BONESHAKER: Interview with filmmaker Frances Bodomo

BIOGRAPHY

Nuotama Frances Bodomo is a Ghanaian filmmaker based in New York City. She grew up on four continents—in Ghana, Norway, California, and Hong Kong—before moving to New York to attend Columbia University as a Kluge Scholar. She received her B.A. in English Literature and Film Studies in 2010. Her thesis focused on making African-generated images part of the popular image of Africa.

Her work features doppelgangers, imaginary friends, ventriloquist dummies, and the un-institutionalized crazies who constantly break society’s view of itself. Her ultimate goal is to make conceptually strong films that bring African images to the forefront. She is currently an MFA Candidate and Dean’s Fellow at NYU’s Graduate Film Program.

Her Film:  Can you talk about your latest project and the path that has led you to this point?
Frances Bodomo: I’m about to shoot a short film entitled Boneshaker. It follows a Ghanaian family taking a road trip to a Pentecostal church in Louisiana where they hope to cure their daughter of a spirit. It’s about the crazy person you become when you’re a mix of clashing cultures, and it’s about the difficulty of performing a ritual when you’re thousands of miles from home. I’m from Ghana, but I grew up all over the place (in Norway, in Hong Kong, and in the U.S.), so I’ve always wanted to make a film about how lost a person can feel without a sense of home, and how constant migration really tests the glue that holds a family together.
The story comes from my own experiences. When I went through my obligatory college depression, my Auntie took me round to various born-again churches to rid myself of the spirit following me. She explained it like this: I come from a family of only daughters, so my relatives in the village were jealous that all my parents’ resources were going towards the college education of someone who would be married off into another family. By affecting me like this, I would be mentally unable to stay in school and the resources would rightfully come back to them.

So I’m here now and I want to make a film that sheds light on this generally unseen experience. It’s the one experience that really streamlined my biography. It was about being a woman, about being African, and about being a nomad. It was life-changing, but I was also interested in how the task became about women physically fighting the patriarchal structure around them. It was something I got to experience with my mother, my aunts, my sisters, but also with my father and my culture. My father always says he became a feminist once his first daughter was born, and I really want to show that side in this film.

You see all I had to write to explain myself? This is why I’m making a movie!

Photo courtesy of the Kheel Center, Cornell University

HF:  One of your interests is African-generated images.  How do African images play a role in your work, especially concerning Boneshaker which shows a Ghanaian family in the deep American South (Louisiana)?

FB: My college thesis was about the power of Africans creating images for themselves, rather than relying on the Bob Geldofs and Bonos and Blood Diamonds and Hotel Rwandas that use Africa as a device to really reflect on Europe or America (to put it politely).  I think the very fact of Africans making films to regain their image—whether overtly or not—is a political one. This is not about excluding Europeans or Americans from the topic of Africa: Claire Denis makes complex films about Africa, but she also grew up on the continent.

Boneshaker doesn’t simply fit into all this because I am African and making a film. I want to create images that use America to reflect on Africa as a way of making visible the characters’ struggle. It’s about Africans trying to bend the American myth (the South, the delta…) to fit their own myth, and for their own purposes. They run into problems—problems that wouldn’t occur if it were the other way round—for this simple reason. I want it to be America as the “dark continent” and I want it to make at least some Americans feel something of what it’s like to have Band Aid speak of your home as a place “where the only water flowing is a bitter sting of tears.” Ultimately it’s not about a rebuttal—that would be hypocritical—it’s about using the very same mechanism to emphasize the difference in experience. It’s about showing an African interiority, which is the whole point of making films that come from Africans.

Photo courtesy of the filmmaker

HF:  Your film also deals with themes of immigration and alienation.  Can you talk about these themes and how you try to incorporate them into Boneshaker?

FB: Foreigners are always reminded that they are walking on someone else’s land, that they have the privilege of going back to “where they came from.” What of those of us who don’t have that place? Who also don’t have this place? I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’m going to convey this sense of being lost using the cinematic tools at my disposal. Fun!

