Cannes 2022 Women Directors: Meet Emily Atef – “More Than Ever” (“Plus Que Jamais”)

Emily Atef is a French-Iranian director born in Berlin. Her first feature film, “Molly’s Way,” won the Best Screenplay Award at the Munich Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at the Mar del Plata Film Festival, as well...

Cannes 2022 Women Directors: Meet Emily Atef – “More Than Ever” (“Plus Que Jamais”)

Emily Atef is a French-Iranian director born in Berlin. Her first feature film, “Molly’s Way,” won the Best Screenplay Award at the Munich Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at the Mar del Plata Film Festival, as well as several other awards. Her second feature film, “The Stranger in Me,” about a young mother suffering from postnatal depression, also received several awards and screened in the Critics’ Week section at Cannes. She received a grant from Cannes’ Cinéfondation, which she used to write her next film, “Kill Me.” Atef’s film “3 Days in Quiberon” made its world premiere in the competition section of the Berlin International Film Festival and won seven Lolas at the German Film Awards, including Best Film and Best Director.

“More Than Ever” (“Plus Que Jamais”) is screening at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, which is taking place May 17-28.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

EA: A young woman, Helene, frees herself not only from the social codes but also from the expectations and desires of her loving husband, and chooses to face the end of her life as she deeply feels is right for her.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

EA: The end of our time in this world has, since childhood, always interested and fascinated me. Not in a macabre way but, on the contrary, I am interested and intrigued by how one can experience this unknown event without fear. This is an event that every single one of us humans will, one day or another, have to deal with so I believe we need to discuss it and accept it as part of our lives.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

EA: My biggest desire is that the audience is moved by our film and after they’ve seen it, they want to have a drink with their partner or friend and talk, discuss this taboo which is the end of our time here. And maybe ask one another, “Hey, we never asked our sick grandmother or father if they actually want us around, we never question this, this is the way it is supposed to be.” In a way, it is as if the sick or the dying need to accommodate the “living,” who are mourning. I want the audience to gain the courage to address these questions, ask their partners, “Could you do what Helene did?” I want the audience to start a conversation.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film? How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

EA: It was a very hard film to finance. The idea of the film came to me in 2010, so it took me more than 10 years to get this film off the ground. It took time to really find my story, but most of all it took us — including my French producer Xénia Maingot of Eaux Vives Productions — time to convince the financiers, the film funds in France and then Germany, Norway, and Luxembourg, to believe that a story about a young woman struggling with idiopathic lung fibrosis, choosing to leave everything behind to go to Norway to spend the end of her life there alone, that a story like this does not have to be bleak nor macabre, but can be full of light and life and can tell an incredible and deep love story.

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

EA: The stories are happening around me. I’ve always been very curious, I’ve always asked a lot of questions to people close to me or even to strangers, because their tales, especially when they are existential, really interest me. And some of these stories or moments in a person’s life inspire me to the point that I see them on the big screen, I want to tell them using inspiring actors, images, sound, music, etc. There is no other job I could ever imagine doing than this one. It fulfills me completely.

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

EA: The worst advice: Your main character has to be likable.

The best advice: If you want to make films for the cinema, for the big screen, you need to fight to tell your personal vision. You need to be open to criticism, but you need to make sure to let your voice as a filmmaker stay true to you and your story.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

EA: You can do anything. Do not be afraid to express your ideas even if you’re not sure of them — that’s something I have always seen done by our male colleagues. Even if the ideas were just a hint of an idea, they would voice it full of confidence; we must learn this too.

Also, we need to be aware of our strength, which is that, as women, we are often much more open to working in/with a team, we are much less the ego-shooters, the one-person genius. Film is teamwork, especially in fiction film. As directors, the inspiration and talent of others is essential even if we carry the main vision of the film.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

EA: I have many but here goes: “Beau Travail” from Claire Denis, “La Ciénaga” by Lucrecia Martel, and “Red Road” by Andrea Arnold for their unique, intelligent, and powerful cinematic language and storytelling skills; and “On Body and Soul” by Ildikó Enyedi or “Lady Chatterley” by Pascale Ferran for their humanity.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

EA: Since the pandemic, I have been keeping very very busy. I’ve shot my feature “More Than Ever,” two episodes of the last season of “Killing Eve,” and in June I’m shooting a new feature film, the adaptation of the novel “Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything” by Daniela Krien.

But the shooting process has been extremely tedious during the pandemic, very much so indeed! However, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?

EA: Very simple. More people of color — and that means all colors/religions/nationalities: Hispanic, Middle Eastern, African, Asian, Roma, etc. — should be put in positions of power and positions of decision-making. And if we then see that things are still changing too slowly, there should be quotas, the same as for female workers behind the scenes.