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.