NewFest 2021 Women Directors: Meet Cristiane Oliveira – “The First Death of Joana”

Cristiane Oliveira is a Brazilian writer and director. Her debut feature, “Nalu on The Border” (“Mulher do Pai”), premiered internationally at the Berlinale 2017 and has received 20 awards globally. “The First Death of Joana” is her second feature.

The First Death of Joana” is screening at the 2021 edition of NewFest: The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Film Festival, which is taking place October 15-26.

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

CO: “The First Death of Joana” is a film about how our bodies can be windows to connect us to each other, or the key to close ourselves away from the rest of the world.

Through the eyes of a 13-year-old teenager, we’ll see the intimacy of three generations of women in her family and the different forms of everyday oppression against their sexuality.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

CO: The aunt’s character in the film was inspired by a woman who was very close to me, and who never had a romantic relationship. She died a virgin at 70 years old. Her story really moved me. The other characters also came from my personal experiences and the personal experiences of my co-writer, Silvia Lourenço. We thought about the factors that permeate the construction of our affections, such as social expectations of gender, prejudices regarding sexual orientation, racism, and classism.

Besides that, the family is a structure in which the concepts of autonomy frequently clash with the concepts of care, and what is seen as protection can actually be a form of violence.

Since primary school, I learned what behaviors were considered right “for boys” or “for girls.” I was already aware that certain kinds of humiliation at school were reserved exclusively for girls. As fears were created by the urgency to set the rules as to what was right for each gender, I started to feel that gender should not be a sentence for oppression and that sexuality should be seen as a natural development of one’s affections. All of those personal feelings and experiences guided the creation of the story.

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

CO: I wish people could talk more about intimate citizenship, about our rights and responsibilities in relation to our body, and the other’s body, our affections and the affections of the other — to understand how these intimate issues are actually part of a collective social aspect that should be taught since childhood.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

CO: For me, the most difficult aspect was controlling the political atmosphere that existed at the time of the shooting so it didn’t affect the girls who play the main characters, as they were underage at that moment. The rehearsals happened in 2018 during the campaign for the presidential election, which was marked by a wave of horrible fake news. And when we shot, a far-right-wing president was already elected in Brazil. Then the project of banning content about sexuality and gender for young people gained force, and the president himself talked against financing films like mine, which is precisely about gender and sexuality issues.

So, we did everything we could to take care of the girls’ safety during the shooting, always having the support of their parents and keeping a dialogue with them and their mothers about the film’s content and how to face reactions about it.

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

CO: The film was funded by two Brazilian national public funds, BNDES (National Bank for Economic and Social Development) and ANCINE (National Film Agency), and the AVON Fund for Women in Films.

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

CO: The possibility to live different realities through processes that combined all kinds of art drove me to make films. However, it was the strong emotion of establishing dialogues with people through films that made me keep doing it.

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

CO: The best advice: “If you imagine images when you are writing your screenplay, you can direct it.” These words were said to me by the producer of my first short, “Messalina,” after reading its screenplay. I wrote it in a writing workshop he was teaching. He liked it and asked me if I wanted to direct it, but I never thought about directing live-action films. I answered: “Ok, so I think I can do it.” He managed to raise money for the project and the film won 13 awards and travelled the world on the festival circuit. I’ve continued working with cinema since then.

I don’t remember the worst advice.

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

CO: Dialogue on an equal footing with everyone you work with is the best tool to create environments without abuse of power.

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

CO: “Crows” by Dorota Kedzierzawska is an amazing portrayal of a strong young female character. The complexity of her personality is framed with sharp direction and superb cinematography.

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

CO: While I’m not able to go back to set, I collaborate in the development of other filmmaker’s projects and work on the preparation of my third feature film, “Until the Music is Over,” which was selected to the Berlinale Talents Script Station lab in 2021 and will be shot in 2022.

W&H: 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 it more inclusive?

CO: To have people of color in decision-maker positions is the key, I believe.

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