Perhaps it is unsurprising that Ana Lily Amirpour’s sophomore movie, The Bad Batch, is controversial—it depicts a harsh dystopian desert world in which characters are dismembered for food and society is brutally divided into the haves and the have-nots (the titular “bad batch”). Much of the conversation online about the movie, though, has not focused on the political allegory or graphic nature of the film’s violence, but whom that violence is aimed at. During a screening earlier this month at Chicago’s Music Box, a woman named Bianca Xunise asked Amirpour the following questions: “Was it a conscious decision to have all the black people have the most gruesome deaths on screen? And then, what was the message you were trying to convey with having this white woman kill a black mother in front of her child and then have her assume to be the mother figure for this little black girl?”
Amirpour responded that another white character has her neck snapped and her ribs consumed, which is to say nothing of the brutality that the characters who survive face (it seemed fairly clear to me that one of the movie’s questions is whether it’s better to live or die in the violent world depicted). Amirpour abruptly shut Xunise down, ultimately ending with, “I don’t make a film to tell you a message.”
Now, this filmmaking philosophy is not something the Iranian-American Amirpour invented on the spot. In 2014, when I interviewed her about her previous film, the acclaimed vampire tale A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, she wouldn’t tell me whether she agreed with those who labeled that film feminist: “I am afraid of categorization in general. I don’t really see a usefulness to it. For me, what it does is it stops thinking.” Amirpour’s films are provocative but in a way that shirk literal questions of intent. Nonetheless, Xunise tweeted the next day about how she felt humiliated by Amirpour’s response, and later shared many more thoughts on Amirpour’s perceived insensitivity (including casting Jason Momoa as a Cuban character despite his lack of Latin descent in his mixed-race heritage) in an interview with Affinity.
Amirpour was in New York promoting The Bad Batch yesterday, so I talked to her about her movie, some of its themes like cannibalism and psychedelic drug use, as well as her response to Xunise. An edited and condensed transcription of our discussion is below.
JEZEBEL: What do you think about the proliferation of movies and TV about cannibalism that’s currently underway in pop culture?
ANA LILY AMIRPOUR: It’s so weird. We did all make them simultaneously. That means three years ago, [Nicolas Winding Refn] would have been doing [his]. I remember hearing about it when I was editing. The assistant editor I got for my film was like, “I’m doing a cannibal movie for Refn. It’s called The Neon Demon.” I was like, “Oh shit, awesome.” I knew it would be bonkers different. So it’s just this interesting weird thing. I haven’t seen [Julia Ducournau’s Raw] either.
Yeah, I’m gonna see it. When I go back to L.A., I’m gonna take Xanax for a week and just watch shit. Just sit on my couch and Netflix shit. I don’t know what her film is about, but when I saw Refn’s and thought about my own, it’s like you catch onto this whiff or vibe that people are just tearing each other to pieces on this fucking planet. So you just kind of catch onto that. It becomes a shared, cumulative mind—how we feel right now.
And as the earth heats up, it seems like something that might be necessary in our not-so-distant future.
Fuck man, would you do it?
I think I would. I’m enough of a pragmatist that I would if I had to.
Yeah, right? People value being alive and staying on earth. One of the things [I was thinking about] when I was making the film—and I think it’s movies I’m attracted to in general, like Westerns or any survival movie, I love like 127 Hours or Touching the Void—is when you reduce a human to barebones survival, what are you able to do? It’s like minute by minute. I always wonder what things would come out.
When I interviewed you about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, you told me that you hate death. It’s interesting, then, that you made a movie more brutal than the one we previously discussed.
I think it’s way more brutal. I think vampires let you off the hook. Everybody knows a vampire is a vampire and there’s always rules and they get to get off the hook for killing. “But it’s a vampire! She has to kill…” They’re romantic. This is more… it’s rough on earth. This is how I see America. It’s my love letter to America.
Is this love letter a critique too?
I mean, we’re tearing each other to pieces, man! For reasons much harder to understand than hunger, actually. We are pretty fucking heinous to each other. There’s hermits out there. And there’s also the potential for one day doing a different type of behavior, heading out of the whole wall that is around you, mentally or literally and seeing in a different way. This is just me getting way heady about it.
Do you personally feel torn apart, or is this something you’re observing?
There’s times that I do. Yeah, all the time, actually, I think. Yes. All the time, now that you mention it. I look for comfort, you know, like we all do. It’s a survival skill, you can’t just sit here and constantly be ravaged by and overwhelmed by how crazy the chaos is. I try to find comfort but it’s fleeting and it’s constantly changing and the things that give you comfort might not a moment later.
