How ‘Tahara’ director Olivia Peace might represent the future of filmmaking

When conducting an interview, it seems like an obvious point that the interviewer should listen. You never know what direction the conversation will head.

Case in point: I spoke to filmmaker Olivia Peace a few weeks ago. Their feature “Tahara” was playing at Ragtag Cinema, and it really is a remarkable movie. It’s the story of two Hebrew school girls who go through a litany of emotions after a classmate commits suicide.

Jess Zeidman’s darkly funny screenplay reminded me of Woody Allen or Sofia Coppola. Peace’s direction allows the dialogue to breathe, but is far from passive. The camera engages the strict confines of the school, giving emphasis to shadows symbolizing a lurking presence between characters.

Plus, there’s animated segments added to emphasize certain moments. For a micro-budget film, it’s technically accomplished. More on that later.

When I sat down with Peace, they mentioned being a big fan of Columbia having brought the short film “Pangea” to the Citizen Jane Film Festival back in 2016.

“It remains one of the best festival experiences I’ve had,” Peace said.

Unseen by me, Peace noted this film mixed live-action and animation as well. I asked how Peace was able to do that given the minimalism of the budget. (“Tahara” breezes in at a cool $100K.) Peace does a lot of the animation work to avoid hiring an army of artists. Although, it should be noted, other crew provide a great deal of effort into these segments.

The scope of animation, up to this point, prohibits making a full-length animated film. Too much time and, thus, too much money. Well beyond what indie funders are often able to support.

Peace noted technology has made, and continues to make, filmmaking more democratic and open. That’s critical since money is always tight. I often ask how filmmakers make ends meet after spending months prepping movies and years touring the festival circuit. (“Tahara” premiered at Slamdance in January 2020 before “everything changed” and bounced between virtual film festivals until finally getting a distributor.)

As the film toured the country, Peace earned a master’s degree at the University of Southern California under a scholarship funded by George Lucas no less. They pursued an MA in interactive media and games.

Interesting as Peace showed incredible skill, bringing a very intimate character study to screen. Was this a shift in focus? Not at all, Peace noted.

“There is an opportunity to use technology to create landscapes and backgrounds that will make smaller films easier to make without locations,” Peace enthused. “But artists just need to be open to these new ideas rather than being protective of their medium.”

Peace was introduced to “virtual reality documentaries” at USC and those films offered insight into how technology could bring more complicated ideas to life using a smaller budget. The student film that completed their master’s program is “Against Reality” and documents personal experience with “lurid dreams.”

Peace explained this is the concept where you know you are dreaming and learn to control your dreams as you are having them. Wild, right? That should be its own column.

Peace expects the student film will be a part of a larger series, with the first segment taking about how to experience a lucid dream and what lucid dreams are like.

The second film would focus on the great things about their experiences, with the final segment covering how these dreams can turn into a nightmare. Peace’s plan is to continue working on this series and securing a distribution deal.

Stay tuned, as they say.

Peace worked with a computer program called “AI Neural Network.” I had to have this explained to me as well. This is a system of hardware and software patterned after the operation of neurons in the human brain. The process pulls images from across the “history of the internet” as Peace dictates the narrative and feeds images in order for the software to replicate the image they want to compose.

Put more simply, this is artificial intelligence synthesizing art with the guidance of the filmmaker. Peace sat down with their Mac and created this “Alice in Wonderland”-type experience without a crew. Peace compared the software searching the internet for these images with the process of dreaming, where our “brain processes images we see in everyday life.”

But this will not simply be a film; Peace wants to make experiences like this more interactive where “people can push themselves into the image.”

Ultimately, Peace’s upcoming work explores the spiritual nature of dreaming. Which is similar to how they subtlety capture how religion and faith impact the characters in “Tahara.” So many moments are in the pall of death or in the hushed sanctuary of the school. No matter what Peace tackles, there is this curiosity in understanding the seen and unseen worlds we inhabit.

My assignment started out talking about the future of small independent filmmakers, but became about the evolution of cinema generally. “Tahara” is no longer playing at Ragtag but a DVD/streaming release in the works. You need to catch it as well as keeping an eye out on Peace’s future work. Without exaggeration, this must be what it felt like to talk to James Cameron before the first “Terminator” movie came out.

The whole interview can be heard on my podcast “Reel Filmsnobs,” which you can catch on Spotify, Soundcloud or even iTunes. Check it out; I get paid for writing this column with cheap plugs.

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