This week’s featured filmmaker is writer/director Jessica Benhamou. She shared with me some insight into her intimate short film Love Is A Hand Grenade, which is currently premiering online at BFI Flare 2021 until March 28th.
A director who’s love of filmmaking came after exploring a range of fields Jessica soon discovered that her life’s passions could all come together behind and through the lens of a camera. “I first wanted to be a novelist, then a painter, a psychiatrist, an investigative journalist, and finally I picked up a camera and was immediately hooked,” she said. “Perhaps being a filmmaker combines all those interests – a wish to understand the human mind, a love of visual art and writing, and a desire to shine a light on stories that are in the public interest.” Starting as a Producer Jessica slowly found the confidence to start writing her own scripts, which then naturally progressed to directing. “I am paradoxically an energetic people person and a grouchy misanthrope, depending on the day, so I suit both roles,” she said.
Love Is A Hand Grenade is a short film surrounding two best friends who hook up after a messy night out. Jessica explained to me where the story came from. “This film is inspired by a real-life event – the actual story is much more dramatic,” she said. “The funny thing is that I’ve had to hugely tone down the events of that night as they were apparently not credible. Much later, I realised I wanted to explore that night in a film, but couldn’t quite work out how to crack that nut until – after a fresh heartbreak – I found myself reflecting on past relationships and binge-watching Friends. Someone had told me the show had originally been conceived as ‘romantic friendships’ and I was taken aback at the homophobic jokes this time around. I decided to swap the man of my own story for a woman – with his support and approval – and explore some of those female friendships of my own where things got a bit funky.”
“I think most women who consider themselves ‘mainly straight’ have had an intense, inter-dependent, female friendship that has almost become romantic,” Jessica continues. “I didn’t want to label the sexualities of the two characters – I’m more interested in how sexuality is infinitely complex as a filmmaker, but it’s been interesting to observe how stigmatised bisexuality is. I didn’t anticipate finding myself on the receiving end of so much biphobia. The reality is that while I am keenly aware of what homophobia entails, the subtle nuances of biphobia were entirely new to me. And if a short film can spark that kind of response within my circles then I’m all the more convinced it’s an important story to tell. The world is changing though, particularly for the younger generations, so I remain an optimist. In terms of the mental health elements, I wanted to show the difficulties of loving someone with severe mental illness in a way that felt honest and true to me.”
The film is incredibly intimate both in subject matter and in its visuals as a majority of the film is shot quite close to the two friends and entirely in a handheld style. “The handheld camera was a decision I made very early on to create that sense of immediacy and intimacy,” Jessica said. The two lead actress’ Genesis Lynea and Saffron Hocking give fantastically realistic and powerful performances so I asked Jessica what it was like to work with them on something so emotionally concentrated. “If I could go back in time, I would have an intimacy coordinator. It’s not only about making cast feel comfortable, which is obviously the most important factor, but also to help the director feel comfortable and able to communicate what they need. It’s a fantastic role to have emerged in the wake of #metoo,” she said.
The production process itself was a highlight for Jessica as she watched her story come to life with each step along the way. “It’s exciting seeing a film coming together in that way and even better when you feel something is working, whether that’s someone’s outfit that truly embodies their character or a wonderful piece of score and sound design,” she said. The pandemic impacted the project as well separating the collaborators and making post-production a much harder process. But it wasn’t only external factors that affected the production for Jessica. “My personal struggle is that I am a natural people pleaser, coming from a producer background,” she explained. “It’s something I’m working on, as you can’t please everyone as a director when people are constantly trying to push and pull you in different directions.”
As mentioned above the film is currently premiering at 2021 BFI Flare online and if you are in the UK you can stream the film until March 28th. “This is our world premiere and I hope we screen at lots of festivals around the world,” Jessica expressed. “I’d really love some of them to be physical rather than virtual. I am desperate to travel, to see my short on a big screen with an actual audience and to meet filmmakers in a normal way once lockdown is over. Beyond that, the story also originated as a feature idea that I’ve started writing.”