Iris Brey Alma Jorodowsky Split Series Lesbian-themed series Female gaze in cinema Iris directorial debut Feminist perspective Inclusive storytelling Representation in media Split series analysis LGBTQ+ narratives Female sexuality portrayal Breaking stereotypes Gender equality in filmmaking Authentic intimacy scenes Dismantling patriarchy Non-binary representation Artistic process in editing
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December 5, 2023
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Split, by Iris Brey : Is there a Lesbian Gaze behind the Female Gaze?

During the Geneva International Film Festival (Giff), we had the occasion to have a chat with Iris Brey, director of the series "Split", and Alma Jorodowsky, who plays Anna, the main character of the story. From working with an intimacy coordinator to fighting for a true and sincere representation of lesbianism on a public broadcast channel, "Split" is most certainly a unique piece of work in the history of cinema.

Released in avant première during the Geneva International Film Festival, Split had been teased for month then and we were very excited to speak with Iris and Alma on the conception of the series, the writing and directing process, as well as the choreography of the most intimate scenes.

Congratulations on the Split series! The series is part of a need to raise the profile of the lesbian community. What inspired you to write the script with Clémence Madeleine-Perdria?

Iris: The script comes from a desire and a need to tell stories that I missed. I think if I'd seen a series about coming out of heterosexuality, I might have done it a few years earlier. It obviously started from a personal impulse, and Clémence Madeleine-Perdria came along to help me detach myself from my reality and add a dramaturgy specific to the series, even though everything was pretty much written when she arrived. 

There aren't many lesbian-themed series out there, especially with an audiovisual team that's eighty percent female. What's the production process like?

Iris: The difficulty lies more in finding a broadcaster who will accept that the center of the story is a lesbian character. Then, I think the difficulties lie in maintaining a certain degree of realism. For instance, I had to cut orgasms from some sex scenes that were too long. I was told that the screams were too long or too much. That seems like nothing, but by constantly taking little things away, and asking us to cut portions of the series, we end up with works that are way too smooth. Rebecca Warrior, who wrote the song Split that you hear at the end of episode five, was asked to change some lyrics, but  we refused. It's our experiences, we come from minority narratives, and we try to show things that aren't part of a collective imagination. 

It's also about things that aren't necessarily linked to lesbianism or feminism, like asking for consent. That was in the script since the beginning of writing, for Anna and Eve to ask each other before doing anything.

I was asked to remove the wording on consent, which some didn't find erotic. It's all about fighting over little things.

Split is broadcasted on a free platform that belongs to public services, so there are questions about age restrictions and what is considered to be visible for teenagers. We're confronted with other stereotypes linked to female sexuality, things that aren't authorized for people under sixteen.

Iris, this is your first time directing. Your book explores the concept of the female gaze in cinema. What were the most important aspects you applied to Split?

Iris: I wanted to emphasize the experiences of the female body as a biological body, talk about sexuality, orgasm, the social body, what it means to grow up female, and the pressures we put on women's bodies. We need to be a collective body if we really want to dismantle patriarchy. I also wanted to show in the female gaze that eroticism could be born between two characters around equality and not domination.

Alma, can you tell us a little about your character Anna, and what it was like to prepare for the role, from the stunts to the questions she faces in the series?

Alma: Well, Anna is a stuntwoman in her thirties, in a fairly stable heterosexual relationship, with her life and career well on track, who is about to experience some life disruptions that will awaken things in her that she'd buried or put aside. This encounter with a woman totally overwhelms her. Now, the preparation was quite physical, especially given her job as a stuntwoman. I was lucky enough to be able to train with real stuntpeople and my own stuntwoman, Lucia Jan really helped me. On top of that, there was also all the bodywork involved in the eroticism and all the sex scenes, which was a real joint effort with Jenny and the intimacy coordinator Paloma Garcia Martens. Iris and the chief operator also came in during the rehearsals to help us create a very strong connection between our characters, create a bodily dialogue, and actually let emotions come through the body.

And how did the two of you work together? I know that directing is very important to you, Iris, so how did you go about directing Anna's character?

Iris: I like to give action verbs. "There, the character melts, there, it stiffens". I tried not to get too psychological, but to really think about how the body reacts. And that was also the work we did with the intimacy coordinator. The two actresses really collaborated on the choreography, on how we set it up in relation to the frames, and the shots.

I really worked with my operator, to show the actresses the frames and plans we were interested in, and ask them what they thought. It helped us in creating a visual grammar that's as close as possible to sensations, often quite close to the bodies, but not too invasive of the intimate space. Inès, the operator, wouldn't bring the camera too close to the actresses, but they knew they were often filmed up close. What I wanted the most were the breaths, the hands, the things that are closest to sensations. We worked more on sensations than psychology together.

