We live in a truly bizarre time. Without getting into politics, isn’t it weird enough that O.J. Simpson’s ’90s saga crushed the critics as both a documentary and a primetime drama?—and that the riptide beneath the drama owes more to misogyny than to race? Time travelers from the ’90s would be shocked by what happened to the Kardashian family, yet might note that the attitudes towards women is at about the same temperature as it was back then—only way more trendy. That’s the bizarro-world twist: It’s trendy to talk about it, trendy to protest against it, and—even more upside-down—it’s trendy, in certain circles, to say that “grabbing them by the pussy” is no big deal. Time travelers from the ‘70s are laughing at us.
Whether intentionally or not, a group of NYU students tapped into the trend with the short film Laps, which won a Special Jury Award for editing at Sundance. A crowded subway scene—claustrophobically shot—gives us a sense of women’s fear and hypervigilance, men’s plausible deniability, and onlookers’ casual negligence. The film is almost a visual poem—you take away whatever you bring into it.
We caught up with director Charlotte Wells as her film was premiering at the other big film festival of America: SXSW.
Your logline states, “On a routine morning, a woman on a crowded New York City subway is sexually assaulted in plain sight” —but the film itself has a lighter touch. Was your intention in blurring the lines between what actually happens and what is felt by the main character?
Laps aims to express the protagonist’s internal experience, a central part of which is doubting whether the assault is taking place at all, so it’s true that the action is subtle. However, any ambiguity as the assault escalates is resolved by the waist-level shots of him grinding against her toward the end. It’s definitely happening. That being said, several men, but no women so far, have questioned what happened on the train. It’s a risk I have taken before and since— sacrificing narrative clarity for some in the hopes of achieving a deeper emotional impact for others. Based on reception of the film so far, I think that risk paid off. Regardless of interpretation, I hope that this particular film can facilitate conversation. After the first screening at SXSW, a woman told me she had shared stories of similar experiences with her brother while discussing the film, that despite already being close, it opened up conversations they had never had before. That’s the most I could have hoped for with this project.
You made this film with fellow NYU students, and you’ve spoken about the camaraderie that the university [which produces Bedford + Bowery] has created. Do you think this kind of collaboration can continue after graduation?
Absolutely. It will become more difficult as we navigate our own careers, disperse geographically, and balance paying the rent with artistic endeavors, but NYU was always about finding collaborators for me and I have no intention of letting them go. If anything, a year out of school, it’s become increasingly apparent that finding people whose own work you respect, whose creative judgement you trust, and whose taste aligns with yet also expands your own is near impossible. Greg, Joy, and Blair who worked on Laps all played equally significant roles on the film I’m finishing at the moment. Their contributions elevate my own work and that’s what makes the collaborative nature of filmmaking so exciting to me.
I submitted a work-in-progress cut via Withoutabox and paid the submission fee. Because the film wasn’t totally finished I wasn’t sure whether I should submit, but my girlfriend insisted I get out of bed minutes before the deadline. I didn’t have any connections to the festival programmers, through professors or classmates.
As they began to describe the film they were awarding, which sounded like Laps, we all continued to listen with the expectation of hearing another name and title. When they announced Blair, who had arrived a couple of hours earlier, we laughed and then screamed and then laughed some more. It was a fun night. Blair was in demand before and now even more so. He’s a gifted editor and filmmaker and holds me to account in cutting the film I intended to make, even in the moments I lose sight of it.
Greg, the DP, and I were quite specific about what footage we needed and most of the film was shot on completely empty trains. When we did need wider shots to sell that the train was crowded, we didn’t really have any problems. People are used to so much activity on the subway in New York— “show time,” bucket drums, other musicians, dancers, everything really.
I don’t think Trump has made any woman more aware of the threat of sexual assault. From early on, that threat is viscerally perceived— no woman feels safe walking down a quiet, dark street at night. The conversation is louder now and I think that has drawn attention to this aspect of a woman’s experience, perhaps more so for men. It’s a good thing that people are talking about this, it’s a good thing that hashtags like #notokay exist, it’s a good thing that women are sharing their experiences of sexual assault— that’s what Laps was for me and I have spoken openly about it being based on personal experience. That doesn’t make up for the humiliation of knowing that Trump was elected having said the things he said, knowing just how many people support those sentiments, implicitly or otherwise.