Nigrin: Your very timely short film Urania Leilus is a warning seen through the eyes of a young journalist about what might happen when a democracy succumbs to far-right extremists and descends into fascism. Tell us what motivated you to make this film.*
Serban: I was motivated by what I saw happening in this country during the Trump years — especially Trump’s so-called “zero tolerance” policy of separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents at the southern border, which was clearly fascistic and disturbingly reminiscent of what the Nazis did to Jewish families during the Holocaust. There are well-documented accounts of children being locked up in overcrowded and unhygienic detention centers without adequate food or medical care. In some cases, they had no water, so they couldn’t take a shower, brush their teeth or wash their clothes. Infants soiled themselves because they didn’t have diapers. Girls menstruated through their clothes, as they weren’t given enough sanitary pads. Many children didn’t have a bed to sleep on (and were often forced to sleep on mylar sheets placed on a hard floor). Some were so depressed they cut themselves or committed other acts of self-harm. And there were also allegations of child abuse. After visiting one detention center in Clint, Texas, Senator Chuck Schumer described conditions as “inhumane” and “awful.” Although the policy eventually ended and attempts were made to reunite the children with their parents, some of the families still have not been reunited. Needless to say, many of these families were traumatized by both the separation and the horrendous conditions under which they were detained. And the children now run the risk of developing severe psychological disorders later in life.
I was also motivated by the assault on freedom of speech during the Trump era — especially the right to tell the truth. It was a time of so-called “alternative facts.” And Trump made it clear from the get-go that he was at war with the media — he often referred to journalists as “enemies of the people” — and that he would tolerate no criticism or dissent. Take the case of journalist Megyn Kelly. I’m no fan of Fox News, but Kelly was legitimately doing her job when she queried Trump about his misogynistic views during the first presidential debate in 2015. But Trump retaliated by railing against her on Twitter, and in response Kelly received an onslaught of death threats and obscene phone calls. At the time she said, “I’ve been under armed guard for 16 months and my children have been under armed guard and it’s not an appropriate price to pay for hard-hitting journalism.” Obviously, this state of affairs is bound to have a chilling effect on journalists and their willingness to do their jobs and tell the truth — if that truth turns out to be at odds with the official narrative promulgated by those in power. It’s no accident that Trump’s attitude is disturbingly similar to that of Hitler, Stalin, and Putin etc. (Stalin also used the term “enemies of the people”). In Putin’s Russia, few journalists would dare to criticize their dear leader if they wanted to stay healthy. But it’s a shock for something like this to happen in the US, a country that supposedly prides itself on freedom of speech. Unfortunately, Trump’s assault never completely ran out of steam after he lost the 2020 election (and lied about it), as his supporters are now targeting not only journalists, but teachers, lawmakers, election workers, librarians and even voters. So I thought it was important to tell this particular story: the story of a journalist who finds the courage to do the right thing and tell the truth — no matter how inconvenient to those in power and in spite of the intimidation and death threats against her — because those are the kinds of people our democracy may need to survive.
Nigrin: Kate Garfield who plays the young journalist is terrific. Tell us how she came to be in your film.
Serban: Kate is a brilliant young actress with an extraordinary instinctive ability to lose herself in a character and in the moment. I’d worked with her previously on a short called Let Mercy Come, so I already knew she was a gifted performer. But I still wanted to make sure she was right for the role of Urania the journalist, as her previous role had been quite different. So I listed the role with Actor’s Access and Backstage and received over 500 submissions. But after auditioning dozens of actresses in person (this was just before covid) and looking at hundreds of actor’s reels and headshots, I finally realized Kate was perfect for the role, as she has a tremendous emotional range that’s extremely rare in a young actor or actress. This was obvious to me when she auditioned the scene in which Urania gradually divulges her story about what she’d witnessed at the detention center; it wasn’t just acting — she was really feeling what the character was feeling, and that’s what makes her performances so real — and so powerful.
Nigrin: Predrag Dubravcic’s gorgeous cinematography is amazing. Tell us how he came to work with you.
Serban: Pred is an extremely talented DP who knows how to light a scene with a minimal amount lighting. He also has the ability to angle a shot in such a way that it has maximum emotional impact. And on top of that, he really enjoys extensive prior discussion/preparation, to make sure that he and the director are on the same page. I’d known about Pred for a while, as I’d come across his website several years ago, and I was totally blown away by what I saw there (the website featured entire films he’d worked on). I noticed that he’d done a lot of handheld work, which I liked, and I could tell that he had an exceptional instinctive ability to tell a dramatic story through images; he just seemed to know exactly what to do — how to light and how to shoot scene after scene. So I decided I definitely wanted to collaborate with him, and we exchanged a bunch of emails, but for whatever reason there were always scheduling conflicts, and it wasn’t until years later that we were finally able to work together -- on Urania Leilus.
Nigrin: Are there any memorable stories while you made this film or any other info about your film you would like to relay to us?
Serban: The one thing that really sticks in my mind is when we went out to a small town in New Jersey to shoot the exterior detention center scene at an abandoned shopping center. My assistant producer had tried to call the owner of this place to get permission to shoot there, but was never able to get in touch with anyone. At the time, I thought the location was so desirable that it would be worth stealing the shots. So we went out there at night, with the whole cast & crew. The gate was open and I never noticed any “no trespassing” sign or anything like that, so I thought it would be no big deal; we’d just shoot the scene as quickly as possible and then get out of there. Although we saw a few construction workers working on the interior of the building, they didn’t seem concerned about our presence, so we thought everything was cool and we started setting up the cameras and blocking the scene. But about half an hour later, a huge SUV came out of nowhere and stopped right in front of us and the driver asked what we were doing there. (It turned out one of the workers had called the owner and the owner had sent this guy). Anyway, it became very clear to him that we didn’t have permission to be there and that we’d have to leave. My assistant producer asked if we could shoot “just a little bit,” but the guy said if didn’t get out of there immediately he would call the cops, so we left and drove back to NYC (it was about an hour and a half each way). We’d decided to check out a location in Brooklyn that one of my actors knew about. But when we got there, I realized right away it wasn’t going to work, as it just didn’t have any character. Meanwhile time was flying and my actors were getting antsy and cranky -- and I knew if we didn’t find something soon, we wouldn't have time to shoot the scene. Finally the same actor who had suggested the location in Brooklyn suggested another location several blocks away (also in Brooklyn), along a little known canal. When my DP Pred and I checked out this 3rd location, I realized immediately that it was perfect — even better than the original location in New Jersey! It had so much character to it. So we decided to shoot it there and finished with just a few minutes to spare.
Urania Leilus screens at the Fall 2022 New Jersey Film Festival on Friday, September 30 as part of the Shorts Program. It will play Online for 24 Hours and In-Person at 7PM in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
To buy tickets go here:
For General Info on the Film Festival go here: https://watch.eventive.org/newjerseyfilmfestivalfall2022