In Boneshaker, the family is constantly in motion: they’re in a car for a lot of the film. We’ll shoot them against sky and reference-less background, always moving. While we do establish space, they’re never going to be comfortable within it. The big word I’ve been throwing around for this film is nostalgia. I want the film to feel like a memory because it hits home the idea that we don’t have concrete land on which to place our feet. It’s also a huge reason why I want to shoot in Louisiana. The delta consists of specks of land submerged in water. It says everything I want it to say: there is no land. And we have to grapple with that fact.

HF:  As you move into pre-production, then production in December, what have you experienced (or what do you expect to experience) in terms of culture clash?  Does religion play a role in this type of clash as well?

FB: I just got back from my location scout in Louisiana. What a wonderful trip! Adjusting and assimilating is instinctive to me at this point (though I’m not entirely proud of that fact), so I had no problems moving around New Orleans and its neighbouring bayous. I did, however, have a hard time finding Africans down there. The Africans I did find gave the general response of, “I don’t socialize with other Africans here.” I felt most alienated and saddened by the dismissiveness of a majority of the people I approached. You feel most alienated when the people you have learned to call “yours” want nothing to do with you. In retrospect, I find this extremely interesting. It’s exactly what my film is about (with regards to the people at home sending a spirit) and I intend to use it. It solidifies why I want to shoot down there.

I didn’t find a community in Louisiana, but I found one in the Bronx. I spent September going to a Pentecostal/born-again church on Sundays. I went to a Ghanaian deliverance ministry in the Bronx and got prayed over. These were some of the most welcoming people I’ve experienced in my research. I’m shooting in an African deliverance ministry in Louisiana (hopefully Dr. Stella’s Fire Power Ministries) so there won’t be much of that black-family-going-into-a-white-church kind of clash. I’m more interested in being rejected by the people you feel you should connect with.

Photo courtesy of the filmmaker

HF:  What are your thoughts on the role of women in African-made films (both as filmmakers and actors) and how they are received by the larger world community?

FB: This is another thesis! Women play a huge role in the story of Boneshaker. We have a family of only daughters, and I explained why that’s significant. This underlying situation suggests the reason why the Mother character believes her daughter is possessed. It also puts the film in the hands of the matriarch. This is important to me because women in Nollywood (and its off-shoots) are still reduced to objects of desire: how many pans across glossy, shaved legs have I had to sit through? That’s why I’m excited to make this film in which a woman is the driving force and is moving to protect her daughters.

But I’m intensely optimistic about up-and-coming African female filmmakers. Julie Apea and Shirley Frimpong-Manso in Ghana are making the highest-quality films in the country. Outside the continent we have wonderful women like Akosua Adoma Owusu, Sam Kessie, Nikyatu Jusu, and Rungano Nyoni (to name a few) changing the game. The larger world community may not be listening yet, may be thinking, “oh, here’s another film about being a black woman,” and rolling their eyes to oblivion. But check their films out! We’re on the brink of something big.

HF:  What is it that you hope to achieve as a filmmaker with Boneshaker?

FB: First and foremost, I want this to be the film for people like me: people that have always felt positively lost and homeless. It’s a beautiful thing to live outside the false security of home. This goes for anyone. We live in a world with so much migration and movement that the idea of home is arbitrary at best (across the board, class and privilege considered). I think this idea of existing in an undefined—but also very much defined by concrete microaggression—space is central to what it feels like to live on this earth and in this century, so let’s talk about that.

I want these concepts to come from an African story and an African voice. Because, to put it in a cheesy way, we’re nomads (traditionally, and given the slave trade, colonization, and subsequent brain drain).  When your entire continent is so painfully and continuously devastated, you’re forced to move around. I want African voices to be at the forefront of the international discourse on what it feels like to be in this world today (goodbye to looking to Africa for heritage films, issues films, and images of primitivity).

So yeah, I’ve got small goals.

_____________________

Learn more about Boneshaker and filmmaker Frances Bodomo by visiting the Kickstarter campaign now with eight days left and in need of about $3,000.

