This year’s Cannes Film Festival delivers another fantastic selection of conversation-starters, including Berlin-based Brazilian filmmaker Lillah Halla’s feature debut Levante (Power Alley).
Screening alongside highlights like Amjad Al Rasheed’s brilliant motherhood drama Inshallah A Boy (the first feature from Jordan to screen in the fest) and Amanda Nell Eu’s top-prize-winner Tiger Stripes, Levante (Power Alley) tackles a thorny and provocative topic: abortion rights in Brazil. Ayomi Domencia stars as Sofia, a 17-year-old volleyball player whose promising future (including a college sports scholarship in Chile) becomes increasingly precarious after discovering she’s pregnant. With no options for legal termination, Sofia explores other avenues while attracting the attention of an evangelical group determined to force her into giving birth.
Jared Abbott caught up with Halla at the premiere to talk about the film.
Abbott: I loved the first reel of Levante – it has youthful and feminine energy that gives the audience a strong sense of Sofia’s life with her friends. Can you tell me a little bit about capturing that mood, and how you got all the performers feeling so comfortable together?
Halla: Sure. They’re actually all really good friends now. This became a true team effort…a team that supported each other throughout everything that’s happened in their personal lives after the film. It’s incredible and historical and it was a lot of work, but it was also a task we did together. It took a long time to find people who had synergy and who were stars in themselves. I started by not imposing characters into the people I was thinking about casting – I was just bringing people into the film, and it took about two years.
Once we had the group, I still wasn’t sure who was going to play each character. The script was ready, but I didn’t know who was going to do what, so I said “Let’s just start.” We had a whole week of rehearsing and improvising. I think one of the main reasons why the film has this energy is they had a safe space to work.
Second, I brought the script as a guidance, but not as an imposition. In the whole pre-production, I was working with just a treatment.
I recently spoke with another director who said something similar. She was like, “I had about 20 pages written when we started, and then it just kind of all fell into place once I had the cast together.”
I had about 90 pages written from the ninth version of script that we were working on. It’s been, as you know, seven years in the making. But after meeting everyone, it started rewriting itself and I was embracing the gifts that the performers were giving to me, which is their life history and experiences. I guess I’m a bit like a orchestra conductor in that sense, but they bring so much with their own stories.
So I condensed 90 pages back into a treatment version of 20 pages and took those pages to rehearsals – we were improvising a lot and I was recording all that stuff. It was a very intensive work, but it brought the script back into a form. The true shooting script was only ready three days before the shooting.
I liked that your portrayal of bisexuality felt so natural and unforced. Was that always the plan, to focus more on the abortion aspect and not so much on sexuality?
It was always a film about abortion from the beginning…a film about the possibility of living your life with choices. It hacks the obvious ways of thinking of abortion because abortion and the right to choose is also a queer topic. For me, what is queer about it is…not only the bisexual girl getting pregnant and, but also being supported by her girlfriend who’s non-binary. Maybe it’s not so apparent in the English subtitles, but the partner is genderfluid. We’re always exchanging the pronouns throughout the film. This queerness is one thing that I find very different from the other abortion films.
I think the characters should have their own unique personality and should be supporting each other instead of always competing, but the thing I think is unique to this story and to this group and the abortion topic…that this becomes also a question of their community. Sofia is not going to be alone fighting and completely powerless. It’s problem for the whole group.
We love to see intersectional solidarity on film. I wanted to ask you about these crisis pregnancy centers seen in the film, which are more about about interfering with people’s rights to choose and forcing pregnancy by any means necessary. Planned Parenthood says there’s over 4,000 in the States alone. How did you research these places?
By doing many interviews with both pro-life religious people and religious people who are militantly pro-choice inside these groups, clandestinely fighting from the inside. This is one of the most radical initiatives I’ve ever seen throughout this process. It’s a group of women who are inside the church trying to break through all the impositions create conditions for women and or people with wombs inside the church to be able to interrupt pregnancy.
They have suffered great persecution in Brazil. One of the women I spoke to had to flee. She had her home raided. These initiatives are growing more and more, especially because often times, what happens in the States ends up happening in Brazil.
The rise of the evangelicals in Brazil has a lot to do with a project that came from the US in the 70s, and it’s working as such so far.
I find this overlap between people who were brought up in the Church who end up fighting for abortion rights so fascinating. A dear friend of mine named Viva Ruiz started an activist collective called Thank God For Abortion and I just love what they do. Are there other abortion activists or writers who inspire your work?
Definitely the ones I just spoke about. There’s also one person I shouldn’t mention by name because her work brings so much risk to her safety. Also, all the groups that are working from abroad who are making sure the medicines arrive safely to Brazil. It’s not as powerful as the imposing force, but there is quite a resistance organized internationally helping make things work.
There are also all the doctors who are working locally and not profiting. A big problem is that just that a lot information doesn’t arrive because even the websites are blocked in Brazil. It all has to be very secretive.
I read only around 25% of the population supports legalizing abortion in Brazil. What do you think the response will be back home?
This is always a good question…what type of political range a film has. I do expect that this could raise the debates and otherwise we would not make the film. You can never measure the impact, but the fact that we’re premiering at Cannes is already giving us a huge visibility. The fact that were premiering when Bolsonaro is no longer in power will make it more possible for the promotion of the film nationally.
I know of films that have managed to go so deep that they actually helped change laws in their countries. It’s been a risk making this film – it’s a risk for every single one of us to make it, but we do hope that this starts all sorts of debates.
We wish you the best of luck with the film. Thanks, Lillah!