2021 Tribeca Directors: Meet Samantha Aldana – ‘Shapeless’


Samantha Aldana is a New Orleans-based director and writer. Her work has been greatly influenced by the storytelling traditions of her multicultural upbringing in the American South and the Caribbean. Aldana is the Belize Film Commissioner’s Rising Narrative Film Award winner for her in-development film ‘Little Lying Wild’. Her short film “The Melancholy Man” premiered at Comic Con, premiered as a top pick in The Film Shortage, and won Best Feature Film in the Women’s Film Challenge.

Shapeless is screened at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place June 9-20.

W&H: Describe the movie to us in your own words.

Sumaya: For me, “Shapeless” is an invitation to the mind of a woman lost in her addiction cycle. It shows how destructive self-loathing can become and what terrifying delusions can grow from believing the lies we tell ourselves.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

CA: When Kelly Murtag approached me with her personal story of suffering from an eating disorder, I had to explore the topic in new ways—the fact that she was willing to take the risk made me so thrilled that she sinks teeth into the film.

Shapeless taught me that the story perspective is what attracts me the most. With Kelly as my guide to the disease, I delved into learning everything I could about eating disorders—study, research, and development for over a year.

During this process I was able to find personal ways to contact the material. This allowed me to better translate her experience using storytelling tools like body horror, fantasy, and stylized visualizations.

W&H: What do you want people to think after watching the movie?

Somaya: The topic of eating disorders and body image issues is familiar to most people, and I think it’s easy to have firm views and opinions on things that we feel we know well. The big goal I had in making Shapeless was to create a new space to allow this familiar subject to live inside.

I hope that audiences will discover a new and nuanced perspective on what it feels like to have an eating disorder and how frightening, painful, and isolating the struggle with mental illness can be.

W&H: What is the biggest challenge in the film industry?

Sami: I hear it’s always difficult to make a feature film, especially your first film – but doing it in 2020 has been a unique challenge. We finished principal photography in the summer of 2019 and then moved straight to editing, but by early 2020, we were stuck. The film did not reach the potential that I knew, and I was trying to listen and understand what he wanted to become. After working on the movie nonstop for months, I started to feel very close to the material and thought about taking a break. But then the epidemic spread, and everything shut down.

In the end, we chose to edit again and had to figure out how to end the movie in this new scene. Our team has been constantly brainstorming how to do everything virtually and securely – from taking photos to ADR. This would not have been possible without everyone being very creative and committed to the project.

Another way in which we were able to navigate the completion of the film was accepted into the Gotham Narrative Post lab. It was an encouraging experience to actually meet other filmmakers who were in similar situations as ours. It was especially inspiring for me to see for the first time other managers leading their teams through all these unknowns.

I’m still processing everything, and as horrible the pandemic is, it gave me the mental space away from the movie I needed because during that time all I could think of was survival and safety. When we started working on the movie again, I came back to it with a new perspective.

The whole experience has taught me that sometimes you need to have the courage to let go of your art so you and your team can all breathe.

W&H: What inspired you to become a director?

Sami: Growing up, I adored live-action movies and animated fantasy, science fiction, supernatural movies — anything else magical and universal. All the dots connected when I was in middle school and watched behind-the-scenes footage of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, my biggest obsession at the time.

Before that, I had no idea how movies were made. I probably thought Hollywood was a factory where movies came out or something. As I watched, I saw hundreds of people working together to create imaginative combos, costumes, and special effects. They were all listening to this guy called the director who interacts with everyone and plans every detail of the movie. I vividly remember that I decided at that moment: I will do it.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

Sami: The best advice I’ve received in the course of mentoring is that the problems that come up may not always be your fault, but it’s always your problem to solve. If you are smart, you will do so by surrounding yourself with your committed and enthusiastic colleagues.

The worst advice I’ve ever received is that you should seize opportunities as they arise, especially as a beginner. This may mean endurance with disrespect and misbehavior of people in positions of authority. It’s easy to believe when you’re starting out because we all really need to get our feet in the door, but that’s an old mindset that has to go.

We have to remember that we also have power, and we can have standards. I think we can work together to decide what we will tolerate and what we will not tolerate.

W&H: What’s your advice for other female directors?

Sumaya: I recommend active practice of taking up space and not waiting for an invitation to the table – we have the right to be there like everyone else. We have to constantly remind ourselves that our stories, perspectives, and representation matter, especially when we don’t always get support to share them. It’s a lot of extra work in an already stressful industry, which is why we must work together and support each other. It’s the only way we’ll see any change.

W&H: Name your favorite female-directed movie and why.

SS: Currently, I would say Deniz Jamzy Ergofin’s ‘Mustang’, which is a glossy and subtle movie. The film perfectly captures what a girl is like. It was brilliantly crafted and is very inspiring to me.

W&H: How are you coping with life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you maintain your creativity, and if so, how?

SA: I’m writing again, which I couldn’t do while outputting “Shapeless”. I’ve been going to galleries and art museums – things that fill my creative soul but I haven’t been able to get to because of the pandemic.

The timing was fortunate with access to vaccines and the slowly opening up of places along with the film being shot. I am grateful to be living in the world again, to experience the art of others, and to share what we have been working on for so long, with the public in a physical place.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and promoting – and creating – negative stereotypes. What actions do you think should be taken to make Hollywood more inclusive?

Sami: For more realistic representation and diverse stories on screen, people of color need to be appointed to creative leadership positions. For Hollywood to become more inclusive, there has to be more boldness and determination from those who have the resources to invest in the different stories being told, and there has to be trust and support for storytellers of color to tell them.

It appears to be a simplified answer to such a huge problem, but it is a vital component missing in the industry. This obvious – and obvious – change will make a huge difference.

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