The Desiree Akhavan Sundance award winning film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post opens tomorrow. Tackling coming of age in a gay conversion therapy camp circa 1993, it couldn’t be more relevant to now.
The film, based on Emily M Danforth’s 2012 novel of the same name, follows the story of a teenage girl who lives with her conservative aunt after the death of her parents. Found making out in the back seat of a car with her best girlfriend, Coley, Cameron is sent to a gay conversion therapy camp and the coming of age plot revolves around her coming to terms with her sexuality while grappling with the circumstances she’s thrown into.
Akhavan, a New York native currently residing in London, is no stranger to discerning queer audiences. Her hit lesbian-themed web series The Slope led to a debut feature, Appropriate Behaviour in 2014, which was inspired by the breakup of her first lesbian relationship. In front of the camera she’s had a recurring role on Lena Dunham’s Girls and the Channel 4 comedy-drama Flowers, and she’s currently working on a comedy series for that channel called The Bisexual, also inspired by her own experiences dating both men and women.
GCN spoke to Akhavan before the film’s release.
This isn’t a film about gay conversion therapy; it’s a story about a girl navigating her teens and discovering her sexuality. Why was this the story you wanted to tell?
The story is universal. I wanted to tell a story about growing up – it just happens to take place at a gay conversion therapy centre. There, the stakes are as high as they could be. At the heart of it, I wanted to tell a story that anyone could relate to. It speaks to the experience of growing up and feeling diseased. I don’t think you need to be gay to feel diseased as a teenager. During those years, no matter what you have going on around you, you have this propaganda in your head yelling, ‘You’re a piece of shit’. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight or tall or short, you create a dialogue in your head that there is something deeply wrong with you.
The film takes place in America during 1993. What makes this story still relevant in 2018?
It’s stunningly relevant. We were shooting during the election and after the election, the ramifications became clear. There is such an open dialogue around hate and intolerance right now. I can’t imagine a time where I’ve been more horrified by the manifestations of people’s fear towards others. I think this is a film that very directly talks to that fear.
What was the most powerful story you heard when you met with individuals who underwent gay conversion therapy?
When we were writing this, it felt like it was at arm’s distance and something from decades ago. There was a young man, in his 20s. He was half Iranian and grew up close to where I did in New York. Every week, throughout high school, he was sent to a gay conversion therapist. He was forbidden from speaking to his mother and his sisters. They thought he spent too much time around women and needed to build more masculine traits. For two years, he lived with his mother and sisters and couldn’t communicate with them. At the same time, he was illegally prescribed Viagra by his doctor to sleep with girls. He wasn’t allowed to speak with girls, but he was medically forced to fuck them. I was just deeply horrified by that on many levels. I hadn’t realised how close it was to me, how violent it was and how it encouraged the dismissal of women. My heart broke for that man.
Why do you think it’s important for LGBT+ youth to have authentic representation in films?
It was imperative for me to find a Native American actor because I didn’t want to fake that. It was also important to me that the sex and the writing in the film were authentically gay. I think the politics of who makes these films are important. At the same time, I don’t think it’s my business to know who the actors are attracted to or ask that during casting.
It was a really queer set and I’m proud of that. I believe there should be representation on and off the screen. But I also think actors are hired to portray a role and lose themselves in it. It’s different with writers, it’s different with cinematographers and it’s different with producers. We are the people who shape the stories.
Did you struggle to find representation watching TV and movies growing up because of your identities as Iranian-American and bisexual?
I grew up watching a lot of film and television. I thought there was something deeply wrong with me because nothing reflected my life. I think queer stories should be told by queer filmmakers. There’s a level of authenticity and understanding that only someone who knows that experience of life can create. I don’t think a straight, white man could tell my story because my story is marginalised. My story is never told.
As the director, what do you think is the most powerful scene in the film?
When we shot the scene between Chloë and Quinn Sheppard in the back seat of the car, I hid the crew in the nearby building. I left the girls with the cinematographer and watched from far away. It was a big leap of faith. My team was telling me that we should all be around there, jumping in for more coverage. My gut told me we should just let them be.
When we watched on the monitor, it was like magic was happening. It was the first time on set I felt lost in what was happening. It was a truly special moment and I learned a lot about trust- trusting the actors to do their jobs and getting out of their way.
The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Can you tell me what that means to you as a queer woman and as the director?
I’m not quite sure how to talk about it yet. That’s the first major award I’ve ever won. I’m grateful. It’s a seal of approval that every filmmaker craves. But I’m trying not to think about it because it doesn’t really mean that much to me. It’s other people’s opinions. I don’t want to see it as important because then my confidence will be contingent on winning. I’m thankful as someone who makes queer stories about marginalised people, but I don’t want to view awards as a measure of success. It’s so amazing, just not important.
A lot of your work focuses on LGBT+ people or centres around queer themes. Do you think you’ll continue this in the future or is your next project something entirely different?
My next project is about bisexuality so it’s definitely not different. But I’m not married to LGBT themes. As a filmmaker, you’re attracted to stories that are original and haven’t been told before. And for me, LGBT themes aren’t a prerequisite to what I’m interested in. I look forward to making all kinds of stories.
Akhavan will next be seen in Channel 4’s upcoming ‘The Bisexual’.
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