It has just occurred to me, I'm writing this during the month of the Oscars and the BAFTAs. South Korean film, Parasite won Best Picture this morning, the first time in history, any non English language film has done this. But today's topic wasn't picked for its timely relevance, rather, it's been timely for most the last decade.
For our first monthly film feature, I'm talking to young writer/director, Djenaba Davis-Eyo. whom I met during the recent !GWAK meet up in South Bank, London, and actor Nicole Miners. Who I’ve been working with on mini-series, Visions of a Vivid Life. Nicole's just opened the play, Moonsweats about the riots in Hong Kong, the performance entertains some exciting prospects going into the summer. With Djenaba and Nicole working on different sides of the camera, I thought it would be a wonderful way to exercise the holes that still remain in the system.
Levi: I’m eager to dive straight in here, could you describe a physical situation where a lack of diversity, made you feel uncomfortable? I don't think many people understand what that feels or looks like.
Djenaba: There are countless situations I could talk about from the film industry and fashion/modelling industry that have been horrible and alienating. One area in particular is being a black model or film extra, it can sometimes be a degrading experience. Make up artists and hairstylists barely think about minority cast, they forget our hair is specific and needs to be managed differently or that there are many shades of black skin and having one palette of brown shades is not enough. I remember sitting in the hairstylist chair for a whole five minutes, her twiddling her thumbs through my Afro, then saying “I don’t know how to deal with this” and walking away. I felt like I was a burden to people. I felt ashamed and anxious about my hair type. No one should ever be singled out like that. It makes people of colour not want to work in these environments and in turn causes less people in the minority on set.
There's a false sense of diversity in the entertainment industry; diversity on the screens but behind the camera is a whole other experience. The passive racist/sexist/homophobic comments, the lack of care for POCs needs and so much more just goes to show that the big industries don't truly care about diversity. To really see change in the industry, you have to enforce it yourself sometimes. I urge anyone in the industry to knock down homogeneous ways of working and start creating communities of all types of creators, and that must come with understanding of each other and their differences.
Nicole: I think, sometimes, it's easy to get sucked into a dark hole where you end up criticising everything you see, complaining about why you aren't seeing someone like you on stage or screen, and then you get very sad and frustrated with the industry. But at times, it does get to a point where you're thinking, 'There's every single ethnicity up there but mine. Are we doing something wrong here?'. I guess I do get uncomfortable when I see a cast announcement go up and they mention 'championing diversity', but there are only two ethnicities included. I mean, where is the diversity in that? It's annoying to hear but unfortunately it's true, and it does affect me amongst many others. However, having said that and moaned about it, I do think that people are trying to make a change and it does take time for the industry to evolve, and I genuinely do believe that it can only get better. There are plenty of stories to be told and plenty of voices to be heard, and we've only just scratched the surface.
Levi: When I met [Nicole] for Visions, you said it was good to play a role where your character didn't have anything that made her specifically Asian, how often do you come across roles like this?
Nicole: It was honestly very refreshing to get a role where the character wasn't labelled as 'Asian, Chinese, East Asian, etc.' to begin with, so thank you for that, hopefully it'll be the first of many. It's not very often I get roles like that. I do get seen for them but I don’t often get that far in the audition process. Unfortunately, when people think of a character of an unspecified race, it's more often than not - white. But why is that the norm? There might not be as many ethnic actors as there are white, but we should all get an equal opportunity, especially when the role doesn't specify a race or is not based on historical characters. We are just as talented as everyone else, we just need someone to believe in us and give us a platform to showcase our talents. There's an increasing amount of celebrated films such as Parasite, The Farewell, Crazy Rich Asians and Get Out, all written and directed by incredibly talented people that prove my point. It just goes to show that all this talk about 'no one will watch it' is nonsense. As long as it's good, well-made storytelling, that’s all that matters.
Levi: Talking about both your films at the meet-up, a phrase struck me. "All female crew", how does that affect your experience when you make a film?
Djenaba: I always strive to fulfil my positions with people who can relate to me (e.g. women of colour). Hilbert’s Grand Hotel was diverse in cast and crew but there was something still nagging at me that I couldn’t seem to satisfy. Film is one of the most collaborative arts and it is crucial to be part of a team you feel comfortable in. I have worked on many film sets before my own, where I’ve been the only woman or person of colour on set and it can feel isolating when surrounded by mansplaining, belittling and ignorance; As a director you need to feel respected and in control. Even though my first film was a wonderful team to work with, I really wanted my second film to be led by womxn. I also wanted a team that saw no hierarchy (which tends to often emerge in male dominated sets). I aspired to create an environment where everyone felt comfortable and confident to share ideas. Having a crew that represented the likes of me, made me more assured and faithful to my vision.
Levi: Moreover, what kind of challenges do you face with this approach to pulling a crew together?
Djenaba: Finding the crew I wanted was actually pretty easy, I put a call out for womxn and non binary creators and found that there are lots of us all looking to create something impactful! But the hard part is getting a position filled by a worker who knows there is only enough budget for the vision and not them as the worker. With such a tight budget, in the end I did have men on my team but I am appreciative that it was predominantly female and every main role (I.e. cinematographer, 1st AD, producer etc) was occupied by a reliable, hard-working and passionate womxn.
It’s not that I refuse to work with men, in fact I encourage mixed working environments, it’s just important to realise that this industry has only seen most of its work from one privileged point of view and entertainment is becoming more homogeneous; it’s vital that all voices start being heard and represented but that can only happen if we start evening the gap and creating environments such as an all female crew.
Levi: Considering that Djenaba’s approach, I would love to hear more about the atmosphere on Moonsweats, (by Contingency Theatre, the physical theater performance dwells on the current Hong Kong riots), what's the change like when you're working intimately with people closer to your background?
Nicole: Being a part of Moonsweats was absolutely amazing, it was both physically and emotionally challenging. It was an important show for me to be a part of because it's a story that's very close to my heart, about what was happening in my home, Hong Kong. It was definitely not an easy story to tell as nothing's ever black and white anymore, the media manipulates what people see, politics is dirty and of course, people from different backgrounds have different opinions. The ensemble we had was a mixed bag, a few of us from Hong Kong, and some from the UK. We all had different opinions about what was happening, which led to debates and then to incredible devising pieces, that then were used in the show itself. Because of this difference in opinion, we were able to create a show that was informative yet emotional, instead of being one-sided and political, which is what we aimed for. We've been shortlisted for a couple of awards, so that's very exciting! Hopefully we'll be taking the extended show up to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, so stay tuned…
New releases, this month on !GWAK YouTube:
Hilbert’s Grand Hotel (2020) | dir. Djenaba Davis-Eyo
Hilbert's Grand Hotel is a sci-fi comedy about a hotel with infinite accommodation set on the outskirts of the universe. The idea was inspired by Professor David Hilbert's mathematical paradox of the infinite hotel. I read this fascinating concept in How to Build a Universe by Professor Brian Cox & Robin Ince. I imagined how the hotel would work in our reality, and the strange mishaps and absurd paradoxes that would occur. I was very much inspired by The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson, the quirkiness of the style felt fitting for such a peculiar place out in the cosmos.
Visions of a Visions Life - Trailer (2020) | dir. Levi Eddie Aluede
This four part, mini-series follows Kafka (Matt Blin) who wants to earn quick money as an assistant donor, working for a subscription service that deals in memories. Under the experienced and off-beat Mako (Nicole Miners), his first day at work goes very, very wrong.