written by Capri Kuliopulos
Nina Menkes is a film director based in Los Angeles, CA. She has directed 7 feature films in which she has exerted creative control through script, camera operation, editing and sound design. Her films delve into themes of violence and isolation and are crafted with a deft hand through stunning cinematography and haunting lead performances.
Her works have been featured at many international film festivals such as Sundance, Rotterdam, and Toronto as well as at museums including the Whitney, MOMA (New York), and LACMA in Los Angeles. Menkes’s early films have been restored by The Academy Film Archive, which also holds the Nina Menkes moving image collection. She currently teaches film at California Institute of the Arts and is planning to shoot her next feature in the coming year.
This interview was conducted on November 3rd, 2017 via telephone with Menkes in Los Angeles, CA and the interviewer in Santa Cruz, CA.
Capri Kuliopulos: What is it like having worked with one actor, your sister, Tinka Menkes, across so many years, and films, and does she influence your work and characters; how much is collaborative?
Nina Menkes: Well it was a very special relationship actually. We started working completely by coincidence. I was in film school and had cast two actors to be in a short film that was about us–me and Tinka. I decided to film the piece at my mother's house; at the time my sister was young and still living at home. But the actress that was supposed to play Tinka did not show up, and I just, sort of on a whim, asked Tinka to be in the film. She said no–she didn't want to play herself because she had just gotten over a very serious life-threatening illness, which was, in fact, what the film was about. So she said she would agree to play the other character, which was me. I said "Sure!" and then the other actress (that had, indeed shown up) turned into Tinka's character. It was through the process of making that film that we discovered the very, very powerful energy we created together–through Tinka’s amazing talent as an actress, me as cinematographer and director, directing her playing me–and on top of that we had this whole combined family history dynamic that was in there as well. So we were kind of blown away at that first film–we found it incredibly powerful, and that possibly random event of Tinka playing me in my (or our) films started from that and it was a working relationship that lasted for over 15 years. Tinka was a huge part of all the films and not only as an actress, she also contributed greatly to editing and conceptualizing the work. That was a very special, amazing partnership, and I'm very sad that it ended. I've never found anyone to fill her shoes–you know? Not to say I didn't really have very interesting experiences working with other people, but it wasn't quite the same level of deep understanding and cinematic exploration that I had with my sister Tinka.
Tinka and Nina Menkes on the set of QUEEN OF DIAMONDS
CK: So she hadn't acted, prior to working with you?
NM: No, not at all, she didn't know anything about acting in films in terms of training, but she was just a complete natural on every level; she has an incredible intuitive understanding of cinema–but she decided not to continue doing it after we finished THE BLOODY CHILD (1996).
CK: I noticed in DISSOLUTION (2010) your main actor was also a co-editor and helped out on the script. Do you prefer a horizontal style of filmmaking on your sets?
NM: What does horizontal mean?
CK: Kind of like anti-hierarchical, or you have a conversation back and forth between all members on the set and everyone contributes–
NM: Oh I see–no not at all. I do not have a conversation: I would say I’m completely hierarchical. I'm the boss.
NM: [Laughter] Definitely I'm the boss–but in the case of Tinka, and also in the case of Didi Fire, the personal relationship between us was very strong. Didi Fire also contributed to the film on many levels. Although with Tinka, it was different because we made many films over time, it became a continuum of exploration, internally and cinematically. With Didi, yeah, it was the same in the sense that there was this very strong emotional component between us and he participated in the film on more than one level. And of course I communicate and share with the crew in terms of what we are doing, but it’s more specific, like, how are we lighting this scene, etc. In the case of Tinka and Didi, the collaboration connected with the very deep meaning that the filmic character had in both my and their their personal lives. So that the meaning of the character and the meaning of the film was very profound for us on many more levels than just the filmmaking level. Whereas in PHANTOM LOVE (2007), for example, I had a more traditional relationship with the actors. They were acting a part that I asked them to act. That was also a very heavy duty film but my relationship to the actors was closer to what most people probably have: you come in to play a role and you get into it and you do a great job hopefully, but it doesn’t necessarily have the deep personal bloodlines into the depths of our mutual psyches.
Didi Fire in DISSOLUTION
CK: So you both operate camera and direct in your films?
NM: Yes. Correct. [But to clarify–in my last two features, I worked closely with a DP, Chris Soos on PHANTOM LOVE, and Itai Marom on DISSOLUTION. I designed the shots and operated camera, but they were in charge of the lighting and all the technical aspects. This freed me to do camera, which I love, without having to worry about many other aspects of the DP job. I had a great experience with both of these extremely talented DP’s.]
CK: I was wondering what that's like for you; how do your methods change or overlap–do you direct through the camera?
NM: I wouldn't say I direct through the camera. While I'm actually shooting the scene, it’s more like I feel the film through the camera, I feel the scene through the camera. But in terms of directing–out loud directing like, "I want you to do this and this and I want the lights to be such and such" and all that stuff–that would, naturally, happen before or after the actual shot.
CK: How much of the sets in your films are constructed and how much is on-location realism?
NM: Pretty much every film I made was 100% as-found on location, except for PHANTOM LOVE. For PHANTOM LOVE, we constructed the casino–that was entirely constructed.
NM: Yeah, especially "Wow" when you think of how little money I had [laughter] for that film. Outside of that I think everything was real–I didn't construct anything. On that point I need to shout out to producer Kevin Ragsdale, thanks to him we managed to make PHANTOM LOVE on a super low budget, but it doesn’t feel low budget [and by the way, I’m excited to be working on a new feature with Kevin, now...hopefully shooting next year]. The fact that I’ve had to work on such low budgets is definitely connected to sexist discrimination.
CK: I think the composition of your shots work really beautifully with the landscapes or interior sets. It comes across in all your films.
Set of PHANTOM LOVE
CK: So this next one is an editing question: When making a film, do you know exactly how you want it to look in the end or do you allow changes to occur organically as they come?
NM: No, I don't know how it's going to look ahead of time and I like to be surprised. You know, back in the day, we used to shoot film and we didn't even know how it would look until it was shot and you saw dailies at the film lab. In the case of THE GREAT SADNESS OF ZOHARA (1984), I shot the whole film and never saw it until after it was completely shot. We were traveling in the Middle East and carrying the film with us. I only saw it all at the end, in Los Angeles. For MAGDALENA VIRAGA (1986), I actually saw the footage every single week, because we would just shoot on weekends, so we'd see it during the week and then shoot a few more scenes the following weekend. PHANTOM LOVE was shot on 35mm black and white film but by then we had video assist, so you could see your images right away... maybe not in super high resolution, but you could see them. And then DISSOLUTION was HD so it was instant playback on any of the images that I wanted to see. But regardless, I never pre-planned shots. The only shot I ever pre-planned was one shot in PHANTOM LOVE–it's Lulu's dream and she dreams that the mother is performing oral sex on her. I pre-planned that shot because that was a very elaborate shot with a crane, so I had to pre-plan it.
CK: I would have never guessed [laughter]. So you were talking a little bit about the sexism you've encountered. I was wondering, have you ever dealt with Imposter Syndrome? And is there any advice you can give to young female filmmakers who might feel like they are faking it?
NM: I've never heard of that. What's that?
CK: It’s a feeling: 'Imposter Syndrome'. I guess it's been given a name–I don't know how recently. I've talked to other female filmmakers, and in general in every industry, a lot of women feel like they are faking everyone else out. Like they're not actually good, they are not real filmmakers, or they're just pretending to be... scientists or something like that.
NM: Ohh. That's terrible.
CK: Yeah, it's hard to put into words.
