Desiree Akhavan doesn’t believe it’s because she’s a woman that her Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film didn’t sell until two months after the festival. She thinks it’s because of the story she’s telling: “Every other winner has sold immediately and has been an Oscar film. But I don’t even think that’s about my gender. I think that has to do with the fact that it’s a story about female sexuality. I totally think it’s because it’s a female queer story… The highest, greatest thing imaginable happens and then it’s like winning a dime in the lottery. You’re so fucking excited and honoured, and then you can’t sell your film.”
Akhavan adapted The Miseducation Of Cameron Post from Emily M Danforth’s “hysterically funny and honest and sexy” novel about a teenage girl in the early 90s, who is caught having sex with a (female) friend and promptly sent to a Christian gay-conversion therapy camp.
Her aim was twofold: to make a film that was authentic to being a teenage outsider and to show female desire that felt truthful.
“I just think there’s very little out there that speaks to what it is to be a teenager, an honest depiction of what it is to be queer and a teen and to – fuck queerness – just to be a woman who wants,” she says. “I think we have so many images of a woman who wants marriage, a woman who wants children, a woman who wants to be seen by the men in her life, a woman who is so frustrated by the men in her life not seeing her. Of not being fuckable enough, or being too fuckable. And I’m just very, very, very tired of the same narratives.”
The 34-year-old is best known for her debut feature Appropriate Behaviour, which told a semi-autobiographical story about an Iranian-American bisexual woman ending a relationship and coming out to her family. Akhavan grew up in New York, but now lives in Hackney, and her focus is on telling new, but far-reaching, stories.
“The opportunities aren’t there for women as they are for men. The same opportunities haven’t been there for me. I want to make things that are different and defy the mainstream structure but I want to make them in a mainstream way. I want to make box-office hits. I want to make blockbusters. But I don’t want to be regurgitating the same stories. I think that’s immoral.”
I think we have so many images of a woman who wants marriage, a woman who wants children, a woman who wants to be seen by the men in her life, a woman who is so frustrated by the men in her life not seeing her
Her next project is the Channel 4 comedy she has written, directed and starred in, The Bisexual, which co-stars Maxine Peake. Akhavan places it in a similar vein to Cameron Post in terms of telling a disruptive story: “I know it’ll alienate a lot of people but there’s a messiness to the truth of life that we don’t see on screen.”
That approach is clear in Cameron Post, where she eschews flashy expositional speeches for ragged, unpolished moments of vulnerability between characters: “I just don’t think things are honest and brutal and take their blood and put it on the screen. I want my films to feel like blood is on the page, and by that I mean something really personal and high stakes and that I’m taking a risk.”
ROWAN ELLIS SPEAKS TO EMILY M. DANFORTH, AUTHOR OF THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST
This is particularly true of the film’s many sex scenes, which were essential for Akhavan to convey “the crushing desire” of teenage years, a time when her own sexuality was “super, super repressed”.
“It’s so rare that there’s an honest depiction of female sexuality, be it gay, be it straight. People don’t know how to talk about female desire. I just wanted a representation of it – that’s it! I made one that was true to life as I know it. Cameron is my ode to the women I’ve loved… the girlfriends I’ve had have all been blonde, they’ve all had swagger, they’ve all been kind of masculine – soft-butch types or hard femme, or I don’t know, whatever your criteria is. I made Cameron in their image.”
Her star, Chloë Grace Moretz, had been doing sex scenes since she was 16, each time meeting with a table of men who planned “exactly how her body should move and the way she should arch her back and the way she should run her hands down his body”. On the set of Cameron Post, Akhavan chose to hide almost her entire crew, apart from the (female) cinematographer, to film the movie’s opening sex scene, allowing the actors to be vulnerable and express themselves with freedom.
She wanted to move away from crafted sex scenes dreamed up by what a panel of men deem to be hot: “I don’t think sex scenes are about being hot. I think that they are about communicating a story and it’s really important to me when I shoot a sex scene that the characters start in one place and end in another. If the sex scene doesn’t take me on a journey, it doesn’t need it. You should cut it.”
Even if the industry appears sceptical of her methods – she describes the sale of Cameron Post as “modest” – Akhavan knows there is an audience for her work: she has seen it at screenings, with young women clutching threadbare copies of the novel for her to sign.
“If people show up to the cinema and show interest in this kind of story then they will continue to be made,” she says. “Going to the movies and paying for a ticket is very much like casting a ballot and telling the powers that be to invest in women’s voices, because there are audiences out there who want it.”
The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is out in cinemas from Friday 7 September.