Hanna Szentpeteri, film director and (screen)writer, you grew up between New York, Slovenia, and Hungary. You also made a film in Tel Aviv, Israel and studied in London, UK. How was growing up in so many different languages and culturally diverse environments? How did all that contribute to your art?
I think it was the best possible way to grow up. As a diplomat's kid, you get to move every four years, so you have to be open to people, you have to be talkative and polite, otherwise you end up alone. Growing up in this way has made me very extroverted and has taught me many important social skills. Every place you live for a prolonged period leaves it's mark on you, of course. It's always hard to leave, and you never quite know where home is. But that's such a small price to pay for all the amazing experiences you get along the way.
You had a youth theatre group in London, for which you also wrote and directed plays. It's called Act Your Stage. What was the main goal and mission of the theatre group and why did you found it in the first place since you are a film director - how does theatre differ from film?
I founded AYS because I wanted to make plays that were for and about young people. I'm a little obsessed with coming of age films, books and plays, so I wanted to create a space where young people can tell their stories about growing up. Even though I make movies now, my background is in theater originally. I wrote my first play at the HB Playwrights Foundation in New York City when I was 14 years old, before I made any films. I originally thought I wanted to work in theater, because of it's spontaneity and accessibility. You can easily make and put on a play for free, but films require a lot of funding. So it was simply an easier way to get started and get young people involved. Now that I am finishing my masters, I have access to funding so I can make movies too, but I will always love doing both film and play directing.
Recently you made a documentary Band vs Brand (2018) with another non-straight director, Simona Jerala about Slovenian female music managers Eva Kristina Filipčič and Maša Pavoković. What is the message or the main point of the documentary? Is the title itself meaningful to you?
Simona and I made this film to shed light on the music management profession in Slovenia. It's always fascinated me how bands need to be "on brand" and have this pressure to produce authentic content. Managers play a very important role in that and while they help bands thrive, not every band is ready for the commitment that takes, as you can see in the film. Simona and I also related to the fact that Maša and Eva are working in a male-dominated profession like us, so we wanted to explore that.
Your Bachelors short film Sonny and the Lost Room (2015) is about a boy who creates a special place for his deceased brother and all the things he lost. The short film was also screened in Cannes Short Film Corner. Can you tell me where did you get the idea and why it was important for you to share with the others?
When I was in high school, my grandfather passed away when I was 15. It was the first family death that I had experienced. I remember getting upset about this phrase "sorry for your loss" that people say to you when someone dies. I was like "I didn't lose him, he's not going to appear under the couch one day." The phrase really troubled me. So I got the idea then, for this "lost room" where everything you've ever lost ends up- people and objects alike. But I didn't really have the guts to make a movie about it until many years later, when my uncle passed away while I was doing my BA in London. I just thought: This is what my diploma film is going to be about. It's time.
Your short film Marushka (2017) is about a growing teenager who builds her popularity through a web of lies. Why did you choose this topic and what did you wish to achieve in the audience?Marushka is about my experience of being the new kid at the film academy (AGRFT). Marushka is about my experience of being the new kid at the film academy (AGRFT), in a way. As you know, I had been the new kid many times before, but I didn't expect it to be a difficult transition as an adult. Coming to Ljubljana from London was harder than I thought. As an extrovert, I attended a bunch of Academy events in my first year, hoping to make connections, but I felt like I was tapping on a window- I could see everyone, but I couldn't really break the glass between us. (Thankfully, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote a song about exactly this called "Waving Through a Window" for the musical Dear Evan Hansen.) But because films are not real life, Marushka does break the metaphorical window pretty forcefully. She lies to everyone to become popular. I think high school is a weird time in life because you're doing all these adult things, maybe for the first time - like drinking or engaging in relationships, but you're still a kid living with your parents. Marushka circumvents this social barrier the only way she knows how - by making up some adulthood that will probably eventually actually happen. It's an exciting time though because Marushka just got accepted to the Scout Film Festival in Vermont, USA.
Your masters film, Iva, 24 is about a girl finishing college with no prospects for a good future. Is this something that concerns your generation?
Certainly. In the film, Iva works at a fast food bar alongside college, which she hates. She is suffering from depression in the film and feels that even if she fumbles through her degree and manages to finish, her life will not change for the better once she obtains it. But that isn't my brilliant idea, it's a based on a beautiful short story of Alja Debeljak. I just wanted to shine a light on depression among young people, because I think awareness and education is the first step towards ending the stigma around depression and mental illness in general.
However, it is worth mentioning that I was accepted to the film academy with a short film about two lesbians who wish to have a baby. That was supposed to be my masters film. We workshopped it for 1 year at the Academy and I handed in a new edit of the script every week. Regardless, my script was too ambitious for a short film, so I made Iva, 24 instead. I still hope to realise a topic like this into a feature film someday
Do you think film art should be progressive and portray certain values and attitudes (i.e. portraying more diverse, inclusive, free, democratic relationships and world)?
Of course. Representation of minority groups has been a serious problem since the media was invented. But I’m happy to say that the awareness about this issue is growing, so I hope to see more LGBTQ+ characters in movies, commercials and TV shows soon that have their own agency and don’t die in the end.
Do you think that sexual orientation of the film director matters in a lesbian and/or bisexual-storyline the same as it matters that transgender actors play in or transgender directors direct transgender story lines?
I think that more LGBTQ+ people should be making media content, that’s for sure. I would actually love to teach a film class specifically for the LGBTQ+ community, to encourage them to tell their authentic stories, so that we won’t only have straight cis people representing us in the media. Having said that, I’m proud that the history of Slovenian Cinema has two feature length fiction films about LGBTQ+ characters and I wouldn’t give that up, even though both directors, Maja Weiss and Nejc Gazvoda, are straight as far as we know. We need fair and respectful representation in the media, and we need it now. If you’re LGBTQ+ and have a story to tell, please write it and make it. Please apply to film schools, get out there, and let’s make diverse content together.
What is your biggest inspiration (film or not film career wise) and what are your plans for the future projects?
My biggest inspiration is Miranda July, hands down. She makes amazing films, art installations, plays and writes books. She just really figured out how to use every medium of art to be perpetuating the same distinct vision - most of her work is about trying to figure out who you are, which is very similar to my favorite topic - coming of age.
I am currently writing my first feature film, which is of course also about coming of age, which I hope to workshop this year