NM: Oh no, actually I have the opposite. I pretty much felt–and I hope this doesn't sound arrogant–but I pretty much felt right from that very first film that I made with Tinka that I was a great filmmaker, and I knew I was a great filmmaker, and I just wanted money to make my films. And no one would give me money and I had to make films on very low budgets, because number one, I'm a woman and number two, the content of my films was very confrontational. MAGDALENA VIRAGA is about an alienated prostitute who hates her work, she never takes off her clothes, she isn't sweet and sexy, and who in Hollywood wants to see anything like that? So, no I didn't have that feeling. I thought I was brought down to Planet Earth to make films and I knew that I was a great filmmaker and I had a lot to say and I was just waiting for the world to catch up with me which never happened! [laughter]. But, you know, I sympathize with the concept, because women are definitely taught not to believe in themselves.
CK: That's good to hear though, and I hope that I can develop more confidence in my own work. Since this is for my Experimental Feminist Class, I was wondering: do you phrase your work as feminist and if so in what way?
NM: Well, those are two loaded words. First of all, experimental is a word I reject. For example, there's a Wikipedia page with my name on it. And somebody wrote, "Nina Menkes is an experimental filmmaker yada yada ya..." You're allowed to edit the pages, right? So I went in and changed it, and I said "Nina Menkes is a film director" and they changed it back! And I tried to change it again and they changed it back, and every time I try to change it, there's somebody out there who is very insistent that I should be called an experimental filmmaker and it makes me angry.
CK: Wow that's fascinating.
NM: I know, it is right? I mean–I should try to explain. Within the context of getting money for films–this is probably what it boils down to–if you are seen as 'experimental', this tag usually comes together with the idea of 'low budget' or 'no money' and that's what I'm resisting. And furthermore, I never felt I was an experimental filmmaker. I love, even adore a lot of experimental film but it never was how I saw myself. I saw myself from the beginning more as, I guess we could call it an 'art filmmaker', for example, Antonioni or Vagabond by Agnes Varda; work that felt so close to my heart and relevant to the kind of work that I make. The label 'experimental' is often used to diminish. So if you feel like going onto Wikipedia and seeing if you can change it... great, but–you'll see–they'll change it right back. Why? Strange insistence on someone’s part. I love the Internet, it's brilliant: you can find people, you can share things, you can explore. But as far as representing yourself, when someone else is representing you, and you can't change it and you don't have control over it–
CK: You have no control over your image.
NM: It's upsetting. So about the 'experimental' title: I don't like it. Although I know that many experimental filmmakers like my work and I like their work. It's just that that's never a title that I would choose. I think I'm a film director. I'm not more experimental than Tarkovsky. No one ever says Tarkovsky is an experimental filmmaker, they say he is a great filmmaker, he's an innovative filmmaker. It's just a way of putting women down. And that reminds me also of a standard conversation: I have met many people in my life and when you meet someone new, it's pretty normal that this person says, “What do you do?" I reply, "I'm a filmmaker" and there's this script answer that I always get. The answer is ALWAYS: "Documentary or short film?" If I tell you that I've heard that 1,500 times, that will be an underestimate. I don't take it personally, it's just sexism. You know a woman is just not seen as being a feature film director for all of the reasons I mentioned in my recent “Filmmaker” article. So am I a feminist? Absolutely yes. Are my films feminist? Absolutely yes. But if you put the label 'experimental feminist filmmaker' on me, that just translates to: obscure, marginal, no-money filmmaker. And I reject that. I don't reject feminism. I'm a hundred million percent a feminist and so is my work. But that is never my first impulse. My impulse is just self-expression.
CK: That was really well said. In your article ["Filmmaker" article] you talked about a, "total lack of originality around the way these men use lighting, angles, POV and framing to formally disempower women on screen". I'm an aspiring Director of Photography, and I'm wondering: is the male gaze perpetuated through a male cinematographer and could an influx of female cinematographers dramatically change the way people, especially women, are photographed in film?
