Eliza Hittman: ‘How can you talk about abortion and not politics?’

Eliza Hittman: ‘How can you talk about abortion and not politics?’

Eliza Hittman makes award-winning films about teens in turmoil. And what awards. To date, she has taken home the prize for Best Direction at Sundance 2017 and a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship for film-video. Her third film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, won a Special Jury Award for Neo-Realism at this year’s Sundance and the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at February’s Berlin International Film Festival, an honour that puts her in the company of previous winners Agnès Varda, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Wes Anderson and Béla Tarr.

“It was a triumph, not just for me, but for everyone involved in the film,” says Hittman, from her New York apartment, where she and her family are in a lockdown “hotspot” as he puts it. “I’m deeply indebted to Locarno for championing my work and for bringing me to Berlin. It was unexpected to me every step of the way. I was surprised to be in competition.”

Hittman’s snapshots, of what she calls “Those kind of defining traumatic transformations that can lead us one way or another”, typically juxtapose the performative aspects of adolescence with heartfelt, private moments. They resemble “the outtakes from other teen movies”.

In Beach Rats (2017), Harris Dickinson plays a conflicted teen who by day hangs out with his girlfriend and the lads at the beach, and by night cruises around gay hook-up websites. In It Felt Like Love (2013), motherless Lila  (Gina Piersanti) – desperate to emulate her sexually experienced best friend – pursues an older, tougher boy and soon finds herself in over her head. In a misguided effort to impress a snarling group of boys watching porn, she announces that she’s considering porn as a career because “the hours are good and so is the pay, and I like sex a lot”.

“I would say that a lot of the atmosphere in character in It Felt Like Love is sort of true to my experiences,” says the writer-director. “We’ve all been lonely and disconnected. That particular experience of trying to include myself and that feeling of being left out when I was young.”

‘Divisive topic’

In 2013, just as It Felt Like Love was picking up rave reviews from the New York Times and the Village Voice among others, Hittman happened upon an article on the death of Irishwoman Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital. Seven years on and her response to that tragedy is felt in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, an impactful drama about a teenager procuring an abortion.

“It’s the most divisive topic in our country,” says Hittman emphatically. “What women do with their bodies.”

Refreshingly, Never Rarely Sometimes Always provides an antidote to cinema’s cuddly approach to reproductive issues. Even in the indie sector, films like Juno offer the crisis pregnancy as fairy-tale, placing Hittman’s third feature on a very short list alongside Gillian Robespierre’s 2014 rom-com Obvious Child.

“Even in shows like Girls her character has a magical miscarriage before she’s able to get an abortion,” says Hittman. “And that was a convenient way around saying something about our country and our rights. It was a safe choice. How can you talk about abortion and not talk about the politics?

“I think people in our industry have a hard time making movies about women in general. It’s hard for industry people to see the marketing potential even though women make up more than half of the people who actually watch movies. And then there’s the hugely stigmatised issue of abortion. People don’t like issue movies in this country. If you add abortion to it, people think: Oh, she’s making a Lifetime movie. When, really, I wholeheartedly was making a story about a hero’s journey.”    

In this spirit, Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows teenager Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) as she and her steadfast cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), travel from Pennsylvania to New York City so that Autumn can end a crisis pregnancy. Her journey takes in a “crisis pregnancy centre” in her native state and a visit to a heavily protested Planned Parenthood clinic in Manhattan. Her initial appointment involves a supermarket pregnancy test and wildly incorrect information, including how far along her pregnancy is.

‘Deeply unethical’

“Unfortunately, there’s a clinic like that in almost every town in America,” says Hittman. “We’ll call them centres because they’re not medically licensed in any way. They’re run by volunteers. They’re deeply unethical. They misinform women about their options. They often used scare tactics. They tell women that if they get an abortion they could die or they will have an increased risk of cancer. They do offer some medical services which they are not licensed to do. So I want to explore one of those centres. Because I’ve never seen one in a film and they have such a huge place in small-town American life.

“Unfortunately, in our country, they are also federally subsidised. When we have actual medical clinics that care for women that are fighting for their survival. For those scenes I really went to those centres and I took the pregnancy tests because I wanted to be able to represent them in a non-judgmental way. I wanted to know how they talk to women. And to make sure they’re not caricatures. What’s in the film is expanded from my experience.”

One pivotal scene in the Manhattan clinic sees Autumn answering “Never”, “Rarely”, “Sometimes” or “Always” in a pre-abortion interview. When the counsellor inquires whether her partner has ever hurt her, or whether he’s ever forced her to have sex, her expression says more than she does. The film never confirms if the aggressor was her stepfather – who sexualises the family dog as a “slut” – or the suggestively teasing boy at school who she douses in water.

“I knew when I was writing that I just wanted to avoid that scene that we’ve seen 100 times on screen: ‘I’m pregnant and I don’t know what to do!’ I think so often young people are really burdened with these issues and they don’t share them. Part of the experience is the loneliness that this young woman experiences as she’s forced to navigate the abortion landscape at this time.

“In a way the movie is reflecting a lot about the #MeToo movement in America. And how painful it is for all these women who have come forward and rarely find justice in that process. That sets a precedent in a way. We’re experiencing the film through Autumn. Would she have the confidence to speak out?”

Never Rarely Sometimes Always marks the remarkable Sidney Flanigan’s acting debut. The 21-year-old first met Hittman and her domestic partner and editor Scott Cummings while he was shooting the documentary short Buffalo Juggalos, a tribute to fans of the Insane Clown Posse, a subculture known as juggalos.

‘Raw videos’

“While we were casting that movie we met with a bunch of teenagers and the next day we went on Facebook to stay connected to them because sometimes they don’t have phones,” recalls the director. “For some reason, over the last few years, Sidney kept popping up in my newsfeed. She would make these very personal, very raw videos of herself playing music alone in her bedroom. And I felt like this voyeur watching them because you’re peering into a life of a teenager and all of her pain.

“I began to see her private time in her bedroom as having some connection with the private time we spend with Autumn alone in her bedroom. And I asked her to read and she was very confused and reluctant. She lives practically on the border with Canada in upstate New York. So I flew her to the city and we spent a day together shooting. She’s a little older than the character but she could relate to the experiences the character was going through.”

Hittman was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Her father was an anthropologist and her mother was a social worker. Having graduated from Indiana University with a BA in drama, she had hoped to work in experimental theatre but found there were few opportunities for women to direct. Switching tracks, she received her MFA from the school of film/video at California Institute of the Arts in 2010.

Her family background in therapy and anthropology has been evident since her 2009 short film, Trickster, in which a young boy kills an animal on a Nevada reservation and has to cover up the incident. The shoot was a sort of homecoming for Hittman, who spent time with her dad doing fieldwork in a Nevada reservation as he chronicled the language of the northern Paiutes tribe.

“I grew up doing field work with my father and watching his process,” she says. “And his process informed my process. My mother, too, dealt with a lot of patients who had been institutionalised and she was helping them back into the world in ways that were fascinating. The history of some of her patients made me think about what it means to lose control. Control of your behaviour and your mind. And that has translated into the way I make films.”

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available digitally from tomorrow

This content was originally published here.

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