Talent on Tap – VIFF Welcomes – Be Still, A Personal Tale of Surrealist Photographer – Hannah Maynard
October 6, 2021
Interview and reviews
Art is a wide range of human activities (or the products thereof) that involve creative imagination and an aim to express technical proficiency, beauty, emotional power, or conceptual ideas. There is no generally agreed definition of what constitutes art, and ideas have changed over time. The three classical branches of visual art are painting, sculpture and architecture.
Today, they also include theatre, dance, literature, music and film/photography! As long as we’ve been able to communicate, we’ve been making art. Many examples exist in museums that exhibit old artifacts – pottery, scrolls, statues. Cave paintings used art to communicate and it kept evolving from there. I believe we still communicate through art, and the message is unique to its creator. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and 10 people can still have 10 different impressions after observing a painting, a sculpture, photograph/film. I like to think it’s proof, we’re not all computer simulations.
The film, Be Still is an incredible tale of the first – late 19th century – surrealist photographer, Hannah Maynard. She was ahead of her time and blazing a trail that was guided by her personal intrigue into experimental photography, eventually leading to her unbridled compulsion for surreal imagery. Dipping one toe into art with the other dipped in madness, her mental health moves her to create macabre collages, multiple iterations of herself in a single frame and an affliction – that brought visits from mirror images of herself, as well as visits from her daughter’s ghost.
Written and directed by Elizabeth Lazebnik and Produced by Sara Blake of Ceroma Films, Elizabeth miraculously channels her own profound admiration, respect and at times obsessive connection with Maynard’s work. She teamed up with extremely talented cinematographer, Suzanne Friesen to craft a piece of film art that opens a window and alters the bounds of time with reality – nowhere to be found.
The exceptional lead performance by Piercey Dalton, known for leading roles in Netflix Original, The Open House and as Louise Lynch alongside Vincent D’Onofrio’s in the CBS All Access series Interrogation. Be Still also stars: Daniel Arnold (When Calls the Heart), James McDougall (The Handmaid’s Tale), Sophie Merasty, Amber Tyler (Unspeakable) and Meredith Hama-Brown.
Be Still will be streaming virtually on VIFF connect from October 1st and will have two in-person screenings at the VIFF Centre – Vancity Theatre on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 at 6:30 PM and Friday, October 8, 2021 at 4:30 PM.
This film is more psychologically rich than a climb to the summit of Mt. Everest, only to remember that you forgot your flag back at base camp. It’s more immersive than quicksand on a rainy day and the film truly honours the artist’s technical wizardry and deep personal anguish. This film shines brilliant from every angle, with a powerhouse of female talent doing the heavy lifting. Elizabeth Lazebnik writes and directs a masterpiece that would make Hannah gush.
I spoke with the remarkably talented duo, Sara and Elizabeth via Zoom and I now know what surrealist art is, who the extraordinary artist Hannah Maynard is and how ground-breaking art can be created even in our darkest moments. Roll the tape!
HNMAG “This film is based on a play. Have either of you seen the play?”
ELIZABETH “No, we haven’t. The playwright, Janet Munsell is located in Victoria, BC. I believe that she wrote it 17-18 years ago, but I’m not entirely sure because I had discovered the images before the play. I know that there have been other productions and iterations of it. Unfortunately, I’ve never met Janet in person.”
HNMAG “Elizabeth, did you adapt the script directly from the play?”
ELIZABETH “We did adapt it from the play but I really wanted it to be from Hannah’s perspective. The play is good but it’s much more traditional, in a way. I wanted to cut down the dialogue and have the images speak to the audience. Janet said she’s coming to see the film and is excited, but I’m a little bit nervous about it.”
HNMAG “Sara, was this your first soiree into a feature film?”
SARA “There was a bit of a crossover, but technically yes. It’s been in post-production for a while. I had another feature released in 2019 (Raf). That was a very different movie, this one went through Telefilm and we had to build from the ground up, getting to know Elizabeth because I didn’t know her previously, but we connected over the material, as well as a mutual friend. In many ways, it was a bigger production.”
