In her places of residency spanning across the globe, actress and filmmaker Irina Varina noticed the same gender stereotypes throughout any continent she called home.
Whether in her home country of Uzbekistan or recent residence of South Philadelphia, Varina was always troubled by how women are perceived in the mass media, encompassing assumed norms about how they should dress, what careers they should pursue and where they’re most likely to find a husband.
“I’m not surprised that I have these issues in my life,” Varina said. “Feeling myself as a full-on human being because this is what I grew up on. Whether in this country or another country, these are the messages I’ve been getting since I was very little – on a subtle level, even.”
In her latest movie-making endeavor, Varina, a former Point Breeze resident and graduate of Headlong Performance Institute in South Philadelphia, has produced a new web series, “Things I’d Like To Do Instead Of Thinking About Men,” which is streaming at vimeo.com/tiltdiotam.
The six-episode production surrounds a woman who disappears, leaving behind a YouTube show as she attempts to understand romance. It was filmed throughout the city over the summer, including at a local Acme, 1400 E. Passyunk Ave. In September, the series premiered with Free Philly Fringe Festival, a cost-free alternative to the citywide FringeArts events.
Over the last decade, Varina, who shuffles back and forth between Philly and New York City, has gained an extensive collection of film experience – both in front of and behind the camera.
“(Film) is my world,” she said. “I just feel very comfortable there. So, I don’t have a fear of making film, for example. It doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings about failure. I have plenty of feelings about failure. It takes courage to do anything. But, I can take that first step of, ‘I’m going to do it.’ ”
That was Varina’s mindset as she began cultivating ideas for the web series.
Over the last decade, Varina, who’s been featured in several student films, independent shorts and feature films, has had her own work screened at the Tiny Film Festival, NewFilmmakers New York, The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival and Queens World Film Festival, to name a few. Aside from working as a production assistant on feature films, Varina’s own first full-length movie, “Us, Forever Ago,” is now available on Amazon Prime Video after being screened at festivals and galleries during 2018.
But, as Varina attempts to understand love – both through a partner and through herself – she wanted to execute this concept for a story a bit more swiftly than her past projects.
“There’s this thing where you have an idea and you immediately want to share it with people,” she said. “A web series, by nature, can be very low-key. It can be anything you want it to be…It’s liberating.”
Varina stresses that “Things I’d Like To Do Instead Of Thinking About Men,” which features nine local performing artists, was rooted in experimentation as she worked alongside sound designer Floyd Raynor and cinematographer Kate Raines.
Having recently worked on projects that required a few years of production, Varina was ready to create something a bit more visceral.
“Especially with this project, I don’t have to fit anybody’s ideas about anything, and I don’t have to be successful with it,” she said. “I sort of followed my feelings quite a lot.”
For that reason, a web series was the fitting medium.
“I think the web series format is ideal for creating this story,” said Raynor, who is based in the Netherlands. “With this format, there are only a few people involved, and I believe this truly brings Irina’s vision to the story. It also makes for a dynamic production with a flexible planning. When I needed half a day to get out to record supermarket sounds because we felt the realism of the supermarket should contrast with the otherworldly scenes, this wasn’t a problem.”
Exploring the themes of men, women and their relationship with one another could be tackled through various approaches, especially amidst contemporary topics, such as gender identity and the #MeToo Movement.
But, in the spirit of making an emotion-driven narrative, Varina built upon her personal experiences.
“For some reason, the angle that is closest to my heart is – how am I participating?” Varina asked. “What are the stories that I’m telling myself about my value and about who I have to be in this world or even in a conversation?”
“To me, it’s about a woman coming to terms with herself, specifically as a woman relating to men,” Raynor said. “I think identity, perception and misunderstanding and change play key roles.”
Inspired by social advocacy demonstrated by the city’s artistic community, Varina felt Philadelphia was the appropriate place to film and screen “Things I’d Like To Do Instead Of Thinking About Men.”
Because the project featured local artists hailing from the city’s dance and theater realm, the Free Philly Fringe Festival served as a suitable platform, especially considering the series’ foundation was about experimenting with new methods of filmmaking.
“It was more fitting in the sense that there were all of these people from the dance and theater community in Philadelphia who you usually see on stage,” Varina said. “And now, they’re in this new medium. It’s just fun and playful of, ‘Hey, this is also a way of making something.’ And, it’s actually totally doable.”