Peiman Zekavat On Tackling Cyberbullying In ‘Fifteen’

Peiman Zekavat’s short film, Fifteen, is deeply concerning tale of cyberbullying set in a Peruvian high-school.

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught Peiman to learn more about the spontaneity behind Fifteen, the growing problem of cyberbullying, the film’s captivating visual style and more.

Q: You made ‘Fifteen’ on a trip to Peru with the £800 you were planning to use for travel. Can you tell us more about how this film came about?

A: Fifteen was completely unplanned. At the time, I was in Peru with a team making a TV documentary. When we finished, I decided to stay in South America for a month and travel to Ecuador and Colombia before returning to the UK.

While I was staying in Lima, I made some friends in the Peruvian film industry who told me about the issue of online bullying among teenagers. The stories I heard were so mind blowing that I decided to abandon my plans and use my travel money to make this film. I wrote the script in a week and met a very talented young producer, Yani Roncal Villanueva, who brought the project to life in just two weeks.

Q: Watching the film, I was particularly struck by the lack of sympathy and help provided by the head teacher and by the crude behaviour of one of the boys. What were you trying to communicate with these two characters?

A: Unfortunately, those characters reflect reality. The research we did for the script showed that cyberbullying is becoming increasingly common in Peru. Bullies are able to abuse their fellow students without any fear of retribution because the victims are afraid their teachers will blame them if they admit they’ve been bullied. Things can go terribly wrong for victims when adults get involved because of this culture of victim blaming.

The biggest challenge for these girls is facing their family and their fathers in particular. It is no surprise that a simple problem like this can cause girls to run away from home or even commit suicide.

Q: I was captivated by the film’s visual style. It was shot in a single ten-minute take and you kept the camera on Maria throughout. What led you to this approach and what challenges did it bring?

A: Originally I planned on shooting three separate scenes but the casting caused me to change my mind. During rehearsals with Kelly Analy, I realised that because she had never acted before, she would lose track of the narrative every time we would cut. In order to help her stay in her character and to keep her performance steady, I decided to shoot the film in a single take.

Directing a one-take film is like directing a play. The greatest challenges all take place before the shoot. When the camera is rolling, you can just sit back and enjoy the show.

In this film, the biggest obstacle came at the end when we needed to pass the camera over the wall. Three of us took turns moving it while making sure it stayed pointed at Kelly the entire time.


Q: Young Kelly Analy holds the camera’s focus and channels a sense of panic and shell shock. Where did you find this actress and what was it like working with her?

A: Casting was a big issue with this film. First, we approached casting agencies in Lima. However, most of the actresses we interviewed tended to overact. It was clear that they had been influenced by Columbian TV shows.

Then we reached out to schools to meet with students with no acting experience. That is when we met Kelly. Although she had never acted before, she had gone through an experience similar to the one depicted in the film so she could understand the character and feel her pain. In fact, 80% of the girls we interviewed during auditions had experience with this issue. What made Kelly unique was her innocent look and her ability to bring the character to life through her facial expressions.

Q: The film has screened at festivals across the globe, including the BFI London Film Festival, and it was longlisted for a BIFA award. Tell us about the response the film has received.

A: To be honest, I’m amazed by the response the film has had because I had no expectations. After we shot it at the end of 2016, I returned to London completely broke. I didn’t have the funds for the post-production work. Moreover, I didn’t think the film was that great because we had spent so little time making it. The rushes sat on a hard drive gathering dust in a drawer for a whole year.

Early in 2018, I decided to look at the footage and friends helped me with the sound mix, subtitles and grade. This experience has showed me that the greatest things can happen when you least expect them.


Q: You have tackled nature and the environment in your previous work (‘Transamazonica’ and ‘Timbo’), how did you find this change to a fictional story?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by social and environmental issues and human rights. Transamazonica is documentary series that deals with the environmental degradation caused by the Transamazonian highway that cuts through the Amazon rainforest. Timbo is a short documentary about the ways that the dams built by the Brazilian government and international energy companies have impacted indigenous territories.

For me, it doesn’t matter if the story takes the form of a documentary or a work of fiction, so long as the story I tell is important.

Q: What are your ambitions for the future?

A: I’m currently developing a feature film. I’m also working on a fictional short film about child abuse issues in the UK.

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