Turning grief into art: a conversation with horror filmmaker Rakefet Abergel

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Trigger warning for infant and pregnancy loss.

Welcome back to New 32 horror month, where for the month of October we’re highlighting some of our favorite horror creators! Today on the blog we’re talking to horror filmmaker Rakefet Abergel.

Rakefet Abergel is as surprised as anyone that she’s a horror filmmaker. “I make horror films, I’m surrounded by horror filmmakers that I love […] but I’m a huge scaredy cat.” She told me she has a respect and love for the genre now, but it’s certainly not the space she pictured herself working in. “I didn’t know I was making a horror movie when I started. I thought I was just making a really dark, dramatic film, like a psychological thriller, but everyone was like no, this is a horror.” After making her first film, Jax in Love (2017), she decided to make a horror film on purpose. That film is Boo (2019). “Then I became this horror filmmaker, and it’s the biggest joke ever.” I see how this happened, though. Her interests lend themselves to horror, certainly; “I don’t want to waste my time on a movie that says nothing.” She’s clear that there’s a place for films that are just for fun, but it’s not what she wants to spend years of her life on. “I want to make something that changes people’s minds, or lets them see something differently, or changes their perspectives.” If you’re a fan of horror, you know how effective it is in examining the real-world horrors that we all experience throughout our lives. Her newest film, Still, is about infant and pregnancy loss, a form of grief that’s as traumatic as it is taboo. “Horror is designed to make people uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s such a common, common, awfully common thing that people misunderstand how to deal with, they misunderstand how to support. They’re well-meaning most of the time, but they don’t know what to do or say and it’s this taboo subject.”

Grief is a horrific thing, and infant and pregnancy loss is an experience that, while shockingly common, leaves so many people feeling utterly alone. Rakefet hopes that Still brings catharsis to the people who have suffered this form of loss, and she hopes it raises awareness for people who might not otherwise have given it much thought. “I wanted to make a movie that would make women feel some validation, and maybe have something they could hand to people who are well-meaning and say this is kind of how I feel.

I told her we didn’t need to talk about her personal inspiration if that was too painful, but she told me she wanted to. “The reason I made this movie is to have those conversations.” Like so much good art, Still comes from a place of real loss; Rakefet experienced a miscarriage two years prior to making the film. The horror depicted in Still goes beyond the unthinkable grief and loss that comes with losing a pregnancy. Anyone who has experienced loss knows how hard it is to navigate the misguided comments and empty platitudes that people throw your way. “I know people are well-meaning, but a big part of this film are the things people say to people that are well-meaning but actually just really hurt. I hope to bring some education and some healing around the subject.” She knows the topic is taboo. “There are two issues no one wants to talk about. Women’s issues, like about their bodies, God forbid, and death. Those are two very stigmatized things, and you put those two things together and it’s the most hush-hush situation.” But the stigma is exactly why she wants to talk about it. “There were so many stories I know now, that had I known when I was going through it […] I wouldn’t have been as scared, and I wouldn’t have been as shocked, and I wouldn’t have been as confused.”

Rakefet wore many hats for this production. “I wrote, produced, acted and directed, so it’s my baby.” She laughs at the pun. “I needed to give birth to something. I needed a reason that this horrible thing happened to me. I needed the life of this child that never was to matter. I thought, if the only reason I can give myself is that I can help somebody else, that was a good reason for me.” I asked her how she dealt with taking something so tragic and making it into art. The answer, at least for the pre-production process, was to numb out. She had a budget to crowdfund, she had a crew to hire, she had things to do to make this movie happen. She was worried, she says, that she would get on set and not be able to access her feelings in order to act. “It was no problem,” she laughs. “When we got into the situation, and the cameras started to roll, and I started to put myself back into that place, […] it was like a river of pain and sadness that came out of me.” She wasn’t the only person affected by the story. “When we filmed the last scene, it was the middle of the night, everyone was very tired, and I’d say 90% of the crew was crying. They all knew my story, they all knew why we were there.” Of course, even after the film wrapped, Rakefet still had to edit it, send it to film festivals, and promote it. “Now there’s a balance of trying not to numb out to it, but to put it in a safe place.” The process has been difficult, but deeply human. “I think sometimes it’s okay to be sad, and to show things as they are and show the pain, and sometimes you just have to sit in that uncomfortability.” 

