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Martin I. Petrov

Cine-voyeur. Festival traveller currently based in Glasgow, UK. 

Festival director at WoFF: World of Film International Festival Glasgow. 

Festival Coordinator at MIAFF: Montreal International Animation Film Festival 

Writing reviews, articles and a passionate interview lover. 


Leah Meyerhoff: Interview for I believe in Unicorns

Leah Meyerhoff whose first debut I believe in Unicorns received its International premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this June. is a New York based filmmaker. Her short films have won plenty awards and at various film festivals around the world. Her first feature film is a teenage love story between Divina, a girl who lives with her disabled single mother and Sterling, an older boy who takes her on an exciting and passionate journey to discover love and personal liberation. 




What inspired you for the film? 

I initially got the idea for this film when I was a child. I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker in the first place because when I was growing up as a teenager there weren't a lot of films, and especially American films, that I could relate to or that I could see a bit of myself in, so I wanted to make a film with a complex, imaginative and intelligent female lead. I started writing the script when I was in school at NYU and I wanted to create a story around this idea of a teenage girl and to incorporate elements from my life, my childhood memories and stories from other teenagers that I met while I was a high school teacher. 


So it's basically a combination of personal experience with some other stories that you heard from other people? 

It's a combination yeah, it definitely starts with a personal story and then it kind of becomes fictional. But, of course, all the unicorns are very real! (Laughing) 


Was it your initial intention to show the leading character's attempt to find herself, to rediscover herself while developing her personality and entering adulthood? 

My character, Divina grew up taking care of her mother who is in a wheelchair, so she never really had a childhood of her own. She grew up very quickly and became mature quite fast. Then suddenly she meets this boy, Sterling, and she thinks that he will rescue her and will take her away in an exciting journey. This romance is for her a chance to be a kid again, so, yes, she's in the middle between the innocent childhood and the mature adulthood. 


What is your personal connection to the story? 

The main personal element of the story is Divina's mother as she basically is my mother in real life. I actually shot the film in my mother's house, in the high school that I went to and in some of the locations that I used to hang out when I was a teenager. Everything else is pretty much fictionalized. When I was writing the character I, kind of naturally, run through memories of my own childhood so it is set in the past, but I would like it to be somehow timeless for the contemporary teenagers watching the film. It's not about a bunch of teenagers into Facebook and MySpace, though. My character is into cameras, analog and black-and-white photography and she's not someone just checking her Instagram and such. 





We see her taking pictures of herself in order to capture moments of her life that she wants to remember. But definitely you have differentiated this quite a big from the selfie mania we have today...

Yes, she definitely does a series of self portraits, completely different from the selfie idea. Set in the 80s this serves the concept of self discovery and just like a contemporary {.....} Scherman she tries on different personas in an attempt to figure out who she is. 


And, do you think that she finally discovers herself? 

I think by the end of the film she has started to discover who she is. She finds strength and for me the ending is very positive and empowering, because she realises that she can be self-reliant and that she doesn't need other people to be next to her and to support her in order to stand on her feet. 


During her trip with Sterling she tries to find herself and discover a different reality than the one she has been living in for 16 years, but at the same time she tries not to let him down and of course she does not forget her previous life. In the end, though, she says that she will be able to speak when she learns how to breathe. How do you interpret this? 

Exactly, by the end of the film she has begun finding her voice. There is this theme of breathing throughout the film as well. She grew up with the irrational fear that her mother’s disease is contagious and she was always holding her breath, in the sense that she wasn’t able to do with her life what she desired at every moment. She is still a child in many ways, of course, she is still trying to discover herself as an artist as well, and by the end she is finally finding her way. 


The music has a very important role in the film. It is the connecting point with the character’s feelings. Did it work for you in the same way? 

There is something intimate and personal between this humming and the internalized voice. The film is similarly artistic. The same applies to the photography. All the aesthetic decisions in the film were based on this idea of the imaginative character. We shot on super 16mm film and also super 8mm film and added some special in-camera effects with lot of flash frames and light leaks. We purchased a lot of expired film stock online; I used my old camera to see what the colours will be. So, most of the colours and the effects are organic and not applied afterwards. There is an animated component as well. We built a set with real trees and we put puppets in and shot with 16mm film one frame at a time – a very old fashioned and difficult technique but it definitely ties up with the general visual experience of the film. The entire film is like an outlook in Divina’s mind; it looks like something she could have created. I wanted to have this fluid reality and shift between what she actually lives and what is part of her imagination. 


Towards the end, though, we see that the imaginary scenes are more limited and the real life experience becomes more vivid and strong. 

Yes, that’s part of her progression. She is learning to let go of these childhood fantasies and to find beauty in her reality. By the end of the film she is relying less and less on these imaginations and she feels more secure with reality. 


Judging by your own experience, do you think that it’s easy to shift between fantasies and real life and to actually transform our fantasies into reality? 

I think film is the best medium to explore these questions. It is not fully possible of course but it is potentially easier for an artist to share his imagination and dreams with others. 


Today we are trying to connect to the past. We are impressed by it and we have a nostalgic look at it. It even appears in the work of many contemporary artists like Florence and the Machine and Lana Del Rey. They all use this eerie atmosphere in their videos, as you do with the vintage imaginary scenes. What do you think? 

People are so preoccupied with images, and advertising and all this bombardment of media that there is something really special in the escaping into this nostalgic, dreamy, fluid, old fashioned, vintage feel. There is something magical about moving into a place that feels timeless and where you can lose yourself. 


The exploration of Divina’s sexuality is something that is seen as a taboo subject by her and the environment she grows up in? 

The sexuality in America is much more taboo than it is in Europe, for sure. Screening this film outside of the largest cities is always an interesting experience, because people from the audience, usually older in age are offended or concerned. There is still this puritanical way of thinking in many parts of America, people don’t like talking about teenagers having sex, many times it’s cut away from TV series etc. But for me it shouldn’t be that way, though. The actress is sixteen at the time; I casted real teenagers to play the teenagers. My own perspective is that sexuality is not taboo at all. Teenagers have sex all the time, that’s what they do. (Laughing)  


As Divina moves forward to this journey of self discovery, she seems to become more and more open and able to accept and discuss things. Even with the sex scenes one can see that in the beginning they are not exposing her at all but as we move forward they become lengthier and the camera is not afraid to move around. Am I right? 

In many ways it’s easier for Divina to relate to this boy sexually and physically, than it is verbally. She is still young in many ways and running away with him is a dream come true for her but she is still not ready for an adult conversation in the beginning. 


I think she was more mature than Sterling, though. H seems to be more hesitant about the serious talks and he is usually the absent-minded during their trip together. 

Yeah, they are exactly the opposite. She is not ready for big steps but he is immature because he didn’t have Divina’s childhood that made her strong and forced her to grow up faster. Because of the sexuality laws in the US, we had to be very careful with their behaviour in the film and with how far we can go with exposing the character’s sexuality. We tried to find the emotional truth where it existed and the scenes as real and organic as possible. 


Divina says at some point to Sterling: “You try to hurt me in order to feel better yourself”. Do you think this is a statement of how we treat our relationships today? That we feed on the people’s feelings and emotions? 

Yes, I think she is definitely taking in all these emotions and feelings; she is trying on different personas, taking in other people’s realities in order to find out who she is, to discover herself.


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