Shiva Baby portrays the anxiety and pressure that a woman experiences throughout a day during the onset of Shiva – a period of mourning after the death of a close member of the Jewish community. However, this first film by Emma Seligman He has managed to connect with women who do not necessarily share characteristics with the protagonist. Danielle is a young bisexual interested in the art world with a temporary job as a babysitter; with parents who “want the best for her” and who seek to find her a well-paid job, a partner, and admirable behavior within the community.
Since its premiere at festivals, Shiva Baby, has been classified as a feminist comedy due to the connection it has had with women from different parts of the world about the anxiety that young girls can experience to try to fulfill the expectations they have placed on us.
Emma Seligman, a 25-year-old young woman who managed to position her film – which began as a school short film – as one of the best films released in 2020, shares with us the experience of portraying such personal experiences and then connecting in a universal way.
- You mentioned that you saw some movies showing anxiety or stress in women to represent Danielle’s nervous breakdowns. Could you tell me some films or directors that were part of this investigation and how they influenced your film?
Sure. I started out wanting to see movies that featured stories from a single day and a location, or a few days but in the same location. I wanted to see how they managed to present these stories successfully because I knew our film would run like this to keep our budget low and achievable as we were raising the money on our own. Saw Krisha, A Woman Under the Influence, Rachel’s marriage Y The turns of destiny. All these movies that I saw were very intense. After thinking of others thrillers psychological that I had already seen as The Black Swan, I realized that I wanted to achieve more in the category of realism. I wanted to touch the horror of everyday life. I watched a lot of John Cassavetes movies, especially Opening night. I had already seen many movies that showed the savagery of someone else’s life, Jewish movies, movies coming of age, Romantic comedies; but when it comes to creating a film (music, editing, photography) I paid more attention to the thrillers.
- Since your own experiences were the inspiration for Shiva Baby, I would like to know, at what point did you start to question whether you agreed with some of the Jewish traditions?
I grew up very reformed, so Judaism was a key point in my daily life and culture. My family was very extensive and we were all together in Toronto. Jewish customs and traditions were a very important part of my life. Every two weeks I would see my family for an event, be it weddings, the naming of a baby or a Jewish holiday. I don’t know if there was a point where I started to criticize him for my mother or my sister or for myself, we always found a way to talk about how annoying the questions were to me and my sister growing up. “What will you do now that you are older?”, “What do you plan to do with your life?”
My sister and I were the youngest of our generation and my mother was the youngest of her generation, as was my grandmother, so we always stand out as the youngest in our circle. Our cousins began to have children and there were already younger people, but we were always alone when it came to our future or our love situations. Despite this, I think this problem goes beyond Jewish culture, I think it is something that young people are constantly being asked about.
- Why did you decide to focus on the Shiva?
Growing up in a modern, reformed community, I always found it funny that Shiva was celebrated like any other event, even if a family member had just died. It seemed comical to me that there was a corpse nearby and we were talking, laughing and gossiping. No difference was felt. I think the Jewish community has always been able to joke about death and deal with it. Our humor is very morbid. I think this contrast that existed in the Shiva helped me capture the contrast that Danielle feels having two versions of herself that she is trying to maintain throughout the day. I also believe that Shiva is a transformation event, because you start out being completely sad and the goal is to help the deceased’s relatives with the grief. It’s like a reconciliation with death as you go through all those stages of grief, ideally all in one week. On a slightly more symbolic level, the transition is made by Danielle in the movie.
- How important do you think the closeness between the filmmaker and the themes he is representing is?
I think for your first movie it’s great to create something so personal and authentic, it’s a great way to show your voice and your way of seeing the world. It is practically also much easier. I chose this Jewish event because I felt that I could write to the characters in a closer way. I think it can be of great help, but I don’t think it should be necessary. However, if you are on the other side trying to show a marginalized community without yourself having gone through their suffering, I do not think it is wrong, but the specificity of this experience will be more difficult to show. Now I feel excited to show stories that are not so personal to me, because I am interested in the difficulty of approaching other topics.
- Would you describe your movie as a feminist comedy?
My main goal was not to make a feminist film. I just wanted to create something that was authentic and close to me. I wanted to get closer to my own experience and my anxiety. I think that all the anxieties that women go through in their life come from a specific place from their gender. I’m fine with people calling my film a ‘feminist comedy’, it makes me happy, but I didn’t set out to make it that way. I like that they feel that way, I mean, being a woman is a political fact, showing Danielle’s anxieties and that others take it as a political act. I remember an interviewer at a festival who mentioned to me the ‘political’ aspect of my film and the way I was bringing to the table issues that women must endure on a daily basis. I like knowing that they feel that way, but it was never my only goal.
- How was the process of addressing the issues of job pressure, eating disorders, bisexuality and getting a sugar daddy without feeling saturated?
The only problem that I struggled to capture was Danielle’s bisexuality because it takes place in a single day, so I couldn’t show it that same day with Maya and Max, so I had to show her relationship with Maya in a way that didn’t feel too much. obvious. It has always bothered me that people ‘remember’ in movies to address the issues, because it doesn’t feel natural. This relationship was very complicated for me because of the time and because in a family event you are not talking openly about your sex life. Over the sugar babies, it wasn’t that complicated, I say Danielle is a sugar babyBut I did want to talk about how you get to that position and give Danielle a chance to tell her story. The Jewish thing in the movie… it’s very Jewish. Sometimes I didn’t think about it, but other times I did have to find ways to achieve my results.
- How do you get a black comedy about religion without offending those who practice this religion?
I think it’s difficult because in the end you will always offend someone. Sometimes, unfortunately, there is truth in the stereotypes and all the lines that I wrote in the moment that a woman intercepts Danielle in the Shiva. They come from a real experience that I lived. Everything is real. You can’t not show stereotypes, especially in a Jewish story, but I tried to focus on the absurdity of the situation to make it clear that I wasn’t trying to make fun of anyone. I think the best thing to do in these cases is to show the humanity behind the stereotypes, specifically with the mother, because I think Jewish women are a very recurring stereotype in the media. She wanted to show the equally loving mom as dominant and at the end of the day show her deep relationship with her daughter. Sadly I didn’t have all the time to show all the relationships thoroughly, but I did try to do it with some of the characters.
- What effect would you like to have on the viewer with your film?
Just showing (and maybe this is the political / feminist thing) that it is impossible to be everything they expect you to be as a young woman. Sometimes when you try to be all of these things you end up having breakdowns or panic attacks, like Danielle does in the movie. I remember that when I was approaching my graduation I felt pressure from my family about my future work and my love situation. She also felt pressure from the rest of the world, especially New York, to be an independent and sexually empowered woman. They encourage us women to be sensual and free, but at the same time they expect us to have a boyfriend. I just wanted to show that it was impossible to do everything in our life.
Shiba Baby premieres this June 11 in MUBI.