“Who am I?” said Anaïs Michel playfully after I asked her to formally introduce herself. She paused briefly and let out a spontaneous laugh before retracing the steps that ultimately led her to join Lena Dunham’s editing team at HBO.
We met on an unseasonably humid October afternoon at Abraçao, a trendy coffee shop in the East Village where Italian espressos are king. Anaïs ordered tea, but had to settle for an iced coffee. Her enthusiastic “merci!” at the register prompted a question. “Are you from France?” asked the barista.
Anaïs, now 26, was born and raised in Paris. She studied French literature at the Sorbonne and obtained her Master’s degree in journalism at the French Press Institute. A career in print could have followed, but the years she spent learning theory in the classroom had only deepened her hunger for a practical engagement with the world. She wanted to tell stories and learn to use a camera. And then filmmaking came into focus. “It sounded like a world apart, something unreachable,” she said.
Anaïs had no formal training in film and her family “is not in the creative or artistic field at all,”—both of her parents are now retired but used to sell computers to large companies in France—so she enrolled in the documentary filmmaking summer workshop at the New York Film Academy in Lower Manhattan in 2015. “It was supposed to be for one summer,” she recalls thinking at the time. “It’s been two years and a half.” She enrolled in the film academy as a full-time student in the documentary filmmaking program.
Her first film, “Coach Mike,” premiered at the Wythe Theater in Brooklyn in 2016. To the chagrin of parents and sensitive adults, her short documentary opens with two young boys completing a round of sit-ups while a stentorian voice—that of boxing trainer Mike Kozlowski—keeps track of how many exercises they have left to do. He chastises one of the boys for failing to tie his shoelace properly. The boy removes his boxing gloves and places them on the floor, a mistake that earns him yet another reprimand. He is six years old, but Coach Mike insists on discipline and rigor. Minutes later, we see the same demanding coach gently holding his hand under the boy’s chin as he helps him to a sip of water.
The testimonies of children give the film a playful and humorous touch. Marie Vanderrusten, a film academy a classmate and friend who worked with Anaïs on “Coach Mike” remembers how she got the kids to be funny even when the subject matter was serious. “In all her work, there is always [a] place for a moment of laughter,” she wrote in an email. “She has this ability to make the audience relax and laugh.”
Laughter is something that Anaïs can elicit with ease. “The thing that sets her apart more than anything is that she’s so good with comedy, which generally doesn’t happen in documentary,” said Andrea Swift, the chair of the documentary department at the film academy. Anaïs talks excitedly, apologizes for going off topic and insists that her English is “broken” (not the case). She has an uncanny ability to make others feel comfortable.
After graduation, Anaïs moved to Portland, Oregon, to work with the award-winning documentary filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky. For four months, she edited sixteen short films about women who had left the world of prostitution. It was a difficult subject, and the mere recollection of the experience—which she describes as “dark” and “very intense”— sends chills down her spine.
And then came the felicitous encounter with Gladys Murphy, an editor at HBO. Anaïs likes to point out that their careers have followed a similar path, at least superficially: both were Chinatown dwellers who lived in the same house in Portland (though not simultaneously) when they worked for the same Oscar-nominated director. Anaïs had heard about Murphy and had seen pictures of her with Taylor Brodsky at the South by Southwest Festival.
Back in New York, she emailed Murphy and they met for lunch. The seemingly informal tête-à-tête turned out to be a litmus test for Anaïs. “My first impression of her after we first met was that she was going to do very well in this industry because not only does she have the right attitude, but she also has the skill set,” wrote Murphy in an email. Anaïs vividly remembers how at the end of their meal Murphy casually asked her if she was looking for a job. “I was like ‘Hell yeah I want to work with you!’,” she said. A couple of Skype interviews later, she was hired to work on the editing team of the new Lena Dunham show.
Anaïs is naturally effusive, and talking about past and present projects brings out her effervescent personality. With the HBO project, however, she has to be careful. “I don’t know how much I can tell about it. That’s the tricky thing.” The documentary series is based on the “Lenny Letter,” the online newsletter that Lena Dunham started with Girls-showrunner Jennifer Konner in 2015 as a forum for discussing feminist issues. Anaïs is working on the pilot alongside other members of the creative editing team, including Murphy.
She’s also busy promoting “Hand Sight,” her second film. This nine-minute short follows Lana, a four-year-old blind girl who attends the Children’s Learning Center at the Helen Keller Services for the Blind in Downtown Brooklyn. With the help of a kindhearted teacher, a persistent mother and a supportive principal, Lana thrives in the classroom and at home: she learns to tell apart two plastic balls of varying sizes by holding them in her hands and joyfully plays the piano to the sound of her mother’s voice. As with “Coach Mike,” Anaïs imbues her film with a certain tenderness—a douceur—that makes her characters appear fully human. The short premiered at the International Festival of Red Cross and Health Films in Varna, Bulgaria and will be screened at the Lovecraft Bar in Manhattan on Oct. 30 as part of an event sponsored by the Freedom Ladder, a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent suicide, depression and homelessness amongst children.
Looking back at her time in New York City, Anaïs marvels at the unexpected turns her education and career have taken. Maxine Trump, a filmmaker and one of Anaïs’s former professors at the film academy has seen how Anaïs has challenged herself with every project she’s undertaken. “She doesn’t stay in the safe world or an easy world,” she said. “She’ll push herself to find a groundbreaking story.” The city has fueled in her a desire to dig deeper and explore. “New York gave me this energy and feeling that it’s possible, that cinema is not this world apart,” she said musingly. But even if cinema were a world apart, at least it is one that Anaïs can explain to her viewers with candor, gentleness and, yes, a few unexpected laughs.
Photo courtesy of Anaïs Michel.