A work subtly imbued with both the sexually charged energy and the quiet melancholy of the uninhibited night, Elena Oxman’s short drama Lit captures a brief but resonant meeting between twenty-somethings Eva (Rinabeth Apostol) and Jesse (D’Lo). Opening amidst a make out session in a lesbian bar restroom and concluding in the peaceful early hours of daylight, the film delves delicately into the hidden desires and insecurities that lie beyond the respective personas of its two leads.
With Lit featuring on the newly available New Queer Visions shorts compilation, Lust in Translation, we took the opportunity to speak to director Elena Oxman about this poignant, bittersweet film.
What was your experience in filmmaking prior to making Lit?
I started making films on my dad’s camcorder when I was a kid and continued making films through college. My first love was fiction and I made a couple low budget horror films and comedies, but I also loved documentary. After graduating, my friend Elihu Rubin and I made a documentary about a mobile home community near New Haven CT that was in danger of being displaced by a shopping mall. On the basis of that film we were awarded a fellowship at Yale University’s Digital Media Center for the Arts and went on to form a documentary production company called American Beat. One of the first films we made, called On Broadway, was about a main street in New Haven, CT where a typewriter repairman was struggling to stay in business while neighboring mom and pop stores were giving way to chains. I also made a film around that time called Kmart Confidential about my personal relationship with Kmart over the years.
I made Lit after a hiatus from filmmaking during which I went to grad school to study English literature and ended up writing a dissertation on film theory. Lit brought me back to narrative film, but it also felt like a continuation of the themes I explored in my documentaries. I see a lot of overlap between the two forms.
What was the inspiration for Lit’s story and characters? Did you draw much from any personal experiences?
I made the film shortly after moving to San Francisco and the city itself is one of the main inspirations for the film. The film tells a story but it also conveys a mood, and much of that has to do with how the city feels at night. The characters are based on myself and people I know, but they share a longing that I think is universal, which is a longing to connect with something outside of themselves.
How did you try to recreate the atmosphere and energy of San Francisco at night?
San Francisco is in the midst of so much change right now and I wanted to capture the older layer of the city that is disappearing every day. I didn’t know this at the time, but shortly after we shot at the Lexington Club (which was the last remaining lesbian-centric bar in San Francisco), it closed after eighteen years in operation. I’m so glad we got to shoot there before it closed and that the film preserves the bar in some way. We shot in other places I hung out at the time, so the film feels like a documentary to me when I watch it now. Whether shooting at the Lexington Club, a street corner in the Richmond or Golden Gate park, we didn’t so much recreate the atmosphere of the city as draw from what is already there, which is a huge part of what filmmaking is about for me.
The film suggests rich histories and guarded feelings behind the immediate personas of its two leads. How did you help actors D’Lo and Rinabeth Apostol internalise these more nuanced sides to their characters?
We talked about the backstory of each character and the specific things that motivated them. One of the challenges of the film was that so much is happening internally and remains unsaid. D’Lo and Rinabeth were wonderful to work with in that they intuited quickly what lay behind their characters’ “masks” and conveyed the unspoken vulnerability that lies at the heart of the film. As people of color, they also added another layer of experience to the characters that wasn’t in the original script. Some of this we talked about (like changing lines to make them more natural to the characters) and some of it we didn’t– it was just there. One of the things I love most about filmmaking is that you can begin with your own ideas but they are inevitably transformed by the people you work with. D’Lo and Rinabeth didn’t just take direction from me, they brought their own energy and experience to the situation.
What have you been working on since this film?
I’m working on a few scripts right now, including a feature set in San Francisco that takes off on some of the themes of Lit. I feel lucky that my job is teaching film (I teach at the College of San Mateo), so even when I’m not making a film I’m immersed in filmmaking in some way, whether teaching new classes or helping students make their projects.
I also recently organized a screening of films that were shot at the Lexington Club, starting with a student short called Ashely 22 that was shot there in 1998, moving through six other films including excerpts from well-known features like By Hook or By Crook (2001) and Valencia: The Movie/s (2013) and ending with Lit. We played the program to a sold out house at the Roxie Theater shortly before the bar closed, and it was amazing to see the outpouring of love for this bar that was so much more than a bar. The idea of film being a way to create community has been inspiring me lately and helping me think about what I want to do next.