Diversity in Film: Charlotte Benbeniste
BY Gina Hackett, December 13, 2019
Diversity in Film is a bi-weekly series covering underrepresented voices in Film.
This week, we sat down with current student Charlotte Benbeniste to discuss how bringing home Iranian cinema helped her family remember a country from which they’d fled, and how her childhood experiences at weight loss camp informed her latest short film, Bye Bye Body, which recently premiered at the Austin Film Festival.
If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
CB: I’m settling into some horse vibes. I feel like I have been a Tasmanian devil for the past few years. My head’s been spinning, but it’s been nice to feel a steadiness lately.
You’re settling into a Sancho vibe.
CB: Exactly. I’m like a horse in a Western. Drawing the carriage in Stagecoach.
Do you know specifically which one you are in the team of horses?
CB: The first one! Except I don’t get shot.
So you just got back from the Austin Film Festival supporting your film, Bye Bye Body. I remember you showing me this film as a warning tale against shooting with minors in water on film, but it’s such a beautiful film.
CB: The road to festivals was long! I talk to my friends about how unbalanced the ratio of bullshit and actual directing is. There’s so much hoop-jumping that when you actually get to be on set, that time feels so precious and very magical. And it’s exhilarating, because your brain is really firing on all cylinders by design, by necessity. Then you get your dailies, and you’re like, “I’m a genius.” Everything still feels possible. There's maybe a week or two while you’re in that head space, and then you get an assembly back. And that’s when a lot of the work really starts, getting into your dailies and watching your stuff frame by frame. It’s like having a visual diary of all of your shortcomings, and it’s a brutal process.
You start taking notes, and I think that process can feel really unsettling. You can really lose confidence in your own movie, and that was definitely my experience. I was showing people an uncolored, unmixed cut, and after all the hope you’ve invested in your movie, that can be deflating. So I sort of just tabled the movie and put it in my back pocket for almost a year.
My director of photography, Ben Mullen, is just the greatest creative partner ever, he's like my brother now. He saw my references, and was really adamant that we shoot on film. He donated ten thousand feet of 35mm to the movie, hooked us up at Panavision, and really made so much of my design for this movie possible. It was nice to feel like there was someone as invested in the movie as me, and that that person was going to hold me accountable to finishing the movie. And he did. So I got my nerve back, we colored and mixed it this past summer, and started submitting, and it’s been so positive thus far. You start to wonder what you were so upset about.
Behind the scenes of filiming Bye Bye Body, a film by Charlotte Benbeniste
Tell me more about the feature that the short was inspired by. How did you come to the story?
CB: I was sent to weight loss camp twice, once when I was 12, once when I was 17. And though those experiences were not explicitly negative for me, I started using them as punchlines, and I never really thought I’d get to a place where I’d be interested in the ways they might amount to an interesting story. And then a few years ago, I was remembering that when I was 12, the camp was on a college campus in San Diego. And at the time, San Diego’s NFL team, the Chargers, their facilities were under construction, and so this NFL team was sharing the same facilities as this fat camp. At camp, getting breakfast was conditional on you first running a mile. So I was having this memory of being 12 and all of these obese preteen girls getting lapped by literal NFL players, and the NFL players patting them on the back, cheering them on.
Oh god. I couldn’t bear that now, let alone at 12! That’s horrifying.
CB: Honestly, it was so funny. The memory was so funny. I was so dissociated from the actual experience that I was looking at it objectively and thinking, “this is a riot.” So that was my first way into the story, just listing all of the things that were stranger than fiction, and there were a lot of them. And then I started wondering, “What is the emotional core of this movie?”
