Kicking off our feature on the female directors showcasing their work at this years BFI Flare London LGBTQ Festival is the short film Transmission directed by Anahid Yahjian and Emily Mkrtichian. K and L are cultural conservationists working in a not-so-distant future to preserve the artifacts and histories that are being systematically destroyed by a totalitarian government. When they are in a deadly car accident, time splinters into parallel realities, separating them. Each enters a reality where one dies while the other lives, and they embark on a search between worlds to find each other again. We spoke to Yahjian and Mkrtichian along with their co-creators, Kamee Abrahamian and lee williams boudakian.
How did you get into directing?
ANAHID: It all started for me when I grabbed the family camcorder and made a strange short film in my cousin’s kitchen where he played a mad scientist hatching open a Kinder egg (I was 14). I knew without a doubt that I wanted to direct from that point forward, but my belief in my ability to do it wavered over and over again until my early twenties.
Where did the concept of the story come from?
ANAHID: That’s a question for Kamee and lee, our brilliant collaborators who created the incredible story world and characters (and also play them in the film).
LEE: The concept started for us over four years ago now. Kamee and I both love sci-fi, and we were not seeing much of ourselves or our communities represented in the films and shows we were watching. Queer and trans characters, people of colour, and folks living across spectrums of ability were (and are still) largely absent. Sometimes one or two characters. Often at the periphery or secondary. Even films and shows with strong female leads were largely made by male directors, or a predominantly male crew. We began talking about making films that centred marginalised people, in the story and in the making, cast and crew. The storyline for this particular film emerged from Kamee’s dreams and our mutual interest in Armenian mythology.
KAMEE: Yes! The story and characters were born from a dream I had about Lee and I living inside a story world much like the one that Transmission exists within. It came to me as one of those lifetime-lived dreams, and so much of it was inspired by my creative partnership and friendship with Lee. At the time, I was thinking so much about how our relationship is one of the most important in my life, and, if we were ever separated somehow, what lengths we would go to in order to find each other again. Obviously as an Armenian with a tendency to be overly dramatic my heavily-sci-fi-influenced imagination went to the edge of what separation could look like, if we were thrown onto different timelines!
Did you come across any obstacles during the making of the film?
EMILY: There are always (many) obstacles in making any film. We experienced some of the more common ones, like wishing we had more money and more time. There isn’t much you can do about those except work with what you have, and use those restrictions as opportunities for creativity and experimentation. But we also had some less common obstacles. Our core creative team of four people were all in different places, so we found really creative ways to work remotely and digitally over a year of pre-production. We were dedicated to having a crew that was diverse and collaborative, and that meant putting in some extra time, effort and care in how we crafted our team and our set. None of the obstacles were things we couldn’t overcome, they just required more time, and a strong commitment to ethics and ethos of the piece we wanted to create.
ANAHID: The only other thing I would add to Emily’s answer is that making a film with severely limited resources and support is unbelievable taxing on the psychology of its creators. The financial constraints of the extremely modest budget we worked very hard to build and make the most of regularly pushed our creativity, resilience, collaborative process and overall enjoyment of making the film to the absolute limit and sometimes over the edge. It really proved the universal truth about how financial insolvency is a gateway to a host of other serious, potentially debilitating problems.
LEE: It was important to us that collaboration sit at the centre of making this film. When marginalised communities have their/our stories told, it is more often as the subjects of films rather than as makers. To be a maker is to shift the power dynamics. Representation isn’t enough, it’s essential we have agency in our representation. Collaborative work, however, presents challenges. It is time consuming and has to make space for diverging views, experiences and opinions. It means lots of negotiation. It means prioritising process, which is especially challenging when working with a very expensive medium and constrained resources. It also means having ideals and knowing that you will only approximate meeting those ideals. Ultimately, we learned how to make space on this project: for differences, for imperfection, and for each other. It has been powerful, challenging, and rewarding.
KAMEE: Echoing a lot of the above, for sure. I think like with any work that operates collaboratively and challenges dominant power structures, no process is going to go off without a hitch. There have been some really challenging and uncomfortable moments throughout our creative process, for sure. Sometimes it was rough for some more than others, and other times it was rough for all of us simultaneously for very different reasons. Then there were moments of mind-melding telepathy! It was hard, and much like how Lee described it, a lot of it was super powerful and rewarding for me as well. I think that is what I am most thankful for in the end, is the lessons learned around the complex profundity of intentionally creating work in ways that counter traditional/hierarchical approaches.
What was the best part of the experience of making this film?
EMILY: Being on set for production is always so exciting because there are years of work that go into getting you there - and all that work crystallises into just a few intense days of intense work and creativity. We did four days of production with a smaller crew, mostly packed into the home of a member from our team. It was stressful, challenging, and thrilling. It’s the part of film that you can never recreate; you have lots of people doing very different things, but working together to accomplish one single, crazy goal. It’s really a beautiful process that passes in the blink of an eye. But besides production, I believe the best part is yet to come, which will be screening the film with different audiences. We are especially excited about bringing this film to the communities it was crafted by and for, across the US, Canada, and Europe.
