March 13, 2019
The first time Adinah and I sat down to talk she described herself as a loner, someone who could spend days at a time in her apartment working, isolated and consumed. The character study she offered fit the story she was telling me, the saga of a recent summer spent in retreat from the city, mostly alone upstate, writing a film script in the wake of a painful break-up. Returning to New York, she felt like a stranger, she said, out of sync with her own social life. The more we saw each other, though, the clearer it became that Adinah is the beating heart of many disparate friend groups. Again and again, I’d realize through social media or in the scrum of a party that she knew almost every person I did and nearly everyone I didn’t, too.
I became interested in the dissonance between Adinah’s identification as an extreme introvert and the way I observed her move through the world, socially graceful and at ease. Watching Adinah’s short films, I came to see this tension as an animating force in her work, reflective of an insider-outsider quality that shapes her art. We all feel like solitary figures at the center of our own stories to some degree. Adinah mines this sense of alienation — her protagonists are women searching within themselves for comfort the outside world has failed to provide — to create beautiful, empathetic portraits. Her camera moves patiently and with great sensitivity, like a delicate instrument attuned to the faintest emotional vibration. By making internal conflict visible (through careful framing) and audible (through meticulous sound design) in her films, Adinah translates the intimate and idiosyncratic into deeply relatable and evocative narratives.
Adinah Dancyger is a filmmaker and editor who grew up in the West Village. After graduating from Bard College with a BA in film in 2015, Adinah moved back to the city to pursue a career as a director, trading the Manhattan of her childhood for Brooklyn. Over the past several years she has directed and edited two short films as well as numerous music videos and commercial projects. “Chopping Onions,” which she crowd-funded, shot, and edited while a senior at Bard, debuted in 2015. “Cheer Up Baby” (2017) was showcased at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. Her third short, “Moving,” is in post-production now. Adinah is currently working on her first feature film script.
I recommend watching “Cheer Up Baby” and “Chopping Onions” before reading this piece. The text presented here is a collage of our conversations, conducted in person and by email throughout late 2018 and early 2019. (A note on format: italicized text represents my own point of view, roman font signals quotations from Adinah.)
On becoming a filmmaker, early mentors, and doing the work
At Bard, the first year of the film program is devoted to learning film history. During Adinah’s time there, most students gravitated toward experimental film. She was one of the few people interested in more “traditional” narrative.
In high school I was doing this art collective with some friends. We worked out of a gallery-studio space in Chinatown and we were making a lot of stuff. I knew I wanted to do film but I wasn’t sure in what capacity. I wasn’t quite good with my hands but I was documenting and I liked writing. I thought: ‘I like taking photos and writing so maybe that means I like filmmaking and storytelling?’
When I started moving more toward narrative at Bard, I was working with Kelly Reichardt. I took any class with Kelly that I could. She was really the only narrative teacher when I first got there. A lot of her classes were about re-doing scenes that already existed and re-making movies. It was a really cool testament to work ethic and also process … figuring out how a shot happened, backtracking or reimagining it, finding out if you’re creative enough to do that. A lot of people tried but failed miserably, including myself. It was crazy. I spent all semester working on a scene from “Far From Heaven” by Todd Haynes. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was like: ‘This is a movie that looks like a painting and I have a DSLR camera and my apartment.’ My roommate, a music major, operated sound. At one point she was sitting on top of our fridge so as not to be in the shot or cast any shadows with her boom pole. By my second year, Korean-American director So Yong Kim had come to Bard, and I took almost every scriptwriting class she offered. I was obsessed with her.
It was amazing that both the narrative filmmakers were women that were still in the field and making movies. Kelly and So both direct and edit all of their films, truly like independent filmmakers. I thought: ‘This is the kind of career I want. These are the kinds of movies that I want to make.’ They were both extremely tough critics, sometimes to an intimidating degree, but that’s what drew me to them and inspired me to try to make the best possible work I could. I also studied under the great Peter Hutton, master of film and landscape. Between these three artists, the idea was ingrained in me that they wanted you to think about how to make something so that it could only really be on film — something cinematic — how to make movies that aren’t just about talking heads, showing and not telling. One of the biggest things, narrative-wise, that I learned at Bard from all the teachers was to not be so hung up on dialogue.
