December 27, 2018

Using Setting to Tell a Story: How Rhonda Mitrani Built Her Short, ‘SuperMarket’

Juggling parenthood with a filmmaking career is never easy.

As a child, Rhonda Mitrani knew she wanted to be a filmmaker. She just had to get her Cuban and Argentinean parents onboard. Eventually, they came around, and Mitrani even convinced her father to be the subject of her feature documentary, Cuba Mia, which later played on PBS. It was a personal film about her dad’s return to Cuba, the country his parents fled in the 1950s, as he revisited his old neighborhood. It was a trip her family made back when it wasn’t as easy to get to as it is today.

Beyond documentaries, the University of Michigan grad has also branched out to museum quality video installations and to her first narrative short, SuperMarket, which is currently making the rounds at film festivals. The dark comedy is, yes, set in a supermarket, and follows a young woman as strangers ask her probing questions about her pregnancy and the decisions she’s going to make for her future child.

Mitrani talked with No Film School about her first experience with making a feature and the feeling of switching from documentary to narrative filmmaking.

No Film School: Why did you decide to do a documentary like Cuba Mia?

Rhonda Mitrani: As life would have it, my father called me and I was debating to go to grad school. I've been working as an assistant editor and as an editor [and thought] maybe I should go back to school to get my master's. It was right around that time that I remember listening to an interview by Spike Lee where he said, “Don't go to grad school. It's just a closet for equipment. Go make a film.”

At the same time, my father called me up and he said, “We're going to Cuba.” Are you kidding me? Is that even possible? It was the nineties, so it wasn't open yet. We couldn't get a direct flight the way folks can now. There were very few flights going there, like charters, and it was expensive.

NFS: What was it like to shoot a documentary in Cuba back then?

Mitrani: I decided that if we were going to Cuba, I was going to take a camera with me, but back then cameras were huge and batteries were really heavy. I borrowed a camera from a friend, and I borrowed a battery belt about from one of the companies where I worked. They're like "Here, take everything, go for it." I wish I had the budget to realize that I would need a camera guy and a sound guy. It was all me and my sister. I enlisted my sister to do all the interviewing.

I shot my father and his best friend going back to Cuba. We went to their town. You could only go back in the nineties if it was for a charitable cause. They happen to be Jewish, so we ended up going to give donations to different synagogues. We then went intermittently to each of the places where they grew up. That film ended up being interesting because it wasn't just about returning to Cuba, it's about displaced identity and how so many immigrants come to the States and preserve their culture as much as they can. When we were traveling to Cuba, they were all having their own personal identity crisis and it was really interesting to watch.

There's a part of me that wishes that maybe I would've gotten really personal with my dad, you know? Maybe had I gone to grad school, they would have an advisor who would say, “Listen, you need to take this further.” We didn't have the kind of mentorship that they have today, like Chicken & Egg, back then because it was the mid-nineties. Documentary film wasn't so popular yet. We had a bunch of wonderful documentarians but it wasn't as ubiquitous as it is now.

"I thought, 'Well, let that go. If a film isn’t coming to you, maybe that's not what you're meant to do.' Literally, seconds after that, this idea came to me on a scratch piece of paper while sitting in a coffee shop."

NFS: What made you decide to of switch gears into narrative filmmaking?

Mitrani: I didn't know what film I wanted to make next. I ended up starting a documentary festival in Miami when I was there. I thought, “Why not bring these wonderful films to my audiences?” So that was the Florida Room Documentary Film Festival; it was wonderful. We bought a bunch of great films to Miami. Then, I ended up working in the arts a little bit, and I ended up doing a lot of video art and video art installations. Finally, I ended up giving birth to my first child, and then my second, and I started wondering, “Okay, let's make films again. It's time to tell stories again.”

I thought, “Well, let that go. If a film isn’t coming to you, maybe that's not what you're meant to do.” Literally, seconds after that, this idea came to me on a scratch piece of paper while sitting in a coffee shop. I wrote it in about five minutes. I was thinking I would make another documentary film about pregnancy and what happened to me when I was pregnant. So many quiet struggles happened, and I didn't understand why it wasn't at the forefront. Why weren't women talking about miscarriage or things that happened to you when you're pregnant? Why don't we share this information?

I thought, “Well, I'm not sure this is a documentary film. Let me put it down for a little while.” And then this story came to me, “Why not tell a story about the healthcare industry while you're pregnant as a dark comedy?” Like in the same vein of Alexander Payne, right? Like Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking, for example. You're telling a story about an industry, about a real-life issue through satire. It's a comedy, but you can still talk about these issues in a very serious way after you left the film and still instigate real change.

I kept redrafting it because the story was a bit absurd. Why do I want it to be relatable? I kept on drafting it, and then I finally approached a friend of mine, Fernanda Rossi, who's a script doctor. I said, “Look, it's only a short but what do you think about this?” She helped me with my last revisions to make it more relatable because it was really far out there in the beginning. That took about a year and a half before I did a Kickstarter campaign.

