Barbie Blues: Interview with Adi Kutnerby Joy Bernard | 26.12.16
The film Barbie Blues begins when Mika, a suburban teenager, finds a disturbing creature in her pool. She asks her new friendly neighbor Gershon for help and the two end up spending the afternoon together by the pool. But what starts off as a friendly encounter between two neighbors turns into a painful lesson about the limits of control.
Telavivian Cinema’s curator Joy Bernard spoke to director Adi Kutner to understand the ideology and creative process that kick-started her creation.
Hi Adi! Thank you so much for agreeing to feature your lovely film on Telavivian Cinema. Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Adi: “I am a filmmaker based in Tel Aviv. I grew up near Jerusalem and also spent several years in South America and the US because of my dad’s work.
I recently graduated the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television of Tel Aviv University where I made two short films titled Barbie Blues and Blackout.
I am a freelance director and screenwriter and I also work occasionally as a script supervisor on film and television sets—it’s a great job that allows you to look closely at how other directors work and of course acquire some experience on professional sets.
Barbie Blues is a film I made during my second year at university.
A selection committee gave 25 students a grant of 2,000 NIS to make short films out of the scripts we handed in. I was one of the 25 students who received the grant and it was actually my first film. Since the grant was so minimal I didn’t have a lot of resources to rely on and I knew I had to keep it simple, have one location and few actors, so I could concentrate on directing the film instead of producing it.
This is something I still recommend to students for first projects, to just keep it small and make it easy for you to work.
Barbie Blues ended up doing really well in festivals—it won an award at the Jerusalem Film Festival and it even got to Sundance which was absolutely surreal to me as a film student. It was just such a tremendous experience it took me 3 years to get over it and start working my next film, Blackout.
At the center of your film is a relatively young protagonist, Mika. Her age isn’t stated throughout the film, but it’s eluded to in her conversation with her new neighbor Gershon, who treats her like a young teenage girl who has to ask for permission from her parents.
Her vulnerability stems from the fact that she’s a woman, and is emphasized by the fact that she’s a teenage girl and is also put in the spotlight due to the fact that she’s a young adult alone in an empty house with a man who is older and physically larger than her.
Mika teases her neighbor Gershon, flirts with him, plays with him in the pool and it seems that she’s trying to seduce him although it appears that she’s not quite certain as to what exactly she’s doing. To put it simply—she’s a “tease.”
Oftentimes, the devastating complaint directed at women who have suffered sexual assault is that they brought on the assault themselves. They’re told that they were dressed inappropriately, spoke provocatively or were desperate for attention.
I assume that if the story you told in your film would have actually happened, some people would have claimed that Mika encouraged the sexual assault she underwent. How would you react to such a claim? Do you think that her age plays a certain role in this? Did you intend to raise the issue of victim blaming through your film?
Adi: “I think that through the film I was in a way trying to explore human nature, by putting two strangers in a “bad” situation and testing where their subconscious might take them.
The laws of nature say that for every action there is an equal amount of reaction and this applies to human interaction as well.
It was interesting to test that on two people who are not equals: he is an adult man, she’s a teenage girl and that makes for an unequal interaction.
The power struggles are there from the first moment, when Mika has to prove her control of the situation by constantly “challenging” Gershon and stretching the boundaries of their interaction to the extreme.
Gershon has to constantly suppress his “superiority”, his manhood, his age and to control himself until his red line is crossed to the point where he has to regain control.
They are both consciously “playing with fire,” both are drawn to each other out of curiosity and maybe boredom and a lot of insecurities, but what I always say about the situation is that let’s not forget even for a minute that they are not equal.
Gershon is an adult whereas Mika is not a woman, she’s a teenager. Teenagers are impulsive, inconsistent and don’t necessarily always think about the outcome of their actions, this is why they are not legally considered adults.
Anyone who might claim she’s “asking for it” is basically admitting that men are inferior beings who cannot control their urges.
To me, the opposite is true, adults have experience, have responsibility and have the knowledge it takes to be the “mature” party in a situation, while teenagers don’t.
It’s crystal clear to me and the fact that this question always arises makes me think of how little we’ve actually accomplished in this discussion of sexual harassment and assaults.
But I still believe the discourse is more important than the message. Although I don’t like the blame game so much I do like the fact that there is always a discussion after the film because it means it pushes some buttons and makes people take a stand for something and go through some soul searching and it is great to know that my film does that to people.”
You chose not to show how Mika will eventually react to the sexual assault she went through.
This raises a lot of questions but also corresponds with the familiar and unfortunate phenomenon in which victims of sexual assault feel ashamed, embarrassed and disgusted, which leads them to decide not to share their trauma with anyone.
Being familiar with the character that you created—do you think that Mika will eventually share her experience with anyone?
Is it a sexual assault or rather a shaping sexual experience that a young girl went through? Is it both? Is it an event that’s somewhere on the scale between the two?
Adi: “I chose what seemed to me the most natural reaction for a young girl who blames herself for what she went through: repression and a desperate attempt to turn back the wheels of time by returning to what she was doing before the encounter—tanning on the lawn and listening to music.
The last thing that Gershon tells her is: “Don’t worry Mika, I won’t tell your mom what you’ve done.”
