Tyler Phillips in Aviva (2020) | featured image
Tyler Phillips in Aviva (2020) | Photo courtesy of Porter Frith Ltd .

That Rare Occasion of Freedom: Filmmaker Boaz Yakin on Making ‘Aviva’

Filmmaker Boaz Yakin talks with PopMatters about the liberating experience of forsaking tone and not caring if he makes a cent on his gender-swapping, story-told-through-dance, not-from-Hollywood film, Aviva.

Boaz Yakin
24 May 2021 (DVD / UK)

Boaz Yakin’s Aviva (2020), a sexually frank romantic drama, is funded solely by the filmmaker. The cast, made up entirely of dancers, tells a story through choreographed dance sequences of a conflict for supremacy between masculine and feminine energies. The two lead characters of Aviva and Eden are each played by both a male and female actor, transitions occurring between the genders as we watch the restless highs and lows of their relationship play out.

The filmmaker’s previous credits include the experimental self-funded or partially self-funded films, Death in Love (2008) and Boarding School (2018), as well as commercial films, Remember the Titans (2000), starring Denzel WashingtonUptown Girls (2003), and the Jason Statham action film, Safe (2012). 

In conversation with PopMatters, Yakin discusses the struggles of American cinema to experiment and risk failing in a capitalist and corporate culture. He also speaks about the liberating feeling of forsaking tone, and the impossibility for an indigenous form of art to now have the time to develop and assert itself. 

Speaking with filmmakers, one of the common expressions is the appeal of cinema because it’s an amalgamation of the other art forms. How do you see the relationship between cinema and the other creative mediums?

There have become a series of straightjacketing conventions in narrative film. It’s not to say certain filmmakers haven’t broken those conventions here and there, from [Jean-Luc] Godard to whoever, and on. Over all, in terms of what you can do in a narrative film and how it’s expressed, it’s quite straightjacketed at this point, even though film is this wonderful combination of all of these art forms. It’s so expensive and you have to get so many people to watch it that it’s very confining. 

One of the things I tried to do with Aviva that was so exciting and liberating, was I tried to open it up and explore. There are these theatrical elements in it that are theatre-based, and there are also cinematic elements, visual and musical that are fun and exciting. Film is particularly exciting because of the combination of things you can do, but it’s also utterly unexciting because of the box that all these genres have put themselves into, and what you’re supposed to do in order to fit into that box.

Theatre is “limited” in a certain way — you’re on a stage and you have to watch it at that moment. But partially because of the limitations and because we’re accustomed to having to use our imaginations, people do very experimental work in theatre. In mainstream theatre, there are even experimental elements on how to express something and how to develop things, but there’s not very much of that in film. It’s ironic how, in cinema, we have all these tools and methods of expression combined into one, yet we’re limited to what people will accept out of the medium. 

Cinema sometimes forgets about the simple magic of asking the audience to believe.

In a film you sit there and you’re fed all the backgrounds, the characters, the special effects, everything. It’s such a passive form, but it’s possible to force people to be more engaged through how you present a film, by what you do story and editing wise, and how you convey the information. 

People for the most part react badly to that because they come to film with an expectation that they’re not going to have to work. They feel put upon and offended when you try to make them work. They think you’re doing something wrong, and that’s been an interesting experience for me. I’ve worked on very commercial, middle-of-the-road type films, and doing something like Aviva is an opportunity to break out of that, to explore in a way that I’m genuinely more interested in.

I often wonder if we create a false history, wherein we look back on periods of filmmaking such as La Nouvelle Vague, for example, and forget that it would have been disliked by the contemporary audience as much as it was adored?

What I find that’s so interesting about film or cinema, whatever you want to call it because it’s not film anymore, it’s a digital media representation of story.

Anyway, intelligent people like my dad, who is an incredible theatre director and works with physical movement, have made plays that are abstract to the max and are thematically challenging. But when he watches a movie, he wants to turn on the TV and watch Matt Damon punch people. If a movie gets too complicated for my dad, he says, “That’s not why I like to see a movie”, and that’s the part that’s frustrating. 

I’m not being condescending to anyone, but I feel there are so many intelligent people out there who just don’t want film to do that, or don’t want to participate in film. 

I remember going to see Before Sunset with a friend who’s very intelligent. I enjoyed it and I found the discussion full of interesting things. Afterward, he turned to me and said, “This isn’t why I go to the movies.”

These words were interesting, and as an American, it’s particularly poignant because so much of the work I enjoy in the contemporary sphere is made by people who aren’t American, and they’re doing interesting things — filmmakers like Lars Von TrierGaspar Noé and Thomas Vinterberg, or those American filmmakers like the Coen Brothers who manage to do that.