And for me, the dramatizing principle has been that these camps, and our whole world, obviously, draw a false equivalency between health and thinness. They teach young women to sacrifice one for the other, and they’re willing to push girls to physically dangerous extremes in pursuit of this arbitrary goal of thinness. So that became a way in: understanding what happens when you throw a girl who feels insecure about her body and therefore susceptible to this incredible magical thinking, into this environment. Who doesn’t want the fantasy deal of “If you fix this one thing, you will be ensured everlasting joy and a painless life full of love and affirmation forever?” which is essentially the myth that this place is pedaling. And who, if bombarded with that idea, would not be willing to push themselves to a dangerous extreme to that end?
It's been fun to think about the textural stuff of the camp, too. When I went at age 17, you weren’t allowed to bring in phones because that was a way they were incentivizing people to lose weight. We were on a "summit system," so based on how much weight you lost, you'd receive privileges, and one of those was phone calls or Internet time. And I'd snuck a phone into camp. I had a pink Motorola Razr that I stuck in my bra, which I then hid in the ceiling boards of the camp. I became the most popular girl in camp after that, because everyone was trying to make calls.
And everyone wanted a pink Motorola Razr.
CB: That too. Mainly that. I’m still really working through the feature right now, but the short begs the question, “How far is somebody willing to go? How much damage are they willing to heap onto themselves to achieve this thing?”
Wow. The image of NFL players lapping young girls will forever be imprinted in my brain.
CB: It was so weird to be in a group of women for whom weight was "bad," running laps side by side with a linebacker, for whom weight is your asset. The bigger the better for a lot of those dudes.
And within that weight, they can still be acrobatic and athletic people.
To what in your background do you trace your decision to become a filmmaker?
CB: My mom’s side of the family is Iranian Jewish immigrants. I’m first generation. They fled in the late 70s and can never go back to Iran. So oral history was a big part of my upbringing. They were recreating their home through storytelling. I grew up with the specter of this history that they had painted, which required an imaginative engagement to some extent. To that end, it was extremely exciting to watch a Kiarostami movie with my mom, and for her to be like, “That’s what that looked like!” and to get an actually tangible image of the things that they had been representing verbally.
My grandfather, who’s 90, is a huge cinephile. He's obsessed with movies, and he was specifically obsessed with American movies—Westerns, Turner Classic Movies—and I feel like his approach to cinema was almost as a study guide. He was watching these movies to learn how to be American to some extent, so there was a survival element to his cinephilia. I think the stories of their lives were real heroes’ journeys to me, not in a coming-of-age way, but with real life or death stakes. And growing up adjacent to that affected me. You grow up in the shadow of actual drama.
Do you remember a moment or a specific film that made you think you could be a filmmaker too?
CB: I really remember seeing a Claire Denis movie for the first time. I saw Nénette and Boni. That was the first film I had seen of hers, at Cinefamily, this theater in LA that’s is now closed. (Shout out to all the sexual assaulters out there. You literally destroyed one of the only repertory cinemas in LA, you motherfuckers.)
But I remember seeing that movie and being inspired by her and her lack of sentimentality. It was exciting to see a female filmmaker who didn’t seem wrapped up in the optics of what the world expects female filmmakers to be, or what they expect them to tell stories about. It was nice to see her making films that were not "quiet" or "subtle" or "carefully observed," but were bold and sexual and offensive. I think that sort of blew my mind.
When it comes to representation, a huge one was Kiarostami, obviously. His movies and Makhmalbaf’s movies really fucked me up as a kid. I remember seeing Where Is My Friend’s Home? and clocking that cinema could make a story which on its face is very low stakes feel very important. That movie is about a kid returning a notebook, but Kiarostami makes it feel like life or death. Those movies feel really connected to an inherent Iranian soulfulness.
And did your parents bring those into the house? Was it your grandpa?
CB: In LA, there’s this one block of Westwood Boulevard that’s called "Tehrangeles." It’s called Tehran Square, and there are Persian markets and tape stores. And they were just slanging bootleg Persian movies out of there. I think I saw one and asked for [a video]. I didn’t grow up a "cinephile" at all, but I grew up going to the video store. There was a video store next to my elementary school, and it was a treat once a week. My mom would take us and let us sift through the $1 bin at Hollywood Video in Westwood, and most of the time they were real misses, like actual garbage and smut, frankly. So definitely in my parent’s house, there continues to be a cabinet of—
CB: Horrible movies! But then in the mix, you’d get a Western, like High Noon or something. And because all the other movies in the mix were god awful, you’d watch the good ones more than once.
