Essays · Movies

In Celebration of Badass Auteur Ana Lily Amirpour

The English-Iranian-American director has a style all her own. We explore the work of one of our favorite young auteurs, Ana Lily Amirpour.
A Girl Walks Home Alone
By  · Published on February 21st, 2017

Despite having only directed two feature films so far (one of which has not been widely released yet), Ana Lily Amirpour has established herself as one of the most interesting directors working today. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) and The Bad Batch (2016) are quite different from one another in terms of content, but they both have a cohesive stylishness that reflects Amirpour’s authorial voice.

In a 2015 article by The Guardian’s Danny Leigh, he notes that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night could only have been made by Amirpour. The Girl’s black chador, the eccentric pop music, the influence of spaghetti Westerns, horror films, and French New Wave, and the inky black images are all representative of things that are important to Amirpour. Her inner world is reflected onscreen in her films. She notes that her reason for making films is to “explore [her] own brain,” and to tell the world who she is. She embodies the concept of the auteur, a creative individual whose personal and artistic worldview is made evident through their artwork.

Girl Walks Home premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and is widely known as “the first Iranian vampire Western” ‐ which is a pretty incredible claim to fame. The film takes place in the fictional Bad City, a desolate and desperate Iranian wasteland. There are not many characters, and dialogue is sparse, but every single element of the film is carefully constructed, coming together to create a powerful, ethereal experience. Amirpour pays close attention to every aspect of filmmaking ‐ sound, music, costumes, casting, dialogue, camera movement, framing, editing ‐ instead of only focusing on one of these elements. Critics were quick to point out that Amirpour’s intertextual references and influences are abundant, as they always do when a new director makes their first film. It is important to note that while Amirpour showcases her deep knowledge of film and genre history, she also melds these influences together and creates a style all her own.

Sheila Vand plays The Girl, a vampire who rides a skateboard while stalking and consuming men who she deems “bad”. The phrase “a girl walks home alone at night” brings to mind images of a woman being terrorized or attacked ‐ and in any other movie, this is exactly what would take place. Amirpour is well aware that women are too often brutalized and victimized in cinema, and her film subverts this. It is so rare for a young girl to have all the power in a film ‐ she is the threatening, menacing presence that men should be afraid of. Of course, The Girl is able to lure men to their deaths by pretending she is sexually interested in them ‐ they underestimate her, and she then violently kills them and consumes their blood. Female-centric films are often described as “feminist”, even if that was not the filmmaker’s intention. However, feminism is a broad and fluid concept, without one standard definition. I believe Ana Lily Amirpour has her own unique way of expressing feminism, and it is evident in both of her films. Her camera focuses intently on her female protagonists, following them as they navigate their way through hardships, and often switching to dreamy slow motion when these women experience joy. Viewers, regardless of gender, are aligned with these female protagonists.

Her most recent work, The Bad Batch, premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival, and later screened at festivals such as TIFF and Fantastic Fest. The Bad Batch also takes place in a sparse wasteland, but instead of a dark and chilly setting like Girl Walks Home, characters suffer in a bright, hot, sweaty desert. As I previously mentioned, The Bad Batch is quite different from Girl Walks Home in a number of ways, but Amirpour’s attention to detail and brave, powerful female characters are still present. Instead of a vampire, the threat is a group of cannibals, and the heroine is a young women named Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) who loses a few of her limbs when the cannibals capture her in the desert.

I was lucky enough to attend a screening at TIFF, where Amirpour gave a Q&A after the film along with stars Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, and Yolonda Ross. At the screening, Amirpour noted that she had spent several hours adjusting the soundtrack earlier in the day so that it would sound as perfect as possible. This is a perfect example of her attention to detail. She also talked about her writing and directing process, and revealed that she spends weeks isolated in a room, writing and thinking of new ideas. She notes that while her films seem sparse and devoid of action and dialogue, they are still “fucking airtight.” This is a succinct way of saying that there is more than meets the eye in her films. Manhola Dargis notes in her review of Girl Walks Home that it seems overlong, unless viewers enjoy looking at attractive people doing nothing. However, criticisms such as this overlook the fact that action and dialogue are not the only valuable aspects of cinema ‐ if one focuses on the visuals, sounds, and the actors’ body language, it is difficult to become bored.

The Bad Batch is set to be released on June 23, 2017. Eric Kohn at Indiewire notes that Amirpour’s specialty seems to be bringing fresh life to creepy premises, and compares the film to Mad Max: Fury Road and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Amirpour once again showcases her influences while bringing her own personal and creative worldview to the forefront of her work. Kohn notes that she “excels at fusing outrageous genre pastiche with a colorful homegrown universe”. The Bad Batch is violent and strange, but it is also at times tender and extremely thoughtful ‐ perhaps this is how Amirpour sees the world. Her camera lovingly lingers on violence and desolation, making it clear that she finds beauty in desperate situations. I must also mention that Jim Carrey and Keanu Reeves each give noteworthy performances, playing off of and against their star personas. Amirpour has proven here that she is a director capable of writing characters perfectly suited to the actors playing them.

Whether or not she wishes to be deemed a feminist filmmaker, Amirpour’s films focus on female power, desire, resilience, and strength. She subverts cliches while still making loving references to previous works and genres that have influenced her. She is technically skilled, but is also a thoughtful and empathetic writer, often focusing on the importance of companionship, even in the most dire of situations. At TIFF she noted that she has lots of ideas for movies, and that she has been writing a lot ‐ hopefully she is able to get the ball rolling on her next film in the near future. It is evident in her work and in the way she speaks that filmmaking and telling stories are two of the most important things to her. She pays attention to every aspect of her work, making sure her vision is realized as completely as possible. The world of cinema needs more unique and passionate voices like Ana Lily Amirpour’s.

Related Topics: ,

Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.