Meet The Young Actress Curating a Film Symposium on Trauma

Jessie-Ann Kohlman, an actor from Washington D.C., living in Los Angeles, has brought together filmmakers from around the world to explore different facets of one of the most sensitive and nuanced topics of our time: trauma.

actor | Annie Hall | Berlin

actor | Annie Hall | BerlinPhoto by Alex Lill

When we talk about actors, we often talk about range: their ability to apply themselves to this role or that with equal amounts intensity and particularity. Since I met her in the ratty hallways of our dorm building in lower Manhattan, Jessie-Ann Kohlman has impressed me with her range—and while she currently resides in Los Angeles, making a go at the unforgiving actor’s life, I’m not just talking about her theatrical range. Jessie has the uncanny and enviable ability to apply herself to different situations and different undertakings without (or so it looks from the outside) a hitch. In the seven years I’ve known her, she’s been at different times an honors political science student, a film director, a theatre student, an actor, a culture writer, a curator. 

This weekend in the Freunde von Freunden space in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, Jessie will be executing the final act of her latest role: creator and producer of the film symposium, Cortisol. Cortisol is a curated day of short films and guided discussion which addresses trauma in some of its many forms. The event includes sixteen films from directors hailing from around the world, from Australia to Iran to Chile, who have employed their medium to take on topics such as climate change, financial crises, civil war, state oppression, sexual abuse, and much more. The films are divided into five sections, which are, in turn, divided by three group conversations led by Jessie, the filmmakers, and several featured speakers.

In the run-up to the symposium, I spoke to Jessie about how she dreamed up and approached this project—a project whose theme possesses so much innate complexity and metaphorical thin ice—and why she believes wholeheartedly in the effective unsnobbiness of film.

actor | Annie Hall | BerlinStill from the film “Altiplano” directed by Malena Szlam.

Where are you from and where do you live now?

I’m from Washington, DC, just moved from NYC to LA.

What does your life look like at the moment?

Lots of time raising my cat, Ludwig Van. Lots of time with my boyfriend. Lots of time trying to get work as an actor. Lots of time being lonely in LA.

When did you first become interested in film?

Really young. I’m definitely a child of the Digital Age. Since I was little, I’ve been talking back to screens and finding companionship in the characters of the films I obsessed over. For me, films have always been a form of refuge and therapy; something I lose myself in and take inspiration from on how to live or what to aspire to.  

What were the first films that made a lasting impression on you?

I watched Sound of Music, Annie, Sabrina, and Wizard of Oz a million times as a kid. Also this really scary animated film narrated by Bonnie Raitt, Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away. I had a really active imagination and was honestly quite lonely, so I liked watching things with girls that found families in unexpected places. As I got older a lot of Hitchcock (Strangers On a Train, Psycho, The Birds) and Stephen King (The Shining, Misery). One of my favorite first film memories is my dad showing me Annie Hall. Also watching Clockwork Orange with my mom, which seems insane retrospectively.

actor | Annie Hall | BerlinStill from the film “Archipelagos, Naked Granites” directed by Daphné Hérétakis. 

What about film as a medium do you find so powerful?

I love film because of its accessibility. It can be enjoyed by anyone and distributed everywhere. I’d say that it is the least elitist art form in this way. It is such a powerful method of teaching people about other cultures and opening people up to stories that they never experience in their day to day lives. I also love its inherently collaborative nature; you need subjects, directors, editors, writers, not to mention all of the technical people on a set. It means that with any project, the final piece is rarely just one person’s perspective.

Okay, let’s talk about the symposium. Where did the spark for this idea come from?

This topic was very personal to me. It was inspired by some dark things that had happened to me, as well as what I was experiencing with my mental health. I found myself dissociating pretty frequently and definitely distancing myself from friends and not feeling comfortable being honest about the lack of connection I was experiencing with those around me. A project I recently worked on with Ondine Viñao titled Holy Fools was instrumental in getting me back in touch with some life experiences that I’d desperately tried to forget. The experience forced me share and connect on a different, more visceral level than I was used to, both professionally and personally. It was very cathartic. It’s actually being screened on Saturday as well, which I’m terrified about.

actor | Annie Hall | BerlinStill from the film “Animal” directed by Ali Eemaaniraad.

Last year, you did a similar kind of project. Can you tell me a bit about it?

What I did before for SoHo House [in New York] last summer was I put together a roster of female directors who were exploring film in experimental or alternative ways and were based in New York. I shared a short film that I had directed and produced along with five other female directors. The project was much more limited in its scope [than Cortisol], but also much more broad in theme. 

