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Berlinale winner Eliza Hittman on exploring taboos

David Mouriquand catches up with the director about her new film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which promises to be one of 2020’s most vital dramas.

Image for Berlinale winner Eliza Hittman on exploring taboos

Eliza Hittman took home the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize win at the 70th Berlinale Photo: Berlinale

When she learns that parental consent is required for an underage girl to have an abortion in the state of Pennsylvania, 17-year old Autumn (Signey Flanigan) embarks on a journey to New York City, accompanied by her cousin. There, she hopes to find a clinic where she can have the medical assistance after her unintended pregnancy.

Released this month after its Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize win at the 70th Berlinale, Never Rarely Sometimes Always sees filmmaker Eliza Hittman continue to prove how honestly and accurately she chronicles American youth, addressing the topic of a woman’s right to choose with veracity, empathy and great vividness.

David Mouriquand spoke with Hittman about her excellent new film.

Where did the idea behind Never Rarely Sometimes Always come from?

I had the idea for the film in 2012. I was reading a newspaper and read the story of Savita Halappanavar, a woman living in Ireland who was denied an abortion by University Hospital Galway, which ultimately resulted in her death (from septic miscarriage). I was devastated and I began reading about abortion laws in Ireland, the Eighth Amendment and the journey women would make across the Irish sea to London and come back in one day. I thought: “There would be a movie in there, and why haven’t I ever seen it before?”

Did you speak to social workers and health professionals?

Yes, many. I enjoy the research and development part of the process. I went to a lot of small towns and I thought: “If I were this character, where would I go in this predicament?” In the small towns there’s always a pregnancy centre and they are very deceptive places, because they seem like medical facilities but there are no licensed doctors who work in them. They’re there to offer relationship support, adoption references… I went in and I took pregnancy tests and I had conversations with those women, and what is in the film is very much a reflexion of my experience. In New York, I went to many clinics and Planned Parenthood, but also privately-run clinics, just to have multiple points of views.

The film is what many are referring to as an “issue movie”, but it goes beyond that. How did you balance the topic of a woman’s right to choose without losing track of the personal character study at the heart of it?

I think my point of view, politically, is very clear in the film but it’s not about being didactic to an audience. The film is experiential and it’s about immersing the audience in Autumn’s world and her shoes, and taking them through the journey. I always think of the film as being a poetic odyssey and not an “issue movie”. But of course, there are underlying issues there. The film is a balance between poetry and politics.

Your previous films – It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats – also deal with young adults and the tricky crossroads they face regarding identity and emotional trauma. What is it about those teenage years that fascinates you?

It’s such a turning point and I think my coming-of-age films as being unsentimental, whereas many films are sentimental. I try to take a very unsentimental approach when writing about youth, and showing things and experiences that other movies would never show. It’s about taking people inside private pains and exploring taboos around identity and the body.

The lack of dialogue and the non-verbal cues in Never Rarely Sometimes Always feel very relatable with regards to this teenage experience.

I think in all my films the dialogue is quite sparse. It’s the way I write. It’s not necessary realism and I don’t try to imitate the way young people talk. It’s stylistic in a sense. And one of the challenges specific to this film was not wanting Autumn to go into a clinic, have an experience, and then come out and have to tell her cousin about everything that happened. It was initially something I decided would never happen, partially because of the stigma of it. It’s very much for me about the pain of talking about things that are stigmatised.

Was it a difficult film to get financed, considering the subject matter?

Yes. It’s hard to think back to that moment, but there were a lot of financers and companies that we went out to. You think of Hollywood as being a very liberal place, but the money comes from some place… And often times, it comes from conservative places. And a lot of times, we would hear “Oh, the money is oil money” or “the money is this, the money is that…”. And we would be turned down, and we would know why. But I think people were scared that it would be too much of an issue movie, and there’s something off-putting about that to financers.

Sidney Flanigan, who plays Autumn, is deeply moving in the role. Am I right in saying that this was her first acting role?

You’re right! The first time she ever acted in her life was the first day of our shoot!

Wow. What was it about Sidney that made you think she was perfect for the role?

She’s very sincere, and she’s a musician. I was very captivated by her music. So, she is a performer in a sense. She had just never acted before. But there’s something about working on a film set that isn’t that different to playing in a band – all the crew, people around, everyone doing their job, playing their own instruments… And it was a young crew, so I think she felt comfortable.

Like your previous films, you’re shooting on 16mm for this film…

I’ve always loved shooting on 16mm, and it forces you to think and plan in a very different way. Also, because I’m writing about very stagnant communities – there’s sort of an out-of-time quality that I’m trying to capture. And 16mm, for me, is most effective with that.

Unlike your previous two films though, this has a colder, less Summery feel to it.

Yes, and I wanted the weather to be an obstacle. It would be a very different movie if they showed up in New York in the Summer. I was trying to use the weather and the environment to create tension.

The film premiered in Sundance and was in Competition at the Berlinale, a festival which has been aiming for more representation and diversity in its Competition line-up. This year, 6 out of the 18 films were directed by female filmmakers. Do you think that festivals are doing enough in this respect?

More so in the US than in Europe. I think Sundance generally has a 50/50 ratio and other major festivals also do. There seems to be less movement here in Europe with regards to gender parity.

Do you think there should be quotas?

I don’t know. How do you inspire change without enforcing change, you know? But change seems to be on the way.