First Crushes and First Loves: Interview with Julianna Notten

Toronto Outdoor Picture Show’s summer-long Dynamic Duos programme continues with the launch of our signature series, Christie Pits Film Festival, which opens on Sunday, June 30th with the Kenyan feature Rafiki, directed by Wanuri Kahiu. Rafiki tells the story of Kena and Ziki, the daughters of political rivals who fall in love and must face the prejudices of their community. Paired with Rafiki are Diane Obomsawin’s animated short I Like Girls, a touching and humorous exploration of various girls’ first loves, and Julianna Notten’s live action short, Erin’s Guide to Kissing Girls, about tween girl Erin and her best friend Liz as they concoct a scheme to invite Erin’s first crush to the school dance.


We sat down to chat with Julianna Notten about her short film.

TOPS: This year’s programme theme is Dynamic Duos. Films focused on duos have historically often centred on male-female romantic couples or male friendships, such as in buddy movies and superhero films, although recently filmmakers have been trying to reverse this trend. Tell us about the inspiration for your female duo?

Julianna Notten (JN): When you’re twelve, there is no stronger bond than that with your best friend, the one person who understands and accepts you no matter what. I wanted to tell a story about this relationship and what happens when shifting priorities and interests threaten its sanctity.

From the moment I started making my own stories and finding my voice as a filmmaker, I knew that I was always going to want to focus on female-driven narratives. Even though we are seeing more content being created by amazing women and trans* filmmakers than in the past, there is still a huge gap in representation in our media. It is still very male, white, and straight. I really wanted to challenge that while also telling a story that felt very personal to me.


TOPS: There are a lot of films about LGBTQ+ teens and young adults, but not so many about younger people. What made you decide to centre your film around tweens instead?

JN: Precisely that reason. In this day and age, more and more youth are feeling confident enough to come out at younger ages than ever before and are looking to have their stories told. Queer kids deserve media they can see themselves in, that normalizes their experience, and that doesn’t underestimate them. When I was Erin’s age, I didn’t even know my sexual orientation was an option. In many ways I created this film as a love letter to my younger self because I wish I could have been as unapologetically myself as Erin is.

TOPS: Your film is screening with Rafiki, which also portrays the joys and pain of self-discovery. How do you find the balance between writing happy stories without shying away from the less happy realities of society?

JN: It was important to me that the main challenges Erin faces in this film not be solely related to the fact that she likes girls. Much of the inspiration to create a light-hearted queer coming-of-age comedy came from the fact that the majority of queer films I’d been exposed to growing up told stories of conflict, struggle, and coming out. While these are all true and valid narratives worth sharing, they can sometimes feel like the only ones.

I’ve worked a lot with youth over the years and I’ve definitely noticed a shift in the way they approach LGBTQ issues. On the surface level, they are much more accepting than when I was their age, which is probably why we have kids coming out much younger. However, there is still a sense of “this is not the norm,” which comes out more in microaggressions. While there are no instances of blatant homophobia in the film, Erin still has to navigate her middle school as the only out kid, which comes with its own challenges, awkward questions, and rejection. At the end of the day, it was important to me to portray Erin’s story as a positive one while still acknowledging the realities of being a queer middle-schooler in 2019.

Rafiki Still 1 .jpg

TOPS: Who is your favourite cinematic duo, and why?

JN: Okay, I’ve given this question A LOT of thought and I’m pretty pleased with my answer. For me it has to be C3PO and R2D2 from Star Wars. They have been through everything together, spanning generations and galaxies. Sure, they have their disagreements, but you can tell they really care about one another (in as much of a way as droids can) and always find their way back to each other time and time again. If that’s not ride or die, I don’t know what is.

Erin’s Guide to Kissing Girls screens June 30th alongside Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018) and I Love Girls (Diane Obomsawin, 2016) at Christie Pits Film Festival.