Director Marfisia Bel Centers The Survivor POV In Her New Short Film About Sexual Assault

Directed by LA-based filmmaker Marfisia Bel and supported by Film Independent, ‘That’s The Password in This Town’ is a coming-of-age story portraying a young woman’s bittersweet transition into adulthood. The short film, released during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, explores the themes of revenge and healing, as we follow lead character Sara (played by Sharar Ali-Speakes) as she makes one of the most difficult decisions in her life. 

‘That’s The Password in This Town’ is a subversion of the rape-revenge film genre. Inspired by Andrea Arnold’s ‘Red Road’, the short film embraces the point of view, emotions and state of mind of the survivor. Rather than highlighting the perpetrator – just a glimpse in the film – we dive into Sara’s psyche. Grappling with a tremendous amount of pain and anger, she has to choose how to channel these emotions to allow herself to heal from within, find closure and be hopeful for her future. 

This film represents the journey she is making in owning her strength and realizing that she holds the key to take charge of her life. 

Marfisia shared in a press release that this film was a personal story and subject matter for her.

“I was inspired to write the script after I discovered the man who took advantage of me in my youth had a daughter. This made me wonder if this person now had a different outlook on his actions. To me, the film is a subversion of the rape-revenge genre that, instead of focusing on violence or the perpetrator, it explores the psychology of the person who experienced that act,” she said.

We had the chance to speak with Marfisia to learn more about the film, the filming process during COVID, and why it was important for her to focus all the screen time on her central survivor character, not the perpetrator.

When did you first begin writing ‘That’s The Password In This Town’, and where does the title come from?

While I was writing the script for Password I was reading a book of poetry by Japanese poet Kazuko Shiraishi. “[And] that’s the password in this town…” was a line in one of the poems. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I wrote the first draft of the script, I believe, in late 2018 or early 2019 and actually put it away for almost a year. Once the dust had settled on some other projects I was working on I was finally able to come back to it and decided it was time to make it. I did some rewrites and when the script was finished, the line “That’s the password in this town” was still stubbornly at the forefront of my mind. So it became obvious that it was the title of the film.

You wrote this as a subverted rape revenge story, that purposely shows audiences the perspective of the survivor. Why was this important to you?

Abel Ferrera’s ‘Ms.45’ is one of my favorite films and it was on my mind a lot when I initially had the idea for the script. Obviously my film is extremely different from the exploitation genre, but I was interested in exploring what this rage looks like when it’s focused inward instead of outward. I wanted the narrative to center around Sara’s transformation over a violent retribution—even though the film is set up to lead audiences to this conclusion. I just wanted to show a different perspective. I also loved the idea of setting up a gun in the first act that doesn’t end up going off in the last.

Sharar Ali-Speakes (L), Director Marfisia Bel (C), and CJ Hoff (R) who plays Niles
CJ Hoff (L) and Sharar Ali-Speakes (R)

What was the filming experience like, and did you face any barriers due to COVID?

Filming got pushed back quite a while as we were initially planning to shoot this in April/May 2020. At the time I was pretty bummed, but I’m really glad the film happened when it did because everything really came together perfectly. We were lucky that most of the script took place outside, and our crew was super small, which made following COVID protocols much easier. 

That pivotal moment where we see Sara quietly creep into a room and come face to face with her attacker’s baby daughter is quite eye-opening. What did you want audiences to think about in this scene?

To be honest, I was much more interested in what audiences are feeling rather than necessarily thinking – in this scene and in general. I tend to process things emotionally first and more cognitively later, so in my filmmaking I think this translates to being more interested in the effect. More so than necessarily wanting audiences to “think” anything, I wanted them to feel something. 

Although it was a story about sexual assault, you never see the attacker at all. Was this intentional?

Very intentional! It was very important to me to not focus on him at all. The story isn’t about him; it’s about sharing Sara’s journey in accepting that what she has suffered in the past doesn’t have to define her.

Director Marfisia Bel on the set of ‘That’s The Password In This Town’
Director Marfisia Bel with lead actress Sharar Ali-Speakes who plays Sara

Can you tell us more about themes of justice and healing, and how you interwove those through your script?

The script represents a key element to Sara’s journey. Especially as it was vital for me to capture this unique period of time, and this “in-between” energy, where young people are no longer children, but not yet adults. It was also central to show Sara grappling with this huge pain and anger, coming out on top, and learning more about who she is in the process. Sara is a different person at the end of the film.  

How did you find lead actors Sharar Ali-Speakes and CJ Hoff, and what was it like directing them?

We worked with a casting company that my producer and I really admire, and they did an amazing job finding a lot of really talented actors. Sharar and CJ stood out pretty immediately. Directing them was amazing — they made my job super easy. Sharar embodied everything I had thought about Sara while bringing her own unique spin to the character. The same can be said for CJ. They took the characters off the page and made them real people. One of the biggest things I was looking for was authenticity and they both nailed it. My only concern was chemistry between them — but as soon as we had our first rehearsal I knew I made the right choice. They were a perfect pairing and immediately got along like they had known each other for years.

What do you hope audiences will think about in regard to sexual assault and the narratives we often hear/see, after watching ‘That’s The Password In This Town’?

Thinking about it at all is a win in my book! 

You can watch ‘That’s The Password In This Town’ below:

That’s The Password In This Town from Marfisia Bel on Vimeo.

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