Last year at the 65th Berlinale Film Festival, the Brooklyn-based director and cinematographer Joanna Arnow’s explicit and funny sort-of-coming-of-age short film Bad at Dancing won the Silver Bear Jury Prize. Joanna’s fresh and honest point of view on female sexuality and self-impression has been travelling around the world ever since. We were curious about the effect the prize had on her life, the characters that made the Bear possible, and of course, whether her dancing skills got any better in the passing year.

Joanna Arnow

Joanna Arnow

interview by Janka Pozsonyi

How has winning last year’s Silver Bear changed your life and your career?

It was an incredible honor to receive this award, and meant a lot to me. It brought Bad at Dancing to the attention of a lot of festivals, and helped give the film an exciting festival run. I hope it will help make it easier to get my next films made.

In some opinions, your style and your personality at certain points recalls the style of Lena Dunham: the topics, the awkwardness, the nudity and explicit sexuality. What do you think about that comparison?

It’s not a comparison that I would make. But on another note, it is exciting to see Lena Dunham’s success in an industry where so few women reach high levels, and not enough multi-dimensional stories about women are being told. I hope that Bad at Dancing, by showing the complexities and sexual intrigue in the friendship between my character and Eleanore’s, adds to the diversity of women represented on screen.


Why did you choose to play the main character yourself? What is the difference between you and her?

The story is not based on real events, but I do see the character I play as a distorted version of myself. The film is a fictionalized composite inspired by several friendships I’ve had. I’m often friends with people who are more outgoing than I am – I was interested in exploring the leader/follower dynamic, and what each side got out of the friendship. Since I wrote my character as a version of myself, it seemed like I was the best fit for the part, although I did consider other options.

Did you use any improvisation in the script?

With the exception of one scene, there wasn’t improvisation. The film’s narrative has absurd elements, and I wanted to minimize feelings of ordinariness and casual naturalism. But I also wanted the two singing scenes to stand in contrast to the rest of the film, since they most clearly show the closeness between my character and Eleanore’s – and the second one of these has some improvisation. Eleanore is terrific at improvisation, so it was great to work with her on this. (She’s in a comedy dance troupe called Cocoon Central Dance Team, which sometimes uses elements of improv in their multi-disciplinary performances.)


How would you describe the relationship between these girls and the boy?

The film is about how my character inserts herself into the relationship of her more charismatic roommate Isabel – and then the two women test each other’s emotional and sexual boundaries. I see the friendship between the characters as one that cycles between jealousy, attraction, rejection and provocation – my hope is that the fluidity shown here challenges traditional ideas about relationships. I also wanted to take the idea of being a third wheel, and push it to the extreme in order to more fully explore that situation.  

You work as a cinematographer too. What do you prefer: directing or cinematography?

For my work, I am a cinematographer – I shoot documentaries, fiction films and corporate content. It would be great to also be hired to write and direct, but this hasn’t happened yet. It’s hard to say which I like more, because they both inform the way I approach my films. But I consider myself a director first, because I want to have autonomy over the stories I tell.


What is your next film project? Do you ever see yourself making feature films?

I have a feature screenplay in the works. I made a documentary feature i hate myself 🙂 and plan for my next films to be narrative features.

Have you seen anything inspiring lately? Short or feature?

Jennifer Reeder’s films are exciting, badass and one-of-a-kind. I recently saw a program of her films that included earlier works, and I enjoy seeing the recurring motifs and props, the modes of resistance that come in different forms – it felt very rich to watch.

All in all, do you think you have become better at dancing?

A little bit.


You can read this interview in the new issue of World of Young Cinema: