Written by Savannah Smith
I graduated from Michigan State University this May, and my last semester of college was more filled with queerness than ever before. I was surrounded by queer people, I went to events for LGBTQ students on campus, and I took a film course that looked at New Queer Cinema. NQC is a period of independent cinema that took place in the early 90s. This movement looked at queer people through a queer lens. We watched Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together, and a whole list of films that focused on characters that were queer in one way or another.
This course, along with my burning desire to make a film that was queer as hell, gave me the inspiration I was looking for to make Don’t Touch Me. The film focuses on Jay, who in the midst of their first relationship, realizes that they are demisexual. Demisexuality is an orientation that describes a person who does not feel sexual attraction until they are deeply emotionally connected to another person. This discovery prompts Jay to create their own model for falling in love.
When I first sat down to write this film I was trying to think of all these complicated ways to define demisexuality in the film. Maybe I could start with a definition like Van Sant does in My Own Private Idaho, or maybe I could do it documentary-style like Dunye in The Watermelon Woman. But then I thought about why those films used those devices in the ways that they did. I asked myself, how did I figure out what demisexuality meant? I sat down at my computer and Googled it. Growing up I heard nothing about demisexuality, gray-asexualitly, or any preference that fell under asexuality. It was assumed that no matter who you wanted to have sex with, you wanted to have sex. So, I took to the internet and Googled until I found something that made sense. This is exactly what Jay, my character in the film, goes through. In the clip below Jay sits down nervously and begins to search for something that can explain what they are feeling. Jay is not only trying to navigate their first love, but they are also trying to navigate what that love looks like without the promise of sex.
I decided to star in the film myself, which, due to the more intimate scenes, made it all the more important for me to work with people I felt comfortable with. From the beginning of the project my good friend Jenna Ange was on board to be the director of photography. When the project got rolling, I quickly found that in part due to the size of the production (which was very small, no budget) Jenna became much more than my DP. She lit the film, gave me creative input on how scenes should look, and was critical of my choices in ways that made me a better director. Having another person, and more importantly another woman, by my side through this process made this film all the more special to me.
We had a total of eleven shoots over the course of one semester. Our filming took longer due to shooting during a season change, and from the start I was committed to the idea that my character had to have two different hair lengths to show separate timelines. This caused its own series of difficulties. We had a cast of three main characters along with some smaller roles, but a bulk of the scenes featured myself and Natalie Adams, who played Jay’s love interest, Dana, in the film. When casting the roles I knew that I had to cast someone that I had chemistry with. If the relationship was not believable, then the film wouldn’t be good. I had seen Natalie is other films and I thought she would fit the part perfectly, and she did. Natalie was able to bring Dana to life quite beautifully. I was also able to work with Jonah Lang, who, on top of acting in the film, provided music from his to-be-released EP.
Many people ask me if it is difficult to direct and act at the same time, but I find that it is easier. When I have directed from strictly behind the camera I often felt as though I was not a part of what was happening. Rather than creating something, it felt more like watching something. When I am acting and directing I am able to be inside a scene and make active decisions that affect the way the scene goes. If I don’t like how a scene is going, the first adjustment I have to make is an adjustment to my own performance.
Throughout this process I was able to work with some incredibly talented people who brought their own magic to the film and got nothing out of the process except for the experience itself and some free beer and pizza. They were committed to the creation of the film in a way that I could have never asked for, even if I could have paid them. Now, after a lot of free labor and work we have to finish the film. With principal photography finished, all we need is one final push. Which is where the campaign comes in. Our Indiegogo campaign will be live and accepting donations for approximately one more week. We hope to raise $1,000 to cover the costs of music licensing and film festival submissions. If you watch the clips I hope that what shines through is how important the music is in this film. The music used in the film allows me to tell a more full story and capture a feeling that I may not otherwise be able to capture with the budget (or lack thereof) I had available. After I have secured the music I can begin sending the film off for others to see it.
With Don’t Touch Me my goal was to do the same thing that New Queer Cinema did for me. I wanted to discuss and represent queer people and a queer relationship in a way that was unique. I wanted people to watch the film and think, “Wow, I’ve never seen a film that was about that before.” I don’t know if this film will be objectively successful, but it was successful to me. Not because it got into festivals (because I haven’t submitted it yet), and not because it’s finished (because it isn’t). I was given the opportunity to screen the rough cut of my film before a PhD student screened her dissertation. After the screening I received a message: “As someone who also identifies as demisexual and uses ‘they’ pronouns, I really appreciate your efforts to raise awareness and understanding. And your film was so good. So congrats, thank you for your bravery, and good luck in your future endeavors.” I had never met this person, but my film touched them, and they saw themselves on screen in a way they had not before. I would like my film to go far, not so that I can skyrocket to fame, but so that I can receive more messages like that one. So I can use my experiences to make someone feel less alone in theirs.