There was a big emphasis on trying to do what you want to do for as long as possible and if you have to take the shitty job, then take the shitty job in order to keep working on your stuff. I think all the professors are still in the mindset that you don’t have to be in the industry to be satisfied with what you do. They encouraged students to carve out their own paths.
On how dissatisfaction and disillusionment led to her first short film and Bard thesis project “Chopping Onions”
I was at Bard and was really unhappy with the dynamic socially and academically during my first semester of junior year. I didn’t really believe in it. I needed to re-calibrate somewhere else and find a new context, to see the world — because I feel like the irony of college, especially in a place that insular, is that you’re learning about the world in such a private, secluded, safe environment. You’re just a passive thinker. Being out on my own and being uncomfortable was something I felt like I needed to do to put myself back in check, to get some perspective on a thesis project. I was like: ‘I have nothing to say, I feel very boring and bored.’
I went to Prague for a study abroad program. I knew nobody and no one spoke English very well and I didn’t connect with anyone so I wandered and took trains to weird cities just to be in motion. I felt mute — like I wasn’t able to communicate to people. That was crazy. That was really difficult for me but also allowed me to think so much more ... because I’m not talking to anyone, I have to talk to myself. That period of my life — that was 2013 — I felt like I was on a silent retreat.
My thesis was really shaped by the tone that I saw Kelly’s movies in, and So’s movies as well. I started writing that when I was a junior in So’s writing class, and then the summer before my senior year I Kickstarter-ed and made the film, which was pretty unusual because most kids were developing first semester of senior year. I was really far ahead of the schedule because I wasn’t sure how I would be able to shoot during the year.
On “Chopping Onions”
“Chopping Onions” is a 16-minute narrative short about a young girl and her grandmother navigating their private two-person relationship while negotiating its place in their larger social context. On her website, Adinah describes the plot of the film: “Soli, a Korean-American six year-old girl and her Korean grandmother spend time together during a summer in New York City. Cultural and language barriers break the purely romantic stage of their relationship, which potentially ruins their innocent friendship forever.” “Chopping Onions” explores alienation and intimacy with sensitivity and humor, making viewers groan and giggle. Soli’s experience as a child straddling two cultures is poetically rendered by Adinah, represented both as hyper-specific to the experience of a third-culture-kid and also universal.
I started festival applying with “Chopping Onions” at Bard — I was just done so early in the year, I thought, ‘I can’t edit this 16-minute film for a year, I’m going to lose my mind.’ I felt like it was done at a certain point. In my junior year, right before then, I was in a film that was shooting right by Bard. It was a feature that this independent filmmaker Nathan Silver was making. I didn’t know him but we became really good friends. So in between that time and before I graduated, I had been exposed to the New York indie world of filmmaking. I was 20 and these people were 30 and doing what I wanted to be doing already. I learned so much from them and had this leg outside of Bard to keep me in check with reality. Also just being in the city too — I was like ‘This isn’t the only world that I think that my work can exist in — or I hope not.’ So I wanted to see if it could transcend academia with the help of my filmmaker friends out in the real world who said, ‘You should just try, don’t tell people it’s a student film, just tell them it’s a film.’
“Chopping Onions” traveled the festival circuit and was met with critical acclaim. Using the network of friends and contacts she had made at Bard and through her short’s success, Adinah found work post-graduation as a commercial editor and director in New York. With serious determination and through the help of her friends, Adinah wrote, directed, and edited her second short, “Cheer Up Baby,” in the spring of 2017. The film captures one woman’s experience of sexual assault in New York and the emotional tumult she endures in its wake, alone in a cityscape that is at once feverish and frenetic but also isolating and hollow. Premiering at Sundance and being selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick allowed “Cheer Up Baby” to reach a wider audience and brought Adinah to the attention of industry insiders. The short describes one woman’s experience of sexual assault in New York City. Adinah’s talent as a filmmaker is evident in the sophisticated decision-making that shapes the film. She creates both claustrophobic and expansive frames, uses a series of small, expressive moments to carry a story largely devoid of dialogue, and takes extreme care in her sound design. These choices imbue the compact narrative with a weightiness that reflects its protagonist’s anguish and anger.
