Still from PLANETARIUM.

planetarium is a short film celebrating the radical power of women

Liv Colliander and David Henry Gerson’s fantastical visual, narrated by Maripol, breathes new life into Adrienne Rich’s feminist poem.

by Nicole DeMarco
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Dec 13 2018, 7:12pm

Still from PLANETARIUM.

“A woman in the shape of a monster/ a monster in the shape of a woman/ the skies are full of them,” opens Adrienne Rich’s poem, "Planetarium." She wrote it in 1968, inspired by Caroline Herschel, the first female astronomer, but also the idea that women could one day transcend the traditional roles of wife and mother that society prescribed them. As a radical lesbian-feminist poet, Adrienne was ahead of her time. However, when directors Liv Colliander and David Henry Gerson (one of the creators of Automatic at Sea), sought to create a visual project in homage to powerful women, especially those who’ve persisted in the turbulent, often hopeless, political climate of the last year, they gave new meaning to Adrienne’s triumphant words.

The husband and wife director duo started by going through the poem, line by line, to figure out exactly what they saw — before casting a variety of women from all backgrounds and realms of work to appear in their stunning project. In PLANETARIUM, we see Mahsa Ahmadi, the first Iranian stuntwoman, Daphne Von Rey, a performance artist and trans rights activist, professional skateboarder Liz Alvarez, cellist Alyssa Osorio, and many many more. “Because again, it's a galaxy. A galaxy has everything,” Liv says. She and David filmed visual portraits of these women throughout Los Angeles, to best capture the honesty of their work. “The actors go from moments of darkness, doubt, or fear, having them push through that fear into the joy of doing what they love doing,” David explains. The short film is narrated by Maripol, multimedia artist, Polaroid photographer, and famed stylist to Madonna and Debbie Harry.

“I am an instrument in the shape of a woman/ trying to translate pulsations into images/ for the relief of the body/ and the reconstruction of the mind,” Maripol says, reading Rich’s words, as visuals of joyous women presenting their art swirl around her.

i-D spoke to Liv and David to learn just what inspired their powerful visual project and go behind the scenes with the two directors.

How did this project start?
Liv: Well, we usually direct apart, but we're also married. I have been wanting to make a short project that was not necessarily narrative and not documentary, and we were thinking it could be a little visual film with a poem, but I wanted it to have a relevance. We remembered that we had read the poem Planetarium by Adrienne Rich, that we both really loved, and realized that it would be a great thing to do together that we're both passionate about. And we wanted to celebrate women this year, which felt appropriate.
David: Yeah. We were inspired by the poem and how it felt like a portrayal of this strength that we really need to see in 2018.
Liv: Yeah, and after the year that it’s been… we started rereading it and talking about what it was about. And as she's talking about how the sky is full of them — of these women — and the galaxy of women. And it keeps on going, and she sees an instrument in the shape of a woman. We were like, well that's perfect because it's something we both care a lot about. Me, of course being a female filmmaker, and David is a big supporter of that.

Film still of stunt driver Cecile Cubilo in PLANETARIUM directed by Liv Colliander and David Henry Gerson.
Film still of stunt driver Cecile Cubilo in PLANETARIUM directed by Liv Colliander and David Henry Gerson.

Do you remember when you first came in contact with the poem or when you first read it?David: We read it a while ago and we had been speaking of Whitman, but we were looking for the female voice of Whitman. And relatively recently, I noticed she passed away and there was sort of a resurgence of Adrienne Rich.
Liv: We have a book of hers and we grabbed it.
David: She passed away in 2012, but it just felt like the right moment for this work.
Liv: And we we were very deep in it. We started to read it aloud to each other. She really had the strength that we felt we needed in our life. And then we were like, that's a great thing to share with others and if we can find a way to put images on that, that can give the strength that we feel when reading the poem — inspiring positive feeling to go forth and keep discovering, keep fighting, keep exploring.
David: Yeah. There’s the bit when she talks about this woman who, in her 98 years, discovered eight comets. The fact that you have a woman for 98 years, searching her whole life. Searching for life, for stars.
Liv: For me, the courage hits me every time: ‘I am bombarded, yet I stand. I've been standing all my life.’ But that feeling of being bombarded ... I think, when we were looking at filming this summer and shooting... I was feeling quite bombarded. I think all women probably were at that time. I’ve seen a lot of other strong women around us, that have really stood up and been really brave. They keep standing, even when they're bombarded.

This year especially, where everything feels so negative, this is much more of an inspiring, positive force.
Liv: We’re not alone. All the women standing together, there are galaxies of them. That's how we want 2019 to be. We want it to have that energy.
David: We spoke about moments of breakthroughs. Pushing through the darkness and finding moments of pure joy, genius, and moments of real creativity and breakthroughs. And I think early on that became a guiding principle of it.

Film still of dancer Caribay Franke in PLANETARIUM directed by Liv Colliander and David Henry Gerson.
Film still of dancer Caribay Franke in PLANETARIUM directed by Liv Colliander and David Henry Gerson.

In what ways did you try to inject this positivity when you were filming?
David: With each setup we went through, the actors go from moments of darkness, doubt, or fear, having them push through that fear into the joy of doing what they love doing, whether it was... can I try this donut? Can I paint this painting? Am I a failure as an artist? And into the joy of their passions.
Liv: And due to the spontaneity and how quickly it went, we didn't have a lot of preparation. It was very... bring or set up the thing that you know how to do best and then let's create it in that moment. So, for some of those stunt drivers even though she's a badass and can do anything, she hadn't been in that car. She hadn't been in that area before. Everybody had the whole project — we're going to take what you start doing until you figure out what you're doing, and go for it.
David: And we tried to capture that.