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The Culture Interview – Laura Benson, lead actress in the award-winning and challenging new film Touch Me Not.


9 Minute Read

Laura Benson is a British actress based in Paris – she was in Dangerous Liaisons – who plays a lead role in the controversial and challenging new film Touch Me Not (which also features Seani Love, a sex worker who appeared in the AofA Tantra Hot Tub Salon which was FB Live). Touch Me Not follows three characters, one of which is called Laura, a 50 something woman, who is in out of touch with her sexuality and takes some radical steps to address this situation. The film coasts a fluid line between reality and fiction. It won the Golden Bear earlier in the year in Berlin and is the London Film Festival on Oct 16 and 17th plus a special screening at the ICA on Oct 23rd.

How were you cast in Touch Me Not?

Through a casting agent, who works with the French co-producer. They were casting in several countries. I was asked to send something that I had shot recently. The film I had just done wasn’t out yet and I didn’t have anything recent in stock. So they sent me five pages about the subject of the film and I was asked to do an exercise: a video diary for my lover. I thought about it for a week and then did it and sent it, like a bottle in the ocean. The next week I was asked if I could go to Bucharest to meet the director. I obviously agreed. We had a four-hour meeting. I had understood what she wanted from this meeting.  It wasn’t going to be a chit-chat… she wanted to feel who was in front of her and what I was made of.  So my challenge was to go and not contain myself and be as free as possible.

What were your initial thoughts about playing this character, Laura who has difficulty with sex and intimacy?

What I had read gave little insight into her feelings and her struggle.  She seemed cold and terribly cut of from herself…  dead in a way.  I didn’t know how I was going to bring her to life.

Were you excited by the original script in that you were playing a woman in her 50s who is the main character in this revealing/naked about vulnerability way? It’s unusual to get this opportunity, isn’t it?

I would say that what is unusual is to have a lovely part to explore (which has nothing to do with the age) and to work with an inspiring director that you get on with and understand in a way as well as on a project you like. All those ingredients are not always present all at once!  I never actually considered that I had the main character and her vulnerability appeared during the process.  I didn’t know before we started working that this would emerge.  And yes yes, it was a lovely opportunity, which came out of the blue! I feel very lucky. I think that Laura could be 40, 45, 50, 55…

Obviously, it was a wonderful opportunity to have an interesting important part to play, considering that most important characters in film are under-45! A casting agent friend of mine told me that in France when they suggest actors over 50, the producers and TV say ‘no, menopaused’! But I do more theatre than film, and a female actor’s age doesn’t have the same significance on stage, because there aren’t close-ups — the body and how you move and your energy are more important than the reality of your age. I’ve seen some Comedia dell Arte where the character is 20 and the actor behind the mask 80. So to answer your question, I didn’t realize really how lucky I was.

What were you challenged by in the process as an actress where it sounds like you had to get in touch with your own vulnerabilities?

For me, the challenge wasn’t as much about being in touch with my vulnerabilities than it was about dealing with my fear of the unknown, my lack of confidence and my doubts.

And how did the improvisation go? Do you enjoy this way of working?

The script was just a starting point, like a trampoline that we could bounce off.  A kind of skeleton, if you like. It acted as a kind of safety net. There was very little dialogue.  A great deal of the material, the nature of the interaction, came from what was happening on set and how it was happening. Doing a scene when you have no idea where it is going to go, and more to the point – if it is going to go anywhere at all can be very uncomfortable. I would say that ‘exploring a situation’ rather than ‘acting a prewritten scène’ is a lovely way of working when you have a director that you can understand (and can understand you) and with whom you share the same vocabulary. There is a certain amount of preparation needed in that kind of approach. Adina has her way of working that takes you into a profound process, so you’re not lost and you are pretty charged. What was nice about the relationship on set, was that she was as worried and excited as us.  So we all worked together (technicians included because for the camera and sound people, it wasn’t easy either) to do the best we could. The work was about being in the present moment, being spontaneous and authentic.