We circle back to the topic of horror. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that horror lends itself to telling stories of and by marginalized creators. I asked her why she thinks that is. “Having racism directed at you is a horrible experience. Anti-semitism is a horrible experience. Losing a baby is a horrible experience. Being a woman sometimes can be a horrible experience.” She tells me that Get Out is one of her favorite movies. “I think he did it perfectly. He took this exact idea and executed it perfectly. For me that’s the standard I want to hold myself to.” Jordan Peele is a great example of someone who is using the horror genre to shine a light on the real-life horrors that marginalized people experience every day. In the right hands, horror is so much more than just a good scare. Rakefet has just taken the themes that horror creators have been exploring since the invention of the genre and made them specific to her experience as an openly bisexual Jewish woman.

Yet another thing to admire about Rakefet is her commitment. She hasn’t made a feature yet, but a short is never “just” a short for her. “With Still, people always ask me if it’s a feature, because I’ve put so much into promoting it, and making the music video, and getting a publicist. It’s not a feature, but I try to treat everything like it is. I treat everything like a feature. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short or it’s not, it should be treated professionally.” She works hard to help her work find its audience; as she mentioned, she hires a publicist, she takes it on the festival circuit. After all, what’s the point of making a movie to raise awareness and provide comfort if you’re not going to get it in front of the audiences that so desperately need to see your message? For Still, she even wrote a song and created a music video in collaboration with Sarah Smith. She released it on October 15, which is pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day. The lyrics of the song are haunting, and speak of a life the singer thought she was going to have, of potential that never came to fruition. “I can’t let go of the life I never had,” she sings. The song perfectly captures the spirit of the film. Rakefet tells me that “this is a movie about a life you never got to have with this baby. Even if you’ve only been pregnant for a few weeks, you’ve imagined this whole other life. You’re preparing for this whole other life that just… never happens. And what do you do with that future that never came to be?”

We also discussed lighter topics. Rakefet is an actor, and that’s what brings her to filmmaking. “I always tell people if they just put me in your stuff I’ll stop making movies,” she jokes. She’s been in a lot of stuff; Superbad, New Girl, and Shameless are just some of the notable titles on her resume. But going to college for acting wasn’t the right path for her. “I’d been taking acting classes my whole life,” she says. Instead, she went to film school and picked up a lot of skills, as indie filmmakers do one way or another; she writes, directs, produces, and does so much more. I asked her for her best advice for filmmakers who are just starting out. “My advice would be to delegate.” She also tells me it’s good to find a partner in all of this so you don’t have to do the whole thing by yourself. “Don’t be like me,” she laughs. However, along with the advice to find a partner, she offers a word of caution. “Always have a contract,” she says. “I don’t care if it’s your mother.” She’s been burned in the past by people she trusted. “It’s business. And that’s the real key advice there. It’s business. People will do what’s best for them, and that might not always be what’s best for you. I think most people have really good intentions, and I’m not saying don’t collaborate or don’t trust anybody, but I am saying that it’s a business, so treat it like one.” I ask her, of all the skills she’s picked up as a filmmaker, what the most important one is. There’s not one specific skill, but she has a word of advice about being well-rounded. “Unless you have a lot of money, you’re going to end up doing a lot of jobs. That’s even if you have a good partner, even if you have a good crew, because no one’s going to care about your projects as much as you.” You have to take that passion that you feel and channel it into something really excellent. “I really control the product. I don’t want it to be half-assed. I’d rather make one short every three years, which is my standard, rather than six in a year that are just okay.”

We ended by talking about what she wants to say to young filmmakers who are just starting out. “I would just say to young filmmakers to not wait as long as I did to start. Just start. You don’t need to have everything. You don’t need to have all the money or all the equipment. Just start. You have an iPhone? Just do something! It doesn’t have to be the best quality right away. You can work up to that. If you’re out there and you’re creating then you’re adding something to the world, telling somebody something that you want to say, and I think that’s really, really, really important, because I think the more we create, the better the world will be.”

If you want to support Rakefet, consider donating to her ongoing GoFundMe for Still’s finishing funds. October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance month, so it’s the perfect time to give. You can find more about her on her website or follow her company, Cyclamen Films, on Instagram or Facebook. Both Jax in Love and Boo will be making their South African premieres at the South African Independent Film Festival in November of 2023, and Boo is one of only ten films playing in the UK at The Black Country Horror Shorts Festival, also in November. 

Facebook.com/RakefetAbergel

Facebook.com/CyclamenFilms

Facebook.com/StillAShortFilm

Instagram.com/CyclamenFilms 

Thank you so much to Rakefet for taking the time to talk to us! 

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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