Elon Zlotnik tries to portray the dangers of emotionally abusive relationships in just three minutes.
The third-year film and television student wrote, directed, produced, filmed and edited his three-minute-long silent film on a 16 mm film camera as a fall class project for Film and Television 52: “Cinematography.” The class required him to use a 16 mm camera, which adds a grainy, sepia undertone to its shots and creates an ethereal effect distinct from the more realistic look of digital video. To cater to the limitations of the assignment, Zlotnik and his crew experimented with filmmaking styles and used a variety of editing and acting techniques to portray emotional abuse. Zlotnik posted the finished result of “Never Leave Me” online Wednesday.
“Never Leave Me” features two characters – Sage, played by fourth-year political science student and former Daily Bruin staffer Emanuela Boisbouvier, and her boyfriend Josh, played by professional actor Michael Ryan. During the film, Sage must free herself from the toxic control of her manipulative partner to discover her sense of self as an individual. Zlotnik said the film attempts to reveal the abuse that usually happens behind closed doors by depicting Sage’s struggle to free herself through arguments between the two characters.
“We need to be vigilant and empathetic with the people around us and not just call out physical abuse when we see it, but also emotional abuse,” Zlotnik said. “It’s supposed to be a little uncomfortable for the audience as they wrestle with that question themselves.”
Bailey Olmstead, a classmate of Zlotnik’s, helped with the project’s production and casting. Olmstead said people not involved in an emotionally abusive relationship are often oblivious to the ongoing troubles within such a relationship.
To shine some light on the reality of emotional abuse, Zlotnik said he edited the film in a way that represents the vicious cycle of an abusive relationship. The film begins with Sage running away from Josh before flashing back to their fights periodically throughout the rest of the film. The scenes are organized in a nonchronological narrative of disordered flashbacks, and Boisbouvier said the nonlinear format represents the chaotic nature of emotional abuse.
The film had to portray the entire span of the characters’ toxic relationship within three minutes, so Zlotnik had to make difficult decisions about which clips to cut. He said he chose clips that he felt best represented the nature of emotional abuse. Olmstead said the filmmakers also made sure to use visuals that would capture the essence of the film, incorporating several shots that stressed the body language of Boisbouvier and Ryan.
“It’s so hard to tell a story in three minutes, and especially since we didn’t get to have dialogue in ours either, and it was just about the visuals,” Olmstead said. “You had to think in terms of what is going to be the most impactful image that I can show.”
Zlotnik also had to convey an intense and crude interaction between the couple without using any audible dialogue, as the camera he used didn’t pick up sound. As a result, Boisbouvier said she and Ryan improvised their argument dialogues to make the dialogue appear more natural.
“It’s really great to let my own words come out and put them into the character,” Boisbouvier said. “But it was definitely a lot of work to just figure out what my story was, considering that there wasn’t a physical script.”
In addition to its inability to capture sound, the 16 mm film camera proved to be tedious in its technicality. The camera’s awkward controls and constant glitching caused constant uncertainty, and would sometimes jam the film or simply refuse to start.
Tigran Nersisian, one of Zlotnik’s classmates who worked on the production as a camera assistant, said he constantly checked on the technical aspects of the camera, such as its focus, and would spend hours addressing various technical problems with the camera. Zlotnik also said the directors couldn’t see what they were filming at the time of shooting.
“If you miss a shot and it’s out of focus, then you’re kind of stuck with that,” Zlotnik said. “But I think that brings in the creativity on the postproduction side. It’s working with what you have instead of just exactly what you expected – happy accidents.”
However, Nersisian said the way the film shots look by themselves have a meaningful and nostalgic look compared to digital cameras. And the film’s artistic appearance is just one part of Zlotnik’s efforts to raise awareness about emotional abuse in relationships. Zlotnik said the film reveals a form of emotional abuse that is often hidden in some relationships.
“I want people to think about their own relationships and, if they’re in a relationship, think about how to be a better partner and how to be more understanding, compassionate and empathetic to the person that they’re with,” Zlotnik said. “We all need to be better to each other and we all need to be better allies for one another.”