03 May 2022
Experiencing Story – Exploring the Creative Realm with Lilah Benetti
As an award-winning creator, Lilah Benetti has always been drawn to the moving image. “I am a director by nature and an artist at heart,” they say. “I’ve always found it difficult to have definitive lines in my work as I feel like each discipline bleeds into the next so, for the most part, I just call myself a filmmaker.”
Having had a childhood filled with and influenced by music – Lilah’s father is a musician and part of the Zamrock movement, a genre of music originating from 1970s Zambia – it’s easy to see how this shaped their perspective and creative eye. “As a young kid, I remember my dad always being on tour, so I would watch over and over these tapes I had of his live performances on Zambian television and music videos on RAGE. I just remember being transported to another world – I’m this 6-year-old and my little brain is trying to comprehend how my real dad is inside this TV, existing in this dreamy world he had created as an artist.”
It is this connection to the creative that makes Lilah’s journey into filmmaking almost feel fated. “I have always just been the one at the function on the side taking candid photos and videos for the memories,” they reflect. It wasn’t until 2017 that Lilah started to take pursue photography seriously. Travelling to Ghana with their good friend Ella Badu for research for her jewellery brand A’sika, Lilah decided to shoot the journey. “I didn't know what, but I knew that I wanted to document our journey as we spoke to family, friends and local artists, seeking knowledge on traditional spirituality, pre-colonialism, artisanal craftsmanship and the African origins of the transatlantic slave trade.” Returning to Melbourne, Lilah held an exhibition for the documentary series Easy Ghana and, after some encouragement, they put together a 10-minute video with their behind-the-scenes footage. “After creating a documentary photography series of work where one image is in conversation with the next, it was just a natural progression into film from there,” they say. Easy Ghana went on to win the People's Choice Award at the Ballarat Foto Biennale, giving Lilah the encouragement to scale up their productions and, ultimately, becoming one of the first steps towards their expansive career.
“In my humble opinion,” Lilah says, “it’s really quite rare to find a professional creative who isn't out there hustling and juggling multiple mediums within their practice. We are really living in a time where responsiveness and adaptability are creative currency.”
Knowing how important commitment is to the foundation of a project, Lilah also sees the need for flexibility within the creative realm. “As a small-time filmmaker, you find yourself wearing many hats just to get a project from conception to creation. This is just something I’ve always done, and I think it’s important to develop your creative vocabulary with a basic understanding of each part of the machine you work in.” More so in today’s climate, Lilah notes how the digital landscape is everchanging, where artists are now required to hold an interdisciplinary background of experience. “In my humble opinion,” Lilah says, “it’s really quite rare to find a professional creative who isn't out there hustling and juggling multiple mediums within their practice. We are really living in a time where responsiveness and adaptability are creative currency.”
Describing their work as manic yet their passion, Lilah muses that, “a day in my life is never the same.” Working as a multidisciplinary artist, it’s not unusual for Lilah to work on several projects at once. “As a filmmaker, I really don’t know where one discipline ends and another begins,” they explain, “but I often feel like the magic happens when you just forget all of these divisions and just allow yourself to get lost in the creative flow.” Reflecting this, Lilah’s workflow is formed by a combination of tasks, often dependent upon pre-production, production and post-production. “I am constantly expanding the breadth of my practice, so a project will never be the same as when it is first imagined,” they explain. “This is why I never quite make sense when I am telling people about my future projects, cause in reality I don’t quite know the exact shape they will take yet. It can be daunting, but this unknown is one of the most exciting things about being creative.”
Recently, Lilah worked as a producer for their most recent film Tinashé (2021), finding the experience both refreshingly challenging and delightfully satisfying. They began working on the film in early 2020, a period when Melbourne was in one of the world’s strictest pandemic lockdowns and, at the same time, when the Black Lives Matter movement was erupting globally. “After looking over an early draft of the script, what really drew me into Tinashé’s world was the gentle, honest and authentic storytelling,” Lilah says. “Tinashé was a really special production. It was the first time I stepped into producer mode on someone else's project, which was a completely different experience for me.”
It was through director and writer Tig Terera’s eyes that Lilah began to see the story of Tinashé unfold. In Lilah’s own words, “[Tinashé] reflects one very individual take on teenage life, yet in the same breath speaks to a timeless coming-of-age story. A story that echoes that of a new generation of young people in Australia that are just doing the best with what they have in order to be better than yesterday.” For them, it was vital that the onset dynamic of Tinashé reflected an inclusive and welcoming working environment. “When you are creating a piece like this as the producer, you have so many people relying on you to get it right.”
After shooting Tinashé, Lilah watched the final edit with cinematographer Jesse Lane. “I just cried! It was a really special and powerful moment. I was so overwhelmed with joy – proud of Tig and the entire team who contributed to this story.” Tinashé was invited to screen at the Berlinale – Berlin’s International Film Festival – and, thanks to Screen Australia and Film Victoria, Lilah and Tig were able to attend. This was the first time that Lilah was able to see the film shown to a live audience on the big screen – “a complete and humbling experience I'll never forget.” The film was awarded with an Honourable Mention at the closing ceremony, an unexpected yet remarkable end to the to the festival. With potential plans for Tinashé pop-up screenings and public release in late 2022, Lilah notes the importance of coming together to celebrate and experience film, facilitating meaningful conversations within the context of a wider narrative. “That was one of the reasons I curated the program Into The Night at the Immigration Museum,” they say, “in order to create something that not only celebrates an emerging generation of local filmmakers from the African diaspora, but provides an opportunity to bring the right people together in the right environment and hopefully have some really nice conversations.”
Have fun, make mistakes but take every lesson and grow from it.”
Dedicated to focusing the spotlight on diverse narratives, Lilah consistently challenges both cultural and gender binaries. “Film is such a powerful medium,” Lilah explains, “and I think we often overlook – when used right – how deeply it can connect with an audience, yet – when used irresponsibly at the same velocity – can be very damaging to large groups of people.” Growing up, Lilah notes how there was little to no representation of who they were in film and, early on in their career, they were shocked at how little diversity was present within film teams. This is something that Lilah is still working towards remedying and continues to both highlight and encourage this in their practice. “I have been on way too many sets where I am the only person who is phenotypically diverse. While the industry is certainly getting better at highlighting different groups of people in front of the camera, I'm still not seeing too much diversity reflected in commercial crews at all.” Because of this, Lilah endeavours to empower the next generation and elevate diverse voices through their work, creating opportunities for discussions and stories of gender identity, sexuality and culture. “Now more than ever, we need to see people from different backgrounds in decision making roles and we need to be hearing stories from diverse creatives who are writing, producing and directing their own narratives.”
For now, Lilah is concentrating on crafting a space to explore writing and directing in their own film projects, looking to deepen their work with the community and provide safe creative learning opportunities for youth to explore film. “It can seem like such a huge step to get something from inside your head materialised and out into the world and, sometimes, one of the biggest obstacles is being your own harshest critic,” they say, “which can be one of the worst things if it stops you from sharing your work, but can be one of the best things if you can use your critical lens to future plan and motivate you.” Lilah admits that they jump between the two but knows to trust the process. “If the last couple of years have taught something creatively, it’s that it’s never that serious,” Lilah says. “Have fun, make mistakes but take every lesson and grow from it.” With a few short films already in the pipeline, as well as a potential interactive film projection for the public sphere, this is just the start for Lilah Benetti, with a whole lot more to come.