“We Are Forcing You to Experience Things You Might Not Want To…”: Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli on Their Boldly Confronting TIFF Premiere, Violation
An act of sexual violence leads to an awful retribution in Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s Violation, which premiered this past week at the Toronto International Film Festival. But were the film’s execution as simple, as blunt, as this brief synopsis might suggest, there’d be little to distinguish Violation from so many other works in the rape-revenge genre. Instead, in their debut feature Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli have radically scrambled the dramatization of cause and effect, sliding backwards and forwards in their storytelling to place a sexual assault that happens on a couple’s weekend getaway within the broader psychology of the survivor’s family relationships and internal life. The approach is challenging to be sure — on first viewing I wasn’t quite sure of how many timelines were at play here. But by placing so much backstory and character development after the film’s shocking and protracted centerpiece of violence, the picture, in a manner reminiscent at times of Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, achieves an emotional complexity that jolts the viewer out of the simple dramatic binaries that so often characterize such pictures.
Set in and around a lakeside house and neighboring guest cabin, Violation finds Miriam (a riveting Sims-Fewer) and her emotionally distant boyfriend Caleb (Obi Abili) visit Miriam’s sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) for some sort of low-key reconciliation. There’s a distance between the sisters, and with a family event looming, it’d be good if they could get along. But, after a night of drinking and emotional sharing, Miriam wakes up to Dylan raping her — an assault he later defends to a shaken Miriam as consensual lovemaking. And when Miriam confronts Greta about her husband’s actions — a revelation Miriam springs on her sister while both are paddling across a cold lake — Greta is unable to process the information outside of the fractious and possessive dynamic they’ve had since childhood. When Miriam chooses her revenge, it is portrayed in methodical, near real-time detail, and the gruesome obsessiveness with which Miriam pursues it is it’s own form of disassociation.
With the film headed next to the Vancouver International Film Festival and Nouveau Cinema in Montreal, the two writers, directors and producers took a moment via email to discuss their decision to tell Violation in a non-linear way, relationships between sisters, and the challenges of shooting that intense confrontation scene in the icy water.
Filmmaker: As much as your film deals with sexual assault and the trauma resulting from that assault, it’s also a film about the dynamics within a family, particularly between sisters. How did these two elements intertwine in your development of Violation, and did the idea of centering a film around one or the other come first?
Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli: We initially wanted to make a film about trauma, and how this one painful experience can eat away at you, twisting your sense of self and augmenting your reality, until it just burst out of you in incredibly destructive ways. The idea of the sisters came in quite soon after, though.
Trauma is hard enough to wrestle with on your own, but when family members are involved it is compounded. Miriam and Greta bring all of this baggage from their pasts. They see each other in a very specific way from childhood, which ends up informing the way they react to each other. There are so many little moments in the film where things could go differently for these characters, but they are held back by their skewed views of each other.
Filmmaker: Your story concerns an assault, and then the survivor’s reaction to that assault, but it deliberately plays with the time frame within which these events are revealed to the audience. What was your reason for embracing such a fragmented and at times elliptical approach to telling the story, and what were the challenges in the editing process to make sure you were maintaining a kind of emotional continuity without confusing, too much, the viewer?
Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli: The way we have edited Violation is very deliberate, but definitely disorienting. Hopefully the audience are patient enough to stick with it until it begins to make sense. We are forcing you to experience things you might not want to in a very specific way, guiding you through this post traumatic landscape where the past and present are constantly speaking to each other. It was important for us to really force the audience to experience things as Miriam does, and the editing is definitely focused and relentless; never letting you stray from her emotions.
The challenge was creating this emotional continuity in the way the timelines speak to each other. Mapping Miriam’s emotional and psychological unravelling through the story, by using sensory and emotional triggers that bring you back and forward in the time.
Filmmaker: There’s a particularly brilliant scene in which Miriam confronts her sister with a truth about her husband. This scene could have taken place anywhere — on the beach, in the cabin… but you have set it in the dead middle of the lake, which introduces a new level of tension and menace. Could you discuss the decision to set this scene at this location as well as the demands it placed on the actors to perform such intense material while dog paddling in the lake?
Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli: When we were writing the script and came up with the idea of setting that scene in the middle of a lake we were so excited. There is just no escape for either character. It heightened the tension and underscored the scene with a danger that was palpable.
