film directors

Unpacking sex addiction: Director Alexandra Qin talks about her deeply personal Sundance short film

Ryan Oquiza

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Unpacking sex addiction: Director Alexandra Qin talks about her deeply personal Sundance short film

DIRECTOR. Director Alexandra Qin.

Alexandra Qin's Instagram

French-Filipino-Chinese director Alexandra Qin talks about getting into Sundance with her debut film ‘Thirstygirl' and the importance of addressing themes like addiction and advocating activism in film.

WASHINGTON, DC, USA – Alexandra Qin’s journey to Sundance started with a simple Google search. A veteran software engineer and founder of a nonprofit that teaches coding to the formerly incarcerated, this basic web search, embedded in the technology and coding language she has mastered throughout her career, was one of the many turning points in her burgeoning film career.

“I Googled, ‘How do you become a director?’ Because I had no idea,” Alex shared with me in a Zoom call as she sipped from a mug with a film camera design on it. “The answers from Google were like, ‘Go to film school,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, that’s expensive and really long.’  So there was like, ‘be an actor first’ or ‘be a cinematographer first’ or ‘be an editor first’ or ‘be a writer first.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, writer, that’s the easiest one. All you need is a laptop. I’ll try that.’”

“You’re selling it short.” I told her. “You just said that’s the easiest one, ‘writing’,” and we both laughed and found humor in the ease with which she expressed that. She wasn’t underestimating writing, she was simply practical, recognizing her own skills and resources – much like anyone trying to break into the industry. “I think it was probably divine guidance at that moment because I thought I hated writing before that. But actually I love it. I really love it.”

Her writing would end up opening doors for her since her feature screenplay, Thirstygirl, wound up as the 2022 Page Awards Grand Prize Winner as well as being a 2022 Nicholl Fellowship Semifinalist. Even more remarkable is the fact that Thirstygirl holds deep personal significance for her. The story centers around Charlie, an Asian woman battling to conceal her sex addiction during a road trip with her sister, who is headed to rehab.

“I wanted it to be about sex addiction because I’m a recovering sex addict.” The French-Filipino-Chinese director said. “I’m also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and when I was going through the worst of my addiction. I really ruined my life like I lost my marriage, my job, my green card, my work visa, my home, and all my friends, almost all of them.”

Alex’s path to recovery from addiction has inspired her to not only write Thirstygirl, but also to produce other forms of art that showcase her vulnerability in both intimate and strikingly honest ways. Most notably, her immersive multimedia monologue entitled Losing Things was her first solo show, and in it were 365 illustrations made by her, one for each day of her first year of sobriety.

I had a wonderful chat with Alex, who was in New York at the time of our interview. We discussed her filmmaking inspirations for Thirstygirl, her approach to collaboration, the role of activism in film, and the importance of fostering understanding and empathy towards sex addiction.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Congratulations on a successful run for Thirstygirl. How was it like finding out your film got into Sundance?

It was very shocking. I’m sure it’s like this for all filmmakers who find out about Sundance, but I truly did not think there was a chance at all that we would get into Sundance. But we had already premiered six months, five months prior. I had gotten rejected from like 22 festivals in a row. Like small festivals, some festivals you’ve never even heard of. Which just speaks to how subjective art is, and especially film. 

I was at the airport on my way back from a festival in the UK and it was Irene Soriano [who called me], a Filipino programmer on the Sundance team. So I got this call and it’s an unknown number. And I think to myself, “God, every time I see an unknown number on my phone, I think it might be a festival,” so I answer, but it’s always just bullshit. It’s always a telemarketer. So I answer and I’m very rude, kind of like, “Who is this?” And on the other side, it’s like, “May I speak to Alex?” 

“Who is this? What is this about?” [I say]. And she says, “I’m Irene Soriano from Sundance, and I just want to let you know that Thirstygirl got into Sundance,” and I just go into shock, I don’t really know what’s happening. So I’m just so cool. I’m like, “Okay, okay, okay.” And I can tell she thinks it’s weird that I’m not having a bigger reaction. And then five minutes in, I stop and I’m like, “Irene, sorry, sorry. Like, I just can’t really believe this is happening right now.” And then she starts to laugh and she’s like, “I know everyone thinks this is a prank call.”