Kickstarter for Boneshaker

Follow Frances Bodomo on twitter @tobogganeer


DVD Releases

Below is a list of recent DVD releases and releases coming up in the U.S. of films directed by women or about women, and also starring women. Updates on other releases will be posted when they’re discovered.

August:  THE BEAVER (directed by Jodie Foster, starring Cherry Jones & Jodie Foster)

September:  HANNA (directed by Joe Wright, starring Saoirse Ronan & Cate Blanchett); THE ARBOR (directed by Clio Barnard, starring Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley & Natalie Gavin);  MEEK’S CUTOFF (directed by Kelly Reichardt, starring Michelle Williams); JIG (produced & directed by Sue Bourne); ED HARDY: TATTOO THE WORLD (directed by Emiko Omori); GO FOR IT! (written & directed by Carmen Marron, starring Aimee Rodriguez & Jossara Jinaro)

October:  BUCK (directed by Cindy Meehl)

November 1: SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN (directed by Wayne Wang, co-written by Angela Workman, based on novel by Lisa See); TABLOID (directed by Errol Morris) – read the New York Times article about Joyce McKinney, the subject of the film; AN INVISIBLE SIGN (directed by Marilyn Agrelo, co-written by Pamela Falk, starring Jessica Alba & Bailee Madison, based on a novel by Aimee Bender)

November 8: ATLAS SHRUGGED, part I (directed by Paul Johansson, starring Taylor Schilling, based on the novel by Ayn Rand)

November 22: SARAH’S KEY (directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, starring Kristin Scott Thomas & Melusine Mayance, based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay) 

November 29: ONE DAY (directed by Lone Scherfig, starring Anne Hathaway); ANOTHER EARTH (directed by Mike Cahill, co-written by and starring Brit Marling)

December 6: THE HELP (directed by Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer); THE DEBT (directed by John Madden, co-written by Jane Goldman, starring Helen Mirren); LIFE, ABOVE ALL (directed by Oliver Schmitz, starring Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane & Lerato Mvelase) 

December 13:  KUNG FU PANDA 2 (directed by Jennifer Yuh); CIRCUMSTANCE (written & directed by Maryam Keshavarz, starring Sarah Kazemy, Nikohl Boosheri & Reza Sixo Safai) 

January 3:  I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT (directed by Douglas McGrath, written by Aline Brosh McKenna, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, based on novel by Allison Pearson)

January 31: JANIE JONES (directed by David M. Rosenthal, starring Abigail Breslin and Elisabeth Shue)

Women’s stories this week

Magnolia Pictures picked up writer-director Sarah Polley’s latest film, Take This  Waltz, for U.S. distribution beginning summer 2012.  Polley’s film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.  Read Katherine Monk’s article here, an interview with Polley in the Toronto Star, and a video of her at The Globe and Mail talking about the film.  Visit the film’s website for more information.

Finnish director Zaida Bergroth wins the Gold Hugo in the New Directors competition at the Chicago International Film Festival for her feature film The Good Son.  The fest states that Bergroth’s film provides “real psychological insight.” Read my review of it here (third film listed) that I wrote after seeing a screening at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.  Visit the film’s website here and click on “English” at the bottom to get a translation.

Mohamed Diab’s film Cairo 678 about the sexual harassment of women in Egypt received the Silver Hugo in the festival’s International Feature Film competition.  I wrote about this movie in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Anita Hill’s testimony on Monday of this week.  Read the piece here and watch a trailer for the film.  Visit the film’s website here.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary Miss Representation on media misrepresentation of women and the dearth of women in positions of influence and power screens tonight on OWN at 9:00 PM (EST).  It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

The second film in the Women, War & Peace series on PBS, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” aired on Tuesday night.  This film shows the power of Liberian women to band together to demand an end to war and the creation of peace.  The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Leymah Gbowee, was prominently featured through both interviews and video footage shot during the war in Liberia.

Watch “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” online at PBS.

