an interview with filmmaker Jennifer Merchant
Jennifer Merchant is a young filmmaker whose aim is to create influential films that empower girls around the world.
In this interview we spend some time with Jennifer, discussing her most recent short film, Ebru, and the inspirations behind it.
CORDELLA MAGAZINE: You have created several short films discussing issues that are close to your heart. What inspired you to create your newest film, Ebru?
JENNIFER MERCHANT: I wanted to create an understanding for young girls who are growing up between two cultures, because I see that it is hindering the development of their identities. Currently, this is one of the major issues of our generation in Europe. It is happening and it is real. During my high school years I saw the impact of this issue firsthand; young people struggle to develop themselves as they are trying to keep up with both their parent’s expectations and the expectations from the western world. Youth are the future of society and I would like our generation to be of value and to have a positive impact on this planet.
I tackled the issue from a different angle, through the art of cinema. Addressing the inner conflict, encouraging young people to express their feelings instead of keeping it behind closed curtains. Girls like Ebru have been called hypocrites and I want to change that perception. Let’s go deeper, let’s go beyond judgement and find out what is making these girls feel so conflicted and reach out to them.
With the film I would like to create an understanding around this issue, especially amongst parents and teachers. At the same time I hope to inspire young people to listen to their inner voice and to think for themselves, regardless of where they come from.
CM: You were born and raised in Amsterdam. Can you tell us about your childhood, and your experiences of growing up in-between two different cultures?
JM: I have a close relationship with both of my parents. My mother and father both encourage us to follow our dreams and I’m very grateful for that. Even though they were from a different culture, they didn’t let it be a defining factor in the way they raised us. Because my mother had already experienced the challenges of growing up in-between two cultures, she was able to learn from it and avoid the mistakes her mother had made with her. Instead of running away from taboo-topics such as love and sex, she worked towards an open communication between her, my sister and me. We could go to her regarding anything, even if we felt ashamed of certain topics. Trust was always on top of her list, which paved the way for a healthy and balanced childhood. It became clear to me that one of the most important solutions to this social issue is to work towards open communication between parent and child, mother and daughter.
CM: Europe’s current refugee crisis makes Ebru even more relevant to young viewers. What do you hope audiences, both young and old, will take away from the film?
JM: I hope they will become more familiar and aware of the situation and develop an open mindset. That is why my team and I have created a questionnaire and teaching material that come along with the short film. It will be shown as a cultural art project in schools across the Netherlands, fostering healthy dialogue that urges young people to talk about their experiences when it comes to finding their own voice. The refugee crisis brings a new generation of youth who will grow up in a western society while being raised by traditional Muslim parents. With this project we would like to contribute to a (better) moral guidance for these children and their parents.
CM: Along with trying to fit into western culture, young Muslims are often tasked with assisting their own families in their acclimation to the west- translating and navigating the challenging, and sometimes hostile, social climate. What effect does this experience have on a young person?
JM: It causes a distortion in the parent-child dynamic and thereby jeopardizes the communication in their relationship, which can leave a young person conflicted. These adolescents are given parental tasks and are obliged to act as grown-ups, yet when it comes to making personal decisions on how to manage their time, their privacy or career they are dictated by their parents - often without any explanation for this sort of contradiction. Most of the time, these parents are unaware of the effects this duality has on the mental health of their child. That is why it is so important to open up the conversation and discuss this with adolescents and parents, so that the issue gets resolved in a healthy manner.
CM: You’ve recently moved to Los Angeles. How has your experience been in the US so far?
JM: It has been a blessing and still is. I was born and raised in Amsterdam and I have been educated well there. The American film industry brings many opportunities and it is here where I have grown further as a human being as well as an artist. I have been given the best of both worlds, which enabled me to combine valuable educational themes with the art of cinema. The American people are very humble and carry a strong sense of trust. They are optimistic and dare to think big. I like the American mentality of “fall seven times, stand up eight.” It increases the opportunity for growth.
CM: You have a close relationship with your sister, Angelique, who has starred in a few of your films. You’ve also started a company, Merchant Motion Pictures. What is it like to work together?
JM: Angelique always describes our partnership as: “Jennifer is the captain of the ship and I provide the sea.” It works out very well; I plan and direct the entire project and decide what we will need, while Angelique is very skilled at making deals and providing me with the resources. When I needed a certain cinematographer on my team, she connected me with Eduardo Ramirez, who contributed significantly to the project.
CM: What filmmakers inspire you in your work?
JM: Nadine Labaki (French-Lebanese director) and Radu Mihailea (Romanian-French director) have both made films that were very inspiring to me in terms of film style. Their tragic-comedies are very well-balanced as they beautifully combine social messages with culture, art and a subtle humor.
However, for the main part of my inspiration I often look at paintings and objects. Film is a visual medium, therefore I always start with images and the story automatically unfolds itself from there. Before the screenplay of Ebru was crafted, I was looking at all sorts of vintage shoes and briefly observed how shoes mirror a person’s character by the way they are worn. I found it such a relatable object and that’s why I used it as the center piece of my film. The broken shoe is highlighted throughout the story as a symbol of Ebru’s broken identity. Her relationship with the young shoemaker is a crucial component of the film as well, as he ultimately encourages Ebru to listen to her own voice. Thus, the shoe became a tactile visual symbol of Ebru’s inner life.
CM: What new projects are you working on? What’s coming up for you?
JM: Our next project is called Néla. It will be my third short story and will complete the “Trilogy of Young Women.” In addition, we received the news of a second nomination for Ebru, granting us the opportunity to win the award for Best Foreign Short at the United International Film Festival in New York this year. We are also going forward in our mission to educate young girls who are growing up in-between two cultures. As such; this September Ebru is being screened in schools across the Netherlands, the UK and USA, inspiring young people to listen to their inner voice.
Jennifer Merchant is a director and actress from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She recently graduated from Stella Adler Academy, where she studied acting and directing after winning a full scholarship. She is the youngest female director to be nominated for “Best Director” at the Cinewoman FilmFest in Los Angeles. Her first film, “Two Strangers,” won the award for Best Message at the Meet FilmFest in Romania. Learn more about Jennifer's work on her website & follow her on Facebook.