San Francisco Film Fest 2023 Interview: Alexandra Stergiou on Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes in “And Then I Was Here”

It was a close shave that yielded the finest cut in “And Then I Was Here,” as Alexandra Stergiou got the call that there might be something interesting going on at the home of the film’s subjects Rashel and Megan. Awaiting the birth of their first child, the latter was going to give the former a haircut, taking away one more thing to think about in their third trimester, but an errant shear of the clippers added stress rather than relieved it, leading Rashel to book a trip to the nearby barber.

“I would [ask Rashel and Megan] what’s happening in your week and Rashel would tell me,” says Stergiou. “They told me about the fact that they were going to get their hair cut [at the barber shop], and I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll come,’ and having a queer person in a space that is traditionally masculine, but also in this case, very inclusive and warm was just so interesting, [as was] seeing the gesture of getting your hair cut and the intimacy of being touched.”

The sensuality of the scene comes across beautifully with Stergiou’s tender camerawork, but there is sensitive insight as well in the filmmaker’s savvy editing, which contrasts the private versus public spaces Rashel and Megan traverse, defying expectations of both how they engage with each other and the larger world engages with them when Rashel, who is carrying the baby identifies as gender-queer. “And Then I Was Here” not only sees them welcoming a new child into the fold, but observes the couple gingerly taking steps into a whole new horizon themselves, making for a fascinating follow-up to Stergiou’s previous short “The Act of Coming Out,” in which the filmmaker created a cathartic exercise in which queer and trans actors would recall their own experience of revealing their sexuality to loved ones as if it were an audition. When the artifice of a performance allowed for those in front of the camera to express their true selves, Stergiou takes an opposite tact in “And Then I Was Here,” considering how a pregnancy with its usual traditionally defined gender roles reveals to the couple at its center the relationships they have to their bodies and their place in a society eager for labels but identity may be more abstract.

The film itself has a shapeshifting aspect ratio that raises questions on its own about a broad cultural desire to place people in a box, but the portrait that emerges renders such inclination meaningless, channeling the universal anxieties of expecting a newborn and the indescribable sense of wonder of both parents and child once a baby has made its way into the world with only Rashel and Megan distinguished from others by their cool in tucking Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away,” with its nod to breastfeeding, into their rotation of sweet lullabies. With “And Then I Was Here” now making the festival rounds with its west coast premiere this weekend at the San Francisco Film Festival, Stergiou generously took the time to talk about the exciting work she’s doing in the nonfiction space, how she achieves such a sense of intimacy on all her productions and how she pulled off capturing a cinematic scene of delivering the baby without being able to be in the room herself.

How’d this come about?

I made this film as part of a grad program at Stanford University, and originally it was so different. I had this question that I think we all have about our parents, wondering what they were like before they were parents. And as far as my own queer identity goes, I wonder about this idea of the family you’re born to versus the family you choose or you acquire in life could differ or be very similar. We’re at an age right now where we have queer elders that exist and so much more visible now and as mortality and lifespan has extended for everybody, I was just thinking of this idea of longevity and generations as it relates to queer people and [how] you might not have people who are like you in your biological family, but now there’s just more people than ever we can look at and I thought it would be interesting to film a queer, pregnant person and raise these questions.

At what point did you actually approach Rashel and Megan since you only film in the final trimester?

I spent many months researching and going through a casting process [where] I spoke to a lot of queer birth workers and people they referred me to. Everyone was feeling each other out, but I [would] explain the project and I met Rashel and Megan, [who] kind of resemble me and my partner, and I met them at the beginning of the third trimester. I brought my partner because I wanted them to see where I’m coming from, and that there is this mutual point of identification that might not be on screen, but I think does come across in the process and therefore does end up on screen. I just thought they really understood the potential of the project and that there’s a very pregnant person on screen, but it’s about something a little bit bigger than one individual’s journey. They really understood that and I felt a mutual trust that I knew I would have to keep expanding upon and deepen. It took many months and I just ultimately wanted to work with people who I identified with and identified with me and were game for a little bit of experimentation with the final product.

It’s been interesting to watch the progression of your work because I first saw “The Candidates,” a traditional verite doc set in a high school co-directed by Lexi Henigman about a mock election, and then “The Act of Coming Out” is a bit surreal as it explores the casting process of a documentary, and then this seems like something between those two where you’re able to play around formally but it’s capturing what’s going on in the moment. Has one project informed the next as you’ve moved on?