On “Cheer Up Baby”
I produced “Cheer Up Baby” with Emily McEvoy, who I was introduced to by a friend I met during the “Chopping Onions” festival circuit. I had never worked with a producer before. We hit it off immediately and starting working together right away. We were trying to find money for it from everyone; I was hitting up every contact I could possibly think of. I was thinking: ‘Someone’s got to care about this story. I think it’s important. Maybe that’ll rub off.’ No one thought it would be worth doing in the sense that shorts are a tricky thing to fund because they’re not commodifiable unless you promise a feature or a web series. I was so adamantly not interested in any of that. ‘I don’t want to turn this into a TV show. I don’t think I want to make this a feature.’
I was working at a production company at the time and there was just one woman, the coolest producer ever, Claire McDonald — I learned so much from her. I’ve met a lot of fairy god-people in my life — people who have just said: ‘I want to help you, how can I help?’ I feel really lucky. She was like: ‘You need to make this film, I’ll try to get you some money for this.’ She generously donated to my cause, and I put up the rest of what I could and we made it for nothing. I think it cost $8,000, maybe? I thought that was a lot but it went quickly. I wrote to people and places I knew, pleaded for discounts on everything I could, borrowed things — we pulled so many favors. Despite the severe amount of stress leading up to it and the hours of sleep I’ll never get back, the shoot itself was fun. We didn’t have a camera or know when we were shooting four days up until but I kept telling people that we were shooting these dates. I didn’t have any other choice. I think if you tell yourself something enough times it’ll happen. I relied on fate a little bit.
I wanted to make something with the colors and the sounds that I didn’t see in my last project and that I didn’t know existed or were things I was interested in. I wanted to make something that you could feel like you could touch. Above all, in telling this story I was interested in “raising my voice,” channeling an aggression I was too shy to do with my previous film. That’s what I was thinking about before writing it. I just wanted to do something that was — I wouldn’t say sexy is the right word — but I wanted to go into a darker territory. I feel like people are a little bit disheartened that there was a technical reason that I wanted to make that film. There are always practical elements that are inherent to making a film.
G: People wanted the urgency of the subject matter to be the force?
Yeah, I think so. And also recent times have really re-contextualized the film in ways I didn’t foresee, expect, or necessarily feel were appropriate in my personal making of it. I am constantly asked about the #MeToo movement; I am constantly asked about championing that in my film. I can’t take credit for that, I made this movie way before — I mean it has been happening forever — but way before what it is now. So I’m really trying to stay cordial towards that conversation because I don’t necessarily know how to deal with it yet. It’s definitely important to me, thematically. But sticking it to a really specific time is basically the opposite of what I’ve ever tried to do with movies. I don’t want to make something for its relevance now, ideally it is relatable because its timeless. Even if it isn’t, the attempt is to make something that anyone can watch and feel connected to. I throw away so much, so many ideas, I’m so hesitant to tell a story if it doesn’t pass that criteria for me.
The story resurfaced in this way that came from many levels of anger and frustration and a struggle to articulate these feelings to myself. The way I was seeing the world was really negative. I was very anti the city, like: ‘I hate it here, I don’t need to be here, I don’t belong here.’ Very emo. ‘Everything about the city hurts. Walking down the street hurts.’ I spent way more time at home because I could not deal with the noise. The oppressive soundscape of the city really came from that. I originally conceived of this story as a hate letter but then I thought about it as one of the many portraits of the city.
I’d say this story — as well as the earlier film — were ways to revisit and confront myself, to find some semblance of resolution by organizing and channeling jumbled up emotions into a cohesive story.
On how “Cheer Up Baby” expanded her movie-making horizons
“Cheer Up” went to Sundance, which really changed my relationship to filmmaking. I got an agent and a manager out of that, which was crazy — I was trying to do that for a while and I thought, ‘No one cares,’ everyday, ‘No one cares, I just have to keep doing it.’ They said: ‘We want to help you, you need to make movies.’ After seeing “Cheer Up” they were like: ‘What else are you working on next?’ I wish I was the type of person that had a feature under my belt already and could have said then and there: ‘This, right here! I’m ready for the next thing!’ but that was not the case. I’m a very slow writer.
