Whistler Film Festival Filmmaker Interview: Niav Conty on SMALL TIME

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Niav Conty’s Small Time is about childhood, family, and the role models around us. Stubborn patriotism, dogmatic faith, and the sexualization of young women are all themes that swirl around in this tragic story about a ten year old girl surrounded by addicted adults. Director Niav Conty frequently works as a DOP, so this film is breathtakingly shot. In fact, Emma could be growing up in the Garden of Eden were it not for the snake of drug addiction that is shredding the community around her. Your heart goes out to her. How long can innocence prevail when you are being raised in a moral swamp? Small Time is nominated for the EDA Award for Best Female-Directed Feature at Whistler Film Festival 2020.

Jennifer Merin: What your film is about — both in story and theme?

Niav Conty: Small Time is the story of a young girl navigating the adult worlds of addiction, trauma, and faith. This story is, fundamentally, about America, and its internal contradictions: Freedom and stagnation, innocence and sexualization, excess and privation, violence and piety. Like a mirage, one America shimmers before us while we stumble over another. It’s also about childhood, and personhood. How do we become the people we become?

Merin: How is your film stylistically distinctive?

Conty: Narratively, the film evokes childhood and memory in an expressionistic way. Moments are pieced together: not from a narrative through line, but from a word, an image, a texture or a sound. Echoing the form of memory, the structure is fragmentary rather than logical; constructed from emotional or textural triggers. The image is intentionally simple, joining the rawness of the situations; yet, because it is told through the eyes of a child, there is also a distinct fairy-tale aesthetic. Thus, there is a clash of the raw and unembellished image with a world of magic. In terms of music, the goal is never to illustrate a moment for the audience. Rather, I worked closely with the composer to get closer to a character’s experience, often working against the obvious narrative flow and complexifying the audience’s experience rather than clarifying it.

Merin: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and to the main characters in it?

Conty: The film began as a short dramatizing a memory I had as a child. From the success of the short, and the impactful acting of our then 7-year-old lead Audrey Grace Marshall, we decided to expand it into a feature. It is a three-part film, and each part was written after shooting the previous one. In this way, the characters were written very much from what the talented actors brought to their roles in the previous parts. The character’s arcs evolved gradually, not to serve or control the story, but organically, from their experiences in the life of the film, much like real lives are.

Merin: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

Conty: Most of the adults in the film are not behaving well, but they are not bad people. They are each struggling with their own demons, and they mostly fail to gain any control over them. They are weak, but trying as hard as they can, typically in all the wrong ways. Their behavior is reflected in Emma, who is doubtless the strongest character in the film, but who is still in formation. Will she adopt their weakness and perpetuate the cycle? That is the big question of the film.

Merin: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film.

Conty: There was a lot of learning: How to make a feature on a micro-budget; how to make a film over such a long period (we spread the shoots out over three and a half years to give Audrey time to actually grow and mature between parts. It’s about growing up and discovering self, so it was a choice to embrace her actual maturation in real life).

Perhaps most importantly, the film taught me about perseverance: how to push on with a massive undertaking despite uncertainty and doubt.

Merin: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

Conty: I needed to stay true to the nature of growing up by spreading out the shoots while retaining engagement and availability from cast and crew. Luckily, we had amazing people who remained totally dedicated to the film throughout. It is largely thanks to them that this film was able to get made.

Merin: What are your plans for the future?

Conty: I just spent the last three months preparing and shooting another feature called Person, Woman, Man, Camera, TV. It’s a tragic-comedy about race, romance, and remembering: cutting between the first day and the last day of an interracial couple’s 7-year relationship. We shot it with a total cast and crew of five people, all quarantining together in rural Pennsylvania. We’re starting post-production now.

Merin: Who are the filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

Conty: So many, it’s hard to say. I love Lynn Ramsey’s work. She’s a true master. Steve McQueen has a wonderful unflinching style. And a film I often think back onto is Clean Shaven by Lodge Kerrigan. It’s told from the internal point of view of a schizophrenic, and we must navigate the bewildering and horrific experience of being mentally ill, rather than watching the story from the outside. Everything about that film feels wrong and horrible. It’s a painful watch, but also amazing. The late maverick American filmmaker Joseph Strick was a friend and mentor, and his films remain very important to me. And my relationship with the incredible Chantal Ackerman – first her student, and then her teaching assistant – was complex and inspiring.

Merin: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

Conty: Just do it, any way you can. We need to stop waiting for permission. The more we work, the more we realize that there are other women out there with talent, and energy and unique voices. We need to stick together, and pull each other up as we progress. I find there’s a lot of solidarity amongst women in film these days. And a lot of support, in contrast to the competition that seems to dominate the male film world.

About Naiv Conty:
Award-wining director, cinematographer and screenwriter Niav Conty explores intimacy, identity, and the transgressive in a body of film work that tends towards the uncomfortable and darkly humorous. After working closely for several years with Oscar-winning maverick director Joseph Strick in France, she returned to New York in 2010 to pursue an MFA at the City College of New York, where she studied with avant-garde filmmaker Chantal Ackerman. She has been Director of Photography for dozens of films including feature documentaries and fiction films. Her work travels to festivals worldwide and has received awards including best feature, best director, and best Machinima. She is a recipient of the Kodak Award for cinematography, and the 2013 Princess Grace Award.

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