Negotiating Tenderness: Marija Kavtaradze on ‘Slow’

by Jason Tan Liwag

How can one arrive at a shared language of intimacy? Writer-director Marija Kavtaradze attempts to answer this question through her sophomore feature Slow (2023)—a tender romance between dancer Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) and sign language interpreter Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas) that is disrupted when Elena discovers that Dovydas is asexual. Kavtaradze continues her explorations of interiority that began in her debut Summer Survivors (2018), but turns the lens to look at the value placed on sex in society and how people who are asexual are often misunderstood or even pathologized.

At once sensual and soul-crushing, Slow lays out the doomed love affair between Elena and Dovydas with balletic grace and care, mapping mundane moments that grow magical through love and romance, while peppering in the small symptoms of larger incompatibilities lovers often dismiss on their crusade for companionship. Slow never veers into the territory of nihilism nor does it subject its protagonists to unnecessary cruelties born from misunderstanding, and instead depicts two people with rhythms that, despite their best efforts, cannot seem to sync. Slow earned Kavtaradze a Best Directing Award (World Cinema Dramatic) at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and the Explore Award at the recently concluded Film Fest Gent. She and I met over Zoom in early June to talk about writing about asexuality as an outsider, creating new images of intimacy, and choreographing a world wherein boundaries are tested and negotiated. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

There are already films and books centered around individuals who are asexual. Did you tap into any of these while creating your film? Were there stereotypes you consciously wanted to avoid or gaps you wanted to fill in?

There’s so little representation. Maybe more [have] come up [since], but before I started writing, the only representation that I had seen of asexuality was on Bojack Horseman, in the character Todd, which I love. I was a bit scared because I’m not from the [asexual] community and knew I had to do research. Everything that I could find, I had to learn and read. YouTube helped a lot with people just sharing their stories. But because there’s not so much representation, I was afraid. What are the good ways and bad ways to talk about it? 

It became easier [after] talking to people who identify as asexual. They kind of assured me that every story, every person, is so different. You can be sexually repulsed or you can still have sex. What I wanted to show in my film was that it’s okay to masturbate and still be asexual or even have sex but it’s not a physical thing. I’m not writing about the whole [continuum of] asexuality or the whole community. I’m writing about one person.

A significant amount of asexual representation is centered on women, whereas Slow centers on an asexual man. Was this gender swap intentional? If so, what did you want to reveal through that choice?

I noticed that too! I was also trying to read about couples where one person is asexual and the other is not. For me, it was very important and interesting [to depict an asexual man] because it would be “easier” to accept a woman who is asexual. Growing up, we are told that men only want one thing and women have to pretend they don’t want sex. I thought [the dynamic in Slow] is much more interesting because it’s much harder for them. 

In a way, they’re trying to be free and open. But at the same time, they are affected by the society they live in. Even if he hates [sex] sometimes, he still tries it. She is open, but she cannot accept that she’s not desired by a man. She still needs assurance or attention from somewhere else. A lot of interesting topics about gender roles come into the story because he is asexual. Sometimes, even for the audience, it might be difficult [for them] to accept that he’s an asexual man and she’s a woman who openly initiates sexual relations. So yes, that was intentional.

Food seems to be a shared language of intimacy between themfrom bowls of soup that start their romance to the comfort of being told ‘We’re going to McDonald’s’ to a sandwich that Dovydas eats when they’re on the brink of separation. How does food factor into your ideas of expressing love?

It’s so interesting that you noticed because, in the beginning, there was even more food! [Laughs] I even wanted it to play a bigger role but that went away. But it’s nice you still caught that. One thing [you’ll notice is] he’s eating [a lot] and she’s not. There’s another subtle, maybe less recognizable [detail], but she’s also struggling with accepting her body. So I had more scenes where he’s eating or suggesting that maybe she’d like some, and she’d say no. To me, food and eating are close to intimacy or even sexuality. The kind of energy, at least.

Both Elena and Dovydas are tactile and physical people and the film feels as if they’re trying to figure out the choreography of their relationship. How did their careers shape their definitions of tenderness? 

For both of them, it’s harder to sit down and talk and have a long serious conversation. Her body is her instrument and she thinks more when she moves. She expresses herself more through touch and dance than spoken language. For him, what I like about him, and I only thought about this later, is that he’s connecting people. Translation, for me, is always interesting because there are always so many things that can change or get lost. And because it’s sign language, for these people, he’s super important. They need him. For him, it’s important to be needed. But with her, he doesn’t always feel needed.

Many scenes were rehearsed with both Gerta and Kęstutis before shooting. Could you describe that process with the actors? What do you hope to flesh out through rehearsal?