The next film in the series will be “Peace Unveiled” about women in Afghanistan (airing Tuesday, October 25 on PBS affiliate stations in the U.S.)  Check your local listings.

First Weekend Club & VOD Distro

The First Weekend Club has launched a campaign to raise funds for VOD (video-on-demand) distribution of Canadian films as a way to fight against the approximately 95% of Canadian box office revenues going to support American films (around 83%) and foreign films.  In fact, only about 3.4% of the national box office take in Canada actually goes to Canadian films.

The FWC is an organization dedicated to supporting Canadian films in cinemas in Canada to increase the screening dates and get butts in the seats!  You can join the FWC for free and receive updates on all the awesome films coming out of Canada.  Didn’t you know of the massive talent base that exists in Canada?  No wonder, the U.S. tends to drown them out.  What a coup this would be to have VOD distro for Canadian films!

Check out the indiegogo campaign with now 48 days left to go and about $18,000 left to raise. Do you love Canadian film?  Can you give?

 

Addendum

Just in the past two years, some of the films the First Weekend Club has supported which were directed by women or had a woman in the lead role include:

Act of God (dir. by Jennifer Baichwal)

Amazon Falls (dir. by Katrin Bowen)

Black Field (dir. by Danishka Esterhazy)

Daydream Nation (dir. by Michael Goldbach)

Faith, Fraud and Minimum Wage (dir. by George Mihalka)

Grown Up Movie Star (dir. by Adriana Maggs)

The High Cost of Living (dir. by Deborah Chow)

Modra (dir. by Ingrid Veninger)

Music from the Big House (dir. by Bruce McDonald)

A Touch of Grey (dir. by Sandra Feldman & Ian D. Mah)

Trigger (dir. by Bruce McDonald)

A Wake (dir. by Penelope Buitenhuis)

The Whistleblower (dir. by Larysa Kondracki)

The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom (dir. by Tara Johns)

Year of the Carnivore (dir. by Sook Yin Lee)

 

Toronto International Film Festival – part II

ACQUA (2011)

Written & Directed by Raha Shirazi

Country: Canada / Italy

Language: No dialogue

Raha Shirazi’s ACQUA was part of the Short Cuts Programme dedicated to screening Canadian films.  Shirazi is no stranger to the Toronto International Film Festival, having brought her film Four Walls to the fest in 2007.   Beginning with a woman (Shirazi) walking, we see that she passes through what seems to be a variety of climates.  She wears simple clothes, and it’s obviously modern day, but where is she going?  Eventually she comes to a river and wades in with a large glass bottle.  It’s raining as she goes further and further into the river, finally stopping when the water is almost to her waist.  The color palette is very effective, with muted, cool tones.  Her character dunks the bottle into the water and lets it fill up, then repeats her trek to the river in reverse.  Only in the final few seconds of the film are we shown why she did it.  Her mother has died and she must return to her home with water to wash the body.  When she enters her home, the color palette changes to warm, golden tones.  Her face and her mother’s body are illuminated by the flames flickering in the fireplace as Shirazi’s character soaks her scarf in the water and rubs her mother’s arms, hands….  A poignant moment.

In the Q&A following the shorts program, Shirazi revealed that in her own cultural tradition (Iranian) this is something that is done when people die — they wash down the bodies before burial.  And, she added, it’s also something that she did when her own mother died a few years ago.  I found this incredibly touching as well as courageous of her to put herself into a character experiencing the same thing she had to face a few years prior.  It is a beautifully shot film which takes its time and allows the audience to explore its meaning.

UNION SQUARE (2011)

Directed by Nancy Savoca

Screenplay by Nancy Savoca & Mary Tobler

Country: USA

Language: English

I’ll be honest and say firstly that Nancy Savoca’s work is one reason why I’m a filmmaker.  It’s one reason why I write, it’s one reason why I love movies, it’s one reason why film is my passion.  My appreciation of Savoca all started with her 1993 film Household Saints, a perennial favorite of mine for myriad reasons.  So, I was ecstatic to be able to snag a ticket to the screening of her newest film, UNION SQUARE, which she co-wrote with Mary Tobler.    This was a very challenging film for me for a few reasons:  the characters were so well developed that they seemed like real people (complete with painful flaws & haunted pasts), it was claustrophobic (taking place almost exclusively in one place, a New York City apartment), and it was shot in various places throughout as an almost docu-style drama.

