Director Adrian Moyse Dullin joins us on Close-Up Culture to chat about his OSCAR-shortlisted short film, The Right Words.
The film follows Kenza, 15, and her little brother Madhi, 13, as they regularly humiliate one another on social media. On the bus, Kenza puts her naive and romantic little brother to the test: to profess his love for Jada, the girl that Madhi loves, even though she does not know him.
Can you tell us where the inspiration came from for the storyline of your short film, The Right Words?
Filmmaking has always been something very personal and intimate to me. I use things that happened to me, emotions that I felt, something that I’m scared of, that I try to transcend or remix.
For this film, I was inspired by my bus trips as a teenager. I wanted to go back to this time of my life, it was very intense, painful, and conflicting. Adolescence is a fascinating period. Stuck in a state of transition and in a body that’s undergoing major changes, mutations that we don’t understand, and that scares us. We’re full of desire, and at the same time, we’re embarrassed by everything, especially of ourselves.
Besides, what interested me in this story was the difficulties the characters have with being sincere, being themselves, unveiling themselves. Why is it so hard for them to be themselves ? Not to be affected by the way people perceive them, to take a step back from the others’ look and the effects of social media. They go on a journey towards themselves, towards their own desire.
Eventually, the film is raising this question: Do gender stereotypes prevent us from being ourselves ?
The story plays out on a crowded public bus in the suburbs of Paris, as well as on social media. What were the challenges faced when filming in these spaces?
When I’m writing I’m always thinking about a specific place. So at first I had this idea of a scene that would happen within a restricted time and space from the very beginning. I chose to write the movie with these constraints (all in a bus), as I thought the bus was actually the ideal place for this love game.
It was a great cinematic challenge. I wanted the audience to feel the anxious state of the main character in the bus, trapped in a closed area, amplified by all the teenagers yelling around him. It’s like if the character is stuck in the bus and by his image on social media.
The narrative explores concepts of peer pressure and teen humiliations – the effects of which are seemingly multiplied by the power of social media. How important was it to show social media in this light?
You’re right, peer pressure and teen humiliation is amplified by social media and the film tries to tackle this subject. I voluntarily choose a shameful and shy main character to amplify this sensation and the shame that Mahdi feels with other’s gaze.
This social media omnipotence terrifies him. I thought “reality” wasn’t enough to portray 13-15 years-old teenagers. I needed to mix online representation and offline emotion. I wanted these romantic intrigues to play online and on the bus at the same time, in order to mix these level lectures, to confront them and to show how the characters are lost with this mixed up.
Kenza’s character has an intrusive use of social media. She compulsively put her and everyone around “online”, “on stage”. Her reality is a combination of her online and real worlds until both of them merge. She even lose her own desire by being her own media, like a permanent reality TV show.
At the end, during Mahdi’s declaration of love declaration to Jada, there are three levels of reality. What the passengers of the bus see is not what is played out on the sidewalk outside and not what everyone sees on social media.
Everyone believes what they see. Everything is an illusion, nothing is certain or even real. As I said I wanted to play with these reality levels, play with what we see, question the reality of an image and social media.
There’s a great amount of diversity crammed onto that crowded bus – was that an important element?
Absolutely! Cinema is a powerful tool to observe society and to create new heroes , new archetypes, new ideals or change our perceptions, change who we admire, who we want to follow.
Filmmaking has this power to create new mythologies and change the course of events through the impact it will have on the public. In this dynamic, the cast is decisive as well because it’s political. The cast can change how certain group people are viewed by others, especially minorities.
Can you tell us something about your creative process when working on a film?
For this one, it’s a collusion between multiple desires. I wanted to talk about all the themes mentioned above. I wanted to explore why it is so hard to be ourselves, not to be ashamed of ourselves, of who we are, of our desire, our sexuality… So I was thinking about this character who had anxiety and shame about his own desire.
This desire colluded with the idea that I have with the last scene of the film. A scene who was playing at the same time in front of a bus, on social media and on the emotional reality of the character. So I started to write this scene, then the rest of the film. Tried to write this film like if it was one long scene…
The Right Words is now shortlisted for the 95th Academy Awards, in the “Live Action Short Film” category. What are the blessings and the challenges of having a film that’s a potential Oscar contender?
It’s amazing. To be honest I would never imagine this. But with The Right Words, the festival run was full of amazing surprises. We started by running for the Palme D’Or in Cannes Competition, then we travelled in 200 festivals including Sundance, Palm Spring… I’m very happy for the film and all the crew. As you say, It’s a blessing!
Finally, what do you hope audiences take away from watching The Right Words?
Emotion! That’s why I’m writing stories and I direct films. I also hope I found a balance between my specific story, my sincerity, the particular themes I wanted to talk about (shame, gender stereotypes, social media) and a universal story
that makes a good cinematic experience.