“In countries like Russia it is almost impossible to live if you are a transgender person”
BY DIVA STAFF
Juliet follows the story of a transgender teenager’s dream to play Juliet in her school play, Romeo & Juliet. This brilliant short has been a hit at film festivals, including the Oscar-qualifying AFI Fest 2020 and Indie Short Fest, where it picked up the 2020 Best Student LGBTQ Short Award. We were lucky enough to chat to director, Ira Storozhenko, about her own experiences and the impact she hopes Juliet will have.
What inspired you to begin filmmaking at such a young age?
I did not come from a film family where I would have someone to get inspiration from. And I cannot recall getting an epiphany from any particular movie back then. For sure, I would skip classes in my high school whenever there would be some exciting new release at a movie theatre. I was driven by the power of storytelling. I would be reading Russian classic poems and forbidden for my age American books about drugs. I would be also directing plays in school theatre, learning how the right blocking and staging can help tell a story. By the end of high school I could not imagine any other future for myself but making films, and for that I’d have to go through an intense competition and get into directing program at the oldest University of Cinema in Russia. I refused to apply to any other university and really had to fight for my future to get into the profession I fell in love with.
Describe Juliet in three words.
Sensitive, tender, empowering.
Tell us a bit more about the film.
The idea was fully born after my friend Jasmine Mosebar shared her story of being an actress during transition times. It moved me so deeply and mirrored my personal experience of teenage bullying based on the gender issues I’ve experienced in Russia. The Juliet project was always very personal to me and to all the principal team members. Katherine D. May (the producer of the project) has a similar background to mine. Coming from Russia, we both know how hard it is for transgender people to make first steps (in countries like Russia it is almost impossible to live if you are a transgender person.) When I pitched the story to Katherine, she was very supportive and told me that we must do the story to support the community and inspire people in the world. Wilandrea Blair (the screenwriter) is a mother of two kids who brought so much to the project by building an authentic story about complicated teenage life. Sarah Anne Pierpont (the director of photography) has her theatrical experience which helped her to feel the character on a deep level and build the visual narrative according to the feelings of the protagonist. I can’t tell [you] how lucky I am that all the people who made Juliet had the strongest connection to the material.
What inspired you to want to direct Juliet?
Besides Jasmine, who has been my muse and inspiration, it did feel like the right time to share the story, which would inspire people to be who they are and not to be afraid of social judgement. I’ve been living under the pressure of society for so long. Before I came to the AFI Conservatory, I was a different person. AFI Conservatory helped me feel the ground, and rethink and re-analyse all past traumatic experiences I’ve had in my life. When it came down to the time of making a thesis film I felt so inspired and free, and I had the feeling of sharing my experience with other people to inspire everyone who ever felt the same way I did.
What impact do you hope the film will have on the LGBTQI community?
I have seen reviews and reactions of people from the community who just watched Juliet and I can tell – there is no bigger price or reward for me but to know that the movie feels authentic and really speaks to feelings and problems of youth. Considering recent challenges in the world, I sincerely hope that this movie will continue to inspire the young generation to be themselves and rely on their own dreams and beliefs without thinking about others judging your steps. I wish there will be a better world where everyone can just simply be who they are. I truly think there has to be no criteria or special accents on transgender actors. I believe there will be a fair time, when it will be equal for everyone and people will stop saying “transgender actors” in the same way we never say “cisgender actors”. There should be no criteria, gender separation or any other stereotypes in judging people and their art.
What impact do you hope the film will have on those not in the LGBTQI community?
I hope that this movie can make a change in the world. There are still people who do not understand and do not support the community. Making a very subjective and personal piece is a step to let everyone feel like Serena feels. A step towards making the world more humane and supportive. I believe this movie can help break stereotypes and make the world a better place.
How does Juliet draw on your own experiences?
As I mentioned earlier, I did have a period in my life which was very challenging. I grew up in Russia during the 2000s. It was dangerous even to think that you may be different from others with your feelings and beliefs. Since my teenage years, I did not feel like I would be defining myself by specific gender. It was considered to be dangerous to talk to me. It was very painful back then and I am not sure if to this day I have been able to fully recover. Juliet was a dream project. I wanted to tell this story for such a long time and I am blessed that the time has finally come. I am grateful that in the US you can have your creative voice and be heard. This is the core of the movie. With all emotions and pain that I have experienced in the past, it does reflect on the screen through the narrative that the voice is finally coming out.
What are your words of advice for any aspiring directors?
Just be you and do you. There is no one who can really tell you what to do. Of course, it is great to have mentors and teachers. But there are no rules. Never be afraid to experiment and find your own creative voice.
DIVA magazine celebrates 27 years in print in 2021. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQI media and keep us going for another 27. Your support is invaluable.