Crimes and passion

Dana Aliya Levinson and Zen Pace on economical storytelling in Fraud

by Jennie Kermode

Dana Aliya Levinson in Fraud
Dana Aliya Levinson in Fraud

A short film which is getting a lot of traction and will be screening at this year’s Outfest Los Angeles, Fraud is a neatly condensed, stylish crime drama, directed by Zen Pace, which follows a trans woman, Shira (Dana Aliya Levinson), who works as a singer but makes her real money on the side by scamming credit cards. When one night she has an amorous encounter with handsome stranger André (Babak Tafti), who has secrets of his own, it results in a surprising proposition. Dana wrote the script herself and was keen to discuss it.

“The short film is based on a pilot that I wrote with the same name,” she explains. It's a one hour drama, and it was inspired by an actual day I had. I grew up in a family with a lot of financial instability and I was working at a bar and saving up money to get my adult life started. I was living at home with my parents and basically, my dad had to take that money that I had been saving, because he needed to pay payroll at his dental practice. In the pilot, that's a major catalyst in the script, the difference in the pilot being, he doesn't tell her that he's taking the money, because it's far more dramatic. Whereas in real life, I gave it to him not expecting that I was ever going to be paid back, even though he did eventually give it back.

Shira in her element
Shira in her element

“But basically, I was working at that bar one day, and a customer came in, and her credit card wouldn't swipe. I have a really good memory for numbers and I did manual entry. And I just had the brief thought of like, I could just steal her credit card right now and like, pay myself back. And I didn't do that. But the next thought after that was, ‘Who's that character?’ And Shira just grew into this alter ego in my mind. I was a theatre writer for a very long time and eventually, I was like, I need to write a TV pilot about this character. And so I did.

“We're in the process of pitching that and I wanted to do a proof of concept to that end, but I really wanted it to be something that stood on its own, I didn't want it to feel like the audience was just seeing a tiny sliver or a sizzle, or whatever. So I took that 60 page pilot and I condensed it down to 11 pages. Zen was instrumental in helping me do that. I basically took the a plot of the pilot and just smushed it all together, and took the most major beats of that and found a way to condense it all. And Zen and I have known each other for years and often collaborate. I think their work is stunning. So it was a no brainer, obviously, for them to direct it.”

When Zen joins us, we discuss the way that they managed to condense a lot of crime genre motifs into the short, from the style of the shooting and the the monologue at the start to the type of locations that they use.

“I guess what I can say is that economical storytelling is really important to me,” they say. “And Dana knows that. For me, you know, we're in a visual medium, and it needs to be mostly visual. We should be able to tell the story without having the dialogue doing that work. I'm really happy with the beginning of Fraud because I think it is really clear, economical storytelling. A big inspiration for me, that I think is the best at this, is the Up, the Pixar film, where there's that five minute montage where there's no words, but it's notorious for making people cry, for making people laugh. That film just did it so well. The trick with this script was absolutely that. Dana had definitely wanted all of these elements of Shira’s life like the rock element, which is one shot, but we wanted to make it beautiful and set it up the right way. It's a really important shot because we see the dichotomy between this person who feels really alive and probably more authentic than they do anywhere else when they're able to perform, and then cut to them in their parents’ living room. Kind of the opposite feeling.

“So we really played with dichotomies a lot, like what is it like to be a character who is constantly trying to be multiple things at the same time and balancing that? And we also did that in the cinematography. I love using really fancy beautiful anamorphic lenses and doing everything on Steadicam, and making everything feel as elegant and beautiful as possible, when we're watching fractured characters, because I think it helps elevate them and makes them more potentially approachable.

A woman of many guises
A woman of many guises

“I think our society is just so prone to negatively viewing any character that does anything that's morally unacceptable. And so we have a job as creators to understand that there's going to be those preconceptions, but try to make a film in a way so that they see past those misconceptions. So they can just sit with the character and be with them. So that they can have more empathy for the character. Because, you know, Shira isn't a bad person, they just had a set of circumstances that led them to a place where they steal people's credit card information.

Reflecting on a recent conversation with a friend about trans representation onscreen, Dana says “I think didactic, educational trans stories are not humanising. I think that they oftentimes place the trans character as an object to learn about, rather than a human being. And so one of my big things as a writer is to place queer characters in the stories where their trans identity might affect how they move through the world, in nuanced and subtle ways. It's not about necessarily, like, ‘Let me tell you, audience member, what it's like to be like this’ – we're just seeing it play out.

“When I think of TV shows where I feel like that's been done with trans characters, they're unfortunately really few and far between. Literally the only two that I can think of off the top of my head are Jules in Euphoria, and then, just recently, Elle in Heartstopper. Also, to a certain extent, the Pose women, of course. But yeah, I think that genre, especially given its popularity, is a really good space to explore queer themes. Because I do think that in any kind of genre thing, there's always a certain expectation of an outsider status, because that's what drives them to crime or that's the metaphor that we're using to explore some supernatural thing, you know. And so I think that there definitely is, already baked into genre, that sort of expectation. And then also, for me, one of the important things which Zen really leaned into and encouraged me on was that it's also very much a romance. That was one of the things that was always super important to me, that Shira and André’s love for each other is real, and that the romance is real. And so yes, there's the fun like caper crime piece of it, but also there's these people.”

Discussing the romance, we get onto the way that the film also addresses the immigrant experience.

“Yeah, I mean, I'm also Jewish,” says Dana. “I think it's interesting, because, you know, Jewish identity is something that is so little understood and yet so talked about. We are in a religion like Christianity or Islam, we’re a tribal ethno-religious group and former nation that's been scattered all over the world, just by circumstance and discrimination and oppression. And I think that, because of that, there's this sense of rootlessness that's inherent to Jewish identity. Sometimes people will ask me where I'm from, and I'm like, well, these are the countries that my family lived in historically, but we were never really considered a part of those countries, you know? We were Jews. We were always on the outside. Also just the nature of Jewish Diaspora, it's like, I start naming countries and people's eyes just start bugging out, because it's 17 countries in the last 200 years.

A man with a secret
A man with a secret

“I studied international affairs. I've always been very passionate about, especially, Middle Eastern history and politics. And I focused a lot on the French-North African relationship. I thought that there was a lot of overlap with Jewish identity and other kinds of indigenous identities in the region. So, in André’s case, the Amazigh people are the indigenous people of North Africa, and similarly were made rootless by our conquest of North Africa, and then they were sort of left out of the equation during the Algerian war for independence, and really were kind of made to feel – I’m speaking very generally, of course – made to feel as if they didn't belong in their own land.

“And so André has that same sense of rootlessness. It's like his family left Algeria because they were made to feel like they didn't belong in the land that they come from, and then in France, they're looked at as foreigners because they're Middle Eastern and North African. And so I think that gives the two of them this thirst for reinvention, which is something they really bond over.”

Next up, Dana and Zen plan to work together on a surrealist supernatural thriller set in a family home over Yom Kippur, and they already have other projects in the pipeline as well. Fraud should make viewers sit up and take notice.

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