and are happy that I made it - the same goes for Void - and then I get guys that are like: So...is she a prostitute? I had one person comment on Vimeo: Am I supposed to feel bad for this whore? Or an older woman who said to me: It’s so sad this is what younger women have to do now. It’s interesting to see how people interpret the films differently.
CS: I read that Shiva Baby is in the process of being made into a feature-length film. That’s great news! What can you tell us about this project?
ES: I can tell you I’ve been working on drafts and drafts of the script. We’re currently looking for financing and getting everything together because it’s my first feature. The film has the same set up, just more fun, middle age Jewish characters.
CS: Oh great! I’m not Jewish but I have a zany Italian-Greek family so the shiva scene resonated with me. The scene with nagging parents is my favorite part.
ES: That makes me so glad you said that! I’m pleased to hear people who come from Greek, Italian or other strong cultural backgrounds say they relate to the film; you don’t have to be Jewish to get it.
CS: Who most inspires your work as a filmmaker?
ES: That’s a big question...but for Shiva Baby, I would have to say Jill Solloway’s Transparent was a big inspiration because she tackles modern Jewish culture in the show. I also like her filmmaking style. Another major inspiration is Xavier Dolan for his stories about young people in awkward, or rather disgustingly uncomfortable sexual situations.
CS: Do you have a favorite female filmmaker?
ES: That’s another big question! I’ll say Ava Duvernay for the work she does in and outside of film, like her show Queen Sugar. I love that she does documentaries as well. I want to do documentaries eventually, so she’s a huge inspiration. I would also say Lynne Ramsay, the polar opposite of Duvernay, but I love her movies. She makes me feel very uncomfortable and that’s something I really admire.
CS: Great choices! Who would you like to work with on a film if you could pick anyone, alive or dead?
ES: Barbara Stanwyck. She was so fantastic. But she was also a closeted queer celebrity and I would want to talk to her about being in Hollywood in the 30s, 40s and having to hide your identity. I’ve always been interested in that time period and all the closeted women having affairs with each other [laughing].
CS: Interesting! Did you know Stanwyck was in the movie Roustabout with Elvis Presley in 1964?
ES: No, I just can’t picture her with Elvis! I picture her in a glamorous, black and white, old Hollywood aesthetic.
CS: If you have a chance to watch it, it would certainly change your image of her [laughs]. On that note, thank you for your time, Emma!
Please visit Emma's website to watch the films Void and Shiva Baby and to receive more information about her work: www.emmaseligman.com
*Femfilmfans would like to give special thanks to the Future of Film Showcase (FOFS) for making this interview possible!
**All images, unless otherwise noted, were graciously provided to Femfilmfans by Emma Seligman.
"When I perform, I’m making a political point whether I like it or not."
By Christina Schultz
In case you missed it, please read Part One of my interview with Lucy Sheen here: "Overcoming the struggles"
Now on to the final part of the interview.
Christina Schultz: How do you combat stereotypes?
Lucy Sheen: By not getting angry - it’s a waste of energy. No matter how civilized the societies, there will always be idiots who are prejudiced for no other reason than the fact that they are. All you can do is counterbalance that with the way you act as a human being and with the work you produce. And the work we produce in the arts has wide ramifications on society. Without culture, innovation, discovery, and without creative minds, society is stunted and stifled.
I have to challenge the two-dimensional characters, the Other, the foreigner with an accent selling knock-off DVDs on the street corner, which reinforces stereotypes. We are not allowed to be normal British citizens that happen to be East Asian. So when I perform, I’m making a political point whether I like it or not.
I was in an episode of the extremely popular British period drama series Call the Midwife (BBC 2012-; Lucy was in episode #6.3 in 2017). The East Asian character I played, although with an accent, was a well-rounded character, which is the exception to the rule. Her story was fascinating and heart-breaking. I think this is best way is to combat stereotypes: to share stories, showcase voices and offer perspectives that have not yet been seen or heard. And you should have as much integrity as you can in the work you do.
CS: What do you think about the idea of “inclusion riders” - there was a big buzz around it during the Oscars this past February - or diversity quotas in the film/theater industry?
LS: I’m split. Forcing quotas is always hard but look where we are today. We still do not have an equal playing field. There are all sorts of political, social, racial elements bubbling below the surface acting as serious barriers for artists of color, especially in the U.S. Looking at where America is now, it works like a charm. No one bats an eyelid when seeing a black, an Irish, a Latino person in major roles.
In Britain, we are still trying to get the major production companies to start writing and programming different storylines. There’s all this talk of diversity but you need writers who can access this. That’s not to say the white, middle class, Oxbridge male writers can’t do that - some of them can - but many of them can’t because it’s beyond their experience.
To change this we have to start nurturing and commissioning British East Asian writers. We need to be given a chance. Producers, casting directors, etc. need to be aware of modern cultural sensitivity issues. Whitewashing roles is just not good enough. And there were natural hurdles with such a small number of drama schools, there were only five back in my day, to get auditions. Now there are so many schools which allow more people to have a chance.
CS: What challenges have you faced or negative experiences have you had because you are a woman?
Obviously #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein created a global stir. In the UK, I was involved with the Royal Court Theater when they openly addressed the concerns of sexual abuse. That was also hot on the backs of Kevin Spacey and Max Stafford-Clark, a renowned director who co-founded the Joint Stock Theater Company and is also heavily involved with the Royal Court.