I’m interested in what you said about your parents watching the films as a way of remembering a place that they don’t have access to anymore. Protecting the memory.
CB: It’s interesting, because the more I grew as a moviegoer, the more I was bringing those movies home to them. So it almost became like I was playing fetch, going out into the world and seeking out movies that I thought would trigger that response in them, because it was really fun to show them how carefully I had been listening to their stories. I had gone out into the world and seen this movie which had resonated with something I had heard them say, and then brought those movies back. I remember showing Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema to my mom. It's been cool is to bring contemporary Iranian movies home to my folks, because it’s not as much about memory or reconstructing, it’s them getting access to a place that they cannot go anymore. So Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, for example, was so exciting. My mom and my grandparents don’t get to see what that country looks like anymore, so it is a visual document for them.
How do you see those seeds come through in your own work, because you grew up in America and have your own distinct voice as a filmmaker. How do you reconcile the new and the old in your style?
CB: It’s a huge problem for me. I struggle with this all the time, because I simultaneously relate to a lot of these very simple neo-realist stories that are about immediate needs. [Professor] Ramin Bahrani’s movies resonate with me in a big way. I’m interested in stories about immigrants, because that feels true to my family. At the same time, I grew up in LA, and Boogie Nights is closer to what I grew up with than Close Up. I feel so drawn to both styles, and I’m constantly trying to mediate more stylish, meta-cinematic stories that are self-aware and funny, and movies which feel earnest and sincere. Oscillating between being in on the joke and sincerity is something I'm struggling with. I've tried to meld the two to great, great failure. Because the minute you inject any [self-aware] humor, the sincerity that so many of these neorealist movies hinge on is punctured, and then you have no movie. I think that’s why Claire Denis is really interesting to me, because she has moments that feel genuinely sincere, and then moments of such great stylization and visual humor. I've watched her movies hundreds of times, and I’m still trying to make sense of how she does it.
At this moment, what’s keeping you going as a filmmaker?
CB: Maybe this is a completely naive thing to say, but I genuinely do feel like the world is my goddamn oyster. You’ve got to be your own hype man.
Obviously, I’m really grateful to all of the people who are setting a precedent. It’s exciting to see women manning bigger and more expensive pictures... We, like everyone else, just want to work. We just want to make stuff.
What are you working on now that you’re excited about, besides the weight loss camp feature?
CB: I’m revising a feature about a woman truck driver. I took a train across the country a couple of years ago. I didn’t have a sleeping compartment, so I was sleeping on the seats, and when you eat in the dining car, they don’t let you sit alone. They have to fill the tables. So I was seated next to this woman who told me that she was on her way to Boston to pick up the cab of her truck. And over the course of the next three days, sitting on this train together, she told me her life story, and we’ve kept in touch over the years. She left her kids behind to be a trucker. The story of a mother who very, very consciously left her family behind and was so self determined in this way, consequences be damned—and there were some really severe consequences—was intriguing to me. To be looking more deeply into an industry which is threatened by automation is interesting.
So that’s a feature that I’m working on now, and the short that I’m going to make over the summer is a multi-protagonist Persian New Year film in the style of Rules of the Game. So there’s going to be a raucous Persian New Year party happening at my grandparents’ house.
You’re shooting it there?
CB: Yes. And they don’t know that yet.
Ha! That will come.
CB: Yeah. It’s like, “hello folks, I’m going to need your help.”
“You’re acting, you’re acting...”
CB: I’m going to be casting my entire family. Everyone’s like, “Where are you going to get the extras?” And I’m like, “I have 175 cousins.”