HNMAG “In watching this film, Elizabeth – you must’ve done a tremendous amount of research.”
ELIZABETH “Yes, I have somewhat of an obsessive personality myself. I discovered her back in 2001-2002 and I love art, I love surrealism – according to my research, she’s the first surrealist photographer. I’ve been fascinated with her photos ever since. I made a short about her in 2004-2005 and I’ve wanted to make a feature about her ever since. Women’s films were not in so much demand until a couple of years ago, which is why it took so long. It was a bit of a tougher sell because it was an experimental film, however I’ve been excited that within the last couple of years, there’s been more opportunities for women with previous experience, which helped us to get the funding, from Telus – Talent to Watch. We also received some funding from the Canada Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council, because I live here.”
HNMAG “Were there other artists that you had considered before researching Hannah?”\
ELIZABETH “I think it’s something about the duality that I’m fascinated by, as well as her collages; there’s a mystic quality to her work. There’s also another Canadian photographer, Yanita Ire that was also inspired by Hannah. She uses herself in her photos and as a double, as well as her daughter but it’s much more modern. I’m fascinated by her portraits and my mind continues to be intrigued by them. Yanita’s photographs are of the same type. I made a short film about recreating her photographs in 2007. I’ve also been discovering some surrealist painters that had been largely ignored by the surrealist group in the 1940’s. Take for example, Remedios Varo – she’s more well known than Hannah or Leonora Carrington, also very well known. Leonora is regarded as the best female surrealist painter, but the female attachment has always annoyed her. She was in her 90’s when she passed away a couple years ago. Their work, their images are absolute genius… and I’d like to make a film about them too (laughing).”
I am a huge art lover myself and wanted to take a closer look at Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo’s art. I was stunned at what I ‘d been missing. If you’re an art lover/enthusiast, you might already know of their grand impact in art culture, but if you’re not familiar, you owe it to your eyes to take a look.
HNMAG “Considering you received financing from Telus, can you tell me what your pitch would’ve sounded like?”
SARA “I think we pitched it as an experimental bio-pic drama. I believe the film has always stayed true to the specific images, in which Elizabeth had a special attachment to and was inspired by. I was able to extrapolate from that, to make a film that dives into, ‘who Hannah was and how her art manifested.”
HNMAG “I understand that this film took 17 years to make?”
ELIZABETH “I had the initial idea, then made the short. I tried to get more funding and do some more writing, but there wasn’t enough interest, so I put it aside for a year or two, then in 2011, it got into TIFF’s Pitch This program. I pitched it and literally, nobody approached me with interest. It’s a known pitching forum where producers are known to attend. It was amazing to get into and when I did my pitch, I had mentioned that I had a specific actress in mind to play the lead. Afterwards, the only person to approach me, told me not to cast her. If I did, I‘d never get funding – it was brutal. I hadn’t had any response to it, so I kept working on other stuff and at this point, Sara and I have been working together on the film for 4 years now. The time has really flown by.”
HNMAG “How did you two initially meet and begin working together, and why did you want to take on this project, Sara?”
SARA “We had met through a mutual friend when Elizabeth was in the Women In the Directors Chair program up in Whistler of 2017. My friend was familiar with Elizabeth’s projects, through the workshops and the program, as well as knowing where my tastes landed. They said I absolutely needed to meet this person and that I’d really enjoy her work. We had met but there were only a couple of days to get to know more about her. Afterwards, Elizabeth started sending me some materials on the project, followed by a couple Skype calls, back when everyone was using Skype calls (laughing) and before Zoom. I also read the original play, to familiarize myself with it, then continued to talk with Elizabeth to better understand her passion for Hannah’s work. The story she wanted to tell was incredibly inspiring and I loved her approach, of getting inside Hannah’s head and recreating some of the photos in the film. I was really excited about the prospect of working on something that is so unique… and I didn’t know who Hannah was beforehand, so it was cool to learn about a new artist.”
