Emma Seligman makes stress delicious

A still from ‘Shiva Baby’  

Humid. Anxiety-inducing. Intense. In the last two months, film reviewers around the world have been explicit about the discomfort that creeps in while watching Shiva Baby, Emma Seligman’s feature film debut. Yet not one of them wanted to cut short the experience. In fact, ‘claustrophobia’ joins sharp comedy and a breakout performance as some of the winning features of this tightly choreographed film about a floundering college student at a funeral service.

Watch | In conversation with Emma Seligman, screenwriter-director of 'Shiva Baby'

“Danielle [Rachel Sennott] was taken from my time in university in New York. I was very stressed about what I wanted to do. And a lot of my friends were seeking an arrangement where they had sugar daddies,” says Canadian director and screenwriter, Seligman, over Zoom with The Hindu Weekend.

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Based on Seligman’s short of the same name, her thesis project at NYU, the film has Danielle attending a shiva, which is a Jewish mourning ritual, with her parents. She runs into her sugar daddy there as well as her ex-girlfriend. It is stressful and chaotic.

Emma Seligman

Emma Seligman  

Finding Danielle in herself

Seligman, 26, shares that the film’s themes of identity and empowerment are what she struggled with in college. “What I wanted to be the backbone [of the film] was reckoning with your self worth as a young woman, realising that it has been based on sexual validation and that it needs to go beyond that,” she says, adding that she also “sprinkled" other parts of her life “like my family, my sexuality”.

Darkly comic, Shiva Baby has Danielle’s parents and middle-aged family friends interrogating her, about her career and weight loss. There are shots in tight corners — which ratchets up the tension for those of us still trapped indoors during the pandemic — a score that would suit a horror movie, a near-menacing baby. And lines like this from Polly Draper who plays Danielle’s intrusive mother: “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps, and not in a good way.” Seligman says she found inspiration at the many family events she attended.

Lessons from Rachel
  • “Rachel [Sennott] put such a comedic stamp on the short film, and made it her own,” says Seligman about her lead actor who is also an internet sensation. “She was the main engine behind me that kept asking where my next draft was and how much money we had left to raise. She is one of the most ambitious young women I know. I love her Twitter but it has also been very much a strategic part of how much she wants to become a comedian.”

Beyond gay stories

On June 11, MUBI will be launching Shiva Baby as their LGBTQI+ focus for Pride Month. Seligman remarks that she is lucky it is reaching people beyond the Jewish or bisexual audience. “The short film had a lot of success among my Indian friends too. They loved it and kept telling me they were into it,” she recalls. As for the future of queer cinema, the challenges are many. Noting the lack of portrayal of bisexuality or pansexuality on screen, she says, "We’ve made progress with telling gay stories and lesbian stories and transgender stories, which is wonderful. I think people sometimes worry that audiences may not be able to wrap their head around someone who is in between or fluid with their sexuality or gender. I hope more and more people at the top who make the decisions begin to understand and not remain confused.”

While Seligman has often talked about her “very insular Jewish upbringing” she hands it to TV shows like the teen drama series, The OC, and the medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, for introducing bisexual characters on screen. “Eventually we got stuff like The Bisexual and Transparent. But as a kid, those were the two shows that stuck out for me.”

The ‘Shiva Baby’ poster

The ‘Shiva Baby’ poster  

The truth about authenticity

With the debate over the Jewishness of Shiva Baby (about Sennott, Molly Gordon who plays the ex-girlfriend and Draper not being Jews), Seligman has been reading up on ‘authenticity’ a lot this year. “Authenticity is great and I am so glad to see it on screen. But I think there are other factors to consider when you are making a film, especially a low budget film. Rachel is not Jewish, but this movie wouldn’t be made without her. I don’t think it is necessary to have everyone be the religious or cultural identity that they play, but I can only speak for the Jewish perspective.”

As for queer representation, that is a trickier issue, she admits. “I have been asked this with Rachel and Molly. A lot of people assume people are straight if they are not out. So much of sexuality is on the spectrum. There are conversations I have had with actors who are not out or do not label themselves as anything, straight or otherwise. That is a harder conversation to have when it comes to representation. Basically, you are asking for everyone on screen playing a queer character to be out and proud and talking about their sexuality. And that is a lot to ask of someone.”

Pandemic progress
  • “I have been trying to expand how I take in my Jewish news, going beyond regular media and finding more niche outlets, and to Instagram, to connect with young, often queer, Jews like me.”

Framing the end

Seligman confesses that she struggled to find the right ending to her film, but there’s a winning scene involving a crowded van. “I didn’t want everything to be wrapped up in a bow for Danielle. But I wanted to give her some sense of light and hope. The van recommendation came from a playwright friend and is based on my dad’s van,” she explains. Meanwhile, the young filmmaker who managed to create her indie darling with a $225,000 budget is on to the big league. Coming up next: a queer high school comedy, Bottoms, with her lead actor and collaborator, Sennott, and Elizabeth Banks’ Brownstone production company.

Shiva Baby is on MUBI from June 11

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 9:09:00 PM |

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