Programmer, Penny Bartlett, spoke with Anahita Ghazvini Zadeh about her short film, Needle. Originally from Iran, she made the film while studying at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago. It was the recipient of the Cinéfondation short film prize at Cannes, a moment she refers to as “a turning point in her professional life.”
Q: I loved that Needle centers around a young girl, Lily, going to get her ears pierced. This seems like such a memorable, rite of passage moment for so many young girls – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it depicted in a film before. What particularly drew you to exploring this?
A: My father is a pharmacist and he did piercing for some friends and relatives at his drugstore. There was some kind of perverse joy for me looking at him working with medical tools and plunging the needle into their ears! But I didn’t get my ears pierced until I was 21 years old. Finally, one of my friends took me to a clinic to get my ears pierced around three years ago! The piercer used guns, and it was such a traumatic experience. There was an intense terror and pain, both in the form of being threatened by the gun and in the physical feeling of getting pierced. This sparked some interest in me for developing a plot-line for a film. The next step was that I started watching a lot of Youtube videos of actual piercing scenes that parents have shot of their children. The kids are kind of being tortured by this man and woman shooting them with guns and the other man or woman (their parents) shooting with their cellphone. So I realized the piercing can work as a metaphor for parental violence and the painful perception of adulthood and growth; also coming of age and becoming sexualized, which is a theme that I follow in my work.
Q: I loved the mother and daughter’s understated, naturalistic performances…can you talk a little bit about the process of casting those two actors?
A: I was a student at Abbas Kiarostami's filmmaking workshop in Iran and I am influenced by his style of filmmaking, casting and working with performers (mainly non-actors). Florence Winners (Lily) was the daughter of one of the artist friends who had also studied at the SAIC. I met with a number of children and found Florence the best match to the role. She has a deep and ambiguous expression in her silence that was perfect for Lily's role in the film, since for a good part of the film she is silently observing and wandering. She both had the maturity that was exceptional for her age and at the same time the vulnerability and sensitivity of a young person. Moe Beitiks (Ellie-mom) is a wonderful performance artist who also studied at the SAIC. The first time I met her, we were at the elevator of the school. I saw her and I thought she could be the mother! Then I approached her and she kindly accepted to participate and perform in the film.
Q: The dialogue also feels very natural – was there any improvised dialogue, or was it all tightly scripted?
A: We had several rehearsals with the performers, and I can say that we almost rewrote the lines as we were practicing. They helped me to improve the language of the film to an acceptable and natural level. We improvised a lot during the rehearsals, then incorporated the performers' improvisation into the script. So we mainly had fixed lines in front of the camera at the shooting set. But those lines were improvised and written collaboratively.
Q: The film has a distinctive, muted color palette…can you talk about the look you wanted for the film, and how this played in to its themes?
A: The director of photography (DP), set designer and I agreed on a cold color palette mainly composed of blue and green for the film. We all found it more congruent with the tone of the film, especially with the mood of the main character who is cold and introvert. There is some stillness and silence about her that I tried to reflect with stillness of camera, and coldness and flatness of the shots. At the time I was studying Robert Bresson meticulously. I really like the color palette in L'Argent (1983), his last film, and also I like the Bressonian notion of "flattening the images without attenuating them" and I tried to experiment with this in this film. Yoni, my DP, is a video artist with a unique visual style. He was very influential in finalizing the tones.
Q: The idea of cleanliness and sterility seems to play an important part in the film. The mother’s white gloves, her obsession with hygiene, the hand sanitizer being applied in the opening scene, the scene in the public bathroom…can you talk about this a little?
A: An important concept in the film is about adults' obsessions and neurosis directed toward the children, how children deal with it and try to escape or overcome it. The hygiene and obsession with cleanliness is sort of the mom's practice of power and control over her disordered life, which influences the child who does not have enough agency and dependence to oppose it or rebel against it. Maybe something as small as secretly chewing the gum that she sticks to different surfaces is her rebellious response! I think there is something visceral and bodily about their relationship, about the influence and control of the skins and bodies, and how the act of piercing at the end is a physical matter that marks the end of these tensions.
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