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10 Directors to Watch: ‘Lemon’ Helmer Janicza Bravo Returns to Sundance With Rowdy ‘Zola’

Along with a good portion of the social-media savvy world, Bravo devoured Detroit waitress and stripper Aziah “Zola” Wells’ 148-tweet story of sex trafficking, kidnapping and attempted suicide when it went viral in 2015. There was, she thought, the makings of a compelling film here, one that pulled back the curtain on a part of society that such movies as “Showgirls” and “Striptease” often glamorize.

“It sat at the intersection of ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Bodak Yellow,’” Bravo says. “Right in that sweet spot where David Lynch and Cardi B meet. It was its own genre.”

But there was a problem. Other directors, many with bigger résumés, got there first. Initially, the movie adaptation of Wells’ Twitter saga was to be directed by James Franco. However, the job opened up after Franco became embroiled in a sexual-harassment scandal in 2018 and decided to step away from the project. The resulting film, alternately funny and fierce, enters this year’s Sundance Film Festival on a wave of good buzz and confirms Bravo as one of the rising stars of the indie scene. It builds on her impressive feature debut, the 2016 character study “Lemon,” and her work helming episodes of “Atlanta” and “Love.”

The film follows Zola as she is unwittingly ensnared in a vicious pimp’s prostitution business and reasserts control over an insane and dangerous situation.

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“It’s a piece about agency,” says Bravo. “It’s about how one woman, through the power of storytelling, finds a way to process her trauma. I may not have been the first choice to tell this story or even the third choice, but I am the choice. And I got it, because I earned it.”

Agency: United Talent Agency

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