But when it actually came to shooting it we were not prepared for how insanely cold that lake was. It was one of the first scenes we shot, and it brought me and Anna to a level of closeness that only two people who have clung to each other for warmth in a freezing lake can ever know. We had a lifeguard and an on-set medic to make sure that neither of us got hypothermia, but it was incredibly physically demanding.
Filmmaker: Miriam is such a fascinating character, and you never shy away from developing her in increasingly complicated ways, ranging from the portrayal of her relationship to alcohol and sex, and the revealing of the way she’s held on to so many grievances from her youth that refract on her behavior today. Could you discuss the different levels of Miriam’s character and, Madeline, for you the desires you had when writing her for yourself to play?
Sims-Fewer: Miriam is a person who is entirely out of step with the world in an almost inherent sense. She doesn’t know how to fix her marriage, she desperately loves her sister but isn’t able to reach her somehow, and she isn’t able to deal with her pain and anger in constructive ways.
She is trying so hard to figure things out but is really struggling to be understood and has this need to be perceived as “good,” which can be really destructive. She is also totally blind to the way that she treats Caleb after her own assault. Her own desperation for closeness and a sense of oblivion translates into abusive behavior of her own.
These are the types of characters I have always been drawn to in cinema, though most of the great anti-heroes we see on screen are men. Because we are more used to seeing male anger, alienation, and righteous chivalry it’s easy for us to relate to those qualities in characters, even if we disagree with their actions. There is something about female rage that really rubs audiences the wrong way. Miriam is definitely a difficult character to like, and Dylan is very affable. This was a specific choice we made to show that these situations are so nuanced; most people who do bad things are not “bad” people.
It’s funny ‘cause at first I was going to play Greta. We actually wrote Greta for me, so there was a lot about her that I related to, but then it just started to make more sense for me to play Miriam because of the micro-budget and the physical and emotional demands of the role. I knew that we could push me as far as I needed to go.
When I pivoted to playing Miriam it was initially hard to find myself in her, but I did a ton of prep, just exploring her, and in the end actually I perhaps related to her on a level I wasn’t willing to admit. She brought up a lot of my own anger and sadness that I hadn’t been able to see because I am so preoccupied with being rational and level-headed. Miriam actually helped me to see that I held some of the biases we were railing against.
Filmmaker: The two of you write, direct and produce together. How does that work? Is there a division of labor, or do you share everything?
Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli: We like to operate as a sort of hive mind when we work, which really means that we do a LOT of prep, and everything takes much longer because we are equally involved. But there is such a value for us in having both our voices come together. We challenge each other so that the best idea always wins.
If one of us feels strongly about a certain decision, and makes a case for it, then we always choose to see it as a joint decision, so there is no ego or resentment that is created by thinking “that was my/your idea.” But of course we each have our own skills and unique points of view that we bring to each project. It just enriches our work having these different angles.
Both of us are incredibly performance focused, so everything in the work revolves around emotional truth and naturalism. This commitment to performance was what initially brought us together as collaborators, and continues to be the driving force of our work.
Filmmaker: Your film’s cinematography has a kind of gauziness to it — almost the feeling of a dreamy fairy tale. And I understand the film was shot largely in natural light. Could you discuss your approach to the film’s look — both your references, if any, and then specific things you did to achieve this look?
Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli: We have been working with our DOP Adam Crosby on all of our short films, so have developed a real aesthetic together that is based around an extremely mobile 360 degree approach. We were inspired by Days of Heaven, and The Tree of Life, definitely, but also by painters like Hopper and Caravaggio. All of the light in the film is natural and available light, and Adam is a master at shaping it — so much is involved in this approach, from choosing specific locations down to the fabric and color of curtains and lampshades.
We talked very early on about waiting to have a feeling of a dark fairytale, as we are really exploring morality, so we designed the shoot around specific times of day as much as possible, and used filters to evoke the dream-like quality. We also shot with old Soviet lenses from the 1960s that had a gorgeous swirling bokeh that we used to accentuate Miriam’s emotional and physical unravelling.
Filmmaker: What do you hope audiences take away from your film?
Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli: We don’t want Violation to be a celebration of revenge,but instead to really explore what it would mean for a human to take this kind of action, and whether revenge is really the only way to recover from such a betrayal. We want to challenge our audience; making them question their collective thirst for revenge and violence as the only justified course of action against sexual violence.
This was a highly personal film for us. We want to reach people who have wrestled with trauma, or are curious to understand more about other people’s experiences. Even if this film makes you question something within yourself or your response to someone then that’s heartening to us. Someone said recently that the film made them want to call their sister — that was perfect.