by Joneka Percentie
After my first blog on SPARK, I’ve given much thought to the roles of women of color, specifically black women, in the production process in film and television, and how it affects their representation on the screen. So much of our everyday perceptions are shaped by what we see. Positive and honest representations of black women on the screen are there, but are few and far between. There are so many amazing women working to change the current state of what we see on screen, and I’m set on featuring some of their amazing work.
I got the chance to talk with independent filmmaker Tchaiko Omawale about her current projects and her thoughts on the representation of black women in film.
What are you working on right now?
My short film, which is at festivals – I love it. The short film that I made, Solace, is about a girl who has an eating disorder and who is obsessed with her neighbor and in a Rear Window-esque situation comes to realize that the girl is not as perfect as she seems. I’ve been screening this short film around festivals, and it’s based on a feature script that I wrote which was a finalist at the Sundance Writer’s Lab in 2012, and it’s based on my experiences. It’s not verbatim, but a lot — the eating disorder and the cutting things — are from a very personal story of mine.
How important was it to you to address these issues as they affect young women?
It’s really important for me to share them through film and to make this feature film so that other black girls don’t think that they’re the only girls dealing with stuff like that. When I was younger, I didn’t realize that bingeing or compulsive eating were eating disorders, I just thought I had no control. I just thought I was fat or something like that, and it was very helpful for me to meet other people that had the same issues that I had and it really helped me to recover. This film is, for me, just important to share because I remember my process of learning about the disorder, and there are a lot of black folks who are just like, “whatever Tchaiko you just like to be emotional, oh Tchaiko you’re not fat,” which–I’m not fat, it’s just what my mind does. But there were just a lot of people who didn’t know about it, and when I was making the short film, there were so many people that came out of the woodwork, like black women that shared with me that either they were bulimic or that they had this disease and they wanted to be a part of the film somehow, and I was just really humbled at how important art is to connect to people and to give a voice to things that are not spoken about.
Anything dealing with women, I think it’s almost impossible to ignore the body, whether it’s in America and we’re talking about weight or body image, to outside of this country where it’s like, does a woman own her body? Can she marry who she wants, can she have sex with who she wants, can she demand that a man use a condom? Our body is such an important place for all humans, but I think [especially for] women. I hope that I’m going to reach feminist organizations, youth organizations, other women, not just black or women of color, but just other women to come together around supporting this film and seeing this film because I think it’s important to talk about this kind of stuff.
Lots of your work has covered heavy topics like self-harm, HIV risk, and violence. What drives you to address these kinds of things?
They’re really important me, and anything that’s important to me I usually deal with by making a film. I made that HIV documentary [America’s Shadows] when I was in my twenties, and I’m in my thirties now. I had graduated college and I was a peer educator. I was doing fundraising and awareness around HIV and youth in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as with communities of color — specifically black and Latino youth in New York City. I was doing these fundraising parties and then also started to feel like I needed to do something that felt more grounded and not so much like, “oh we’re doing fun things yay we feel good about ourselves.”
My friend and I had a group called Conscious Movements Collective, and we started doing peer education workshops in NYC around sexual health and young women. After doing that for a while, I realized that there is a place for everybody and my place is as an artist, so I decided to try and put most of my attention into making a film about these issues. When I made the documentary, it was important for me to have the young people that were in the “risk category” be a part of the filmmaking effort. So the people that you see in the film, they were also a part of the making of the film, and there are a lot of other young folks that got left out of the cut that were also a part of making the film. We traveled with a rough cut to Atlanta, we did peer education workshops there, I got a grant from Ford Foundation, and I traveled with some of the young folks to Jamaica as well, which was pretty intense. At the time in that rough cut there was a transgendered character Serenity—she’s still in the final cut but we had a lot more then—and we were discussing queer and trans* issues, and Jamaica is an incredibly homophobic country (it’s where I’m originally from). It was important to me to make [and present] the film in that way, to have [the subjects] be involved in the process so that it wasn’t “I am a filmmaker and you, out there, I’m making a film about you.” It was really cool to have them come down. It was awesome to see them learn and handle themselves and enjoy Jamaica while also doing this thing that was very important.
But you also make fantasy films, right? How does that genre fit in with your other work?
My experimental fantasy film, which has the fairy in it, Sita, came out of doing the documentary because I got insanely depressed when I was making the [HIV] doc. I didn’t have a mentor at the time or somebody I could talk to that could help me through the process, and I got very overwhelmed.
At the time — I’m not sure how it is right now because I’ve stepped away from a lot of the HIV work — I was faced with all of these very conservative policies in the US and it was just heartbreaking to know that prevention, which for me was just as important as the treatment, couldn’t be done as was recommended by international health bodies because of such conservative economic and social policies in the US. I got super depressed and I needed an escape, so I created this whole story about, well what if everything went to shit and what if we did have a bunch of AIDS orphans and the whole world was changed because AIDS broke down the society? And because I love fairies, I brought fairies into the story, and that’s how I came up with this experimental film of what happens if this fantasy creature comes to earth to help this boy who lives in this post-apocalyptic time.
Another thing that’s super important to me is I feel like sci-fi and fantasy don’t always get the respect and attention that I think it warrants — it’s such a brilliant space to be able to deal with new ideas to challenge things and to be subversive.
