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“Film Can Be a Powerful Medium for Disrupting Assumptions About What Is Normal”: Evan Bode on His Student Short Film Showcase Winner Thine Own Self

Currently a candidate for an MFA in Syracuse University’s film program, Evan Bode recently pursued a cinematic undertaking that is staggeringly bold in its sheer gumption. Though he had never formally dabbled in helming animated films, Bode decided to use the newfound creative freedom of film school to make Thine Own Self, a 5-minute, dialogue-free animated film that utilizes desk drawer clay, green poster paper and the filmmaker’s own hands as its principal storytelling devices. 

The film begins by introducing the viewer to a sect of colorful entities that exist in whimsical tranquility, floating above the horizon without qualm. That is, until a pair of menacing, surgical glove donning hands appear from the sky, forcibly molding the figures into rigid uniformity. Half are rendered into blue cubic figures, and “naturally,” the other half become pink. Those who attempt to escape the restrictive binaries which they have been placed in are forcibly returned by the all-commanding hands—a simple yet powerful allegory for the violent coercion into strict gender roles that society has militaristically enforced (and which many of us blindly uphold and follow). Thine Own Self is one of five winners of the 2022 Student Short Film Showcase, a collaborative program from The Gotham, Focus Features and JetBlue that is available to stream via Focus Features’s YouTube channel and offered in the air as part of JetBlue’s in-flight entertainment selection.

I spoke with Bode via email, discussing the anxieties of first-time animation, the complex process of composing the film’s score and his ongoing commitment to dismantling oppressive gender binaries through his work.

Filmmaker: You’re currently still a student at Syracuse University’s film program. How has your film school education informed your filmmaking practice, and what past creative experiences do you bring to the classroom? 

Bode: At Syracuse, I am fortunate to have supportive faculty who gave me the freedom to experiment and make the film I wanted to make. At first, I hadn’t planned to make an animated film in film school, but when classes went online due to the pandemic, I decided to try stop motion for the first time because it allowed me to work in isolation—and I loved it! I appreciate this freedom in the program, because to me, a film school education is most valuable when the goal is to nurture and develop each artist’s unique voice, as opposed to enforcing conformity to a single normative formula. My colleagues in the program, who come from all over the world, inspire me constantly and we see each other as collaborators, not competitors. Each person brings something different and valuable to the classroom.

Coming into grad school, I didn’t have formal education in the production side of film, because my background was in sociology, English, and communication studies. But these other disciplines had a huge impact in informing my perspective and approach as a filmmaker and storyteller. Outside of school, I’ve had an interest in drawing, music, and creative writing, and I love that filmmaking combines all these forms of art into one. Before I could write or read, I was already trying to make movies in a way. As a toddler, immediately after watching a movie, I would spend hours either recreating what I had seen with my toys, or scribbling the images I had seen onto pages of paper, like storyboards. I still have a bookshelf with hundreds of these pages because my parents had them bound into books. Looking back, I think it was an attempt at filmmaking in the only way I knew how.

Filmmaker: What inspired the concept of this film? 

Bode: From the beginning of developing the concept, I knew I wanted to explore the harm done through the process of gender socialization. The idea came from a personal place of never feeling at home within traditional notions of masculinity. My goal was to interrogate gender essentialism and binary frameworks, but in a way that was emotionally grounded, intuitive, and accessible—more of a childlike fable about queerness than an academic essay on the subject. So in some ways, I was trying to take complicated ideas and express them as simply as possible, in film language. In other ways, I was also doing the opposite: taking a culturally oversimplified notion of gender and framing it as something more complex and expansive.

The colors of pink and blue stood out immediately as a clear visual shorthand to discuss these ideas, because they carry a lot of cultural meaning. Often before a person even arrives in the world, parents will throw gender reveal parties that impose a certain set of symbolic expectations on that person based on their anatomy, putting them in one box or another. The image of floating hands stood out as a symbol for power, partly because as an animator, my hands were exercising power over the clay figures and shaping them to be a certain way. I was also thinking about the doctors gloves that bring us into the world. These simple symbols were seeds that grew into a piece about the identities imposed on us by society and a desire to break free from them.

Filmmaker: What was the animation process like, and how long did it take? 

Bode: This project was done completely in the spirit of do-it-yourself, one-person, no-budget filmmaking. I shot it all on my iPhone and used a piece of green poster paper as a mini green screen in my parents’ basement. I didn’t even purchase clay, I found it in a desk drawer with some other art supplies from my childhood. As a first-time animator, I didn’t really know what I was doing—all I had was the concept, and bringing it into reality was a process of constant experimentation as I went along. I battled self-doubt throughout the whole process and had to take a leap of faith that it was possible to achieve what I envisioned. The film is a little over five minutes long, and it took five months to make, but the hard work paid off more than I could have imagined.

Filmmaker: You also composed the film’s score. How did you settle on certain instruments and sounds to convey the emotional trajectory of this dialogue-free story? 

Bode: I’m glad you asked because the score is essential to the piece, and it was something I was developing alongside the visuals every step of the way. The emotional trajectory starts in a space of peaceful freedom prior to the process of gender socialization, so I tried to evoke infancy in the instrumentation with the sound of a music box at the beginning. After that, the score grows darker and more chaotic as powers above rip the characters away and mold them into something else. I wanted to suggest violence through sharp percussive rhythms. The music changes along with the spirits as conformity is imposed. From there, the score shifts into a more robust, march-like anthem that feels almost militant in contrast to the opening’s gentleness, to suggest gender as a rigid, collective performance. The mood here is deceptively happy, but it’s an artificial anthem that feels forced. When the figures start to reconnect with their more authentic selves, the original gentle melody clashes with the march, as if the two are in conversation with one another. Hopefully they are also in conversation with the viewer. I tried to approach the film’s music as a language which can convey feelings in a way that words can’t.

Filmmaker: This short film is a condemnation of rigid binaries, particularly as it pertains to gender expression. Your other recent short film made during your MFA program, A Spot For Frog, similarly navigates the importance of safe, accepting spaces for those who actively subvert gender roles. How does the prospect of dismantling gender barriers influence your creative sensibility? 

Bode: Thank you for the question and for mentioning my latest film A Spot for Frog, which is a hybrid work of live action and animation that I am very excited to share! It’s a simple story about a teen looking for somewhere to sit at lunch, but in a larger sense it’s about searching for a safe place in a world that denies them one. As with Thine Own Self, I invested myself deeply in every part of production because it’s a topic I am passionate about. 

Film can be a powerful medium for disrupting assumptions about what is normal. It can be a space to challenge artificial constructs that people misperceive as natural and inevitable, including oppressive systems like the gender binary. Many people have been so thoroughly indoctrinated into the misconception that there are only two fixed, immutable genders that they will invest in this ahistorical falsehood even when evidence to the contrary is living and breathing in front of them. As with any impulse to police the existence of others, the consequences are violent. At a pivotal moment when queer youth are increasingly visible, they are also increasingly in danger. The empowering part about recognizing when a system is socially constructed is that collectively, we have the ability to construct it differently. And everyone has a part to play in the work of building a more liberated, loving society for all people to exist safely as themselves.

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