Escaping Constraining Cinema Conventions | ‘Be Still’ Director Elizabeth Lazebnik On Women’s History, Surrealism, and Persistence

Written by Malin Evita

*This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity and context.

Latvian writer-director Elizabeth Lazebnik arrived in Canada to study film over twenty years ago. Over those past two decades, she has directed over fifteen shorts. While they range between genres, one thing has always been there—an experimental edge. An urge to bend and break the limits of conventional cinema. As she says, it’s an audio-visual medium—if you want to read a book, you can do so. But Elizabeth is here to create something different. And that she has definitely done with her 2021 directorial debut: Be Still.

The film stars Piercey Dalton in the lead and is an experimental biopic of the—mostly erased—life of surrealist photography pioneer Hannah Maynard. In Elizabeth’s own words, it’s “it’s about during the time where she struggles with loss that she resorts to her art to try and cope with her grief. “

To talk about the seventeen year-long process of developing this film, bringing women’s history to the screen, and exploring grief and creativity, I sat down with writer-director Elizabeth Lazebnik. Keep reading!

ME: Tell me, how did you first come across Hannah Maynard?

EL: When I came to Canada and went to film school, I was kind of—and still am—a bit of a nerd, and I would go to the university’s library and go to the ‘Canadian Arts’ section. I love art, and I wanted to know more about the arts that were being made in my new home. So I would just go through books, and one of the books I found was about Hannah Maynard. I was just fascinated.

There were all these collages of children—one of the collages actually has over 20.000 children in [it], copied and pasted. So she was kind of doing Photoshop back in the 19th century! Which hadn’t really been done before. So I became just extremely fascinated. Who is this person? Who is doing this, well over a hundred years ago? [She was] basically creating surrealism forty years or so before Dali and other wonderful artists—who were predominantly male. According to my research, she is the first surrealist photographer. Which is kind of a big deal! The fact that her life and work has been so much under the radar… She’s not really known, she’s not really [included] in the history of artists or pioneers of surrealist art, and I feel she really should be.

ME: Personally, I hadn’t heard of her before learning about your film. And I’m so… taken aback by this forgotten woman who was really a pioneer.

EL: Absolutely. She wasn’t the first to use [what] was called trick photography double exposure, but she was the first one who actually made it into an art with some meaning towards it.

‘Back Room’ by Hannah Maynard, ca. 1893

ME: What was it about her story that made you want to make a movie about her?

EL: I did relate a lot to the technical aspects—the wizardry that was actually kind of hard to make. Each time I would look at these photographs, and there was always this… mystery.

When she came from England to Canada, B.C., she did open her own studio, and her work was boycotted for years because she was a female business owner. Her daughter, Lily, [and her], they were kind of a team, and she helped her. Hannah was honing her skills, creating beautiful portraits of her, and then other mothers started seeing that, Oh, Hannah makes beautiful pictures of her children! Why don’t we bring our own kids to her? So that’s kind of how it started, and Hannah became quite successful.

And, unfortunately, all of a sudden, Lily, her muse almost, passes away. And her entire world collapses. It’s then she starts becoming obsessed with these collages. Then she started experimenting with making those self-portraits and inserting Lily’s images in there. [Hannah] would have tea, and then she would put a tea [next to] Lily’s portrait. I think she was walking this line between madness and grieving. I think it was a fine line. That’s what was really interesting to me—I wanted to capture that.

by Hannah Maynard.

ME: This film has been in the works for a very, very long time. Can you walk me through the different stages you went through?

EL: I actually made a short film about her after I graduated, so that was in 2005. And I wanted to make a feature film—I knew that. But there was little interest in women’s stories and lives—especially if it’s a period piece, there’s additional difficulties to the costs, the sets, et cetera. 

So I would work on it for a couple of years, would put it aside, life goes on, I would make my shorts… And in the last few years, when women’s stories became of interest to the public, and we have more awareness of the barriers of bringing film to life for female film directors and stories about female artists, we qualified to apply for funding with help from Women in the Director’s Chair. I attended a workshop there, and through them, we were able to apply for governmental funding from Telefilm, [which] is for emerging artists. So we received some funding—it’s a microbudget, but nonetheless, I was so excited when we got the money because I almost made a promise to Hannah when I was young, and I’m glad I kept it.

ME: How do you feel about life, death, and grief? What kind of depths was it you wanted to explore with the Be Still?