What did you discover personally?

I discovered how little I knew! How much there is to experiment with!  I think the most surprising thing I discovered was when I was filming myself on a day off.  It was a way of staying involved in the process and not losing touch with the film.  It was something that spontaneously came to me when I woke up that morning. I put my body in the window frame (the window was very big) and I pushed and pushed against the structure. The architecture became my prison.  And since I had voluntarily put myself in that space – that I wasn’t a victim – my frustration and anger transformed into pleasure. Close to a sexual pleasure. It was very empowering.  When Seani Love talks about ‘conscious kink changing the world’, I understand how some sexual activities can release and transform very powerful negative energies. And that changed my outlook on BDSM.

What kind of dialogue about sex and intimacy was going on between you and the director, Adina Pintilie? This is also included in the film?

We spoke about many many things; I don’t remember it being focused on sex.  But the conversations, when we weren’t talking about work, were generally intimate I think they contributed to creating a particular dynamic based on trust.

Did it make a difference having a female director?

I have often worked with women.  Doing this film with a man would no doubt have been very different…  but how, I cannot exactly say.

Do you think it is valid not to explore why the character Laura has ended up with such difficulty in her sex and intimacy life? Anger with her father is intimated but not explored.

I think that Adina is more interested in looking at someone’s attempt and struggle to change than explaining where the problem comes from.  As far as I am concerned, we don’t need to know where Laura’s problem comes from – what is important is that she can move towards going beyond it.  A young couple at a film festival said that it was the only ‘positive’ and ‘uplifting’ film they had seen in the film festival.

What was your interaction with Seani Love like? He was in our AoA FB Live Hot Tub event on Tantra, we loved him. He’s playing himself in the film? A sex worker, who deals with intimacy issues.

Seani’s work is really interesting and I would say that the interaction we had is what you see in the film. We didn’t meet and talk before, my only interaction with him is when we were on set filming. I didn’t even see his face before he came into my sitting room!

Were there moments when you had to say ‘No’ to the director?

No.  Adina was very respectful of limits even though wanting everything!  She never – or rarely – asked for anything precise. So the limits were where you yourself put them. I asked her at the beginning of the film, when we were preparing the escort scenes : ‘Are you expecting me to sleep with them?’ She said: ‘you do what you want’.  Things were generally not decided before.  It was more organic than that.

The film’s reviews have been very mixed, I read the Guardian one by Peter Bradshaw and laughed. I wondered if this is because these reviewers have difficulty themselves with intimacy issues?

I think the reactions correspond to the anger someone can feel when they are going out to have fun and escape reality, then find out that someone is forcing them to have a therapy session and that they weren’t asked if they wanted, let alone warned that they were going to have one (whether they like it or not).

What kind of conversations has come out of it for you?

People have shared some lovely things.  One young man said that he spent his first night with his girlfriend just after they had both seen the film and that it totally changed his way of relating with her and changed both of their approaches to their intimacy. I am surprised because a lot of people have thanked me and given me hugs. I recently spoke to a woman who said she was happy to meet me because she had been worried about me during the film. I think it is a film that is a relief for a lot of people who have suffered feelings of inadequacy. In Kiev, a young woman had been thrown out of a café three weeks earlier because she suffered from cerebral palsy.  She was so pleased to see the film. It gave her courage and hope.

What did you enjoy about making this kind of film? And the responses?

I enjoyed the complicity with Adina, the challenge and adventure and am relieved that I managed to overcome any fears and doubts, or at least deal with them. I am pleased to have managed to be spontaneous. So I guess that I have grown up a bit!

AofA Interview with Nuala OSullivan: Women over 50 Film Festival


12 Minute Read

Could you tell us about WOFFF and why you created it?

Women Over 50 Film Festival (WOFFF) champions and showcases the work of older women on screen and behind the camera with an annual short film festival and year-round events and film screenings.

