DC-area native Hannah Fidell is making waves in independent cinema.
Hannah Fidell’s first feature film, A Teacher, harnesses the salacious and the uncomfortable in a single premise: a twenty-something high school teacher finds herself romantically entangled with her handsome, underage pupil. The plot could have been pulled from frontpage headlines, but DC-area native Fidell, 27, didn’t base her work solely on the notorious exploits of educators such as Mary Kay Letourneau and Debra Lafave. Fidell’s own awkward encounter actually inspired the script. “I was working at a restaurant and a boy walked in, who was clearly in high school,” Fidell remembers. “I was attracted to him, but it wasn’t just a physical attraction. It was almost Proustian: a remembrance of what I would have been attracted to when I was [that age]. So I started exploring that idea.”
Starring Fidell’s friend Lindsay Burdge, the movie is careful not to cast the teacher as villain. “The film is not necessarily about an illicit relationship between an older woman and a younger guy,” Fidell says. “It could be about doing something that you know is wrong and not being able to stop yourself.”
The complicated relationship between teacher and student, as well as her minimalist yet trenchant script, made Fidell’s directorial and screenwriting feature debut a success. The film was not only accepted into the Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT competition this year, but it garnered Fidell the Emergent Narrative Woman Director award at the South by Southwest Film Conference & Festival.
Fidell’s next screenplay, That Girl on TV, will deal in part with the zeitgeist of reality television. “It’s about one woman’s rise to fame from dating a reality star and her upward trajectory as a cultural status symbol,” she explains. Though the plot focuses on society’s fascination with pop culture, Fidell’s ideal collaborator is far from a flash-in-the-pan. “I’m obsessed with [French actress] Isabelle Huppert,” Fidell says. Television writing also appeals to the Brooklyn resident because it would allow her to experiment with a longer narrative.
Fidell says that her childhood spent in the DC area has influenced her work. “I went to schools that had the resources so that I could explore my artistic sensibilities,” she remarks of her time at Sidwell Friends School and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
“In high school I spent maybe six out of eight periods in the dark room. A lot of what I do now on a daily basis—collecting images and keeping virtual journals—those are all lessons I learned in school,” she says. “And having the Corcoran and the National Gallery [of Art]—my parents really forced me to take advantage of it,” she adds with a laugh. We can also thank Fidell’s parents for knowing their daughter’s strengths. “I thought I was going to be a lawyer,” Fidell says. “My parents sat me down and told me that was the dumbest idea I’ve ever had because I’m not suited to be a lawyer. Thank God they did that!”