Did you find it difficult to break away from current patterns and the Male Gaze?

Iris: I think I spent several years of my life writing this book [Le Regard Féminin, 2020 ], trying to theorize it and make it conceptual. Maybe the hardest thing for me was to trust my gut, physically, when I looked at the combo, to know if something felt aligned or not, and if it didn't, to figure out what was wrong. I was never under the impression of being in a Male Gaze relationship with the actresses, or with the staging during the shooting.

In the editing though, I sometimes found the sex scenes to be almost too realistic for me. I wasn't interested in certain moments because I felt we were too intrusive.

And I think that kind of awareness doesn't just come with writing or directing. During editing, I would always ask myself whether we were in Anna's feelings or not, and if the answer was no, then something was wrong with the editing and it had to be fixed.

Alma: You also have to be vigilant with yourself. In my latest short film, there's a moment when you first hear a boy and a girl playing soccer in the background. At one point, I heard him say "no, that's not how we do it". I immediately thought, « We can’t let the public hear that ».  It wasn't at all misplaced on the part of the little boy, they were just playing together, but this combination of image and sound just didn't fit. Editing is a meticulous work, it's the moment when everything makes sense, everything has to be coherent, and that's something you have to demand of yourself up to the end of your artistic process. 

Iris: Indeed, sound is very important. In the sex scenes of Split, I had all the sound effects redone, because they didn't seem realistic enough, or not representative enough of female sexuality. It sounded really overdone, too pronounced. I even did some of them myself. The good thing about lesbian sexuality is that you know what it sounds like [laughs].

It's really interesting that Alma mentions sound. All my study work revolved around the staging of bodies, and I didn't work around sound at all. When you're directing, you have to be aware of the details that can be said and shown, but also of the physicality of sound. Sound conveys extremely intimate things.

Is there even such a thing as Lesbian Gaze?

Iris: Yes, I even gave a talk on the subject at the Lesbiennale. The way I defined Lesbian Gaze wasn't in terms of lesbian woman filmmakers, or lesbian characters, but rather a person who sees heterosexuality as a social and political regime. For example, Varda may have a Lesbian Gaze in the way she shows this character of a young woman in Sans Toit Ni Lois doesn't belong to this society, and is trying to get out of it, and will die because she finally does.

In Le regard féminin, I realized that most of the filmmakers I was talking about (Chantal Ackerman, Germaine Dulac..) were lesbians, which was something I wasn't aware of when I was writing. It was really my own unconscious and my own bias, as at the time, I hadn't come out of heterosexuality yet. It was really interesting for me to re-read my work a few years later and realize my own blindness. These women were always reinventing the film medium to tell their stories. They had to invent to tell the story of their characters.

I think Lesbian Gaze would be closer to that, to trying to get out of a hetero-patriarchy in storytelling, but also in making. We even see this in the female directors of the 70s, who are not necessarily lesbians in their intimate lives (though we cannot be so sure). Carole Roussopoulos and Delphine Sirgue, for example, took up the Bolex, small lightweight cameras, to film unusual subjects such as abortions. These filmmakers were very close to technological advances to tell new stories.

Isn't there a risk that Female Gaze might be a little essentialistic?

Iris: Yes, of course. That's obviously what I was criticized for when the book came out. I wanted to call it Female Gaze [Regard Féminin], because there was Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze, and for me it was a way of highlighting the work she did in the seventies.

I also think I'm clear on the fact that when I talk about the social body, the experiences of the female social body, such as being afraid in the street, are experiences that men can also feel if they don't belong to the norm. The experience of the collective is something that can be shared by everyone. That's why I asked trans and non-binary actors and actresses to join the team on Split. As I say explicitly in my book, I don't think the female gaze is the gaze of women. There are men who have this Female Gaze. The problem we have with the French language is that the term « féminin » is so loaded with meaning that it becomes difficult not to make it essentializing, just as it's very difficult when we talk about experiences of the female body, like pregnancy or abortion or menstruation, not to fall into an essentializing discourse. It's something I struggle with all the time. I really want to put a positive spin on things and say that these experiences are important and valuable and should be on our screens, while at the same time saying that they don't happen to all women and that they're not interesting for all women.

I'm reading an essay called the Feminist Gaze, and I'm glad that other people are taking up the term and making it evolve. When I wrote my book, I didn’t mean to establish my own concept, but rather to make people aware that the images they look at aren't neutral. I think that nowadays, everyone can talk about the male and female gaze, and that it's become part of everyday language, and that's something to be happy about.  Yes, there are limits to this concept and term, I'm aware of that. It's a collective story now. We need to think together about how we redefine the term and how we charge it with evolving meanings. 

Image courtesy of ©Caroline DUBOIS-FTV


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