Text & Interview: Alec Coiro
Photo: Olimpia Dior
Film Stills Courtesy of Adinah Dancyger
Adinah Dancyger tells a largely visual story of a subway assault and its repercussions in Cheer Up Baby. While Dancyger obviously wants to play the details of the movie close to the vest until the movie has been released, she’s given us enough of the plot to make it clear that it’s an important film, particularly in the current moment we’re living through. Dancyger is a filmmaker whose work we’ve discussed before, and our latest conversation picks up on some of the same themes, including fascinating elaboration on how the filmmaking process transforms the filmmaker’s stories. India Menuez plays the main character and also collaborated on the background, working through the reality of catcalling with Dancyger. This sort of involvement is in keeping with Menuez’s focus as an artist on collaborative experiences.
While a release date has yet to be set, Olimpia Dior was able to go behind the scenes on the production, and we are able to show a few the photographs she came away with without giving away too much.
Olimpia sent us her stills from the set of “Cheer up Baby,” and they look beautiful and fascinating. I wonder if you could contextualize them a bit and tell us a little more about the film?
Adinah: Cheer Up Baby is the story of a young woman Anna, who is assaulted on the subway and how this experience ripples into her psyche the immediate days following. The film is nearly dialogue-less. Through close visual framing, the audience is close to Anna as she observes, wanders, and confronts familiar environments that become informed by her trauma. The film explores a normalized violence that has, unfortunately, become the inevitable everyday reality for many people. Anna is played by India Salvor Menuez.
What inspired the title? To what extent does the title describe the film’s subject matter?
Adinah: I thought about a slew of catcalls I’ve experienced as well as those I’ve read and overheard. For the script, I grouped them as either ‘physical’ or ‘mental.’ If I’m remembering correctly, India and I were hanging out in my backyard while I was writing/revising the script. We talked through possible endings and their potential effects. There is something about a comment-as-command that is the worst for me. It assumes a sense ownership. It’s not only the objectification but the backward idea that this person calling you out feels like they have the right to do so. The many times I have been told to smile is one of those things. This genre of catcalling felt emblematic of every day that I wanted to leave the film off with. And I knew whichever line was chosen would be the title. Every other title I came up with seemed too dramatic or sentimental. I also kind of like that it’s a bit awkward to say. We also played with different tones for the delivery of the phrase. Filmmaker and friend Jay Giampetro plays the faceless cat-calling character. There was a lot of conversation revolving around the tone; it was such a fine line in terms of tone and message. I ended up going with a more neutral delivery. The casualty embedded in his tone makes way for the elliptical nature of Anna’s circumstance and the various ways it can present itself. These actions do not need to be outwardly aggressive or creepy to be a red flag.
Monica Uszerowicz wrote that your work as a filmmaker is profoundly personal. Does this continue with “Cheer up Baby”?
Adinah: Yes, the story is quite personal. On the other hand, the process of filmmaking translates and transforms the seed and turns into something else. You start with something extremely emotional then it becomes something you didn’t expect. The layer of fiction and storytelling devices inevitably deviate from the self. When I initially thought about Cheer Up Baby, I was incredibly angry about a variety of issues and sensitive towards the worst parts of New York City. I grew up in New York — so it’s a place I know well but and through phases of feeling betrayed by (who doesn’t?). At this particular point, I had a lot of energy bottled up. I stared at a wall thinking about how I could turn that into something productive. This brought me to think of former experiences and the origin of Cheer Up Baby was an experience I never had closure with. I was nervous to make a film about this experience as I didn’t want to assume that I could speak to this topic that is much bigger than myself. Ultimately this [filmmaking] was a way for me to combat a sour part of my past and to hopefully make something relatable. I had a ton of emotional and intellectual support from friends and collaborators who helped me get past initial fears and bring it to life. Working with India, a close friend and collaborator felt natural for this project. The process felt candid, safe, and exploratory.
When and where will we be able to see the completed film?
Adinah: My producer Emily McEvoy and I are working on it. Stay tuned!
Do you have plans for a what you’ll work on next that you can tell us about?
Adinah: I am working on music videos with musician Kaya Wilkins (Okay Kaya). Aside from that, I am in the research/writing stage for a new project.
You start with something extremely emotional then it becomes something you didn’t expect. The layer of fiction and storytelling devices inevitably deviate from the self.-Adinah Dancyger
How did you and Adinah first meet? How did the idea to work together come to pass?
India: We both grew up more or less in downtown Manhattan, didn’t go to the same schools, but around the age of 13, we started going to the same all ages, DIY, punk shows, and out of that grew a scene of sorts, where us weirdos could make friends outside of school or prescribed extracurriculars. So we have been friends for a while, were even both part of an art collective from the ages of 16 to 19, which I guess constitutes our first times “working” together, doing projects with a lot of collaboration and shared goals; we even spent a summer in Paris on a residency together as a part of the collective when we were 18. I too was always interested in filmmaking, & am working in that realm more as an actor now, so when she was graduating Bard with Chopping Onions (which I was really struck by), I was of course excited by the idea of working together.
Can you tell us a little about your character in “Cheer up Baby”?
India: Although I wasn’t heavily involved in the writing process, Dancyger spoke to me throughout her process and we had lots of discussions about who Anna was or could be, as well as more intimate conversations around our own personal histories of assault and harassment growing up in the city. Anna is in that young adult moment of not having fully defined herself and we wanted to create someone in that moment, a bit more open and observing, not yet in a place of narrating or knowing how to communicate what’s going on for them. I was really excited when Adinah added the component of Anna being a dancer because I thought this would create an opportunity to really see the contrast of how a moment can bring someone usually connected to their body in a very intentional way, to then dissociate intensely and completely shift their way of being bodied.
Adinah: Character development was an extremely difficult process and I wanted Anna to be relatable, universal while still having qualities that were her own. My priority was to respect the context and be extremely sensitive towards what it meant to put someone through this experience. Anna is still in her formidable years and India did a beautiful job accessing a certain type of vulnerability.
If ‘I’m not mistaken, acting is not your only artistic outlet. Can you tell us about some of your other pursuits?
India: I am and always have been most interested in collaborative experiences, which is pretty vast and so, of course, can manifest into all types of media/projects. I have a consistent practice of making zines, drawing, writing etc. And have spent a lot of energy on curatorial projects over the years, the last of which was a showcase at PS1 this past spring. I’m currently involved in a couple different collaborative projects, one of which I am particularly excited about is a mending venture with artist Misty Pollen which will have an iteration at Bridget Donahue gallery (NYC) Dec. 3rd.