You mentioned briefly about finding your space as an artist through filmmaking, but when did you realize it was something you are passionate about?
When I was a kid, I grew up outside of the US. I grew up in Jamaica, where I’m originally from, and then Mozambique, Thailand, Sierra Leone, Yemen, and then I came to the States. I’ve always been super creative; my mother was a dancer in Jamaica. When I was a kid I thought I wanted to be a dancer, and then it sort of changed and it was, “I want to be an actress because I want to express myself,” and that has always been with me. When I got to the States and in high school, I still thought I either wanted to be a dancer or an actor. I wanted to be an actor and at the time I was around 17, it became very clear to me that a lot of people on TV didn’t look like me, whether it was skin color or my features or my weight. And I decided, which I hope nobody continues to do, but I decided that I can’t be an actor because I didn’t want my artistic expression to be determined by how I look or how much I weigh, or what my nose looks like.
Growing up, the black people I saw on TV overseas were light skinned, and I didn’t have a lot of models for people that look like me so I didn’t think it was possible. So when I went to Columbia University and I got introduced to film studies, I just got blown away that there was this thing called directing and that there was this thing called filmmaking where you don’t have to be in front of the camera but you get to create worlds, and it felt like a little more control for me than having someone say “oh, you’re pretty enough to be in this film.” So that’s how I got into filmmaking and I started my first film.
On your website for Pretty Doll and Sita, you talk a little bit about your inspiration from David Lynch and Twin Peaks. Who else has inspired you?
I think being exposed to film by doing film studies at Columbia, which is more of the academic side of things, I just watched so many films so I was able to resonate emotionally to certain things, and the things I resonated with were the stop motion films and things that were experimental. For me experimental films deal with the emotion as opposed to the narrative storytelling, which I think allows the filmmaker to direct where they take the audience. With experimental films when you’re watching it, your experience has very much to deal with your background and what you have. There’s this dialectical process, like the experimental film needs the person and all of the person’s baggage and ideas, and what you get from that is the sum of those two parts is this understanding or this emotion of the meeting of those two separate entities. So David Lynch’s experimental films really spoke to me. Some of his stuff is super dark, but it just spoke to this dark stuff that I was drawn to. Sound design too, I love stuff that has very particular sound design that resonates on the minor frequency.
Mira Nair was a huge inspiration, because she was a woman, because she was not American. I love the fact that Mira Nair wears her Salwar Kameez. Growing up outside of the US and moving here as a teenager there was a disconnect between what I’ve seen and how I’ve grown up and what a lot of people in America have seen and grown up with culturally. And so I always respond to people who remind me of where I’m from, and where I’m from are all those different places. Another filmmaker that I love is Krzysztof Kieślowski. He’s a Polish director who did the trilogy Red, White, and Blue, but the stuff that really moved me was The Decalogue. I can’t exactly tell you why except for that there’s something about each of those films that get to just the very human nature, the core of humans that I responded to.
I just made a vision board, and on my vision board I have Katherine Bigelow because she’s the first woman to win the Academy Award [for Best Director] and because she does action films. I want to do dramas, but I also really want to do really big films that are fantasy films and action films, so she’s on my vision board. I have Julie Taymor, because she does opera, which I am obsessed with, and film. And I think my goal as an artist is not just to be a filmmaker, but to express myself in a lot of different art forms.
Also, Steve McQueen now because that man, oh my goodness. I watched Shame and a lot of the stuff that I’m writing right now deals with addiction or mental illness, just things that people don’t talk about a lot, but so many people I know are dealing with. And Shame, when I watched that it was like the atoms or the cells in my body got like rearranged, because something that he did in that film made me feel the pain that that character was going through with sex addiction, and it’s the sort of thing I want to do with my feature film Solace, which deals with a girl that has an eating disorder and another girl who’s a cutter. I would love to have the mastery of craft to get somebody to feel just an inkling of what it’s like to deal with those things. And I love the fact that he’s British, and the fact that when he gets interviewed he’s so on point. He’s a no nonsense dude. Watching his Toronto International Film Festival interview about 12 Years a Slave, I was just so moved that in his film there was an international representation. He’s British, and you have an American actor, you have an actor who is Kenyan but was born in Mexico – it was so rich with people from everywhere, and that’s just what I respond to. I want to work with people who come from all sorts of different places because that’s who I am.
How do you think the lack of black women behind the scenes affects the portrayal of black women on television?
For me I think it’s super simple: if you’re an artist, who you are and how you see the world comes out in what you do. So if you have a medium where it’s a majority of one type of person making that medium, you’re gonna get that one type of person’s perspective. So I really think if I made 12 Years a Slave, if Steve McQueen made 12 Years a Slave, if another person made 12 Years a Slave, that film with the same script is gonna come out so different because of the artist’s individual perspective on the world. And that’s why you need more women and just more diversity so that when people consume films, they’re consuming the reality of the world as opposed to a really small part of it. Even within black women. I have a small group of friends who I love and admire and who do amazing things, but we all make very different films and we all have very different viewpoints of the world or what it means to be a woman or what it means to be a black woman. It’s going to be different if you’re a heterosexual woman versus if you’re queer. There are just different things that are going to come out. I think it’s just really important to allow other voices to be present.