NM: Well, yes, it could if the women cinematographers were educated. Some are surely aware, but many are not. When I gave my talk “Sex and Power in Shot Design” recently (March 2016), at the Women’s Media Summit in Provincetown, MA a number of women DP's came up to me after the talk and they said, "We were not aware". So if you're going to have a change, first of all there has to be awareness. It's not only the narrative; it's the shot design and the lighting and the POV–all of it.
CK: Yeah, and you have to be aware that it's happening in order to change it in what you're doing.
NM: Yes, but it would be very hard. Let's say if Martin Scorsese hired a female DP–he's never going to do that, but let's say he did that–and he said, "Okay, now I want this woman over there and this kind of light and this kind of shot.” What's the DP gonna say? You know what I mean? So it's so integral to that whole filmmaking system. So yes, it is lighting and shot design, but the lighting and shot design is part of a whole worldview. It's everything together. But most people are not aware of the shot design element part of it. So you have some men making films about how they fantasize women: women are fantastic, sexual objects. I mean, okay, that's their right to have that perspective. If there was equal time for other perspectives, it would be okay. The reason it becomes problematic is that that perspective is 96% of the films that get financed, and made and seen.
CK: My next and last question talks about who's being studied in film school. The majority of the films we study are directed by cisgender white men and I think I saw somewhere that you teach film at CalArts?
CK: So in your perspective as a film teacher, how is this method of learning and teaching film negatively or perhaps positively impacting the new generation of filmmakers–I say positively as in, they want to make a drastic change to the status quo.
NM: CalArts is more progressive than let's say, USC, where I used to teach. USC is a very reactionary, conservative school. But no matter where you study, if you take a film history class, you're still probably going to see mainly films by white men. Now with time in a film history class, at least at CalArts, you'll probably see–like, maybe 20% women filmmakers or something like that. But in my classes, I aim for showing mainly women filmmakers, if I can, just to balance it out. But yeah, of course you're told, "This is a great film! Godard is great and Scorsese is great and all of these people are great" and then you're like, "Well, why do I feel funny when I watch this film?" Maybe you can recognize cinematic aspects that you admire–okay. I can admire, let's say, Breathless or Contempt for the filmmaking, in many ways, but that doesn't mean that I'm not nauseated by the female characters.
CK: It's like, recognizing that.
NM: And if that's all you're seeing as a film student, that's what causes your Imposter Syndrome! "This is how filmmaking looks, this is how good film looks!" And you don't feel that that's your thing, or that's not what you want to do, so then you feel weird! Unless you're very strong for whatever reason–I don't know why I had such total confidence in myself on that level. Probably because I grew up without a TV at home so I never absorbed a lot of those images. So that causes Imposter Syndrome because you feel unconsciously, "I'm doing something else, and something else isn't 'great filmmaking' so what am I doing?” And then that causes a lot of self doubt.
CK: Yeah, that reminds me of something one of my classmates once said. She was asked, "What are the benefits of being a female filmmaker?", because there's so many hurdles in front of us. And she said, "Because my perspective hasn't been told on the screen, I have much more ‘original’ ideas".
NM: That's a good answer!
CK: And that really stuck with me. Everything I've seen on film, that's not the end-all, be-all. There are other methods of storytelling, other stories that are yet to be shown, and I feel that sometimes in film class you're taught there's only fifty types of stories and these are them...
CK: –and you can't stray really far from them.
NM: Exactly. Exactly.
CK: I really liked that.
NM: That's a good answer and the other answer is that sometimes struggling does have a positive aspect. When it's too much, it's not positive, but a certain amount of struggling can be positive. If everything just comes easy, easy, it might be nice but it doesn't really develop your soul.
CK: Absolutely. Well, that was all my questions, thank you so so much–
NM: The only thing I'd like to ask: if you want to go into Wikipedia and try to remove 'experimental filmmaker' and put 'film director', you can see how long it takes for someone to take it down.
CK: [Laughter] That's my homework assignment.
NM: They take it down within one day max. It's incredible! It's like there's a war!
CK: Ahh, yeah. I'll see what I can do.