Cassiah Joski-Jethi is the award-nominated British writer and director, self-proclaimed film lover and feminist, behind the upcoming short film Polly. It explores the pressures of societal feminity. Currently in pre-production, the team, including young award-winning producer Cassandra Domingo, needs to reach their crowdfunding campaign goal to start shooting. Harriet Rees, the actress portraying Polly, underlines that ‘[t]he pressures society places on women is something [she]’d like to see discussed much more in the arts.’ She continues: ‘Cassiah’s script does this truthfully and sensitively, and I felt inspired by that. I am excited to be working with such a brilliant team of women.’
As the crowdfunding campaign just launched, the director and I decided to have a little chat about the main ideas behind the project. Together we discussed gender equality, the pressures practiced by society and the cinematic arts.
Giulia: How were you drawn to the topic of feminism in your life?
Cassiah: I grew up with a very liberal, feminist mom, so my whole life I’ve had role models who challenged the societal structures to do with traditional femininity and existing sexism. And my own experiences reinforced the need for change — especially at university, hearing about terrible experiences of discrimination from my friends and peers. It really spurred me on to want to challenge the notion of equality, which some people believe we have now but sadly we don’t!
G: I see. How would you describe the pressures practiced by society on young women, at university and elsewhere? What are the most striking examples in your opinion?
C: There’s a few interesting routes to discuss this, as sexism can be dressed up in many ways. For the direct impact on young people, the emphasis on your looks and beauty can be truly devastating — it’s everywhere in magazines, on television, in films… It’s very rare for a woman in the media to be a truly ‘normal’ woman. If she is meant to represent the mass, then they’re referred to as ‘plus size’. I think this constant pressure is so damaging. And there’s such a positive attachment to losing weight, wearing makeup, affording expensive labels, when that should just be a woman’s open choice. But we’re surrounded with it constantly in society/media that it makes us feel like that’s ‘in’, and then other pressures you could look at in terms of education and careers (pay gap), sports (referred to as ‘masculine’ if play sport, and e.g. ‘run like a girl’ has a negative connotation), sexually (1) this bizarre notion that if you wear a short skirt you’re asking to be seen as a sexual object (2) contradictions in that you’re a ‘loser’ if you’re a virgin, but if you sleep around you’re a ‘slut’). The pressures are endless, and I really started to realize how it impacted me as a teenager when I was at university and talked with fellow feminists and discusses these issues.
G: Do you personally believe that it starts from childhood with dolls? Do the pressures — and (at first) dangers — come wholly and solely embodied by the doll? Does it explain your use of the doll in your short film?
C: I think that dolls capture the essence of idealism, and I do think it’s one of the earliest ways we’re conditioned to focus on image rather than what’s inside ourselves. Boys are encouraged to create and explore, whereas girls are far less so, encouraged far more to play with dolls, make up, etc. I think the doll is the ideal metaphor for the pressures women experience from birth essentially. It encapsulates the ‘be silent, don’t think, just be pretty’. And also, you could take it even further, and the idea that dolls have to be physically manipulated by others, mirroring the lack of control and decisions women have over their own lives.
G: Interesting. So, what role do you think older people and men, those who “manipulate” them and somewhat control them, consciously or unconsciously, shall have in the solving of this societal issue?
C: I believe the best way is through first society realising that it has these issues and prejudices, and then working together to develop better avenues for equality starting in childhood. Not having gender-identitifed toys and clothes (I hate the colour pink so that was very frustrating as a kid!). Really encouraging in schools for both boys and girls to achieve, explore, etc. Picking up people when they say ‘man up’ or ‘you throw like a girl’ — it’s changing these attitudes at the start of the next generation which will make sure the longevity of change.
G: In the description of you coming project, Polly, you referred to a “black and white”, manichaean kind of thinking that our society seems to be spreading. Could you explain?
C: Absolutely — so I feel that in our world, there are still these defining terms, these boxes, this black and white, that anyone deemed as ‘different’, out of the ordinary, a woman who doesn’t follow the status quo, is seen as crazed, wild, emotional, unstable. And you can see here where the excuses come out… It’s easy to mirror this with Clinton’s race to presidency. Now I’m looking at this from just the fact she is a woman, rather than whether I agree on her political values as that’s irrelevant to this argument, since she dares to not just be a wife, to be president, to speak up, to lead in a way no woman has ever had access to before. A huge majority of, not only conservatives, claim she’s disrupting the natural way of things, that a woman is too emotional, that she’s mad, that she’s dangerous. We can’t just see someone as the individual and look at her strengths, but we block them in as a) are they ‘good’? (following status quo, normal, ‘nice’, agreeable, sweet etc.) or are they b) ‘crazy’? (authoritative, different, loud, unmovable). We value the same personality traits that a man and a woman both might have, but it’s immediately negative for the woman. For instance, if she’s authoritative she’s deemed as ‘bossy’, whereas a man is deemed as a ‘leader’,’brave’. Society/media will see two sides of women — that which is agreeable, and that other which is not, rather than valuing their sense of self in its own right.