Regarding the Q&A in Chicago, on Twitter, you said, “My only mistake was not talking to [Xunise]. I dismissed her.” How would you answer that question if you could go back in time?
It’s hard to get basically called a racist when you’re not. That’s an unpleasant thing. In the moment, I was thinking, “I’m not a politician.” It’s almost like you expect me to have no feelings when I’m in this moment, like a politician has no feelings. They just say, “This is what I’m saying to you.” I’m a human being and I have feelings and what you’re saying is personal and horrifying to hear. It jarred me. And she kind of kept repeating, and I was like, “I don’t know what to say.” I thought about it. She was like, “What’s your message? What’s your message?” I guess I thought about that.
What I would say if I had a time machine and I could go back, first of all, is I would have made an announcement to the crowd that I’m 30 percent hard of hearing, ‘cause people don’t know that and I have to get things repeated. I know she said I was being rude, but I’m hard of hearing. And then I would have said, “I don’t have a message but I am asking questions. The question is does one violent act justify another?” I don’t have the answers but that’s the question I want to ask. You have to go through it.
Did you read the Affinity interview?
I couldn’t bear to fully read it. When I see that stuff, it’s horrible. I get the gist of it just from what I see. You must have read the whole thing.
The other thing I thought of is, like, Maria, Miami Man’s baby mama [the black character whose child is then adopted by the film’s protagonist Arlen], is a deeply sympathetic character. At their [cannibal] dinner scene, she’s the one person out loud calling out the world and their reality. She’s deeply sympathetic. She’s a devoted mother. She’s gonna do whatever she has to to keep getting along. She also calls out exactly their situation to Arlen. She puts it right on the table. “We are the same. Are you gonna fuckin’ do this?” The thing is everybody is the main star of the movie of their own life. So that’s how we are. I’m the star of the movie of my life and you’re the star of the movie of yours. Everyone believes in their own movie, and they intersect and there’s this conflict. [Arlen] does do this heinous, horrible thing and it is the fuckin’ most gruesome thing to go through.
I was dressed like Weezy. I’m brown!
But was it blackface?
No! I’m brown. I’m a fuckin’ Iranian girl. I did the tattoos and I put fronts in and I have a dreadlock wig and I was Lil Wayne, ‘cause I love Lil Wayne.
I wonder if you feel that you have a disproportionate burden resulting from the expectation that what you will do will be especially politicized and meaningful because you are a woman of color who’s a director, and that’s so rare.
Is that your experience?
I don’t know, Scott Derrickson’s a good friend of mine and he directed Doctor Strange and he got a lot of… I feel like these conversations are important. People should have conversations about what they’re upset about. I guess there’s this need to do that and especially now it feels like everyone’s upset all the time in America. And the internet definitely… is the internet. I’m, like, in the middle of this. I’m putting my movie out. It’s a crazy, fucked-up movie, it’s in-your-face, a visceral experience, and I know that. I wrote it three years ago, and there was no Trump. It’s so fuckin’ trippy to me, I don’t even fully know what to say. But I will say if empathy is something people are at all interested in, I do think that listening is the key, crucial thing. And what I’ve noticed in the last few weeks is, like, no one listening. There’s very little listening. That’s my big observation from this moment of time on a press tour.
I think you pay for being subtle or ambiguous sometimes, as much as those sensibilities can benefit your art as well. People ask you, “What is the message?” A filmmaker like you isn’t interested in dictating like that, but those questions are inevitable as is you being confronted by them given the state of human connectedness.
I think it was two things: Whatever happened in that room between me and her was two people in a room. And then this whole other thing that happened on the internet, I feel like if all these people have then come to a conclusion about a film or something they haven’t seen, what is that? Is that listening? What is that herd mentality? I don’t know, I don’t understand it.
This movie has a very extended trip sequence. When we last talked, you also mentioned finding psychedelic experiences valuable. How often do you have a psychedelic experience?
I need to be in a very specific environment. I don’t take it lightly. I like to go to Burning Man if I get the opportunity, if I’m not shooting or editing a movie. I haven’t been able to go since 2013, but I’m going at the end of this summer, a much-needed break. But a movie can be a psychedelic experience. Love and sex can be a psychedelic experience. I go running, I ran a marathon last month, and it gives you perspective and, I guess, a feeing of freedom. Freedom, man. However you can feel free.