I Am is a documentary series that explores the life and work of queer artists who paved the way for gender equality movement by daring to be themselves fully.
I am is directed by Laura Arten, a New York City based actor, director, and producer. She received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of the Arts London, graduating cum laude in Film Studies. She then relocated to New York City, where she studied at New York University Tisch School for the Arts and the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. Her film debut The Story of Hers (2013) premiered in Cannes Court Metrage and was an official selection of the Brooklyn Film Festival, Manhattan Film Festival, Bootleg Film Festival among others. It was our pleasure to interview her for Toronto Film Magazine. I Am was recently an official selection of the Toronto Women Film Festival.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?
I think it all started organically, because my dad introduced me to film photography, perhaps. I was always surrounded by art and art books as a little girl. Lot of literature and culture, when I was little, my dad and I used to develop films in a dark room together. Looking back, I must have been like 4 or 5 at a time, which I think is rather progressive of him. He later gave me my first film camera. Maybe it was then, that I started to look at the world as a story to frame. Something to capture and communicate. Sometimes a picture, or a film, can express so much - it can allow people to find their voice and a way to communicate, especially in strained situations or dynamics.
What was the inspiration behind the making of your film?
I AM happened by accident if there is such a thing in art or life at all. I was asked to honor a female artist I admire, for Heidi Russell's International Women's Arts Salon in New York. I chose TOYEN, because since childhood she fascinated me, her surrealist collages and paintings, very brave and charged. And also the fact she was a pioneer woman; she dressed like a man and achieved as one in the man's world as well. I did a small video about her. Someone saw it that night and thought to commission a series exploring artists who didn't conform to gender norms and demands of their time. Pioneers in many ways. Art and life.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent female filmmaker in the film industry?
I would say the gender neutral challenge is always money. For everyone in independent film at all. For women perhaps even more so, it has been shown that women often get more funding for post production, as opposed to development, which goes to show their ideas or their execution is still trusted less. However I chose to believe it is changing, as women are proving themselves to be brilliant and through collaboration with men, of course.
Another point is gender dynamics and the fact that it is a male dominated industry still and if a young attractive woman rocks up, she may have to deal with all kinds of attention. Or she may also deal with rejection on the basis of people not wanting to risk rocking the boat on the basis of such attention. It really is tricky and I don't think it is simple for anyone. But the more we get used to collaboration across the board, the easier it will become. We must remember that so many freedoms are only 50-60 years old, when it comes to women.
How difficult is it to fund indie films?
Extremely. Which is why it is a desirable industry. What is hard to obtain is always desirable, when you think about it. Because it has rewards.
Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?
That is such a difficult question, I always try to duck and cover from it, because it also changes, depending on my mood and state of self, or what I am currently working on. I am going to say that the film that has been on my mind for a while now is Crash by Paul Haggis. It is such a masterpiece in so many regards. I love love love AVIVA by Boaz Yakin, his latest movie, which is a must see and I was disappointed not to see it on the "for your consideration" screeners for the Academy Awards. Honeyboy by Alma Harel left an impression on me, because of how she deals with storytelling, in a unique and refreshing way. From the Oscar contenders I would say Mank really was impressive. A big movie you know. The kind of a film you think of when you think "Hollywood".
How did your project go into production and how did you finalize the cast and the crew?
It started organically and with a lot of research. Once I had the stories, the biopics of these heroes, I started collecting material to use, of course, to tell that story. To give the voice a presence, a face. A huge thing was the voiceovers, because they simply had to be right. Respectful and loving and in honor of these people. I held multiple castings and truly paid a lot of attention to not only the actors' skill but also if their vibration aligned with what I felt was right for each character. Debbie Irwin from Be Heard was vital in the process. She is such a star of the voiceover world and supported me through the process. She also gave such a brilliant presence to Marlow Moss, one of my heroes. I was lucky to have a strong, experienced executive producer, who truly held it together for me and then also Nira Bustein, who came on board towards the end, but saw us through the nitty gritty of the finishing line. Music was composed by the incredible Robert Miller, a veteran of music for motion picture. And I truly couldn't have brought it to life without my editor and VFX woman, Alejandra Gonzales Castillo. Editing and animation is truly a labor of love, hours upon hours, dealing with the smallest details. And her skillset and commitment proved vital for this project.
How was the film received by your audience and film festivals and what is your plan for further distribution of the film?
I believe it has been received well given we have many awards and screenings behind us. It premiered at AmDocs2020, which I am so very proud of, Teddy Grouya runs this Academy Award qualifying festival so well and with such presence and consideration for the film makers. I was pretty saddened by the fact it had to all happen online in the end. Many other festivals followed, which we are very grateful for, and now the film is on DocsNOW+, a channel that belongs to AmDocs.
What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the making and the distribution of independent films?
I would say any recommendation depends on your means. Can you afford a big PR and marketing around the film and so on. But I feel the wold is changing and opening up to easier distribution channels, more direct ones.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
I am always shofty talking about what is next. Until it is happening or has happened, it truly is just an idea... I started, accidentally, a project that is to do with death and I was approached to create another documentary to do with shamanistic and Mayan wisdom.
Why do you make films?
The true answer is because I don't have a choice. Creative force is something rather bothersome, because it urges you into tough and painful situations. Difficult feats. But resisting this force of nature inside of yourself is pretty deadly. It is a dragon you can't get rid of. You have to learn to fly it.