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The Miseducation of Cameron Post – An Interview with Desiree Akhavan
September 7, 2018
We posted a review on The Miseducation of Cameron Post earlier on this week; set in the early 90’s, its a coming-of-age drama about teenager Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) who gets caught having sex with her female friend and is then sent off to a conversion therapy centre, God’s Promise by her conservative aunt. It is there where Cameron’s journey of sea-realization begins, as she and fellow students are subjected to Christian based psycholigical brainwashing. Miseducation details the practices the teachers use, exposing them to be clumsy and clueless, imposing Christian reform in an effort to suppress natural urges, spelling out a life of repression and sexual dissatisfaction, which some of students are willing to submit to in an effort to ‘fix’ themselves in a bid to lead a ‘normal’ life.
The film is an understated cinematic gem, its simple yet stylish aesthetics feature impressive and sophisticated performances of incredibly thought out and well-rounded characters. Director Desiree Akhavan and co-writer Cecilia Frugiuele present the unfolding of events in a matter-of-fact way and at such a subtle pace that it allows for the hypocrisies and the horrors of gay conversion therapy and the wider context of religious dogma naturally emerge.
The film has been heavily in my radar since it premieried and won the top prize at Sundance at the beginning of the year. Gay conversion therapy is a multifaceted and controversial topic, providing much fodder for cinematic exploration, but its mostly explored in the documentary form (This What Love Looks Like In Action, Living Through Gay Conversion Therapy, China’s Gay Shock Therapy) with only minute exploration in feature films, the topic slightly being touched in I am Michael from a few years back. In 2018 along with Miseducation, we see a similar themed film released later this year, with Nicole Kidman starring as a Christian mother to a gay son in Boy Erased.
We were invited to talk to Ahkavan and of course jumped at the chance. When we meet her for the interview, she admits to being jetlagged, appearing somewhat low-key, which was the complete opposite to the animated version of her I had witnessed in a Q+A a few weeks back. But nevertheless Akhavan ploughed through with our questions and credit due where credit due; she is a truly talented filmmaker with immense potential and the proof is there for all to see in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Here is what she had to say…
How are you?
I just flew in from LA, so I’m a bit jetlagged.
Congratulations on your film. I absolutely loved it.
If its ok I wanted to start with the question, specifically with your first film Appropriate Behaviour. I liked the way it highlighted the juxtaposition of being from an Iranian conservative background and having this liberal, sexually free, New York lifestyle. How do you marry the two?
It’s just another world. I don’t really have a view point to be totally honest.
So, the two never come together for you?
The two just don’t combine. My family is part of my work, but you know….It’s a tough divide, when you come from a traditional culture and you want to remain respectful of people’s comfort zones, but I still want to talk about it and it does influence the work too.
But you are putting the work out there for them to see. What’s the aftermath from that?
Somethings we just don’t talk about.
Doesn’t it get back to them or any of your extended family?
I’m sure it does… but I just block it out.
It’s the only way really. For me at least.
Is there any correlation between Apropriate Behaviour and Miseducation?
I made them both. They are both things I care about. I didn’t draw any parallels when making the second film. But I think you can tell the same person made them both.
With a film like the Miseducation touching on gay and religious themes. How easy was it get it off the ground?
It was difficult. We only had one offer on the table and for a quarter of the amount we budgeted for. We had to shoot accordingly. Cut loads of corners and re-write certain aspects of the story to fit that budget. It’s a financial risk for people to make queer films. A financial risk to make films about female sexuality. It was a struggle at points.
In a Q+A you did a couple of weeks ago for Shortcuts, you mentioned when you went on set, that you ‘read the room’ to try and get where each actor was going through personally and what they wanted to give you. Can you elaborate?
Not sure I recall saying that… I think what I meant to say by ‘you need to read the room’ is to read what people’s needs are, when you’re a director on set. And you are constantly evaluating, when to step in and when to let people take charge of their jobs.
Is it easy to relinquish that control as a director?
