Director Ann Oren stops by on Close-Up Culture to discuss her film, Piaffe, ahead of the Locarno Film Festival.
When her sibling Zara suffers a nervous breakdown, the introvert Eva is forced to take on Zara’s job as a Foley artist. She struggles to create sounds for a commercial featuring a horse, and then a horsetail starts growing out of her body. Empowered by her tail, she lures a botanist into an affair through a game of submission. Piaffe is a visceral journey into control, gender, and artifice.
Hi Ann, welcome to Close-Up Culture. How does it feel to have Piaffe selected for the Locarno Film Festival?
It feels like a big honour. Locarno is THE festival that encourages experimentation and fresh views in cinematic storytelling and that is the perfect context for Piaffe.
Can you tell us about your background, and what led you to filmmaking?
Originally I studied film at The School of Visual Arts in New York in the early 2000’s, but at the time I was more fixated on people’s fascination with reality TV, and videos in mobile phones (low resolution on flip phones), so I was more pulled to people wanting to watch each other rather than carefully directed narrative films with actors. I wanted to experiment with the viewer without a need to tell a story and to work with amateur performers, therefore I switched to the Fine Arts department and started creating video installations in space.
For many years since then I was working with the moving images but in the context of the art world, and in so many different forms: performance-documentary hybrid, animation, social media narration, found footage, to name a few. Each work looked very different formally, but what they all did have in common was that they featured characters who exist in the liminal space between performers and audience. And through these works, I was asking questions on intimacy, identity, and the lack thereof and explored phenomenons like fictosexuality (attraction to fictional characters), animality, and other forms of hybridisation.
One thing that did leave a mark on me while being a film student was a visit to a foley studio, and a few years ago it clicked in my head and I felt that my first narrative feature film will be about this. I wanted to create a more complex film, that will be presented in the cinema, and at the same time show the viewer something about the heart that goes into making a film. So my protagonist had to be a foley artist.
I understand your 2020 short film, Passage, serves as a prequel to Piaffe. What was your inspiration for this feature film?
The first inspiration was Foley artistry. I was really charmed by how animated foley artists are, they are like actors who re-enact the actors on screen, with the goal of convincing the viewer that what they are watching on the screen – is real. Many people don’t even realise that this profession exists, so I thought of making a film about a foley artist, but one who doesn’t foley a person, rather a horse.
Relationships between women and horses, and non-normativity in women in the dressage world especially interested me. When you go to riding stables, you see mostly women. They are both leaders and caretakers in their relationships with the horses, and there is also a submission theatre of sorts between them (as I call it) , since the rider is a tenth of the horse’s weight, yet allows the rider to lead it, and the result looks like dance. So the psychology of this power dynamics inspired me when coming up with Eva’s story, her transformation and her play of submission.
Everything that is alive I see as a potential character, it doesn’t need to be human. I was very inspired to connect the characters both visually and conceptually, it’s a strong element of my cinematic language. For example the dressage horse curling his neck down brought to my mind ferns (the plants Dr. Novak the scientist researches), as ferns roll out of coils in the growing process. And ferns are also hermaphrodites, which was a curious parallel to Eva as she grows an additional organ.
Can you tell us about the character of Eva and the transformation she undergoes in the film?
Eva doesn’t communicated in a straightforward way, and her setbacks dictate her actions at first. But when she imitates the horse in order to foley, it generates new intuitions in her. In my early research, one of the foley artists told me that when a foley artist first starts out, they can experience a psychotic episode, because after being in a quiet studio all day, where every layer of sound you hear is carefully constructed by you – stepping out into the noisy street can be quite shocking, where the sounds don’t make sense.
What was your visual approach to the film, and why did you chose to shoot on 16mm?
The grainy 16mm film enhances the visceral mood intended in Piaffe, it feels more tactile and I am very attracted to the materiality of film. It works symbiotically with the sound approach as well, together they activate the body of the film’s viewer while watching, which seems to have gotten lost these days – since we are all turning into blobs in front of our screens. I wanted the viewer to feel with their own body what Eva experiences.
Shooting on film also brought a different concentration on set, because we knew that we cannot shoot too many takes since film material is expensive. So every take we shot got an underlined excitement from the entire team which made the shooting experience and consequently the result, more special. I really love film material and even the occasional light leaks that happen I left in the film to express Eva’s emotion in special moments.
You’ve described the film as “a love letter to the less recognised magicians of cinema and a playful celebration of otherness”. Can you talk more about this and what you wanted to explore with Piaffe?
Well, it is a love letter to foley artistry, and I wanted the viewer to step into their shoes and go on a visceral ride. This exploration was a rather intuitive process, treating the ferns and the horse with the same sensitive eye and ear as I did the human characters, along with foley sounds, techno beats and no less important – silence.
With a foley artist as a protagonist, I wanted to naturally use foley sounds as a major storytelling tool as well, and with it highlight Eva’s internal journey with her tail. Even in the script I mentioned the sounds, because they were so important to me. Her tail has to do with otherness, with feeling different from the norm, and every viewer will take it further with their own imaginary.
What are your hopes for the film?
I hope it has a good festival round and that I will meet my audience, I’m just curious what they will make of it. Followed by, of course, a cinematic release around the world.