What was new or challenging or scary about developing Cortisol?

This time, when I was putting this together, I really wanted to narrow in and make it more focused, but also expand the range of perspectives on a more concentrated topic. That meant that when I was curating this, I built up the roster of films by a lot: we’re sharing sixteen works, instead of just six. And it was also important to me to have these intermittent group conversations where people can digest and process what they’re experiencing together, which led to the idea of these conversations that will happen at three points throughout the day.

This whole thing has been pretty intimidating for me, both because of the sensitive nature of what we’re trying to discuss, but also in the real responsibility that I felt to make sure that a bunch of different perspectives were included–to make sure that everyone that comes feels in some way like their experience is being mirrored, or being respected and validated by its inclusion. I have a very personal and honestly a very strong opinion on what trauma means to me, both in personal experiences but also in just being an American, being a New Yorker, the things that I was exposed to systemically that I found traumatic, but that’s just one perspective. It’s also been about forcing myself to get out of my own experience.

actor | Annie Hall | BerlinStill from the film “Past Perfect” directed by Jorge Jácome.

This topic, trauma, is such a difficult one, for so many reasons. Perhaps first and foremost because it makes people uncomfortable and often can be triggering. What methods and practices or research did you use to develop this project in a way that would cater to the sensitive nature of the topic?

I read Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps Score, which is a wonderful book to anyone who’s focused on their own healing. I’m not normally one for a “self-help” type of read, but it’s a pretty excellently constructed book, with anecdotes from his experiences treating all types of trauma patients (veterans, abused children, survivors of natural disasters) as well as medical research that has begun to help us pinpoint exactly what happens to a “traumatized” brain over time. He’s at the forefront of trauma research and treatment (in Western medicine, although he does incorporate Eastern healing practices), and has a lot of helpful suggestions on how best to begin to talk about such a difficult and oftentimes sloppily discussed topic. Additionally, Desmond Tutu’s writings and other accounts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were really enlightening. It’s fascinating and inspiring how he helped guide people to healing and steered people away from seeking revenge for all the pain that was inflicted upon them.

[Some of Jessie’s other suggested reads on the subject are: Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, The Holocaust Testimonies compiled by Lawrence Langer, Jacque Lacan’s work, The Torture Machine by Flint Taylor] 

That said, I’m not a trained therapist or psychologist, and I think that most of the ways in which I’m trying to go about this are largely intuitive. I’m honestly taking a lot of the cues from drama school (I just finished two years of it) and am trying to encourage others to be present and in touch with themselves, and only experience and share what feels right and safe. I tried to incorporate a wide range of lenses in which this topic can be considered, both in the films as well as the speakers, so that everyone felt heard and their experiences validated and reflected by the programming. I’m trying to lead by example by encouraging people to ground themselves and treat the space and each other with respect.

actor | Annie Hall | BerlinStill from the film “Cheer Up Baby” directed by Adinah Dancyger.

You have such an interesting range—thematically and geographically—in the films presented in this symposium. Tell me about the process for tracking down these filmmakers.

I worked on this extensively with Alex Assil, who is an art director and curator based in New York and LA. [Alex also provided art direction and consulting for the symposium]. The first step was me reaching out to people that I knew personally. Three of the directors, Chase Hall, Ondine Viñao, and Adinah Dancyger are all New York-based people who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and Ondine I’ve collaborated with in the past. That was my foundation, where I started. But to try and get this breadth of perspectives, I started doing a lot of research into the international film festival circuit. Additionally, research on the short film corners that are at MoMA, on this website called Some Shorts that features a lot of documentaries and other kinds of experimental short films and then on the major festivals like Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, which all have really wonderful short film corners.

That was one of the other things that was important to me. So often these short film corners at the big festivals just get completely passed over, even though there is amazing content there. I feel proud of the fact that what we’re doing on Saturday really showcases a form that is so often treated as an after thought.

What are you most nervous about, leading up to the symposium?

There have definitely been moments where I’ve had to reconcile with the fact that this experience on Saturday will only work if everyone there is committed to respecting others’ experiences, but also committed to being as open and honest as possible. The fact that that is required of me, too, is very difficult for me, so I know that it is a really big ask of people. But that effort and intention definitely needs to be there. 

Cortisol will run from 1pm to 7pm at the Freunde von Freunden space in Berlin. To attend, find more information here.  

actor | Annie Hall | BerlinStill from film “Greetings From Aleppo” directed by Issa Touma, Floor van der Meulen, and Thomas Vroege. 

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