Jessie-Ann Kohlman explores human suffering and reconciliation through film - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

Jessie-Ann Kohlman explores human suffering and reconciliation through film


The American actor and curator on The Wizard of Oz, cathartic imagination, and representing a diverse range of voices in film.

Ever since Jessie-Ann Kohlman was a child she has talked to herself in the mirror. “I had a really active imagination and was always placing myself in different scenarios,” she says, explaining that her creative streak was a product of childhood loneliness. “I have half-siblings but they’re much older than me, so I was usually the only kid in my house. As a result, I had a lot of imaginary friends, and used my imagination as a refuge.”

Using imagination as an escape naturally attracted Kohlman to film, due to its ability to transport viewers into different worlds. “I loved movies starring young women and girls on adventures,” she continues, citing The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music and Annie as pillars of her childhood. “I would watch them over and over again, very much placing myself in the story.” And while make-believe and identifying with different characters is usually a pursuit restricted to childhood, Kohlman’s career as an actor has enabled her to continue her imaginative practice as a means of catharsis. “I always felt that I had too many emotions for one person and needed ways to channel them into things, so embodying characters and imagining myself as different people has always been the healthiest way I can do that.”

This being said, Kohlman didn’t go straight into the film industry, as she first studied political science at NYU before training as an actor at William Esper Studio, a method acting school in New York. “I come from a family of defense attorneys, so my siblings and parents are all very serious and very politically engaged,” says Kohlman, who thinks that her initial major has impacted her current practice as an artist. “Studying political science made me realize that I didn’t want my creative practice to be something that’s just for me, because at times, acting can be very self-indulgent,” she confesses, reminiscing about a teacher at acting school who would yell at people for being “masturbatory” if he thought their performance was too self-serving. “It can feel really good to bear your heart, to cry, and to have your character go through the trenches. But the goal should always be to inspire discussion and to help someone else have a transformative experience, too.”

“I found myself having a lot of intense, very dark, and overwhelming emotions… I didn’t have the proper dialogue or tools to reach out to people.”

It was this social consciousness and outward-looking perspective that motivated Kohlman to organize her first film symposium last year. Hosted by Soho House, New York, the event brought together New York-based female directors to showcase the ways in which they were pushing boundaries in film, and to encourage people to discuss their responses to films immediately after watching them. “There wasn’t really a theme,” Kohlman says, explaining that the wide scope of her first symposium inspired her to do something a bit different with her second. Taking place last month in the FvF Friends Space, Berlin, the European sequel aimed to be thematically specific and to incorporate a wide range of perspectives from creatives from a variety of different backgrounds.

When asked why she chose to stage her second event in Berlin rather than her current base of L.A., Kohlman says that she thinks people in Berlin are a lot more experimental with their ideas. “In Los Angeles, people are much more image-obsessed in a way that means when they are exposed to uncomfortable ideas, people tend to shut down,” Kohlman asserts, saying that the close proximity to Hollywood is daunting for emerging filmmakers and means they are less likely to take risks. “I just really wanted the event to be a dialogue day which fostered exciting conversations between the speakers and the audience. I don’t think this would have worked so well in L.A.”

Kohlman’s Cortisol symposium in the FvF Friends Space

Titled ‘Cortisol’, and focusing on how film can be used as a way to deal with traumatic experiences, the event returned to Kohlman’s childhood inclination to use the movies as a method of catharsis. “Trauma is a very personal topic for me,” says Kohlman, who references a distressing experience that happened to her three years ago as the inspiration for exploring the theme. “I found myself having a lot of intense, very dark, and overwhelming emotions, and I felt like I didn’t have the proper dialogue or tools to reach out to people,” she explains. “So I guess ‘Cortisol’ was born out of me wondering whether other people felt the same.” And as it turns out, they did.

A diverse range of filmmakers, speakers, and participants came to Kreuzberg to share their opinions in a range of thoughtful discussions—with topics ranging from ‘Reclaiming trauma through performance’ to ‘Understanding loss’—which followed the screening of short films from all over the world. “All of the films were made by young people who had channeled their hurt or pain into something that was really stunning,” says Kohlman, who herself starred in one of the selected films Holy Fools, a film directed by her close friend Ondine Viñao. Reimagining Bruce Nauman’s seminal piece Clown Torture as a surreal exploration of the female experience caricaturing and abstracting psychological torture, Holy Fools was scheduled alongside productions from countries including Argentina, Columbia, China, Iran, and Syria. “I really wanted to make sure the event wasn’t too self-indulgent or reflective of only one experience,” says Kohlman. “So I tried to get as far away from something I had experienced as possible to try and begin fleshing out the many shapes that trauma can take, and the many different types of people it effects. This led to a lot of the Middle Eastern films being put on the roster.”

“I tried to get as far away from something I had experienced as possible to try and begin fleshing out the many shapes that trauma can take”

Kohlman is looking forward to broadening the perspective of her symposiums even further in the future. “I would love to incorporate different art forms,” she says. “Film is my home and my center, but it would be great to have it as the springboard for the exploration of a topic through mediums such as art, painting, photography, and performance.” Kohlmann admits, however, that the responsibility of representing diverse voices can be a heavy one. “You feel like you have to be a lot more aware of ensuring that different perspectives are validated and included,” she says. “But it’s all worthwhile to ensure that a broader range of people can feel a certain degree of intimacy and connection to what we’re doing.”

Jessie-Ann Kohlman is an American actor, director, and curator currently based in L.A. To find out more about her practice, check out her website or follow her on Instagram. Kohlman’s recent film symposium Cortisol was hosted in our Berlin FvF Friends Space, and featured speakers including Juliane Jaschnov, Stefanie Schroede, Hamza Beg, Yousef Kekhia, Ondine Viñao, Cleo Kempe Towers, and dancer Medhat Aldaabal who we’ve featured previously on FvF.

We regularly host events in collaboration with inspiring creatives from all around the world. If you’d like to find out more about people that we have hosted in our events space, why not read this interview with Danish documentary director Frederik Solberg, who presented his film DOEL as part of our Friends of Movies series in April 2019.

Text: Emily May
Photos: Bella Suzuki