To us the sentence sounds ridiculous because of what we’ve just seen him do to her but the worst part of blaming the victim, especially when the victim is a young impressionable girl, is that it usually works. So Mika ends up believing that she brought this upon herself and feels guilty for it, so the only thing she can do is try to forget any of this ever happened.
I think it’s a bad lesson that will stick with her for life but she will eventually grow up to realize it wasn’t her fault. It’s a confusing and shameful experience for her that will help her shed some innocence, grow up faster than expected and maybe be more skeptical about people. But then again, it’s really hard to think about the rest of her life hypothetically, I just know that Mika is stronger than she seems and I know she’ll find her way.”
There isn’t really an abundance of stories about the processes and experiences women go through as part of their path to shaping their sexual identity (and especially stories about teenage girls), and when these stories do appear on the silver screen they’re usually told by male directors who often miss out on the sensitive and more complex female angle.
I’m always happy to see films that deal with this subject and like giving them as well as female directors a proper stage. One recent example of that is the excellent film “Sex Doll,” which was created by young director Hadas Ben Aroya and which I had the pleasure of presenting here on Telavivian Cinema.
When you decided to create this film, did you know that you wanted to deal with the sexual experience of a teenage girl or was it something that came into fruition later?
Adi: “This was actually the premise of the film. Barbie Blues actually started out as a script about the awkward sexual awakening of an 11-year-old girl who gets her period early and then feels she needs to act grown up all of a sudden.
I eventually dropped that script out of a fear to work with an inexperienced child actress, but I knew that I still wanted to discuss the awkward passage from girlhood to womanhood—the confusing time when we were a bit of both, bouncing back and forth from immature behavior to grown up behavior.
The issue of sexuality for young girls is a bit more complicated, it’s that place where girls feel like they have to be sexy in order to appear more grown up. Women are taught from a young age (hence the “Barbie” part of Barbie Blues) that their femininity is judged by their sexy appearance, they are taught to embrace their sexuality without realizing that sexuality leads to sex.”
Throughout the entire film it’s not really easy to characterize Mika, at least not in a one-dimensional way. Meirav Feldman, the actress who portrays her, contributes to that because she conveys through her appearance something very infantile, but her face has a lot of strength to it.
One the one hand, Mika looks and acts the part of a spoiled teenager who expects everyone to serve on her hand and foot while she’s lounging outside by the pool and tanning. She acts like a weak girl who wants everyone to do everything for her and is also used to that.
But on the other hand, her behavior can easily be interpreted as that of a lonely and vulnerable teenage girl who doesn’t get sufficient attention from her parents, who is trying to deal with her emerging sexuality and doesn’t find it a proper outlet.
Even at the end of the film, after Gershon sexually assaults her and adds insult to injury by saying that she’s a “pissant kid,” Mika pulls herself together, rewears the top of her bathing suit that was taken off of her, puts her sunglasses back on and with a stoic expression she goes back to just sitting there and tanning. She doesn’t fall apart, as if nothing ever transpired.
How do you explain her character? Did you intentionally create a protagonist that viewers would perceive ambivalently?
Adi: “Yes. Both Mika and Gershon are in the grey area, I think all the characters I write are like that, no one is only good or only bad, and usually when people do bad things it is from a place of an obvious insecurity or compensation or a lack in something. I realize that Mika’s character is tricky, not necessarily likeable from the start, most viewers judge her most of the film while overlooking Gershon’s bad qualities and that’s why the ending of the film is so powerful because the viewers kind of get punished for judging Mika so harshly.
Now they have to stand so close, almost participating while she gets assaulted and gets called names that are exactly what the viewers were thinking of her the whole time, “spoiled little brat” is probably the first description of the viewers feeling towards Mika.
That makes people feel guilty for wanting her to get punished most of the film while ignoring the fact that this older “nice guy” is inappropriately spending the afternoon with his teenage neighbor.
In terms of Mika’s character, she’s still awkwardly finding her place—she’s searching, she’s way more insecure than she seems and it’s exactly that overcompensation that makes her such a tease. She’s lonely and lost and perhaps looking for attention and even companionship. But I think like most girls her age, perhaps she thinks that the only means to get that kind of attention is by exploiting her sexuality without realizing that sexuality leads to sex.”
To sum up this interesting talk, I’d love to hear what else you’re working on these days.
Adi: “I’m currently working on several scripts: one for a short film, another for a TV series and a third for a feature film. All of my projects are about the teenage world, which was also the theme of the second short film I made, titled Blackout.
My third short film revolves around teenagers and the admiration teenage girls have for their idols.
I hope that Barbie Blues, Blackout and my third short film will become a trilogy one day.
My other projects (the feature film and the TV series taking place at a high school) are too initial to talk about.”
Watch Barbie Blues on Telavivian Cinema.
Telavivian Cinema is a project which will unveil work of cinematic art crafted by local directors.
From animation to drama to comedy, Telavivian short films will be streamed weekly and accompanied by our conversations with the their talented makers. Make sure you stay tuned for the screenings, as the films featured in the magazine will change on a weekly basis.
Telavivian Cinema is curated by Joy Bernard.