Can you share with us a bit about yourself and how the short film speaks to your own personal story?

So Thirstygirl is my first short film, and it’s actually the proof of concept for my first feature screenplay, which is also called Thirstygirl. And about three years ago I decided to quit my previous career. I, for a long time, was a software engineer and then started a nonprofit called Emergent Works that teaches code to formerly incarcerated people so that they can find well-paying jobs in the tech industry. 

As you may know, in the United States, mass incarceration is a huge problem and the main reason people return to prison after they come out is because they don’t have access to jobs that pay well enough to survive. So they end up having to return to crime. I did that for many years and was very passionate about it, but due to a number of factors, I rediscovered my childhood dream of making movies.

I started writing my first feature, Thirstygirl, and I knew that I wanted it to be about sex addiction because I’m a recovering sex addict. And as I started to recover from that addiction, I realized that there was not a lot of understanding and empathy for sex addiction out in the world. And I just wanted to make something that would help people like me who had experienced this addiction or who were in the middle of it, to feel more understood, to feel less alone, and to feel like there’s hope, you know?

The story of the short film is about a young, mixed Asian-American woman named Charlie on a road trip with her younger sister, and we’re not sure where they’re going. But all we know is Charlie keeps trying to send nudes on her phone and watch porn and have sex. So her sex addiction is kind of getting in the way of her ability to be on this road trip with her sister. The story’s inspired by my own experience with sex addiction, but also by my relationship with my little sister. She’s probably the most important person in my life. And so I often say Thirstygirl is a story about sex addiction, but mostly about sisterhood. 

What unique insight do you hope audiences get out of your film regarding the topic of sex addiction that’s different from other films?

I love [the films] Nymphomaniac and Shame. What I wanted to do with the Thirstygirl feature script was to really show where sex addiction comes from and begin to show how you can heal from it and have a deeper understanding of it. 

With the Thirstygirl short, that wasn’t really my intention because you [only] have 10 minutes. Like how deep can you really go? So I just really wanted to give a taste of what that serial feature could be. But I think one obvious way in which Thirstygirl is different from other sex addict films is that, to my knowledge, it’s the only film about a sex addict where the protagonist is an Asian woman. 

That was really important to me. I really am only interested in writing Asian protagonists – especially Asian women – and exploring these darker, more taboo subjects. One thing that was also very important to me with the Thirstygirl short in portraying sex addiction was for the audience to have compassion for Charlie, and I think that was accomplished. I think we’re left feeling sadness and tenderness for her and not just like, “Ew. Gross.”

I loved the editing in your short film. It was incredibly satisfying and even found ways to inject a bit of comedy. Then, I found out that your editing partner is also your husband! Talk to me about what that collaboration process was like.

I’m so grateful that you gave a shout out to the editing because it’s one of the aspects of the film that I’m most proud of. My husband, Esteban Pedraza, is an incredibly talented editor on top of being a very talented writer and director. His film, Bogotá Story got into the Venice Film Festival last year. Working with him was both amazing and horrible. I remember after one of our most difficult editing sessions, it was our anniversary that night, and we almost canceled it because we were so angry with each other. 

During dinner he says to me, “Listen, I love you, but promise me you’ll never ask me to edit one of your films again.” But, you know, now that we’ve had some distance, we’d be open to it [collaborating] again, because when the editing process is going great between us, it’s amazing. Usually if you have a hard day at work and you want to kill your director, you can go home and complain to your wife. But not in this case because your wife is your director.

The cinematography by Fletcher Wolfe was astounding. It really does evoke the same mood as the films Shame (2011) and Happening (2021). What was it like translating your words to moving images with her?

Fletcher is such a great Director of Photography. I feel so lucky that I met her. She was introduced to me by our producer and casting director Brooke Goldman, who was also an amazing collaborator. I credit Fletcher entirely for how good the film looks. I’m starting to learn more about it and I’m starting to develop stronger preferences and a stronger eye, but it definitely was one of my weakest points. 

