Alex Anna: “You will be rewarded if you work hard”

“You will be rewarded if you work hard” isn’t true, especially in arts. The quality of your job is only a small part of why you will or will not succeed — the rest is a mix of network, luck, and human subjectivity and sensibility, and they’re totally arbitrary. A lot of people do wonderful things and […]

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“You will be rewarded if you work hard” isn’t true, especially in arts. The quality of your job is only a small part of why you will or will not succeed — the rest is a mix of network, luck, and human subjectivity and sensibility, and they’re totally arbitrary. A lot of people do wonderful things and deserve to succeed, but they don’t.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Anna.

Director Alex Anna is a director who values cinematographic language and words in all their beauty. A queer and feminist filmmaker, she directed her first short film The Fruit of Our Womb in 2017 (as Laurie Mannessier) and uses art to give a voice to silenced subjects. Scars was produced by La 115e, a film production company based in Montreal.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

Ever since I was a kid, my mother encouraged me to explore my artistic outlets and needs. Early on I’ve had a soft spot for theatre, cinema, and poetry — making up shows, expressing my feelings through words, creating made me feel alive. I took theatre and cinema classes in High School, then I studied editing, production and directing in three different audiovisual & cinema schools in France and Montreal, Quebec. This naturally led to directing, but also to work as a script supervisor — the little known right-hand and “second brain” of the director. I love this job as it offers me the possibility to be on set most of the time and observe different director’s techniques and ways of telling stories. It’s always really inspiring.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

One of the funniest moments happened during the shooting of my first film, and I had no idea anything was going on.

The film was a satiric criticism of Christianity and we were shooting a rather irreverent scene in a church. When scooting for a place some weeks before, we made sure to stay a bit vague about the subject of the film…

So this day we had the church for ourselves, but at some point in the afternoon the “Guardian” of the place came up with his family, including kids, asking if they could stay and watch the scene. Oops. That’s when the first assistant director came up with a brilliant little lie : because we were running late, we couldn’t afford any risk or having to re-do a take, and children could be noisy and present this risk…

It worked.

But later on, the Guardian asked the producer : what was the film about? It was already the end of the day and she spilled the beans : it’s a comedy revisiting the Nativity Myth in a lesbian couple.

There was a long silence. She imagined the worst… Then he laughed. She laughed. He said “Oh, that’s something special.” And that was it…

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

As an introvert I am always amazed by people who can make anyone feel good the second they enter a group. That social intelligence is mesmerising to me.

Through my work, my friends and my travels I meet a lot of people, and I like to take notes about their stories, their way of being, their words.

One of my favourite meetings is “The ladies of Thunder Bay”. It happened when I was on a road trip through Canada with my friend. We were on a parking lot by the Superior Lake, when two ladies in their sixties saw our Quebec licence plate and engaged in a chat with us. They invited us to give them a call when we’d pass by Thunder Bay, their hometown. A couple of days later we did so, and got invited into their lovely house, where they had another roommate in her seventies. Their names were already something of poetry : Jenny, Jean and Gina. These three friends, whom we only met two days prior, showed us all around the town and the First Nation reserve. They knew everyone in the community as well as the surrounding myths, and they shared incredible stories about their lives, filled with suspense, twists, and turns. To this day, we are still in touch via email, and I’m amazed to learn about everything they are doing : writing a book, playing badminton, touring with a choir, always learning… Nothing seems to stop them and that’s incredibly inspiring..

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I can’t reveal too much, but I’ve been working lately on a documentary about women’s sexual health and on a fiction about gender identity… amongst other things. I love this writing phase when everything is still possible, you can explore every form — draw, scratch, start again, go with your gut — there’s no judgment and no quality control yet. The next steps are harder : finding a producer, finding money to make those films (if anyone reading this is interested, get in touch!). So I give myself a lot of time to be sure of where I’m going, before launching the project.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

I love learning about Women who “should be in our History books but aren’t” — this passion has lately been reinforced by Pénélope Bagieu’s Culottées (Brazen).

One of them is Jeanne Baret, who was the first woman who went around the world, and had to disguise herself as a man in order to do so. She is an example of intelligence and bravery, someone not afraid to break the rules. Then George Sand ; who took a man’s nom-de-plume, kicked her abusive husband out of her life, and in between nights of writing ran a beautiful household where she’d have her creative and political friends staying for weeks at a time. And finally Virginia Woolf, for her queerness, her writing fever, and her wonderful poetry.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

I’ve just directed the short film Scars, an animated documentary that portrays my experience with self harming. It has been selected as part of the TIFF 2020 Short Cuts Program, which has brought a lot of media attention and wonderful discussions, public or private, around self harm and mental health. I am honestly so grateful for all these talks, it really feels the film is opening the dialogue around these topics that have been left in the dark for way too long.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

I make lists about everything and I have a list of the topics I would like to “tell the world about”, because I feel like they matter, they’re silenced and I have relevant related experience to talk about them through art. Somewhere in the back of my mind, there’s a nice factory always exploring ideas and possibilities on how to express these — and somehow, when this factory has found the “right” idea for a subject, I know it, I know it’s time to dig in and start the work for good.

