Almost immediately, The Poet and the Professor is a very obvious change from the short films most people are used to. It is, as director and star Ariel Kavoussi calls it, a feminist film.
In the dark comedy, the main character, a young woman also named Ariel, is writing a piece about a cockroach. It’s immediately clear that Ariel is insecure and driven by her own desire, which includes seeing an older, volatile, man referred to only as “The Poet” (Kevin Corrigan) and her married, pill-addicted professor (Bob Byington). It’s evident that neither relationship is particularly healthy, but Ariel struggles to overcome what seems to be a tendency to find herself in dysfunctional affairs.
“Female desire is not the simple, one-dimensional thing most mainstream films have lazily pigeonholed it to be,” Kavoussi says. Portraying a female in this way, she acknowledges, is a risk, but it isn’t the only risk she takes in the film. The Poet and The Professor portrays nudity, sure, but it also exhibits disrespectful and borderline violent sexual acts. It’s one of the reasons, Kavoussi says, she couldn’t ask another woman to play the lead role, and it’s a big part of the reason why there was only one male crew member on set—a man Kavoussi was familiar and comfortable with.
The short, created by a team of New York women, is her precursor to an entire feature film; one that, Kavoussi says, delves more into Ariel’s personality and her life outside of the apartments of her two suitors. As honestly as possible, it casts its unabashed lens mostly toward the themes of loneliness, love and sex. For these characters, there is only a fine line between love and hate. Tension quickly builds and dissolves, insults are hurled, and vulnerability mixes into self-torture to create a unique blend of longing and loathing.
Kavoussi, a New York City native, was a connoisseur of the IFC channel in her youth. “I’m cool now—I wasn’t that cool in high school, so I used to stay home and watch a lot of movies,” Kavoussi says. “So on Friday nights, I would stay in and be like, Yeah, I’m watching IFC.” Over the years, she grew into a cinephile, and found a French film called The Mother and the Whore. The work largely inspired The Poet and the Professor—except, of course, Kavoussi modernized it for today’s woman, the one she wants to finally see in movies.
“I’m not the first person to do it, but since the arts have been so one-sided, it doesn’t take that much as a female director to be original,” Kavoussi says. “Let me just switch the genders—Oh, wow! This is original now!”
She’s the star in her own film, but her acting career outside of her own work has taken off, too. “As a performer, I’m more accessible to whoever,” she says. “That’s just the way it is now. I was on Maniac and, it didn’t come out yet, but Alex Karpovsky has a TV show he’s doing—so I’m doing a lot of acting.”
In the future, Kavoussi hopes to have her directorial career match the speed of her acting career and, of course, she hopes to see gender equality in the film industry. By hiring and working with almost exclusively women for this project (except for one sound guy, who brought his girlfriend to the set), she hopes to be able to contribute in some way, just like she did with The Poet and the Professor. “I’m a feminist filmmaker,” she says. “The whole #MeToo thing is wonderful and all, but where’s the equality behind the camera? If men are not going to help us and hire us, women have to hire each other.”