ANAHID: I tend to derive the most creative satisfaction from the process of making something, rather than showing the completed work to other people. But this project has proven different. Yes, there was so much incredible beauty in the making of it (I love post production in particular and seeing your ideas come to life on set is the most magical feeling I’ve ever experienced) but every opportunity I’ve had to share this film with others has actually carried the most meaning--especially when I get to talk to a viewer who has dug deep and started to peel back the layers of the film and is completely entranced by what it could all possibly mean and demanding I explain it to them. Knowing that we made something so complex, though to some it may seem simply unclear, feels like a massive achievement to me.
LEE: This film has pushed and stretched me in all possible ways and each stage of it has been jam-packed with highs and lows. Pre-production and the coming together of our team was blue-sky dreamy. Production was a thrill of people, tasks, challenges, and a buzz of energy. Post-production has been a magical world of seeing the results of all this labour, energy, and collective visioning. And now, as it enters the world… I don’t know what to say! I’m proud of this film. And I’m especially proud of all the care and labour that has gone into it.
KAMEE: I’m running out of articulate brain power here, so I’ll just name two highlights. One is nursing my 11-month-old between takes. It was so hard and hectic at the time, but looking back at behind the scenes photos of that, I can’t help but feel like I should be celebrating that whole situation. Second is when one of the directors was discussing the believability of a part of our storyline in one scene, and the DP, Moira Morel, responded reassuringly, “because they are magical lesbians and they can do whatever the fuck they want.” Although not all of us identify as lesbians, I really want to put that on a t-shirt.
How did you find incorporating the subject of hacking into your story?
KAMEE: Hmm. I think hacking is one of the many, many ways that the characters in the World of Q story world resist the totalitarian regime. The idea is that they are working alongside activists and cultural/community workers (as they already do in real-life) to dismantle all the systemic f**kery around them. It is about bringing together our resources and skills and visions, to imagine and build towards futures in which we are surviving and thriving.
What do you want the audience to take away from your film?
ANAHID: That love knows no bounds, imagination is everything, science fiction is now, and to quote a friend who watched the film recently: “all the magic you are looking for is already inside of you.”
LEE: That the future is something we co-create; that it is already unfolding; that where we come from is already inside us, even when we don’t fully know the details; that the answers are often nebulous, we have to trust our way forward; and that love, myth and magic are integral parts of how we survive and thrive.
Only 4% of the highest grossing films in the past decade were directed by women, being a female director can be disheartening in this environment. What would your advice be for aspiring female directors out there?
EMILY: The advice I would give to female, female-identifying and non-binary makers (and any other folks who are underrepresented in this industry, i.e. most folks) is to develop stories that are personal and important to you. It’s an exciting time to be someone who crafts and tells stories, because the category of who is allowed to do that is opening up - or being forced open.There is a huge audience out there for stories and images that are wholly original, diverse, and new - even if you don’t realise it. It’s a powerful experience to imagine a story where someone who looks like you or thinks like you is the hero, and it will have a ripple effect on all the people who watch and take in those images and messages.
ANAHID: I don’t really care to make mainstream work that grosses huge sums of money--maybe that’s why this statistic alone doesn’t really matter to me. But what comes next is absolutely unfair and infuriating: that films made by, for and starring underrepresented people don’t get anywhere near the financial support they need to really get to enjoy the opportunity of reaching their intended audience. We live in a time of total over saturation--everything is “content,” and we are all overdosing on it. Making your work stand out in this ultimately meaningless sea is incredibly difficult. I don’t know what advice to give, frankly, since I am very much in the thick of it and so far only able to come up for air in bursts--all I can do is continue making art, because it’s the only thing I truly enjoy doing or know how to do well.
LEE: It is a good moment and a hard moment. Things are changing, but the constraints are real. Storytelling is undoubtedly powerful. We know it can change minds, hearts, and lives. And when we get to see ourselves in stories, it is empowering, inspiring and rallying. It is vital that more underrepresented communities get the opportunities and resources to tell their stories. We need more women, racialized people, queer and trans people, and people across spectrums of ability to be making films. This means being prepared to fight for our space to make. Opening doors is hard-a** work, especially when we often have to break them down. But, we are, we can, and we will continue pushing through. We can do this. My main piece of advice is to see this as a marathon, not a sprint. Find out what you need to go this the long-term. Consider how you will take care. And as you go along this path, know that you are not alone, so don’t try to go it alone. Go together. There is so much power in working with each other.
What’s next for you?
ANAHID: More filmmaking, please!
LEE: Exactly. What Anahid said. More filmmaking!!
KAMEE: Creating more work that live inside the World of Q storyworld. Not just as film, but as installation, visual art, books, transmedia, etc. I would also like to perform more, for the camera.
Interview by Sophie Duncan & Caris Rianne
Transmission will be showing in the CHALLENGE ACCEPTED shorts showcase on Fri 22 March and Sat 23 March. For tickets and information please visit here. You can view the trailer below along with links to the film makers website and instagram.