Working in the 80s was a different world, however. The casting couch was still very much in evidence. There was that awful feeling: Who do you tell? Where do you turn to? I had the added misfortune of being a Chinese woman who at the time was a size 8 [U.S. 6] with long hair. This fed into the Western male dream of the oriental submissive female, which then played a part in my theater work with some people trying to take advantage of me. But acting is still a difficult profession for females to get into and to hold their own. The majority of people in power are still older males. In theater, not even a third of directors are female, which is galling because there are so many talented women out there but the culture is still sexist and abusive.
CS: If you could give our readers some advice on how to fight against racism, prejudice, sexism and ageism in the acting business, what would you say to them?
LS: None of these things should stop you from doing what you want. You just need to develop loads of patience and diplomacy. It’s also helpful to look for other allies and to be careful about male bashing. You should stay true to yourself, however. Do your research and don’t be afraid of asking for help. Reach out to others who you admire and inspire you. Write to directors or editors. Put yourself on the line. Ask Can I shadow you? See as much as you can, read as many books as you can. Never stop learning and most importantly, don’t be afraid.
CS: That’s a lot of great advice. Thanks, Lucy!
Overcoming the struggles: a dyslexic, transracial adoptee carves space for British East Asian actors in the UK
Interview conducted by Christina Schultz
Lucy Sheen was made in Hong Kong, exported to the UK in the late 50s early 60s as a transracial adoptee. Lucy is an actor, writer, filmmaker, trainer and transracial adoptee advocate. She trained at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama (1985), the first British East Asian actress to graduate from a recognized UK drama school. Lucy’s first professional job was the female lead in the groundbreaking British feature film Ping Pong, directed by Po Ch’ih Leong. This was the first British film of its kind to look at the issues facing the British-Chinese community in the UK.
Christina Schultz: Hi, Lucy. Thanks for chatting with Femfilmfans. I want to start by saying I am in awe of all the work you do. You are a filmmaker, actor, writer, poet, cultural sensitivity trainer, advocate, the list goes on. How do you find time to do everything?
Lucy Sheen: The nature of being an actor is that if you’re not Dame Judy Dench, you need a day job. If you don’t have some Hollywood films on the backburner, you need to fit in the teaching, the training, the writing, the acting, etc. Lots of the work you can do remotely, like writing, for instance, which makes it easier.
CS: What do you enjoy doing the most?
LS: Acting, I suppose. But I enjoy all of it. The corporate training day job not so much although I do appreciate it. I get to use my acting skills in a different setting and I get paid for it, which is always great.
Acting on stage is so different from other types because it’s in front of a live audience with other actors - all living, breathing entities. The challenge is to keep it fresh and exciting for the audience and for you as an artist if you have multiple performances.
CS: What made you transition from acting to filmmaking?
LS: I got hoodwinked into it [laughs]. I was approached by an acquaintance who found out I was an actor and suggested I make a documentary film. I pointed out my work was all in front of the camera and not behind the camera so I said I could help her, but somehow I wound up producing, directing and writing the documentary Abandoned Adopted Here.
CS: But Abandoned Adopted Here also tells your story, that of the transracial adoptees. Is that why you agreed to make the film?
LS: Yes, I felt it was important to make a documentary about what it means to grow up as a transracial adoptee and what it means to be British East Asian.
CS: Was it difficult making a film about such a personal topic? What was that like for you emotionally?
LS: It would have been harder had I not been directing and writing. I would have more time to stew in my own juices. I didn’t give myself time to think about the personal nature of the project. It wasn’t until I observed other people watching the film that I realized how emotional they found it.
CS: If I may say so, your personal story seems to be one of struggle. Struggling to find quality work, to navigate the completed waters of identity, esp. in the British colonial context, as a “transracial adoptee,” struggling for the rights and representations of Asians in film and theater, struggling with dyslexia and so on. What injustices and limitations have you faced in your line of work?
LS: As I’ve gotten older I’ve become less tolerant of inequality and injustice. When you first come out of drama school you want to work. You can end up compromising yourself and you have youth as an excuse. I was lucky, however. When I left drama school in the 80s, I was a “jobbing actor,” although there were limitations. I got radio work because they wanted a Chinese person but since I grew up in the UK I had to put on an East Asian accent. And yet I couldn’t be in radio for anything other than those Chinese roles, which is quite bizarre and still happens now.
In England, East Asians are viewed separately from other British minority ethnics, such as Black, African, Caribbean and Southeast Asian. We have always been further segregated and seen very much as the Other, the thing to be feared, to be ridiculed; you find it in the practice of yellowface. If you were to continue the racist practices of black- or brownface, you wouldn’t get away with it in the UK, but for some strange reason this continues to happen to East Asians.
So we are, in many ways, so far behind and it confines what I can do as a performer
CS: And what was it like dealing with your dyslexia?
LS: I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I did all of my studies. It wasn’t a recognized condition when I was a kid in the 50s-60s. They thought that I was being thick and insubordinate. This kind of reaction hasn’t changed much over time, even with more awareness of learning disabilities, but you do find ways of coping.
Dealing with text and words as an actor is still probably not the best profession to go into when you’re dyslexic. I had to learn to train my eyes to slow down and my brain to focus. I’m not very good at sight readings. In a student production of King Lear, for the line “Put on what weary negligence you please,” I once famously said “put on what weary negligees you please” instead. These kinds of things were embarrassing at the time but are now quite amusing.
Because of my experiences I work with dyslexic charities and offer advice. I tell people you can succeed in world of words and literature. Today there is so much technology that makes things easier. It still takes me twice as long to read a script though.
Join us again on Saturday for Part Two of Christina's interview with Lucy Sheen where she talks about combatting stereotypes, experiencing the #MeToo movement and promoting diversity in the UK!