I was getting so bogged down with all of this editing work that I felt like I was devoting too much energy to. I was not giving enough time to my own projects. I didn’t want to be the person who gets those crazy editing jobs for 25 years and then realizes they haven’t directed or made anything for themselves. I was fed up with those jobs, I was being so underpaid. I had to fend for myself constantly, which is 50% of the job, but then again I owe countless conversations I’m having now to being a confident emailer then.
My new team has set me up with meetings to see creative agencies and commercial agencies, figuring out how to get me help in what I do. A lot of my work over the past couple months has been finding people to vouch for what I do. Because telling people what you’re worth is such a crazy thing — being on the phone and saying, ‘Yeah, I think it my rate should be this much,’ and coming up with such an arbitrary number, it’s nuts. I’m glad I learned how to do it. They’ve been really helpful and encouraging by imposing a script deadline on me.
On her music video collaborations with Kaya Wilkins of Okay Kaya
I used the Internet in a way that I had never really done before when Kaya and I started working together. It was in a period of time where I wasn’t working very much and I was getting kind of nervous. I grew familiar with her work through my friend Eric who directed her video “Gravity.” I loved everything about the video and the music so I just reached out to her, not expecting to hear back, because the internet is weird. We ended up meeting up and she told me that she was just about to work on this album. We met each other at the right time because she had just started thinking about music videos. She had a very set idea of what she wanted to do with that. I came on knowing that there was already this theme laid out, this theme of duality and “Both,” which is the title of her album.
Kaya has a strong vision for every part of her process and our collaborative relationship comes from using our own skill sets to create a unified vision. I really think that we co-directed “IUD” and “Dance like U”. To me, that’s how it feels whenever I work with a musician because musicians are the most assertive in their own vision. You’re coming in as a visual director to put it together and to make it all work, but I would say she’s far more creative than I am and because she doesn’t come from a video-making world, her imagination and her goals for this were far more imaginative than I could have originally perceived.
To find order in the chaos, no matter what the scale of weirdness is, is just an ongoing dialogue. The main thing was knowing that it was a music video (despite being a narrative of some sort) helped us find — not that it’s comedic in any way — ways to break narrative laws, which is why I like making music videos in the first place: to not suffer through rigid form, to have fun experimenting and bend narrative.
For practical reasons, it became a very difficult project to continue on because we were trying to do ten videos and for two independent artists to do that, it became pretty impossible. That’s when the romanticism dies. I constantly struggle with the limitations of resources and how to use those to my creative advantage.
On the economy of independent filmmaking in New York
Claire, the executive producer who helped fund “Cheer Up Baby,” is the reason I work in this business of freelance filmmaking at all. The first job I did was this Dazed 100 behind the scenes video, I was the director. She passed on the email and I replied, ‘I’ve never done this before, I don’t know what to do,’ and she told me, ‘You’ll be fine, you’ll be good, it’s okay, just ask me if you have any questions.’ I felt like I got thrown on the stage and had to sing.
From that I built a website and finished the short and shot a couple of music videos. I was really just trying to bill myself as a director and then I think it was word of mouth that allowed me to do stuff. I’ve played so many roles: I’ve been a producer, a production coordinator, an editor, part of the art department (by far the position I am least qualified for) — I can’t even remember at this point all the jobs that I faked an identity to get into. You just lie (or perhaps convince yourself you’re capable) and then you make friends and work with people you like who believe in your vision enough that they want to help you.
A lot of my early days were spent just emailing people and saying ‘Do you have work? I need a job.’ I spent so much time just putting myself out there. Even now, I get emails from people and I wonder ‘How did you find me?’ The world is much smaller than I realize it to be. There were months of editing when so much would happen, I guess in the fall, that would carry me through to the spring when jobs were coming up again. The jobs were really well paid but it was really exhausting so I tried to pitch myself more as a director that was willing to edit.
The more editing jobs I was doing, the more producers and people I was meeting, the more I had people to connect. It’s cool to make the community feel more integrated in that way. But I’ve noticed in the last five years that people are less willing to do passion projects. I think that New York got more expensive and people have more private demands in their lives. I don’t know if people can afford to do it the way that they did five, ten years ago, and I completely understand. It’s a shitty feeling asking people to work on something knowing they will not be paid as well as they would normally. On the flip side, it allows people work in a space that lacks authoritarianism but include a sense of friendliness that’s hard to find on “normal” sets. With any project I’ve made, I try as hard as possible to create a safe and fun environment, where people are able to laugh and not feel like they have to censor themselves while still getting the job done.