There is this component of performance in “The Candidates” and “The Act of Coming Out” is very obviously about performance, but so much of performance is about expectations and with documentary filmmaking, there are expectations that people have about the form that I personally don’t identify with, particularly that it’s the form of truth. I think there’s a lot of truth in fiction as well, [especially] when you get amazing performances from actors. With that said, documentary is a presentation of something that there’s an assumption of the truth with and as documentary filmmakers, we massage the footage through editing to transform the truth or maybe the best films uphold a truth that’s not obvious. So with “And Then I Was Here,” the experience of watching it is of observation, but I wanted to use the craft of editing to set up a perspective of conjecture, of a perspective that there is this being that is coming into this world that has no say into the conditions in which they’re entering and no say in who [they’re] going to become, so that’s where it falls into the realm of expectation and conjecture.

On both this film and “The Act of Coming Out,” you’ve done a lot of this work by yourself as a cinematographer and editor. Of course, I know there are financial considerations for documentaries of this size, but has it been a choice to keep the crew exceptionally small?

Yeah, with “The Act of Coming Out,” I wore a lot of hats and I definitely had some support and it was important for the people [in it] because of the idea that it is an audition, speaking to mainstream narratives of coming out, so it made sense to have a bit of a larger crew and the lights and the cameras to add to this feeling of “Okay, this is an important audition” and that probably lent itself to the gravitas of their performances and how seriously they took it. But then for “And Then I Was Here,” it was just a very small crew of me and another person on set and [onscreen] it’s just two people who are being really open about this really important, special time in their life and something I’ve learned over making these is [about] the energy you bring on to a set, so you do have to put on a bit of a performance even as the director [where] you just have to think of what’s going to help the people who are giving themselves to you.

You have to be really aware of who you’re bringing into people’s vision, and with “And Then I Was Here,” it was super important for [the subjects] to feel safe and protected, so any time [we were filming], I had one main crew member who’s queer, but then if she couldn’t make it, it was always another queer person. And I don’t know what goes on with osmosis, but I’d like to think that it helped with people feeling comfortable and also created an environment for warmth and collaboration.

The framing is so evocative. Did you know how you’d film this from the start or did that evolve over the shoot?

It was pretty planned out. Pregnancy is a ubiquitous topic, so if I was going to make something about it, I wanted to make it in a way that’s interesting and really anchored to a specific perspective. I’ve never been pregnant, so I don’t know what it’s like, but I do know what it’s like to be a child wondering about their parent, so it was always the plan to have to have long takes, letting things unfold, and to have a very patient camera and minimal shots. And I shot everything everything at a low angle for the most part and I really believe in shooting for the edit [because] I used to do a lot of work in television and a big thing I learned is you have limited time, you have limited budget, so you have to think about those things if you want to make something that is honoring the people who are helping you make it. [Our] colorist remarked, “Oh, there’s so few shots in this film” and that made him happy as a colorist. [laughs]

Was there anything that happened you might not have expected, but took this in a direction you could get excited about?

The scene of the birth I wasn’t allowed in the room [for], so I had to reverse engineer that. I knew that has to be in the movie, but [there were] COVID protocols, rightly so, back then and when I found out that was gonna be a potential obstruction, I rigged out a GoPro that Megan could wear with a massive SD card with whatever settings I needed so they could shoot for 12 hours uninterrupted. I also got a battery that would last a full day and rig that to Megan’s chest. As I mentioned, I knew the shooting style was [generally] very measured, and this really pivotal scene would be shot differently than the rest of it, which was a great challenge, but I thought was cool. It’s a style shift, so then I thought of how to prep an audience for that? It worked for the best. There’s three different modes in the film — austere verite, the GoPro stuff and then there’s this imaginative surreal moment that bookends it — and to have it all go smoothly and speak to the same thing was a great challenge to have. One of my favorite films is “The Five Obstructions” [because] you have to view things as opportunities. You can’t control everything when you’re making a film, you can only prepare, so be intentional.

At one point in the film, it’s mentioned the birth happened on April 2nd and we’re speaking a little over a year to the day. What’s it been like getting this out into the world?

It’s wonderful. When I make my own independent things, I’ll lock picture and then I won’t touch it or watch it for like a really long time because especially if you’re editing your own stuff, you can’t really see the forest from the trees, so you need to figure out ways to give yourself distance. So I didn’t watch it for many, many months. I watched it recently for the first time this past month, and I’m not going to lie, I’m very pleased with it and Rashel and Megan love it, so it’s great. I was so happy to screen [recently] at the Miami Film Fest because they have such good programming and I wasn’t able to go though because just of work obligations, but [with] San Francisco, Rashel and Megan can make it to the screening with with their child and I have a community up there, so it’s just such a great place to be.

It’s going to be special to share that experience with people and just feed off of people’s energy in the room and you want that validation because at the end of the day, there does come a point where you have to make things for yourself and the people you respect the most and and not lose sight of the fact that making movies is hard. You just have to love it and not lose that passion and I feel like this film and “The Act of Coming Out” have reminded me of why I love making films and why that matters to me.

“And Then I Was Here” will screen at the San Francisco Film Festival on April 16th at noon as part of Shorts Program #3: The Body at the CGV San Francisco.

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