The young characters than enter God’s Promise, although victims to their situation also seem very strong in the way they accept or don’t accept what is imposed on them in this scenario.
They didn’t. The ones that wanted to ‘get better’ they took things on board. Whereas the ones who didn’t like Jane Fonda (played by Sacha Lane) just played along with things. The ones that did feel shame wanted to actively change their situation. They were eager to let the system work on them.
I would assume the majority of the viewers watching your film, would look upon the practices with a high degree of cynicism. In your research for the film, have you come across stories of people who think they have ‘cured’ themselves?
I can’t speak to that, as I’ve never been to gay conversion therapy.
So, you haven’t come across stories of people who’ve considered themselves cured?
Well yes…. Some people have come out and say that they’ve been ‘fixed’ and call themselves ‘ex-gays’. There is actually a movement of people who call themselves ‘ex-gays’. Personally, I don’t think they can be fixed. But some people advertised themselves as being ‘fixed’.
With character’s like the ones played by Chloe and Sasha to them, it seemed to go the other way. Like it may have reaffirmed to them the validity of their gay feelings.
Not sure if it reaffirmed… I think these characters just didn’t believe in the system. They had such a strong sense of self and confidence that she wasn’t able to be indoctrinated it.
In the Q-A you mentioned you brought in a new editor at the last minute. What where the issues to bring them in?
I think we hit a point with the initial edit, where Cameron was too opaque, making it hard to track her journey and we brought in an additional editor, Joe Lindower. Who was able to help us create more of arch to her character. And we rearranged some scenes and re-appropriated some other scenes that had been cut. Some moments of flashbacks where added, so you were able to get more into Cameron’s head. I personally learned about story-telling and creating empathy in an audience… As well as manipulating an audience to see through the eyes of the character.
I think before we originally had Cameron a little at arm’s length, she was a closed book, but once Joe came along and helped us massage the footage and juxtaposes some scenes against each other, her journey became a lot clearer.
Where did the filming take place, as its set in the Mid-West?
It was filmed in an area called Saugerties in Upstate New York. The book is set in Montana, and had the whole ranch thing going on but with our budget we couldn’t afford to shoot there. So, we decided to make it ambiguous where its set.
Spoiler alert…. I know what you are ging to say but I have to ask in the final scene, when three are having breakfast and are about to set off for good, in that moment they are joined by camp leader Rick. I found myself going back to that scene repeatedly to see if there whether any clues, that Rick knew they were leaving and let them go anyways. Did he?
Hmmm….. not going to give that away. It’s up to the audience to make their own decision what happens there.
You mentioned earlier about female sexuality. You have mentioned in previous interviews that female sexuality is not represented properly in film.
I actually feel I don’t have to elaborate. When do you actually see female sexuality from the point of view of the female auteur?
I would say in your previous film.
Well exactly, it’s very rare. Any depiction of female sexuality that is honest and from an authentic point of view is very rare.
What do you think the reasons are?
Well I don’t know it’s how I see it.
A lot of times with gay sex, queer films portray the sex as this smooth and easy love making process. Is it easier for film makers to gloss over things than show nuances?
There are very few women given the right to tell stories of their own sexuality, let alone gay ones. I think if there were more examples, we could say that in technical terms it maybe it’s easier. I don’t think it’s a practical issue at all. I just don’t think there are opportunities for women to tell honest stories about their sexuality. And I don’t think there is a lot of support for those films.
What do you think could be a solution?
More women can be put in positions of power to enable these films to be made.
You’ve come across these barriers?
Yes, people who call the shots in Hollywood are predominantly older white men.
What would like to do next?
Maybe something big budget that is aligned to my beliefs and vision. I haven’t seen anything along those lines come my way yet.
And you have a TV show coming out The Bisexual?
The show is a sexual coming of age, where a woman in her thirties who identified herself her whole life as gay comes out as bisexual and starts to date men for the first time in her life. Its airing on Channel 4 in October and on Hulu in America in November.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is out in cinemas today.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.