For this particular topic of self harm, I think the moment I knew I had to take action was when I had a talk with my ex-partner, who never wanted to talk about my past depression or my scars. Around a year after we broke up, she told me that she “didn’t like to deal with sad people”. That’s when I connected it with a lot of other people’s reactions and realised how big the issue was : people are scared to talk about sadness, they’d rather ignore it than having to engage in a discussion about it, and more specifically, a lot of people don’t know anything but clichés about self harm.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

A lot of people (friends, technicians of the film, spectators…) have reached out to me after seeing the film or reading interviews about it, either to tell me that “they went through it too”, or to admit that they’d never dared talking about it, simply because they didn’t know how to and thought it could maybe hurt to bring up the past. It is all very positive as it engages a dialogue that allows us to understand each other better.

But one story that moved me in particular, was one from a friend of mine. We have been friends for years and were even roommates during our studies. Like a lot of boys and men are unfortunately raised, he is not the kind who would usually talk much about his feelings ; even though he is a very sensitive person, he would often hide it with jokes. We both travel a lot and we mostly talk when we see each other, which is only once a year.

But he watched the film and immediately reached out and asked if we could Skype. He told me he’d been very moved by the film, and that he was sorry he’d never asked about my scars, but more importantly (in my view), he told me he’d seen such scars on his own brother’s skin, but that they’d never really talked about it. Now, he said, he could see how important it was to be brave enough to start this discussion. It really moved me because it was the first time I could witness this film impacting someone that hadn’t struggled with self harm themselves, but was encouraged by the film to talk about it with their loved ones who did struggle.

It really felt like the film could break those deep-rooted barriers, not only for me, but for other people.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Individuals : ask how people feel, be bold and talk with them about deep topics, go past the superficial small talk.

Society : Stop demonising psychologists, your mind needs to be checked by a professional just like any other part of your body. Please stop blaming someone for their mental illness. They’re struggling and they’re warriors. Would you blame someone for having a broken leg or a cancer?

Government: yes, yes and yes. Mental illness care of any kind should be free for all. There should be more mental health prevention in schools and workplaces, at any age. It should be understood that sometimes a depressed person can’t go to work and need to rest for a day, when it’s a bad one : why is it ok to not come to work if you’re feeling nauseous, but not ok to stay home when you feel like killing yourself?

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. “You will be rewarded if you work hard” isn’t true, especially in arts. The quality of your job is only a small part of why you will or will not succeed — the rest is a mix of network, luck, and human subjectivity and sensibility, and they’re totally arbitrary. A lot of people do wonderful things and deserve to succeed, but they don’t.
  2. But it doesn’t mean your work is not good. I have blamed myself so much for not being good enough, because my film wasn’t being selected in the festivals that I wanted, when really that doesn’t mean anything. There are so many stories of directors, authors, artists of any kind, whose work has been rejected so many times before they all of a sudden are praised by everyone. Do what makes you happy, what makes you feel good about yourself, what is true to you and makes you proud.
  3. “Your stories matter”. For the longest time I thought using my own stories as the subject of a film or any art creation would be narcissistic and nothing else. But I think now there’s great power in using topics you truly know, whether it’s your story or the story of someone you deeply relate to; it can be really powerful.
  4. Only work with people you trust. Sometimes it’s attractive to go for the more-skilled person, the one with a bigger resume… But I think the best skill one can have is loving the project. That’s when they’re going to give their very best. If you can’t connect with someone over a shared artistic project, how can you create something together?
  5. Don’t make films. It’s too expensive. Seriously, find another hobby right now. (No, I’m just kidding… but… It is definitely expensive and frustrating…)

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would advise them to remember that one’s action ALWAYS has impact. You may not believe it, but if you decide today to make a change, tomorrow you will impress and influence someone that trusts you and looks up to you — say, your best friend or your parent. They may also make this change eventually, and influence people around them to change as well. And there you go — thanks to your bravery to start a change, it’s now spreading around. It might take a little time, but I assure you that these seeds you plant are going to bloom.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

There’s a tonne of Heroes/Heroines that inspire me every day! From the owners of incredibly positive and impactful Instagram accounts fighting for equality and inclusivity, to the biggest stars using their popularity to make a change… as a filmmaker it would be a dream to work with brilliants activists actresses/ors such as Ellen Page, Emma Watson, Zendaya or Brigette Lundy-Paine.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

That popular Mark Twain’s quote “They didn’t know it was impossible, so they did it” is one that accompanies me through my creative process and my everyday life. As much as I love cinematographic grammar and learning about new techniques, it’s important for me that they stay as guidelines and not rules. And it’s true for the bigger picture as well : thinking outside of the box, recalibrating the restrictions and fake beliefs society has taught us is for me the basis of both creation and social fight. Behind every “we can’t” is an incredible potential of “we will”.

How can our readers follow you online?

They can follow me on Instagram : @___alexanna___ (three underscores), or on Facebook : @AlexAnna.Films

All DMs are welcome!

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

Thank you for such interesting questions!

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