A feature documentary about the powerful allure of a universal myth, Ali Weinstein’s ‘Mermaids’ is set to premiere at Hot Docs on April 28. The film follows five women who actively participate in the growing ‘mermaiding’ subculture, finding empowerment through donning tails and letting their imaginations run free.
Breakthroughs’ Wendy Markson had a chance to chat with first-time feature director Ali, just days before the premiere of her thought-provoking and beautifully choreographed film.
Your first documentary feature, Mermaids will introduce viewers to 'real-life' Mermaids! What exactly are real-life mermaids, and what inspired you to explore that world for your first feature?
The real-life mermaids in my film are people who deeply identify with the icon of the mermaid, and who even wear tails! Some are professional mermaids – one works at a theme park, one at a bar – and others are mermaid hobbyists who “mermaid” (it’s a verb) with like-minded people. I didn’t know anything about this community before I started researching this film. It all began for me when I learned about Weeki Wachee, this mermaid theme park in Florida that’s been around since 1947, and became fascinated with the women who’ve worked there over the years. I read interviews where the mermaids talked about their jobs as if it was the most important and transformative part of their lives, and it had me wondering what it did psychologically to escape into an alter ego like that, one that has so much associated with it – beauty and power and mystery – and that has fascinated people all over the world and throughout time. That was the catalyst, and from there I started researching mermaids and found this whole world of people who were obsessed with mermaids – mermaid schools, mermaid bars, mermaid performers, mermaid hobbyists – and everything just flowed from there.
You graduated from Ryerson's Documentary Media MA program in 2014, and pretty quickly got to work on developing your first feature. What motivated you to go in that direction rather than starting out with a short film?
I was lucky enough to pitch this idea to Ron Mann very soon after I graduated, who was excited by the idea and amazed that a similar documentary on mermaids hadn’t already been made. He came on as my executive producer, and was instrumental in getting the ball rolling by helping me go on my first research trip and helping me apply to development funds. The word “mermaid” is so evocative to so many people, and I think that helped the film get support from the beginning. Everyone has their own associations with mermaids, and it gets imaginations going. I wanted to make a large film that explored a universal myth and this niche modern-day interpretation of it, and it seemed like a feature-length piece, so I just went for it from the beginning. It was a long and arduous process, and I learned a lot along the way. Sometimes I look back and think it would have been wiser to start with a short. But then I remember how lucky I am that I had this opportunity to get a feature made right out of film school, and really I don’t think I had a choice. I had to seize it.
Before entering the program at Ryerson, your formal post-secondary education was in English and contemporary critical theory. How do you think your educational background informs your experience as a filmmaker, and what challenges have you faced moving into filmmaking?
The program I did at Ryerson (MFA in Documentary Media Studies) actually welcomed people with all kinds of backgrounds, so there were students who had geography and political science and philosophy backgrounds rather than film. For me, having done a degree in the humanities is something that’s helped me see the world with a more open mind, and I think that’s definitely informed my approach to filmmaking.
It was a challenge learning the ropes as a director. Between my undergrad and my MFA (which was more theoretical than practical in nature) I didn’t have a lot of hands-on experience making films, so I often felt I was flying by the seat of my pants on set. But I was lucky to have people working around me (my producer Caitlin Durlak, our DOP Catherine Lutes, our editor Robert Swartz) who were stellar at their jobs and incredibly professional, and to be able to learn from them was amazing. I think much like any job, this is one where you just have to go for it and learn from your mistakes as you go, and be amazed when things miraculously come together against all odds.
Congratulations on having your first feature selected for HotDocs! Do you have any tips for emerging filmmakers on the submission process for a large festival?
To learn to have a thick skin! It can mess with your mind, applying to festivals. We spent about six months applying to festivals and being rejected by them, which was disheartening. You start to believe that the film you made is crap. That is, until you get a break at a great festival, and all of a sudden you’re treated like royalty. I’ve heard from other filmmakers that it can be a rollercoaster even once you’ve found that success at a big festival. It’s hard to understand why some films are programmed and some aren’t, and I think you just have to remind yourself not to take it personally. We got a couple of notes from festivals that rejected our film telling us how much they loved it, and how dismayed they were that it wasn’t in their final program. It sort of goes to show that it’s not always about the quality of the film or even how much the programmers connect with it – there’s a lot more at play.
As a new filmmaker and a female running the show on set, how have you observed or felt the gender bias in the industry? Do you think being part of a female director/producer team on Mermaids has had an impact on your experience as well?
My producer Caitlin Durlak and I met at Ryerson while doing our MFAs, and it was a dream come true getting to make our first feature together straight out of that program. In the case of Mermaids, I think in some ways it was actually an advantage being two young women, simply because of the subject matter of the film. We were also lucky to have a mostly-female dream team who made the film with us – Catherine Lutes and Maya Bankovic are both brilliant cinematographers based here in Toronto; and we worked with a wonderful female sound recordist as well, Trisha Harris. There is definitely a big gender bias in the industry. I’m aware of it when I talk to other filmmakers, and when I listen to how people in the industry discuss female directors and cinematographers and editors. I’m aware of my own internal struggles to find confidence in my voice, and to talk about my ideas as if they are worthwhile, and I think a lot of that has to do with my gender. I see so many men talk about themselves and their films with inherent confidence, which I wish more women could naturally possess. Not to say that it doesn’t exist, but I do think it’s rare. In addition to the more overt boys’ club issues in the industry, I think that deeper, internalized sexism also plays a big role in why there aren’t as many female directors out there.
Ali Weinstein is a documentary filmmaker from Toronto, Canada. Her first feature film, Mermaids, about a group of women who strongly identify with the powerful female icon of the mermaid, is making its world premiere at Hot Docs 2017. Ali holds an MFA in Documentary Media Studies from Ryerson University, and is an Associate Producer at Primitive Entertainment.