The story revolves around two estranged sisters, both of whom are trying to escape their personal pain.  One of them is played by Mira Sorvino, whose character embraces her “Bronx-ness,” has an affair with a married man (she’s married, too), which we find out through overheard phone conversations and some dialogue, and who drinks and wears loud clothing to call attention to her “assets.”  The other sister is played by Tammy Blanchard whose character is very much on the straight and narrow, but she has lied to her fiance about her past (he thinks she’s from Maine) and has hidden her personal history of drug abuse and a mentally ill mother.  When Sorvino’s character “Lucy” hits the city and drops by (after three years of the sisters not speaking or seeing each other), an emotional bomb is dropped on “Jenny” (Blanchard).

Despite the excellent performances, the naturalistic acting, the incredibly effective direction, this film put me on edge more than any I’ve seen since Jim Sheridan’s 2009 film Brothers.   I could feel my heart start to beat faster and my blood pressure rise as I watched.  It was stressful.  It was real.  It felt like some of the worst, most emotionally wrenching moments of my life.  I left feeling confused, emotionally exhausted and with the realization that as together as I think my life is, none of us is really that far away from the emotional trauma explored in UNION SQUARE.  But that’s exactly what makes this film so good.  It’s a film that you can ruminate on and endlessly explore.  This isn’t something I realized in the theatre, or the day after, or the week after, but I finally got to it.

The Q&A following the screening included director/co-writer Nancy Savoca, co-writer Mary Tobler, producers Neda Armian and Richard Guay, and supporting actor Mike Doyle.  Savoca revealed that all of her first choices for actors said “yes,” including the legendary Patti Lupone (mother to “Jenny” and “Lucy”) and Michael Rispoli (“Nick,” husband to “Lucy,” who also starred in Savoca’s Household Saints).  It was filmed in Richard Guay’s (Savoca’s life & business partner) apartment in New York City.  From what I heard, it seemed almost like a charmed production.

THE GOOD SON (2011)

(“Hyvä poika”)

Directed by Zaida Bergroth

Screenplay by Zaida Bergroth & Jan Forrsström

Country: Finland

Language: Finnish

Zaida Bergroth is a genius director.  According to imdb.com, this is her ninth directorial effort and third feature film.  While I’ve not heard of Bergroth before, I took the opportunity I had while attending TIFF to not only see women-directed films, but also to see films by non-North American directors.  Bergroth is Finnish, though that does not have much to do with the story.  THE GOOD SON is about an aging movie star who is a single mother raising two sons, one probably around 18 or 19, the other around 10.   A weekend in the country trying to get away from vile press coverage turns into “Leila” (the mother, played by Elina Knihtilä,) desperately needing attention from a man.  While her oldest son “Ilmari,” (played by newcomer Samuli Niittymäki), serves as her fierce protector, no matter the problems this “new guy,” presents, “Leila,” is often confused and bewildered, switching sides between the weekend fling and her own son on whom she depends for her safety and constant affirmation.

Events escalate and turn violent between the two men after “Ilmari’s” girlfriend tells him a lie about “Leila’s” man attacking her.   While the man himself is guilty for a few rash decisions to become physical against “Ilmari,” the situation becomes even more violent when “Ilmari” tries to not only protect his mother, but himself and their life together as a mother and two sons.  The man accuses “Ilmari,” of living in a sick situation (implying that there is some type of serious co-dependence, or worse, attraction between him and his own mother).  This enrages “Ilmari,” who nearly beats the man to death as his mother sleeps upstairs.  When she awakes, she realizes the horror of what her son has done and secretly helps the man to alert the neighbors.  Talking to her son, we can see she is shaken, but on one level has some type of residual allegiance to her son.  However, as her son rests his head on her lap to sleep for awhile, thinking he’s done the right thing by attacking the man, “Leila” waits for the police to arrive, knowing that she must finally let her son go.