G: So now, can you tell us about Polly? And what are the steps coming ahead for the project?
C: Polly is set in a version of our world where young girls must carry around what is called a ‘she’ with them, which is a doll. It’s a sort of cult-like society. But Polly, the lead character, doesn’t want to carry her doll around. She doesn’t want to wear her hair how she is told, how to tuck her shirt in. She starts questioning the way of things, much to the fear of her mother, peers and teacher.
The film will be shot in November (so soon!) and we’re looking for a January completion. We have high hopes for festivals, both in the UK and internationally. I have two women by my side which is fantastic. Our crew is female dominated, which is very rare in the film industry!
G: Do you think the fact that an all-female team is behind this project could ever be a drawback according to a certain part of the public? Do you think it could make a more powerful impact or is it solely a symbol?
C: I think having women working together to produce something of high quality and with an important social message should be recognised and celebrated. It’s not solely a symbol — it’s discovering fantastic women who are great at their jobs and giving us all the opportunity to collaborate and an opportunity that’s sadly not always there. But we haven’t written off men – our DOP is a man. Gender equality is a social issue — it affects the whole of society negatively. And if you have a group of people working together to achieve a common goal, I don’t think it could be a drawback! It affects the whole of society negatively when there isn’t gender equality. Hopefully there won’t be any prejudices that it’s a female writer/director/producer team — I think in film it’s not a prejudice that the public is necessary aware of. It’s just when you ask them to name a film directed by a woman and they can’t think of any, they start to notice.
G: I absolutely understand what you mean. What were your first inspirations for the film?
C: My favourite film of all time Mustang (2015). I watched it this year, and I was really inspired to write a short film involving a large cast of women. You just don’t see it enough. And I loved how gentle yet impactful the film was, and it made me determined to write and create a film with as much passion and heart. And I tend to get all sorts of ideas and stories in my head when I fall asleep at night, and I just kept thinking about dolls — I played with polly fashion dolls as a child. And I thought about how they made me feel, and how I very clearly remember realising I didn’t want to be like them at a certain age, and that deciding moment for me. I wanted to explore that deciding moment for someone else, a character who realises she wants to step into her own. And so that is how the concept of Polly came about!
G: It seems that by creating this short film you want to provoke some kind of change, a change in mentality. Do you consider screenwriting and directing some sort of political act? Do you believe that in today’s society it is art but equally considered as a powerful means of action?
C: I think telling stories has always, in a way, been some sort of social/political act. Stories began as fables, life lessons through words and tales. And I think it’s an extension of that. So for me, screenwriting and directing naturally are a social/political tool, which is conjoined with art, I see them as a unified concept.
G: What would you say to someone who considers donating to your crowdfunding campaign but is not sure?
C: I would say that Polly is one of those rare projects which from it roots is looking to do something different. It’s looking to give a team of women an opportunity, it’s looking to give a group of female actors an exciting project, it’s looking to spark a question and debate about the state of our society. It’s really investing into what we stand for, and the belief that with the support it can reach people around the world and begin that discourse. Even if it’s a tiny donation, everything counts and is so appreciated. And if people are not able to give their financial support, as I appreciate it’s difficult times, just sharing our campaign and encouraging others to get involved would be fantastic as it’s pushing our project and what we stand for forward and out to the world. Sadly, the cost of filmmaking equipment, creating the world and paying the cast and crew fairly is expensive, and without making our target crowd funding, we won’t have the funds to complete it. All of the money is going into the film and into the message at the heart of the film. We can’t do it without the generous donations and time spent sharing, so I really do thank everyone who donates to our campaign.
Feel free to comment on Cassiah’s reflections and share your own thoughts on the topic, and her upcoming short film!
Thanks again to Cassiah for this fascinating conversation!
If you’re running a project that regards feminism — or perhaps any other societal topic/news story! — or you’d simply like to discuss the topic in general, reach out to me! I’d be happy to make this kind of post a serial.