HNMAG “Is this your first ‘art film’ that you’ve produced, Sara?”
SARA “No, but not this experimental. This is my first film based on a play and a real person. It felt quite unique, so we’ll see (laughing).”
Although this film is certainly unique and a stand-alone film, it will have the company of others that appreciate art. At last count, those numbers were in the millions, so I do believe Be Still will certainly have a great legacy, as deserved. Elizabeth expressed her frustration for a stagnant industry, that I agree – has fallen into a conformed set of models, rather than rebuilding the model and reshaping great storytelling. You can agree or disagree, but keeping storytelling fresh requires fresh ideas and new inspirations. Elizabeth adds, “It’s important to experiment, in order to move the film language forward.”
HNMAG “This cast was amazing. Who was responsible for finding them?”
SARA “Both. It was a tough journey, being able to find someone to play Piercey, but the rest of the cast quickly fell into place. It was difficult to find someone to play Hannah and we’d been exhausting all of our resources, reaching out to friends and looking in places we hadn’t thought of… until some friends of ours had suggested we watch some of Piercey’s work. After we did, we immediately wanted to reach out to her but weren’t sure how to. Upon finally reaching out to Piercey, we had sent her the script and were awaiting her self-tapes. I was picking Elizabeth up from the airport, so we could scout locations when the tapes came through my email. We pulled the car over to watch them and were really taken back by her performance. It was a little funny, watching it on my phone.”
ELIZABETH “She lives in LA/Vancouver half the year and she took the project on short notice. As soon as she said yes, she was onboard and flew out just before the start of the production. I think she did such an amazing job.”
HNMAG “I read that this film was made by an all-female crew?”
SARA “Definitely not 100 percent, but all key positions were filled by females, especially during production. We set out to find the best people for the positions but as female filmmakers, we did make an effort to find the right people. It was a process but we have a really great connection of people/groups and artists that I’ve worked with before and some that Elizabeth had known.”
ELIZABETH “I was definitely aware of it and as a female director, I wanted to work with a female DOP, especially with a project like this, being told from a female perspective. It was something that I would’ve loved to do, but it wasn’t a make it or break it situation. It really worked out and I was very happy about that.”
Elizabeth adds that “there is still much inequality in the industry, especially amongst Cinematographers – it’s definitely uneven and we’ve had to push a little but there’s uncertainty amongst women, if they should even be doing it. It’s getting better but there’s still a long way to go.”
HNMAG “I wanted to ask about working with cinematographer Suzanne Friesen on this project. How long did it take to come up with a blueprint of this film?”
ELIZABETH “I think it was about 3 wks of getting together for daily meetings, maybe a month. I also had to get familiar with the Video Effects (VFX) because they’re incorporated into the camera shots and the blocking. I had to work with a video effects team. I was on a small budget and it was a bit laborious, but we had a lot of fun doing it. I told them to let the creativity flow and to not be apologetic about it. That was a lot of fun to do.”
The BC production was filmed in and around Vancouver, Delta, Langley and North Vancouver. It’s a documentary, it’s a historic tale, it’s art at its finest and art enthusiasts will adore it. Go see this film at Vancity and immerse yourself in a piece of history.
Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders received the most nominations in the Canadian section of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle Awards. Raiders captured seven nominations, followed by All My Puny Sorrows and Scarborough with five
Look, I just had surgery a few days ago. I’m still all doped up, quite legitimately, but I’m still going to give some impressions on VIFF fare this week. These may not be the most cogent reviews I’ve ever written! First one up is Be Still, a BC-shot film about Victoria surrealist photographer Hannah Maynard, as played above by Piercey Dalton;
An honourable mention for the BC Emerging Filmmaker Award at VIFF
“Elizabeth Lazebnik’s impressive directorial debut skillfully wraps the viewer into the claustrophobic, grief-stricken world of surrealist photographer, Hannah Maynard. Strong performances, unique camerawork and an eerie soundscape imbues this well-crafted first feature.”