Our next festival, WOFFF18, is 20 – 23 September at Picturehouse Duke of York’s, Brighton and Depot, Lewes. We’ll be screening two feature films, 58 short films, as well as hosting workshops, panel events, talks, filmmaker Q&As and an evening banquet for festival audiences, filmmakers and guests.

WOFFF addresses the ageism and sexism many women face in the film industry and in so many other walks of life. We screen films celebrating older women on both sides of the camera. We believe inclusive spaces to watch films together and conversations between generations of women can help make older and younger women feel less isolated and feel more connected to each other and to their surroundings and communities.

I’d been a writer and producer (mainly for radio and theatre) for a number of years when I wrote and produced a short film, Microscope, about a middle-aged woman examining her life and marriage, when I was in my early 50s myself.

With my producer’s hat on I started going to short film festivals to see where I thought the film might fit. At the film festivals, I found I wasn’t seeing many people who looked like me on the screen and, after screenings, amongst the people in the bar afterward talking about the films we’d just watched, I wasn’t seeing many people who looked like me either. I found I was often the oldest person in the room, and usually the oldest women. Not many people talked to me; I felt pretty much on my own; like people weren’t really seeing me; I felt lonely and isolated – which is the exact opposite of how I expected to feel in a roomful of people who had the same interest and passion in storytelling and film as me.

It got me thinking about questions like: Who’s not in the room? Who’s not running film festivals? Who’s not behind the camera? Who’s not on the screen? Then, over a pint in the Marlborough Pub in Brighton one night, I was talking to my pal, Maggi, about how I was feeling about my film and film festivals, and Maggi said, ‘Well, bugger that! Let’s just start our own film festival.”

The word I’d like to highlight from that story from back in 2014, with the knowledge I have now, is “just”!

How are you personally connected to the film industry?

My background is mostly in writing and producing. I worked for the BBC World Service for many years and created, wrote and produced an online soap opera to help people learn English. So I think story telling’s in my blood! And my days as a producer certainly helped me in creating and setting up WOFFF. I’m connected to the film industry now as a programmer and screener of films but before I started WOFFF I didn’t have any particular connection except that I’d always loved films and I’d always loved cinema. Still do.

I see Greta Scacchi is a supporter – how did that happen?

Greta grew up in Sussex and WOFFF is based in Brighton and Lewes so there’s a local connection there. Greta has been a WOFFF champion for a number of years. She said recently, “I’m proud to have been an early supporter of the Women Over Fifty Film Festival before the subject of women in the film industry became such a huge public issue. WOFFF has always been ahead of the curve in its celebration of the unique voice of older women in film and I am delighted to continue supporting the work of such a great festival.”

I think movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo have brought issues like sexism and ageism to the fore in the film industry and it’s great that see stars like Greta and Joely Richardson, Amanda Donohoe and Denise Welch all pledging their support for WOFFF.

And if you’re looking for a bit of star attraction at this year’s festival, we’ve got a great line up – stars of Downton’s Kevin Doyle (downstairs Joseph Molesley) in READY TO GO by Lynda Reiss and Samantha Bond (upstairs Lady Rosamund) in LADY M by Tammy Riley-Smith. You can also see Jane Asher in THE VISITOR by Duncan Roe; Sara Stewart in ROMY by Ornella Hawthorn Gardez;

Lynn Cohen in ARTEMIS & THE ASTRONAUT by A. L. Lee and Rhea Perlman in THE MATCHMAKER by Leonora Pitts.

You celebrate older women on both sides of the camera – how do you make sure both are covered?

We make sure both sides of the camera are covered by asking filmmakers to follow this one simple rule that we’ve had in place since Women Over 50 Film Festival launched in 2015 – every film we screen has to have a woman over 50 at the heart of the piece on screen or a woman over 50 behind the camera in one of the core creative roles (writer, director or producer).