And so I really wanted to work with the DP who I knew would be able to guide me through the process as a first time director, and I couldn’t have gotten luckier than with Fletcher. She is so smart, so experienced, so humble.  We talked a lot before shooting about why we were choosing this aspect ratio and what the lighting and colors were going to mean. And even when the camera would be handheld and when it would be static, all of it came from narrative choices, all of it came from the state of mind of the protagonist.

I want to ask about the actresses as well. How was it like casting them considering it was a personal story?

Casting is probably the aspect of directing that I feel the strongest intuition about. Like when we were casting, I could immediately say, “Yes, no and why.” And it was one of my favorite parts of the process because I knew what I was looking for. For the sisters, I was really open to any kind of young Asian woman, and we ended up looking in New York and I wasn’t finding the person I wanted.

So we expanded to all of the United States. And we found Samantha Ahn, who played Charlie. She lives in LA, and she submitted for the other roles, and I just saw her photo in a Google Drive with everyone’s tapes. And I was like, “Who is this? This is Charlie.” There’s just something I’m chemical about her face. She’s got the face of a star.

As soon as we got the two leads in a room together, Samantha and Claire Makenzie, who plays the younger sister Nic, they started crying from their connection. By the time we started shooting, it was like we were all sisters. And I am so grateful for how wonderful the process was of working with the two of them because it was just purely joyful and playful and it felt so real and emotional what was happening between the two of them. 

You have also been very active in the field of activism through prison reform and by using your software engineering expertise to teach code through a nonprofit organization. Now that you’ve established yourself as a filmmaker, do you also see yourself committing to activism in film? 

You know, I think I’ve been an activist since I was a child in many different ways. I’m always working on some kind of cause that’s important to me. The cause that has been most important to me for almost ten years now is probably that of anti-racism. 

I’ve worked for a long time on addressing anti-black and brown racism through the prison system in the United States. How I see that continuing to manifest itself via film is, firstly, I’m working on a couple of projects, documentary film projects that have to do with the prison system and the work I used to do.

And as I mentioned earlier, representation in film is of the utmost importance, both in front of and behind the camera and so on. My sets, it’s really important to me to hire people of color, especially if we’re telling Asian and Asian diaspora stories. I don’t make a character white unless that really has to be narratively. That’s just kind of what I care about doing with filmmaking. I know a lot of other filmmakers are different. So yeah, I think anti-racism is something that needs to be tackled in all areas of life, both personally and professionally. 

From 2019 to 2020 you had a Mixed Media Monologue entitled Losing Things, which explores the journey towards recovery from addiction; the central question of the piece was “How do you become whole?” Given its topic, is Thirstygirl sort of an extension of you trying to answer and give meaning to that question?

I love this question. It’s a very thoughtful question and the answer is yes. As far as I can foresee, that’s the question that I’m trying to get at through all of my film and writing work. And that’s, for me, the central question of being a human. 

I’ve had so many struggles with self-destructive behaviors in my life that I couldn’t understand. Now I do, and it doesn’t mean I still don’t do them, but it’s a lot less destructive now. And so that one-woman show or mixed media monologue was a very personal recap of my first year of sobriety. And it was accompanied by 365 illustrations that I had done by hand every single day of my sobriety journey and they’re all online. I’m actually planning on releasing it as a book this year. 

For me, addiction comes from a feeling of not being full, a feeling of not being loved, and needing to fill that hole with alcohol, drugs, sex, work, money, being skinny. All of my self-destructive and or addictive behavior has come from a place of not feeling good enough as I am, and partially wanting to soothe that pain, but also partially wanting to do things that make me feel like I’m raising my self-esteem, even though it actually doesn’t. 

Thirstygirl comes from a place of not feeling whole. The next feature script I’m working on right now is more about love addiction, or falling madly in love with someone who’s unavailable. My next project after that, and this is something that I have like a Filipino actor in mind, is going to be about anorexia, eating disorders, and our society’s obsession with thinness. 

For the foreseeable future, my body of work is definitely going to be about the ways in which we hurt ourselves without necessarily understanding why. 

‘Thirstygirl’ premieres at Sundance on January 20, with additional showings on January 21, 24, 27, and 28, and online for US audiences from January 25-29. Details on the Sundance website. – Rappler.com

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.