The things we hold onto
Terry Gilliam, director and former member of comedic supergroup Monty Python, recently released ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,’ a film he’s been trying to get made for more than 20 years.
In a moment of obvious self-reflection for Gilliam himself, one character states very plainly, “We become the things we hold onto.”
This is true for Terry Gilliam, but it’s also true for the rest of us, regardless of whether we commit ourselves to creative pursuits.
For better or worse, our obsessions become a part of us. Fixating on past mistakes, for example, can create very different results: either we learn from those mistakes and improve ourselves, or we wish, in vain, that we could correct those mistakes.
There’s an argument to be had that artists, filmmakers especially, need to be obsessed with their creative ideas. Anything less and those ideas may never become a reality.
For independent filmmakers who may lack extravagant budgets and enormous crews, commitment to an idea is absolutely crucial. When the work is finally finished, there’s a chance that the film will find value far beyond the sum of its parts, helping others to face problems of their own.
Katherin Hussein: Fighting off fears with film
Katherin Hussein is a filmmaker first and foremost, with many directing, producing, and editing credits to her name. But she’s also, in essence, a storyteller.
Just a brief look at her work makes it clear that she externalizes the inner conflict of her characters, often in the form of monsters and strange creatures. It’s not a brand new technique, but it is incredibly effective.
This visual style takes the age-old horror genre and puts it to work, guiding the viewer through their own arc of unease, conflict, and, eventually, resolution.
I had a discussion with Hussein this past week, in which we covered a lot of ground, unearthing the reasons, emotions, and even fears behind her work.
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Childhood fear, childhood dreams
You’re involved in many different aspects of filmmaking. Do you have to utilize different skill sets when you’re directing versus when you’re editing, for example?
Hussein: Editing and directing for me are very similar. In both you need to have a vision, you need to be a leader, and you need to assist in putting everything together. As a director, you need to be the lead voice from pre-production to the end of post-production. However, when reaching post-production, the editor needs to step up and become a sort of second director.
One needs to know why we have chosen these particular shots, understand the beats throughout the story, and be able to maintain a consistent rhythm and flow. As a director, one is in need of the same skills. An editor who doesn’t understand a director’s vision won’t be able to help the director get the final touch. Both departments are telling the story. The editor and director are the ones choosing the best shots, deciding how to portray a certain emotion.
You seem to be drawn toward dark subject matter. Do you have a special connection with ghost/monster stories?
Hussein: When I was little I used to be afraid of almost everything. I grew up in a small town in Venezuela, in a very big house. At night, and sometimes during the day even, my siblings and friends used to tell me horror stories. To cope with the resulting fears, I began to write them down.
When I started watching horror films, it just amazed me how something can terrify and entertain you and at the same time. I wanted to know more about the basic instincts of the human psyche and how fear correlated with survival. I was hooked immediately and I have been experimenting with ghosts and monsters in my films ever since, trying to attach them to any current social issue or an everyday experience.
This mindset has opened up several doors for me, as well as been a great aid in helping me
find a balance within. It’s made it easier for me to speak openly about stigmatized topics such as depression, fear, and loss because I’m doing it through a creature now, something that isn’t real, but at the same time is absolutely real.
Can you tell us more about Simon Says and where that idea came from?
Hussein: My short film ‘Simon Says’ was actually borne from a personal experience of mine. I was a victim of bullying in my younger days, so when I wrote the script I was expressing my honest feelings about what I went through. In the film, I express the way I feel about bullying and the importance of acceptance. We need to remove the negative connotation of being different. Being different shouldn’t be synonymous with something laughable. Our individual differences are what make us unique, it’s our superpower really, but society has made us hate these differences.
People are afraid of the unknown, that’s just the way it is. Simon is excluded from his surroundings. So, he has two choices, to embrace himself and all of his flaws, or to be medicated so he can blend into society and be like everyone else. I’ve personally never been a follower myself, so you can guess quite easily which path I had Simon take in the film.
Do you enjoy modern monster movies such as the works of Guillermo del Toro? Are there other filmmakers who have influenced your style?
Hussein: Guillermo del Toro taught me that horror and fantasy aren’t just about creatures and monsters doing jump scares for 90 minutes. He showed me that filmmaking is about metaphors and the small details you put into a film. He has definitely been one of my mentors throughout my career, both as a director and writer.
There are other directors, such as Edgar Wright, who taught me the importance of creating your own style and rhythm. He strongly emphasizes the importance of keeping a balanced rhythm through pre-production to post-production, and it’s evident in his editing. There are several other filmmakers who have helped me become the filmmaker I am today, but these two have had the biggest impact on me, del Toro and Wright.
How important is your cultural background to your work? Is it always present?
Hussein: I come from a diverse background. My grandmother is from Spain, my grandfather is from Lebanon, my father was born in Venezuela, and on my mother’s side, everyone is from Venezuela. For these reasons, culture isn’t always present in my stories. I’ve been fortunate enough to be brought up with different cultures and people, so in my filmmaking, I only stay loyal to the story, and not the culture.
When I was younger and made films in Venezuela, we were often limited in equipment and funds. This made it difficult for us to shoot films because we had such grand ideas. So we had two options really: to limit ourselves and our creativity, or do what they did during the French New Wave and fake it until you make it. The latter seemed more appealing for us, so whatever hiccup we encountered, we put our heads together and figured out ways to reach our creative goals with the tools we had available. This limitation was a blessing in disguise, really. It taught us to be creative problem-solvers.
It takes a village
So what do you feel is your greatest strength as a filmmaker?
Hussein: I personally don’t think there’s only one element that really defines me as the filmmaker I am today. I believe that I am a product of so many elements in my surroundings, which have made me who I am today. I believe in balance, and if you manage to create a certain balance within yourself, you’ll excel as a filmmaker.
That said, I think my greatest strength as a filmmaker is all the knowledge and wisdom I’ve inherited from my surrounding and mentors these past few years. I’ve been shaped by the wonderful and talented people around me.
Do you enjoy the collaborative aspect of filmmaking? Has it helped you learn important lessons about making art?
Hussein: Filmmaking is a collaborative art form where all the artists share and learn from each other. Every day on set is a different story and adventure where you learn from everyone, their culture, their ways of doing things, and their vision. You just simply cannot do it on your own, that’s just the way it is, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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Katherin Hussein is an award-winning director, producer, and editor.
Links to Hussein and her work can be found here: