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Samantha Aldana is a filmmaker and writer based in New Orleans. Her work has been heavily influenced by the tradition of telling stories about her multicultural upbringing in the American South and the Caribbean. Aldana is the recipient of the Belize Cinematography Commissioner Award as an Emerging Feature Film Storyteller for her feature film, Little Wild Lies, in development. Her short film Melancholic Man was shown at Comic Con and was honored as Best Boxing Film and was also honored with the Best Narrative Film at the Audience Awards for Women.
“Formless” will be screened at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from June 9-20.
W&H: Describe the film in your own words.
SA: For me, “Formless” is an invitation to the mind of a woman who is lost in the cycle of her addiction. This shows how destructive self-loathing can become, and what terrifying illusions can grow from believing in the lies we tell ourselves.
W&H: What attracted you to this story?
SA: When Kelly Murtagh approached me with her personal story of dealing with an eating disorder, I was motivated by the opportunity to explore the subject in a new way – the fact that she was also willing to take risks made me thrill my teeth into film.
“Formless” taught me that what attracts me most is the perspective of history. With Kelly as my illness guide, I dived into learning everything I could about eating disorders – study, research, and development for over a year.
It was during this process that I was able to find personal ways to connect with the material. This allowed me to better convey her experience using storytelling tools such as body horror, fantasy, and stylized renderings.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after watching the movie?
SA: The topic of eating disorders and body image problems is familiar to most, and I think it’s easy to have a strong point of view and opinion about things that we think we know well. In my work on Formless, I had a big goal – to create a new space so that this familiar object could live inside.
I hope viewers will discover a fresh, insightful look at what it is like to have an eating disorder and how scary, painful, and isolated fighting mental illness can be.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
CA: I’ve heard it’s always difficult to make an indie feature film, especially your first one, but it wasn’t easy to do it in 2020. In the summer of 2019, we completed the main photo and then immediately started editing, but by the beginning of 2020 we were stuck. The film did not reveal the potential that I knew about, and I tried to listen and understand who he wanted to become. After several months of continuous work on the film, I started to feel too close to the material and thought about taking a break. But then a pandemic hit and everything shut down.
In the end, we took over the editing again and had to decide how to finish the film in this new landscape. Our team was constantly thinking about how to do everything virtually and safely – from pickup shooting to ADR. This would not be possible if everyone was extremely creative and committed to the project.
Another way that we were able to finish the film was accepted by the Gotham Narrative Post Lab. It was such an inspiring experience to virtually meet other directors in situations similar to ours. It was especially inspiring for me to see other rookie directors leading their teams through all these unknowns.
I’m still processing it all, and as terrible as the pandemic was, it gave me the mental space away from the movie that I needed because all this time I could only think about survival and safety. When we started working on the film again, I came back to it from a new perspective.
This experience taught me that sometimes it takes courage to give up the art that you create so that it, you and your team can breathe.
W&H: What inspired you to become a director?
CA: Growing up, I adored live action and animated fantasy, science fiction and supernatural films – everything magical and otherworldly. All the dots connected when I was in high school and watched behind-the-scenes footage of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, my biggest obsession at the time.
Before that, I had no idea how films are made. I probably thought Hollywood was the factory that the films came from or something. As I watched, I saw hundreds of people working together to create fantastic sets, costumes and special effects. They all listened to this man, who was called the director, who had to interact with everyone and plan all the details of the film. I remember how at that moment I vividly decided: I will do it.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
CA: The best advice I have received in the context of directing is that the problems that arise may not always be your fault, but they are always your problem that needs to be addressed. If you are smart, you will do this by surrounding yourself with dedicated and passionate teammates.
The worst advice I’ve ever received is that you should take advantage of opportunities as they arise, especially as a beginner. This can mean resigning to disrespect and misconduct on the part of people in positions of authority. This is easy to believe when you are just starting out because we are all desperate to intervene, but this is an old mentality that needs to be abandoned.
We must remember that we also have strength and we can have standards. I believe that we can work together to decide what we will and what we will not tolerate.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
SA: I recommend actively taking a seat and not waiting for an invitation to the table – we have the right to be there just like everyone else. We need to constantly remind ourselves that our stories, perspectives and perceptions matter, especially when we don’t always get support to share them. An already grueling industry has a lot of work to do, so we need to work together and support each other. This is the only way we will see some changes.
W&H: What is your favorite film made by women and why?
SA: Nowadays, I would call Denise Gamze Erguven’s film Mustang, it is shiny and thin. The film perfectly shows what it is like to be a girl. It is masterful and deeply inspires me.
W&H: How do you adjust to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you staying creative, and if so, how?
SA: I am writing again, which I could not do while working on “Formless”. I go to galleries and art museums – things that fill my creative spirit, but which I didn’t have access to due to the pandemic.
The timing was good, with access to vaccines and places slowly opening up as the film was filmed. I am grateful for the opportunity to live in this world again, experience the art of others and share what we have been working on for so long with an audience in physical space.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing – and creating – negative stereotypes. What do you think needs to be done to make Hollywood more inclusive?
CA: For a more accurate display and a variety of stories on the screen, people of color need to be hired for creative leadership positions. For Hollywood to become more inclusive, it takes more courage and intention on the part of those with the resources to invest in the different stories that are told, and there needs to be the trust and support of the colored storytellers who tell them.
This sounds like a simplistic answer to such a serious problem, but it is a vital missing component of the industry. This direct and obvious change is essential.
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