• Interviews

Grantee: A Conversation with Project Involve Fellows K.D. Dávila and Omer Levin Menekse

K.D. Dávila and Omer Levin Menekse are a vibrant, creative young couple. She is of Mexican descent, he came to the United States from Istanbul, Turkey. While the pandemic separated a lot of close relatives, colleagues, and partners, it brought these two together. Being confined in the same space, day after day, redefined their married life in unexpected ways. Creativity began to flow free and constant. They worked on everything together whether or not they claimed credit, bouncing ideas off of each other, synergistically producing complex thoughts and ideas which then turn into art.

K.D.’s short film Emergency transformed into a screenplay, then into a feature film that premiered at Sundance last January. Both K.D. and Levin have projects in development. And they are the co-writers for Please Hold, a short film that has been shortlisted for this year’s Academy Awards®. The latter was a Project Involve project.

HFPA is the primary sponsor of Film Independent’s Project Involve, a 9-month short film production program that is primarily geared toward filmmakers who come from diverse backgrounds and minority groups. The program engages about 30 participants on an annual basis and is an excellent intermediate step for emerging filmmakers. It also promotes diversity and inclusivity in filmmaking in general.

A young Latino man is on his way to work. He is visited by a robot police drone and is… arrested. Unable to find out whose mistake he’s become the victim of, and being under duress, the man ends up in a prison cell with only a screen to suggest a course of action. He discovers that life in prison is not only inhumane but also extremely expensive.

Please Hold examines the dangers of automation now and in the very near future, as well as the ills of the commercialization of all aspects of human society, even unlikely ones, such as the correction system. In its short duration, it touches upon multiple issues of today, among them racism and classism. Yet, it does all that with a keen sense of irony and humor.


How did you come up with the idea of making Please Hold?

Levin: On my end, I believe I must have been inspired by going through the immigration experience, the bureaucracy of that. In Turkey, military service is mandatory. There was a time when – because of a clerical error – my family received letters saying that I was running away from the military. I had to figure that out. In our life, we face a lot of bureaucratic monsters.

K.D.: In Los Angeles where I’m from, the Latino community is one of the communities – obviously – in America that is overincarcerated. It’s an issue that is close to my heart. I don’t see very many stories about it that are in the tone that we approached it in. We wanted to do something that wasn’t going to be just super depressing. We wanted to tell a story that was critical of the system, the facelessness of bureaucracy.

It feels very realistic and scary.

K.D.: At the Fantasia Film Festival, there was a live chat happening during the screening. It was a cool opportunity to be able to hear people’s stream of consciousness about the movie. You rarely get that experience in the theater because you only hear people laugh, gasp, or whatever, but you don’t hear their thoughts. So, it was really interesting to realize that our movie is kind of scary. When you’ve seen it a bunch of times, you don’t know if it is going to work or not. You’re hoping it’s going to work.

What seems scary to me is that your story could be true in the near future, that we are trapped in a non-human, algorithm-ruled world. Do you think the film can be taken as a metaphor?

Levin: I think it’s more like a warning sign. It’s a future that we don’t want to live in.

K.D.: It is also a future that is already here in many ways. Aspects of the prison that we built are already a reality in the prison system now. Prisoners get charged for phone calls. A lot of jails are trying to get rid of in-person visitation and have managed to do so because of Covid – and we’ll see if it ever goes back. So, the exploitation is already there and the question is: “What is the rise of automation going to make better and what worse?” Obviously, it is going to dehumanize the system that is already, in many ways, very inhumane.

Levin: We are writing the feature-version [of Please Hold] and we’re exploring the idea of what would happen if Facebook, for example, ran a private prison. What does that look like? What is efficiency? When does efficiency come at the cost of humanity?

K.D.: Giant corporations benefiting from integrations with the captive labor population is already a thing. The fact that prison labor is already a thing is something we wanted to highlight in the movie too. These things are real. The fact that prisoners are paid pennies to do work is just crazy.

You have collaborated on all your films and screenplays, so far. Is there is a common interest, a common thread?

K.D.: There is, definitely, a sense of wanting to tackle social issues. It’s important for both of us to make movies that are about something that is important to us and is important to our communities. [But] we don’t want to make movies that feel like homework to watch … [We want films] to be entertaining and cathartic for people who have been in the same situation, hopefully with a sense of humor that comes across too.

Levin: The idea of using genre to tell stories that we don’t usually see on the screen a lot imbues our work. Hopefully fun and different but, also, [work that] has a certain weight to it. Hopefully, you‘re entertained but walk away with something.

Using social media and the media in general to monetize real-life situations reminds me of what we see in the news, what each one of us is dealing with. Do you care to comment?

Levin: We showed the film in a shorts block at the Palm Springs Festival. Almost all movies had a through-line of something being commercialized that shouldn’t be. Essentially, we are living in this place where we are used to it but, also, become aware of this super-commercialization. Because things that should not be commercialized are commercialized – to the point that it feels wrong.

K.D.: We are millennials, we grew up in the wild west stage of the internet before it got overly commercialized. I have two sisters who are in high school. They are Gen Z and have grown up in a world where this is the norm – everything is ads all the time. The fact that you’ll find [advertising] in a prison won’t feel surprising [to them]. There is something interesting about the fact that we normalize things that are not normal, and we treat them as inevitable [though] they are not inevitable. Having a conversation about these things is the only way we can stop them from happening. Otherwise, they will just become reality.

Prejudice is another theme in your film. What do you think the main cause of prejudice is?

Levin: Growing up in Turkey I didn’t know any gay people. I mean, I will say I was even homophobic – that’s considered normal in Turkey … Then, I watched Six Feet Under and I was “Oh, there are people like David in the world!” … Hopefully, what we do in our movies [is that] we show these characters and [the audience members] get to be in their shoes for a little bit, and maybe understand their fears, their concerns, and what their inner lives are like. I think prejudice comes from a place of ignorance.

K.D: Just to add on that, Please Hold is about prejudice of a different sort, which is algorithmic prejudice. It’s not humans anymore but the systems that humans have created that are inherently flawed because of the unconscious bias of, say, the programmers who made the facial recognition software. These systems don’t think. They are not racist because of hatred. They are racist because of a lack of data! It’s a systemic bias. [Please Hold is] about a systemic inequality that disproportionately affects people of color who don’t have a lot of money, who cannot afford to dig themselves out of spending a few weeks in jail. Even if you resolve everything, your life has changed forever.