EL: I’ve been fascinated with death, and as you get older, you obviously have, unfortunately, more and more people close to you who pass away. And one of my aims is to not be so afraid of death. Just like I do in the film, to use art, resort to art as a means to deal with it.

ME: Let’s talk about visuals. Obviously, surreal and striking visuals are at the core of this film. Planning out shooting with your cinematographer Suzanne, what was your strategy? What kind of inspirations did you work with?

EL: My main inspiration was [Hannah’s] more experimental images. I wanted to recreate and have a loose story around those images. Because we don’t know exactly what they mean – and with surrealist art, I think that’s the beauty of it; that you can project your meaning onto it.

There was actually much more dialogue in the early version when we were filming. And then, as the film was in the editing stages, we were cutting it down and cutting it down and actually, in the beginning, the entire film was in colour. And it was much less experimental. The re-enactments were there, but it was colour, and the sound design wasn’t nearly where it is now. So it kind of looked like a more traditional period film with some elements of surrealism.

‘Tea Time’ by Hannah Maynard

And I let it sit. That was one of the things with Covid because things stopped, and we had time to work on it a bit more. So I decided to reapproach it and make it what I initially wanted; to make it more surrealist, reflecting her images and be more from her perspective.

As I was planning the shots with my wonderful cinematographer Suzanne Friesen, I said, Listen—let’s just set all conventions aside. There’s still characters, there’s still a storyline, but let’s just let our imagination run. My one thing was that I wanted it to be at a slower pace. Almost like tableaus, the framings [Maynard] would use. So when the camera moves, it almost feels like the framing of a photograph.

And I wanted to explore her space because she doesn’t really leave her house that much during that time. So we explored her belongings, her studio—I didn’t want it to be a b-roll; I wanted it to be part of the story. I wanted to get away from the traditional close-up, close-up, wide-angle, b-roll.

So we just really went with it! We were trying to get out of these conventions, I feel, become constraining nowadays. There’s a lot of great content in terms of writing, but I find that in terms of visuals and audio, it has to look and sound a certain way. I think it’s important to push the medium of film itself as well.

by Hannah Maynard

ME: Definitely. The beauty of cinema is how much you can test it and stretch it. Using and exploring the visuals has kind of disappeared, at least in the mainstream.

EL: I know! We should bring it back!

ME: And Be Still is definitely a very great homage to Hannah’s own work and strides. She didn’t stick to the conventions. How did you want to use the cinematic medium to explore her story?

EL: In the beginning, as she goes through the grieving process and experiments with camera techniques, I wanted to play with the tints. To make it monochromatic,  but it has numerous tints – it’s not just black and white and sepia. There’s other tints. And the reason was I wanted to differentiate between the different spaces in her house.

For example, in her studio, where she feels more creative, it was more of a sepia-brown tint. When she has her relationship with her husband, there’s some tension between them, so I gave it a colder, more blue-ish tint.

‘Be Still’ (2021, dir. Lazebnik)

And I think with female spaces, we don’t give enough consideration for ‘me-time’, like our own time. So I wanted to show that when she’s in the studio, she’s in her world. She feels good there. When she’s in her darkroom, there’s this red tint. It’s more of her own space where things become quieter.

Giving everything this monochromatic look also adds to the psychological feel. I just wanted to put her in a very specific state of mind and have that be reflected in those tints. It could have been described in words via dialogue, but I thought, Why? This is an audio-visual medium!

We had discussions about Hannah and her perspective. The interesting part was that I didn’t know how much I wanted to push the film in post. I think that’s one of the other interesting things: With shorts, in the industry, we give some sort of unspoken permission to be more experimental. To try things. And as soon as you go to feature, I find even those filmmakers [whose shorts] I really like, when they go to feature, all of a sudden the films are much more conventional because there’s a mentality that it has to be because it’s a feature. And I think, maybe we were falling into that trap. But I just wanted to make sure the ship at some point went away from that.

ME: Finally, I want to ask: What does cinema mean to you?

EL: It’s an obsession. That’s one of the reasons I have been able to stick with this story. I almost feel that these people have become my imaginary family members. I have a certain obsessiveness in my character, and I think that’s what helps me explore and be persistent.

Written by Malin Evita

Evita is the host and producer of the podcast and a writer focused on script, cultural commentary, and film analysis. She is a Vocal grand prize winner and recently received her HNC in Professional Writing Skills. Through storytelling, she aims to amplify empathy and human connectivity.

Website: | IG: @malinevita

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