I had no idea what to expect from this film.  I’ve never seen a Finnish film and did not know if there were typical conventions present in the film — perhaps I’ll have to see more Finnish films to understand the broader cultural context of THE GOOD SON as a work of art.  In the end, it’s a solid film which explores the mother-child relationship, teen angst, responsibility thrust upon children, and ultimately, the freedom to defend oneself against a threat.  Definitely a suspense thriller, Bergroth takes her time to develop the story, so simple on the surface, but so dark and complex as she peels away the layers.

BACK TO STAY (2011)

(“Abrir Puertas y Ventanas”)

Written & Directed by Milagros Mumenthaler

Country: Argentina / Switzerland / Netherlands

Language: Spanish

By the time I saw this film I was not keen to sit through another 90 minutes of virtually no dialogue and a story that develops at a snail’s pace.  Only in the days following the screening am I beginning to process it and understand the characters.  Director Milagros Mumenthaler has won some prestigious awards for this film, and I would love to sit down with some of those film festival juries to understand what they saw and why they feel it’s important.  That’s not to say that I do not see the importance of the film, though, but I would like to hear other people’s thoughts on it.

It’s a quiet film, almost painfully so, about three sisters who live in a house together which was recently also occupied by their grandmother (deceased about a year).  It seems as their relationships are extremely strained, each young woman with quite different personalities.  They seem to live in a type of purgatory where little happens, but they are inextricably tied not just as sisters but also as inhabitants of a house where their grandmother’s ghost seems to always be hovering.  The furniture is dated, the dresser drawers are still full of her clothes, the girls use a vibrating/bouncing bed that must have been such the rage when first purchased.  You feel as if you are living their lives, resigned to a life of boredom and uncertainty, completely blindsided when the youngest girl decides to leave with a boyfriend neither of her sisters knew she had.  What is to happen to them all?  Do they care about each other? Why don’t they show it?  There are scars you can only see in the moments of silence shared between them.

WHERE DO WE GO NOW? (2011)

(“Et maintenant, on va où?”)

Directed by Nadine Labaki

Screenplay by Rodney Al Haddid, Thomas Bidegain (collaboration), Jihad Hojeily, Nadine Labaki

Country: Lebanon / France / Egypt / Italy

Language: Arabic, French

About once a year, I see a film that makes me fall in love with film all over again.  I discover the magic that it provides, the exploration it challenges us with, the joy it can reveal in simple moments.  Nadine Labaki’s WHERE DO WE GO NOW? is just such a film.  I’m in love.  A small village in Lebanon made up of half Muslims, half Christians, that has lived in peace for many years, is suddenly turned on its head when an accident spurs a hatred between the two religious groups.  The village’s women take it upon themselves to counterract the violence and animosity that develops between the men of the village, resulting in a riotous series of schemes to get them to forget about their differences.

I will stop here and not go further as I think everyone should see this film, and it is filled with so many joyous little surprises and twists that to write about it would only spoil it.  But I will say that the rhythm of the film, the music used, the structure of the story, and the direction itself, are so effective that it is easy, if not also dangerous, to lose oneself in the film.  Why dangerous?  The beauty of the film and the inspirational story is tempered with the reality of war and the death of a child.  This film made me laugh over and over again, dream of a better world, had my heart soaring at the beauty of film and the love with which Labaki has treated the story and its inhabitants, but it also made me cry bitterly at the reality that exists on a daily basis.  You will be deeply moved by this film.

I am happy to say as well that Nadine Labaki won the Toronto International Film Festival Cadillac People’s Choice Award for this film, which is the top prize of TIFF, a non-competitive festival (no juries to judge films!)  It deserves it, and her winning this prestigious award is a testament to her craftsmanship and the beauty she has captured on film.

Sony Pictures Classics has just picked up this film for U.S. distribution.  I can’t wait to see it in theatres.