The beauty of that rule is that it makes WOFFF a really open and accessible festival because everyone’s welcome – older women and everyone else too. A 17-year-old boy can make a documentary about his 57-year-old grandma and that film is welcome at WOFFF. In our first festival in 2015, we screened LOVELY ALICE POET a film made by two young trans men (Fox Fisher and Lewis Hancox) about the older, trans poet, Alice Denny. To me, that sums up what WOFFF is about. Everyone’s welcome to submit a film to WOFFF and everyone’s welcome to come to WOFFF. As long as you want to be part of the conversation about older women, as long as you’re interested in what it means to be an older woman living in the world today, we want to see at you at WOFFF.

What sort of subjects are covered in the films you show?

The sort of subjects are… us! We screen films that portray older women as we are. We’re human – same as anyone else. We love and hate and have affairs. We can be vicious and proud and generous. We work, we’re unemployed, we retire. We have holidays and arthritis and sex – sometimes all at the same time.

One of the many joys of a short film programme is there’s something for everyone so at WOFFF you can expect animation, drama, documentary and experimental films, and a great range of film subjects too – films about jealousy, a teenager with four lesbian mums, migration, and a bank robbery. We have films from Britain and Ireland, as well as from the US, Canada, Australia, Iran, Taiwan, France, Italy and Turkey. We’re a truly international film festival

I saw that one was called Rebel Menopause from last year?

That was the documentary judges’ top choice in last year’s festival. It’s a fantastic film by Adele Tulli about Thérèse Clerc. Therese was a French, bisexual, feminist who died in 2016. She was in her 80s when this documentary was made about her and one of the things she said in the film which I really loved was this: “I can say I’ve had a great life and that it’s been an amazing time. So while gynecologists talk about menopause as if a woman’s life is over, I say to them ‘No, this is when a woman’s life starts.’” Her words really resonate with me – I love being older. I feel genuinely liberated about what I say, what I do, how I look. I’m in one of the most creative periods of my life, I’m engaged and excited by the work I’m doing and the projects I’m involved with. I can’t recommend getting older highly enough. I think Thérèse’s words really are ones to live by! It’s a wonderful film and I’d encourage everyone to see it if they get the chance.

And you were telling me about one about following some end of life doulas in their work?

We’re screening a documentary in this year’s festival at Depot in Lewes called HOLDING SPACE by Rebecca Kenyon.

HOLDING SPACE is an intimate, observational documentary about preparing for death, told through the connection between a dying person and their end of life doula. The film is structured around a series of conversations, and the film finds both poetry and unexpected humour in this most universal of experiences. By witnessing three people on the threshold between life and death, the film asks: if you knew you were dying, how would you prepare to let go?

And workshops?

We have five workshops lined up for this year’s festival – a mixture of ones aimed at filmmakers and ones aimed more at our festival audience.

One of the workshops is on after the screening of Holding Space with Aly Dickinson from End of Life Doula UK. Aly is one of the doulas featured in HOLDING SPACE and she’ll be exploring with workshop participants the role of a doula at the end stages of life.

Our other workshops include How to Shoot a Film on Your Smart Phone, A Movement and Dance session which is inclusive and open to all abilities, and a talk by Dr Deborah Jermyn called “About time: Ageing women, (in)visibility and the ‘old lady revolution’ in Fabulous Fashionistas (film by Sue Bourne, 2013)”. This workshop will reference another short film that’s screening at WOFFF18 – THE PAST IS ANOTHER COUNTRY by Magda Rakita. Magda’s short doc features one of the original “Fabulous Fashionistas”, Bridget Sojourner, from the Sue Bourne feature documentary of the same name.

Are the films you show mostly shorts? Why is that?

I think a short film is different from a feature-length one in the way that a short story is a different work of art from a novel.

I like the variety that a short film programme can offer and I love that screening short films gives us more opportunity to showcase more work by older women.

But we still love feature films at WOFFF and this year we’re screening two of them – a launch-night film and a closing-night film.