On the shape of a career
I would consider this the beginning of not my whole career but the career I want for myself, making features. “Cheer Up Baby” felt like a proof of concept, proof that I was able to make something again and call myself a director. I felt like I made “Chopping Onions” so long ago that I had forgotten how to make movies. And with all the other fashion stuff I felt like I was losing my sense of self, in terms of what I liked and what I was interested in, what my style is. I thought: ‘Oh my god, I’m slipping, I have to go make something for myself.’
I think there is a part of me that is anxious that people expect me to make things like “Cheer Up Baby” now. With this new movie treatment, people are asking: ‘Are you going to have this kind of voice as a filmmaker?’ Yes and no. I care deeply about this issue but I have way too many other stories that I’m interested in. They all feel connected, to me at least.
The motivation you need for making films is so extreme. Work ethic is 90% of it. I know many talented people with incredible ideas that never manifest them into a finished project, for whatever reason. It’s such a shame. I think it has so much to do with being able to be vulnerable and finish your shit. Even if you don’t think something is good, it’s important to finish it even if you don’t put it out there. My parents are both pretty intense and very strict people in terms of work ethic. My dad’s Polish, my mom’s Korean. They come from deeply challenging histories and have only ever believed that the way to get something is through hard work. Of course that’s true, but the way that it is ingrained in me is so intense. Being a childhood athlete amplifies that feeling as well through the self-imposed pressure that you’re never good enough. That in combination with everything else about my past means being super hard on yourself and it almost gets the best of you, to not let yourself have a moment to enjoy, to breathe. It’s both helpful and debilitating. Making films is masochistic and a weird cycle that I’m trying to find a balance in. I can treat a project like a work day and not let it bleed into every other part of my life. I’m working on compartmentalizing my life — working to know that I have other interests, to know there are other people around me that I am accountable for, that are accountable for me, to not completely be swallowed by my identity of making films.
On being a woman in a field that favors men
I can speak to the fact that a majority of really important and strong female filmmakers don’t get the recognition or the resources that their male coworkers or rivals do. It just feels like an imbalance.
I struggle with this concept, the idea of curating or highlighting female filmmakers for the sake of just being females is this double-edged sword where of course, do what you have to do to get the exposure and the press that you need, all that good stuff, but there’s something very obviously ostracizing about that. And there’s something victimizing about that, I think, that maybe a female filmmaker doesn’t want to feel: to be recognized for being a female before being a filmmaker. I think that’s the root of recent trends, where filmmaking is heading, at least in America. It feels like these pillars at these great festivals, in their dialogue, the way that they discuss female filmmakers is more delicate than it is with men. Maybe because women are making more thoughtful movies … but there’s just something a little off, and I can’t put my finger on it. This is not to say I haven’t been grateful and pleasantly surprised when I get the opportunity to showcase my work. Perhaps it’s a reflection of some self-doubt I have about myself as a filmmaker. Filmmaking is already stressful enough that this particular skepticism is something I try not to lose sleep over.
But it’s frustrating, it’s deeply frustrating. I’ve had a few experiences that have really pissed me off, that feel like they’re just going to get worse the more I try to expand as a filmmaker and expand my resources. I remember someone saying: “You’re work is too heartfelt.” Or, you know, like: “I’m not sure that you’d be good in the commercial world because your personal work is so heartfelt,” something to that effect. I was so livid at that comment because I was just like — obviously commercial filmmaking is soulless in so many ways but — you can’t be a tender person, or an honest person, or maybe sensitive, or maybe a female who’s sensitive and make commercial work?
I feel like people have said “This is your time.” What? Because I’m a woman and I’m a person of color, like I experience all levels of oppression and therefore people should pay attention to what I make? No. If I make shit work, I want people to tell me that I made a shitty piece. I don’t want to get stuck — I won’t because I have a lot of very aggressive friends who will tell me the truth, luckily. But I don’t want to be known for who I am before what my work is, in the sense that I don’t want to feel the pressure that every story I tell has to be about my oppression, or about oppression. I think about that stuff all the time, about identity and how confused I am about that and how I can translate that.