TIFF 2020 Women Directors: Meet Madeleine Sims-Fewer – “Violation”

Madeleine Sims-Fewer studied film production at York University and completed an MFA in acting at Drama Centre London. She met Dusty Mancinelli at the 2015 TIFF Talent Lab and the pair joined forces as a filmmaking team. Their short film “Slap Happy” screened at BFI London Film Festival, VIFF, and Slamdance, among others. Their second short, “Woman in Stall,” won the Jury Award for Narrative Student Short at the Austin Film Festival and the Narrative Shorts Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance, and their most recent short, “Chubby,” premiered at Telluride and won an Honorable Mention for outstanding acting at Slamdance and the Silver Dragon for Best Directing at Krakow.

“Violation” will screen at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, which is taking place September 10-20. Mancinelli co-directed the film.

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

MSF: With her marriage about to implode, Miriam returns to her hometown to seek solace in the comfort of her younger sister and brother-in-law. But one evening a tiny slip in judgement leads to a catastrophic betrayal, leaving Miriam shocked, reeling, and furious. Believing her sister to be in danger, Miriam decides she must protect her at all costs, but the price of revenge is high and she is not prepared for the toll it takes as she begins to emotionally and psychologically unravel.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

MSF: The idea of revenge against the people who have wronged us is very seductive. That’s why revenge films are so popular. But what if the person who hurts you is not some stranger in a dark alleyway, but someone close to you? No one is really talking about this in films about revenge, but I’m very much drawn to the more complicated side of the story — like the version of “The Little Mermaid” where she can’t take being on land, and realizes that leaving her home for a man was a big mistake, so she throws herself back into the sea and drowns. Morbid, yeah, but far more interesting.

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

MSF: I don’t have anything specific I would want people to think. As long as they are still thinking about it afterwards, even if they hated it, that’s good to me. I hope people are haunted by it.

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

MSF: “Violation” was funded through the Telefilm Talent To Watch program — a program for micro budget first features. Telefilm have been wonderfully supportive throughout the whole process, and we’re so happy to have made our first feature through their program. They gave us complete creative control, and supported our vision as filmmakers every step of the way. We also received funding from Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council — incredible organizations here in Canada that give artists the control of their projects.

We were really lucky. We put all our fees back into production, and have gone into debt a bit too. It was tough but we wanted to put everything we could into our first feature so we are putting our best foot forward as the world starts to see our work.

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

MSF: It definitely came from my parents, who aren’t filmmakers, but are great movie lovers. When I was about five years old my dad showed me the film “Cabaret” by Bob Fosse. The mixture of story, acting, music, of war film with grotesque musical with feminist masterpiece, was enthralling.

Then when I was 10 or 11 my mum let me watch “The Shining.” My parents are going be annoyed that I’m making them look irresponsible, but they really weren’t — I was very into the macabre as a kid. “The Shining” opened my mind to the power of cinematography and production design and sound design.

Movies were my food growing up. I wasn’t a partier, or big into socializing — on the weekend I’d go over to my best friend’s place and we’d watch movies back to back. We consumed Lars von Trier, Jane Campion, James Cameron, Danny Boyle, Francis Ford Coppola, and Billy Wilder until we couldn’t stay awake anymore.

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

MSF: The best advice — and I think of it often — is do not compromise your vision. I think this is especially important as women, because we are taught to be pleasing, to placate, and to not make a scene or be any “trouble.” I’m all for flexibility, and I think it is extremely important to recognize when something cannot be achieved, or when you may not be right, but I don’t think that male directors feel the same need to make everyone happy.

If you have a clear vision do not be afraid to fight for it. There were parts in “Violation” that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t insisted on them, and they are now some of the most talked about moments in the movie.

The worst advice I’ve been given, and I got this advice a lot — really, a lot — is that you need to define what you are or people won’t take you seriously. People were always asking, “But are you an actor, or do you really wanna direct?” Or, “But do you see yourself as more of a writer who also acts?” At first I was a bit embarrassed to say that I am all those things, but now I can’t be bothered to be embarrassed. I am an actor, writer, director, producer — and that’s okay!

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

MSF: In high school my music teacher passed me in the hallway once when I was having a particularly low day, I must have looked beaten down and frazzled or something, because as he walked past he looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

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

MSF: Oh boy, there are so many! I think my favorite films change so much depending on what stage of life I am in, but I’d say today it would have to be “Red Road” by Andrea Arnold. That film is just a long kick in the balls for me. It’s so riveting, and raw, and Kate Dickie is superb.

I learned so much about film craft watching Arnold’s movies, and I love the way her films feel like horror films in the way the narrative unfolds with so much dread.

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

MSF: We finished shooting “Violation” in October, and were right in the middle of post-production when COVID-19 hit the world, so we’ve really been lucky in that we could hide away and edit. Everything is slower now, though. It’s like moving through treacle getting this film finished because of all the restrictions and lockdown, but I can be a bit of a hermetic person, so there are parts of being allowed to just shut off from the world that have been quite nice.

In terms of creativity, being immersed in post and having a deadline looming meant that I was forced to be creative!

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. 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?

MSF: I am not sure I am the best person to speak to what can be done within Hollywood as Hollywood is still very much a concept for me as an indie filmmaker! However, I do think that these things start from the bottom. When I was in school I definitely felt that my BIPOC friends were treated noticeably differently from the white kids. Not in overt ways, but in small, insidious ways, and even as a woman going to film school was hard.

I was surrounded by men who were confident, loud, and used to being heard. I was one of about six women directors in a program of 50 students. I came out quite demoralized because you have to fight so hard to get noticed, to get your stories heard, and then when people do want to work with you or champion you there’s always that nagging worry that they are using you for your “unique” perspective.

I think encouraging young black filmmakers and actors is where it needs to happen — not just in Hollywood when you’ve already had to struggle so much to just get there.

September 11, 2020
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