We’re opening WOFFF18 with a Sussex premiere of the Sundance documentary HALF THE PICTURE by Amy Adrion. This film has screened only twice in the UK, at Sundance London so it’s a real opportunity to see this gem of doc that looks at the stories of the women behind the cameras in Hollywood. It’s a chance to get up close and personal with high profile women directors including Ava DuVernay, Jill Soloway, Lena Dunham, Catherine Hardwicke and Miranda July, among many others, as they discuss their early careers, how they transitioned to studio films or television, how they balance having a demanding directing career with family, as well as challenges and joys along the way.

And we’re closing WOFFF18 with FACES PLACES. Director Agnès Varda and photographer and muralist JR journey through rural France and form an unlikely friendship. Agnès Varda is now 90 and her films, photographs, and art installations serve as a total celebration of her creativity and her age. A true WOFFF role model!

I like that you mention promoting the connection between older and younger women – how does that happen?

The rule we set of what makes a WOFFF film means that younger people have been involved with WOFFF with the start. We have filmmakers Q&As after each shorts programme and our all-female panel event is always a bit hit with our audience. In the Q&As and the panel events younger women are on the stage and in the audience so connections are made and conversations started which flow and continue throughout the festival and beyond.

One of the best pieces of feedback we got in our first year was from someone in their 20s who wrote that the thing they liked best about the festival was “the chance to hang out with cool older ladies”. To me, that sums up WOFFF – it’s a place where everyone can connect and get to know someone new; a place where older and younger women (and men too) can meet and learn and grow together.

How do you see the future for WOFFF?

As more of the same and then some! Two areas we’re working on are, first, to make WOFFF as inclusive as we can, and, second, to bring WOFFF to more people around the country with the UK our touring programme reaches urban and rural areas all around the country.

This year, thanks to funding from the National Lottery ‘Awards for All’ and BFI Film Hub South East, we’re extending a warm WOFFF welcome to people who are deaf and Hard of Hearing (as many older people are). All 58 short films we’re screening at WOFFF18 will be subtitled, and many of our WOFFF18 events, like our filmmakers Q&AS, will be BSL interpreted.

Some of our WOFFF18 events are free so people who are socio-economically disadvantaged can participate in and feel welcome at WOFFF.

Our UK tour this year has taken us to over 30 pop-up venues, community spaces and mainstream cinemas from Belfast to Bradford. Next year and beyond we’d like to add more locations to the tour to make sure older women, wherever they live in this country, can watch films in a fun, relaxed, communal setting and see work on screen and behind the camera that reflects them, their lives, and their experiences.

WOFFF8 details:

20 – 23 September 2018 at Picturehouse Duke of York, Brighton and Depot, Lewis.

Tickets available:

WOFFF launch night film: HALF THE PICTURE

https://www.picturehouses.com/cinema/Duke_Of_Yorks/film/woff-presents-half-the-picture

WOFFF short films, workshops and events:

https://lewesdepot.org/wofff

Find WOFFF online and on social media:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/wo50ff/

Twitter: @WO50FF

Instagram: @W050FF

Website: http://wofff.co.uk/

Film about WOFFF17: https://vimeo.com/244094801

Film interview with Nuala O’Sullivan ahead of the Women’s Work strand which features the best of WOFFF screening at 20 Picturehouse venues around the UK on Tues 4 Sept: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5jVM-fCvJE

The golden opportunity in looking after older people | Courier Magazine


7 Minute Read

Like many elements of the UK’s health system, the care sector is in a state – and  it’s only going to get worse. The number of over-75s is growing (around 5.5 million in 2017), while government money to care for them is being slashed year-on-year. Yet, unfazed by all that, a collection of startups see in the sector an opportunity to have a huge societal impact – and make a healthy profit – by offering a 21st-century model of home care.

Read the full article here: The golden opportunity in looking after older people | Courier Magazine

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