Emma Branderhorst's Spotless triumph
Emma Branderhorst's powerful and affecting short film highlights the impact of period poverty on a young girl's life. Here, Branderhorst explains her journey from in front of to behind the camera, how she put her faith in a brilliant but untested actress, and why winning YDA gold means the world.
How - and why - did you get into directing?
It's actually a funny story. First of all I wanted to be an actress. From the age of 16 to 19 I did auditions at the theatre schools. The last time I went all the way to the last round. Maybe its a bit arrogant, but I had the feeling that year was my year! I already rented a room in Amsterdam, next to the theatre school. But then I got the phone call, they didn't let me in. Still too young, 'explore yourself' was their answer.
The school exceeded all my expectations. I was like a fish in the water and loved bringing my ideas and stories to life.
I was so disappointed and I had a big problem: incredibly high rent and no friends in this city. I worked in several cafes in Amsterdam to pay my rent and keep myself occupied while figuring out my next step. Through some people I met at the cafe I heard about the Academy of Arts in Utrecht, focused on storytelling and making films. That sounded fun to me. I came through the big audition at the school and I thought, 'this is probably it'. The school exceeded all my expectations. I was like a fish in the water and loved bringing my ideas and stories to life. When I made my first own film in my second year, I knew I never wanted to do anything else.
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Above: Emma Branderhorst's Gold-winning film, Spotless.
What was the inspiration behind Spotless, and why was period poverty a topic you wanted to tackle?
In my work I deal with underexposed and everyday situations; problems in society that are here but that you don’t immediately see, often told from a female perspective. Initially I wanted to make a film about the taboo of menstruation because, in my youth, I experienced a lot of shame about having my period. I always have an intense research period for my films because I think it’s important for the credibility.
In my opinion an article explaining period poverty is too distant, because the problem is much more nuanced than we think.
In this research I came across an article about period poverty. It was so hard for me to imagine what it's like for women to be in this situation and I felt called to give these young women a face. The goal was to make a film where you can identify with this girl in order to show the problem more clearly. In my opinion an article explaining period poverty is too distant, because the problem is much more nuanced than we think. Ultimately, with the film, I wanted to make the problem clear for a bigger audience and I hope it is the beginning of a solution.
Above: The main character of Ruby is played by Alicia Prinsen whom Brandenhorst placed her faith in for the role, despite a rocky start.
Alicia Prinsen is amazing as Ruby; can you tell us about the casting process, and why did Alicia stand out?
First of all, I have to say how incredibly proud I am of her. I work a lot with non-actors, the main characters of my films are around 15-20-years-old and, at this age, I think it's very important that the actresses don't have too much experience. Then they start 'playing' and they can no longer 'be'. We had a lot of applications for Spotless, I think about 150. The girls I found interesting made a self-tape where they talked about their own lives and showed something in their house that they're proud of.
I think it's very important that the actresses don't have too much experience. Then they start 'playing' and they can no longer 'be'.
In the end we invited 15 of these girls to a live casting. When I saw Alicia I was immediately interested. Alicia had no movie experience. She had a certain naughtiness in her face, she was so pure, unfiltered. But, during the casting, her audition was not as good as I hoped for. She found it difficult to focus and whenever there was a serious scene, she had a smile on her face. I ended up having her come back three times for an audition because I couldn't let her go. I dared to take the step with Alicia, we rehearsed a lot and spent a lot of time together. Not only rehearsing, but also chilling, going to the movies and talking about her life and her menstruation. She blew me away on set, her growth over those few months was very evident. Ruby ended up being a combination of everything Alicia put into it herself, and how I once came up with Ruby on paper.
Above: Brandenhorst [second from left], with YDA President Francois Chilot [far right] and YDA Jury Chairperson, Anna Hashmi [far left] at this year's YDA prize-giving in Cannes.
How long did it take you to make the film and what was the most challenging aspect of its creation?
It took quite a while. Because of Corona we needed to postpone the shooting period. The film was shot in three days and this was quite a challenge. Because of the low budget we couldn't afford any more days. For me, it was my first film after school, so I needed to get used to being on a professional set etc. But also the edit period was difficult for me.
We lost [focus on] Ruby sometimes because there were so many scenes and different characters in the story.
We totally built the film again in the edit room, thanks to my amazing editor Tessel de Vries. Some scenes just didn't work and we lost [focus on] Ruby sometimes because there were so many scenes and different characters in the story. But, of course, everything turned out for the best film, so we killed a lot of darlings.
What have you learnt during the process of making Spotless?
That I can stay close to myself and the stories that I tell. I was always afraid, after graduating, that my films would not be seen by a large audience, because my films are quite niche. They are small, personal stories, told from the perspective of young female protagonists. Also, I don’t use crazy camera angles or very loud music. Because of my earlier film Under the Skin (a film about girl venom) and now through Spotless, I have learned that I should stay close to myself because this allows me to touch people. I was very worried that Spotless was too feminist and too 'small' but, because of all the praise for the film, I can now let go, which is very nice and important for my next projects.
Above: Ruby's mother, played by Astrid van Eck.
What does it mean to you to win a YDA?
I can't hardly explain. It's just amazing and unreal. The moment we sat there with the crew, waiting for the gold announcement... for me it means that my work appeals to a large audience in both the Netherlands and the rest of the world. Both men and women were touched by the film. It gives me a lot of energy, warmth and self-confidence to continue what I'm doing. Winning a YDA is so special and it gives young directors a huge boost. A very huge thank you to the organisation of YDA!
What are you working on next?
At the moment I am working on my new short film Ma Mere, Et Moi (My Mother, and I). We will be shooting this film in September 2022. It’s a road movie between a symbiotic mother and a daughter. The daughter tries to break free from her mother and is going to follow a language course in Marseille. It’s a film about saying goodbye and letting go, told from a very personal perspective.
Winning a YDA is so special and it gives young directors a huge boost.
I am also working on a feature film about alcoholic parents, told from a child's perspective. I’m still in my research period now. I also hope to make good commercial work in the near future, in the Netherlands and abroad. If you want to stay updated you can have a look on my website, or follow me on instagram.