Following wide acclaim on the international festival circuit (see our review here), including the award for Best narrative feature at Tribeca, Lisa Aschan’s She Monkeys is charged with directorial promise. Its narrative centres round competitive Emma, who meets the strong and vivacious Cassandra when she joins the local equestrian vaulting team. A relatively sparse drama charting the developing sexual tension and jealousy between two teenage girls, She Monkeys is subtle yet wilfully intriguing. We probed Lisa Aschan for a little more explanation.
Hi Lisa, it was a pleasure to view She Monkeys at the London International Film Festival.You’ve suggested that you’d rather raise questions with your work than provide answers. What kind of questions do you think that She Monkeys raises?
Very different questions to very different people depending on who you are. I’ve travelled with the film across the world and I get different approaches from different people; if you don’t give any clear answers then people come up with different questions and that’s the way I like it.
You have described She Monkeys as a “modern Western”. Can you say a little more about this?
I don’t like freedom when I work so I try to create rules and a framework for my films. I like to work with genre and pick a genre that fits the theme for the film. For She Monkeys I thought the Western was perfect because every scene is a duel, a constant battle, and so we had the horses, the guns, and even the tumbleweed.
Why do animals feature so centrally in the film… the title, the characters competing on an equestrian team etc.? I’m particularly curious about the scene in which the sisters train their dog.
I like animals a lot, and the horses work well in keeping with the Western theme. But I was also very interested in investigating control and being controlled. I think the dog training was an interesting way of showing that struggle of control.
You have mentioned previously that George Bataille’sThe Story of The Eye was an influence,in what ways did it influence you? For one, The Story of The Eye is very sexually explicit, for what reasons did you decide to keep the treatment of sex relatively implicit in the script for She Monkeys?
Someone described The Story of the Eye as “philosophical pornography”, that’s the way I interpret it as well and that’s the part of it I was inspired by. It’s about how sex is power and power is sex and how you can use sex in a game of power.
The whole film is a power play, the power moves from one character to another. It’s a little bit like a computer game. You might try one thing and then if it doesn’t work, you try something else; you’re never safe and you have to be constantly on your marks, ready to be hit by someone who wants to push you down from the throne.
I saw She Monkeys around the same time as Celine Sciamma’sTomboy and found the films comparable in their suggestion of gender and sexuality as socially constructed, and their examination of how children and young people challenge these constructions. Did you have these kind of ideological concerns in mind when making the film?
I haven’t had a chance to see Tomboy yet! But no, I think very squarely when I’m working and trust my instincts. I think in terms of good and bad and black and white in my filmmaking. In the moment, making a film is very simple for me, but when it’s done, something more complex and structural results.
The film has an eerie quietness to it in parts, and fairly minimal dialogue. Why is that?
I see my films as anorexic greyhounds. Films should be skin and bones; there should be nothing that doesn’t have to be there. I don’t think people should say something if it doesn’t lead to anything. I think actions tell more about someone than words. That, and I have an extremely talented DOP as well!
She Monkeys has done exceptionally well on the international circuit, do you think it’s been exported as a particularly Swedish film?
I don’t think there is such a thing as a “National Cinema”, so no!
What’s next? Have you got another project in the pipeline?
I’m writing on my new film right now, it’s a horror film. It’s called The Deposit.
She Monkeys is out in cinemas nationwide now.