I was in California for the summer. I met up with a friend of mine who said, “Hey, send your script pages to somebody I know out there.” I was taking a class for directing since I hadn't gone to grad school. I wanted to demystify the process of directing since I've been working as an editor for so many years. It was a huge intensive workshop. And during that time in California, this person read my script pages and I said, “If you'd like to read the rest of the script, I'm happy to have a cup of coffee with you.” She loved it. She wanted to come on board, and she helped me crew up and cast the film.

"I've never wanted to be this domesticated mommy. Then I ended up meeting my husband and having a child."

NFS: Although you were in California, you wanted to make this movie in Miami?

Mitrani: I wanted to work with locals in Miami because I love to help the 305. We ended up shooting it in a supermarket for four nights. I actually gave birth to my third child before that, so she was six months old, and I was breastfeeding and shooting at the same time.

NFS: What was that experience like to juggle so many responsibilities?

Mitrani: It was intense, really intense. I don't know what I was thinking. I'm filming my first short narrative. I'm breastfeeding and sleeping two hours a night. If it had been a feature, oh my God. I have to say, I feel like at the end of it, if I were to shoot for eight more days, I'd have a feature in the can. I think putting all the gears in motion is such a challenge.

NFS: I'm curious as to why you decided on making the setting a supermarket.

Mitrani: I've never wanted to be this domesticated mommy. Then I ended up meeting my husband and having  a child. For me, supermarkets were like, “Ugh, God, I have to go to the grocery store?” But then [after her first baby], I found so much humor in the fact that I would get a call from a girlfriend who had a baby at the same time as me and she'd say, “I'm so excited I'm going to the grocery store. I have a half an hour to myself.”

It's that place you can go to and have some alone time away from the babies, away from the mess at home. You're escaping that world to this very clean and organized world where you can buy things. It's also where these women nod at each other when you're there. Supermarkets are predominantly filled with more women than men.

I wanted to create this universe similar to The Stepford Wives. It's a very colorful, contained universe filled with aisles of things that need to be marketed to you. It's the same concept as the pregnancy industry. The moment you find out you're pregnant and you go to the first doctor's appointment and you sign a bunch of papers, you're immediately getting mail asking you to subscribe to things that you're supposed to be a part of. It's like this whole industry is now being introduced to your world as a new mother. Not only is there one type of diaper, but there are 20 different types of diapers in different fabrics and different chemical base, in different colors, in different sizes.

Rhonda Mitrani's 'Supermarket.'

NFS: You also made the setting reflect the area where you filmed. You didn’t just show national brands in the background but a lot of Cuban American items are on the shelves, too.

Mitrani: When I went to Cuba in the nineties to shoot Cuba Mia, I noticed that when I would go visit people's homes, even though they had nothing, I remember sitting at the table with a family friend, eating the turtle soup that they offered, and their homes were impeccably clean. Everything was so organized, not a speck on the floor. The same went for this Cuban family-owned Sedanos supermarket. It is so impeccably organized. Everything is color-coded, the floors are clean, the aisles are wide enough, the lights are perfect. I mean, actually perfect. There were many other markets who will let you film for free, but they were a mess. The aisles were small, there were things on the floor, the floor was dirty.

I love the fact that there were so many Cuban products in it. I want the yellow Jello, I want the pink milk, and I want the weird chips that have orange and red stripes on them because it's very Bauhaus. The production designer, Olga, she's amazing, and we really took the Cuban twist and the colors to the next level knowing that the supermarket was super clean and pristine.

"If you're not in a nine-to-five job, you have to create a nine-to-five schedule for yourself."

NFS: Was it your decision to make the interactions between the women in the market and the main character feel strange?  

Mitrani: These characters are a combination of everything. I listened, observed, and absorbed while I was pregnant three times and had a miscarriage. I'm not a shy person. I'll talk to anybody. When I'm in that waiting room for an hour and a half for my next appointment at the Ob-Gyn, I talk to all of the pregnant women and love hearing their stories. "How far along are you? What's going on? Do you have preeclampsia? Is the baby going to turn? Are you having a c-section? How many kids have you had?"

I had one friend who was the best at getting their baby to sleep through the night. I had another friend who was obsessed with every book on the market, so you knew to call her when you needed a book. I had another friend who would look impeccable after she had a kid. I created all of these wonderful characters based on real-life stories that I gathered from being pregnant for the last eight years.

NFS: It sounds like you had a full plate during the production and then after it. How do you balance time for yourself, your family, and your work?

Mitrani: It's a full plate, but I am present. I'm trying to raise three responsible kids. It's very challenging, but if you're not in a nine-to-five job, you have to create a nine-to-five schedule for yourself. That's the way you maintain discipline so that you can dedicate a certain amount of time to making sure your home is stable and your kids are good. Then, you make time for yourself. You have to be present to be the best parent you can be to your children who need you because that's the most important job.     

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