Sundance 2021 Women Directors: Meet Karen Cinorre – “Mayday”

Karen Cinorre is a writer/director whose work has shown internationally at such venues as the New York Film Festival, Rotterdam Film Festival, and Opera Centrum Amsterdam. She’s currently working on a documentary called “The Last People.”

“Mayday” is screening at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which is taking place online and in person via Satellite Screens January 28-February 3.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

KC: A modern “Wizard of Oz,” “Mayday” seeks to create a better mythology around women and girls — to create characters that are not dreary clichés. It’s a a film that explores the darkness women often face through violence, and how we can forge something beautiful and powerful within that. It’s a film that tries to speak to these things by showing a young woman choose life over death.

“Mayday” is a film dedicated to all the girls who didn’t make it. I hope it can offer hope and understanding to those that may be on the edge.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

KC: This story is my own, in that it was born out of my many obsessions, Greek and Egyptian myths in particular. They were the first stories I read where the female characters were brilliant, unencumbered, and very, very powerful.

The myth of the sirens always intrigued me. I learned while researching my film “Plume” that women’s radio voices were used as weapons in WWII. Broadcasts would go out to the enemy soldiers to demoralize them. I realized the idea of sirens is a part of how we function as civilizations.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

KC: I want them to feel hope that they can survive any darkness in their lives and find the courage to use their voice.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

KC: Croatian weather. In Croatia, there are 30 types of wind with different names. The one called Jugo blew in and in within minutes reduced our submarine set to smithereens.

It was also incredibly challenging to find producers who would take on a form of untraditional narrative. My work comes out of the storytelling traditions of myth, poetry, music, and philosophy. Feature filmmaking is always up against the tyranny of the hero’s journey, and much of the best film work exists outside of that. For some reason, many people find new and unexpected forms dangerous. I find them exciting and inspiring.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

KC: I have been making films for many years; I had just never had an opportunity to get a feature off the ground. I worked on many film sets, in galleries and museums to curate, write, and design along the way. I met a lot of people. Eventually, I found some that were interested in my work and had the ability to raise funds. For me, it took years. This is why I started my own company, Queen’s Army, to help iconoclastic projects find their wings.

Awards and grants played a role in getting my short films funded, in particular The Rockefeller Foundation and The Princess Grace Awards.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

KC: The first time I heard the live recordings of Laurie Anderson’s “United States” I knew I wanted to be a storyteller; her art sounded like my brain.

I came to see filmmaking as the best way for me to combine my love of dance, music, science, and writing. Even the weather is part of your palette as a filmmaker – it’s a magnificent enterprise.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

KC: Best advice: never skimp on wigs. Also, do not make your ideas smaller.

Worst advice: That I did not “deserve” to make this film. A producer told me that. He claimed that his friends, other New York (all-male) filmmakers ,“worked harder than me.” No one works harder than me. I fired him.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

KC: Keep going and don’t let anyone tell you what your art should look and feel like. Always remember those first sparks that made you want to communicate something inside you to the world and don’t ever let them go out, no matter how powerful the storms that come.

And I’ll share a story. I was listening to a recorded lecture where Francis Ford Coppola was asked what his advice was for filmmakers starting out. He said, “If you’re a man get married, if you’re a woman do not.” There is a brutal clarity in this statement. I happen to have a fruitful collaboration with my partner, but I have seen women slip into the role of caretaking at the expense of their careers.

I keep an interview with Elena Ferrante tacked to my studio wall. It says, “Even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard – out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness – women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything we have achieved.”

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

KC: Too many to narrow this down more than this!

“Peggy and Fred in Hell” by Leslie Thornton. She explodes the structures of Western narrative and creates her own to awe inspiring effect.

“Daisies” by Věra Chytilová. The grand dame of the Czech New Wave. This film was nearly lost to time but is revolutionary in both form and thematics.

“Beau Travail” by Claire Denis. From this I learned that film could be transcendent.

“Third Eye Butterfly” by Storm de Hirsch. A kinetic, dazzling light experience she created to be shown by two projectors simultaneously. She found a way to use film in an abstract way that is incredibly moving and did so well into her 80s. When she couldn’t get access to a camera, she used surgical instruments to etch and paint directly onto film stock. A true pioneer that let nothing — even the lack of a camera– stop her.

Everything by Agnès Varda. All of her films are joy and intelligence in motion.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

KC: I’m doing everything I normally do but with a mask and at a distance. I am so lucky to have been in post-production for “Mayday” during the pandemic. I got to edit, sound design, color, and do VFX with others, mostly remotely.

It’s hard for me to be creative without seeing people, so I use the phone, FaceTime, skype, and walking! The creatives are out and about in NYC which is why I live here.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

KC: Mentor and produce. The more I can pass on what I’ve been lucky enough to learn and experience in film, the better. It is lazy to be privileged enough to work in the film industry and not be mentoring people who could otherwise have no access to this field.

And I would encourage filmmakers, especially women, to produce. Right now Queen’s Army is focused on getting films made by people in the special needs community. You find a way to make it happen if you don’t see it happening in the world.

January 27, 2021
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