Either way, I do like rehearsal. But we shot on 16 mm and this made me say we’re going to rehearse a lot because I don’t want a lot of takes. I think what helped wasn’t just rehearsal, but the time that we had. I cast them three years before [shooting]. So we would come back to this project, we would meet, all three of us, talk a little bit. Me, Kęstutis, and Greta [took] sign language classes at the very beginning of our process. They had a chance to carry these characters with them and I had a chance to rewrite the screenplay because I already knew it was them. I wanted to have them in my head. So I think that helped. 

For rehearsals, we’d come back and rehearse a little bit then we wouldn’t see each other for a long period. I would say maybe a month or two months [before the shoot], it was quite intense. They’re both very busy actors and dancers, but we would meet almost every day. We’d find time to rehearse a few scenes. Every scene was rehearsed. There wasn’t a scene that wasn’t rehearsed. Maybe one or two where they’d walk without dialogue. But in general, all scenes were rehearsed. Most of the time, it was two to three takes. The hardest scenes were probably the easiest to shoot because we rehearsed them the most.

You’ve spoken about having an intimacy coordinator for Slow. When did they enter the process and how did their input affect the way your film approaches intimacy — onscreen and offscreen?

I had the idea that it would be so cool to have an intimacy coordinator. But it’s such a new job, so there are not many people. I didn’t know that there was one in Lithuania. I was in another workshop about casting and my colleague, who is also a film director, started talking and she said she was starting her career as an intimacy coordinator. She already had experience working on big international productions, so she joined the project even before pre-production. 

She read the screenplay, we had some talks, and when we were preparing for the shoot, we had rehearsals. For one intimate scene, you have one rehearsal. It’s a lot like choreography. There’s no kissing, no undressing. It’s more about looking for the movement — where to put the hands and stuff like that. But it’s important because she talks with actors about their boundaries, what they expect, and how they’re feeling. Even though I have an excellent relationship with the actors, I know that it’s still easier to talk to a third person. If they feel that they’re not comfortable, she’d be there. 

I was happy for the actors because they’d get to feel even safer with her but also for the whole team. Intimacy coordinators don’t just help with the scene but coordinate work on set when there are intimate scenes. Who can be on set at that time and who can not? Who can look at the monitor? She also checks that that material won’t get to everyone. Who can access that material? So I think having a person like that gives more security to actors and it’s respect to actors and for me, I don’t have to worry about technicalities. I can just see if the scene is working. I can just direct. I had these intimacy scenes where I wrote them pretty clearly but we still had to look for better movement. We found more interesting details while rehearsing. So it was very helpful and I’m happy with those scenes, and how they turned out.

In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, your cinematographer Laurynas Bareiša said that this is one of the few 16 mm features from Lithuania in a long time and Nan Goldin was a huge influence for Slow. How did you arrive at a visual language for the film? And what was it about Nan Goldin’s work and 16 mm film that made these essential to the film?

16 mm came to my mind when I started writing. I don’t know. I thought it had to be shot on film. I know people who dream their whole lives and say “One day, I’ll shoot on film.” Though I never really romanticized it like that. But now having tried it, now I do! I just felt that it was right for the story. As we went along, it felt more and more right because it’s about bodies and seeing them as naturally as possible. The film reel adds to that because it is a body. It’s impossible to have film reels that are perfect because there are always scratches and stuff like that. It has this nostalgic feeling. In a way, I said at some point, we can look at the story as if you had love, it’s over, and you still care about the person, but if you’re telling the story as if you’re remembering the beautiful things. It kind of has this perspective, this nostalgic feeling. Somehow, for me, it makes so much sense.

Nan Goldin [was an influence] because I knew her work and was interested in her for a long time. It was so interesting to look at and the way she looks at these people who are usually really close to her, she knows them, and that intimacy comes from that. She is with them. She is never [coming] from the outside. In a way, I try to do the same. I can’t look at the characters as ‘these people’. I have to be with them in the story, following them but feeling a lot of compassion and empathy.

Slow is a film about negotiating boundaries. Towards the end, they cross these boundaries — literally and metaphorically. Where do you draw the line between generosity and sacrifice?

That’s a really interesting question. Every relationship is different. I could never have in my mind: ‘Okay, I have these boundaries.’ Because maybe with one person, I feel one way, with another, I feel another way. I can only trust my feelings and my gut. Is it right or not? If it’s not, you give yourself space. You distance yourself from that. But I don’t have and wouldn’t even want to have any rules or pre-made boundaries. I think it’s changing, even within the same relationship. The boundaries can change so much. It’s interesting to rethink them all the time.

Jason Tan Liwag is a Filipino scientist, actor, writer, and film programmer. He was trained in film criticism programs in Manila, Rotterdam, Udine, and Yamagata and is a regular contributor to local and international publications for film, TV, and theater. He has been jury and selection committee for film festivals in Manila, Bristol, Taipei, San Diego, and Dhaka. He is the creator of the QCinema Critics Lab and co-programmer of the QC-SEA short film competition. Outside of film, he teaches at the Department of Biology, Ateneo de Manila University. [Twitter] [Letterboxd]

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