#BlackWomenFilmmakersSpeak: Meet Gros Islet, Saint Lucia-Based Davina Lee: "What Does Success Look Like For Me? Ava DuVernay Of The Caribbean"

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July 24th 2018

Black Women Filmmakers Speak is a series curated by Shadow and Act that spotlights women visionaries in film and their inspiring body of work. For the full introduction to this series and an overview of the filmmakers featured, head here.

Hollywood's story has long been a white, heterosexual male-dominated narrative, and a key goal for #BlackWomenFilmmakersSpeak is to celebrate up-and-coming black women filmmakers who are taking the simple, seemingly radical step of telling their stories. Working across all genres, these filmmakers all share a love of cinema and an appreciation for the power it wields, engaging what the status quo might see as a kind of new cinema language to not only entertain but also enlighten.

For the series, 33 black women filmmakers from around the world completed a survey Shadow And Act issued in response to a call made earlier this year aiming to highlight black women filmmakers at some stage of development on their first feature films. We then packaged each reply into individual features highlighting these filmmakers and their feature film projects, their fears and hopes as first-time feature directors and their thoughts on a variety of topical matters. That includes what some are calling a new renaissance in black cinema today, the disruption of content production and distribution by streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon and more. Their survey profiles will be published daily (one per day) on Shadow and Act over the next month.

Ultimately, we hope these stories bring new awareness and admiration around these relatively unknown visionaries.

If you're just joining us, you can catch up on these previous profiles:

-- New York City-based filmmaker Cathleen Campbell

-- Los Angeles-based filmmaker Martine Jean

-- Los Angeles-based filmmaker Numa Perrier

-- London-based filmmaker Sade Adeniran

-- New York City-based filmmaker Lydia Darly

-- London-based filmmaker Sheila Nortley

-- New York City-based Dr. Gillian Scott-Ward

-- Johannesburg, South Africa-based filmmaker Zamo Mkhwanazi

-- Los Angeles-based actress, director and entrepreneur Tanya Wright

The series continues today with Gros Islet, Saint Lucia-based writer and director Davina Lee. Read our conversation below.

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Introduce yourself and your project to the world.

When I was 14, my sister and I wanted to be on television, in front of the camera. There were no TV shows for youths in Saint Lucia that we could be a part of, so we decided to make our own. We thought we could go to the TV stations with our great idea, and they would produce it and put us on. However, we got quite an education in how TV happened in Saint Lucia, i.e., the requirement to buy airtime, hire a production company and find sponsors/ advertisers to pay for both. Three years later, we were on-air, as hosts, producers, writers and directors, not by choice. What I realized after that was I preferred to be behind the scenes as opposed to being onscreen. After that, I pursued a bachelor’s degree in film and later got a master's degree in screenwriting. So far I have produced music videos, short films, documentaries and video art.

The feature film I am currently working on is called Magdalene & Regina. It is a drama set in Saint Lucia which explores the relationship between Magdalene -- a Saint Lucian woman who has returned to the island after spending the last 50 years of her life in London where she migrated to in the 1950s -- and her young nurse, Regina, who is currently thinking of leaving the island to pursue a better life overseas.

How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?

I am currently working on the second draft of my screenplay.

When did this specific journey begin?

The journey for writing this story began when I was curious about what happened to children of Caribbean migrants; the children who were left behind in the Caribbean in the 1950s and were never sent for.

How many roles are you having to play beyond directing? Are you also the writer? Producer? Editor? DP? Production Designer? Maybe even the star? And if wearing multiple hats, how are you achieving balance?

I have played all roles in previous projects, both by choice and not by choice. By choice, because I can be a bit of a control freak; not by choice because the budget didn’t allow, which is usually the case. With my feature film, I am currently the writer and plan on being the director/producer.

As you work on your first feature, what would be of most help to you right now? What do you need at this moment to get over a hurdle, or to move you forward onto whatever your next step is? And how are you working to get what you need?

Hard deadlines to finish the script with the help of an intense screenwriting workshop type environment, and, of course, money and the right eyeballs on my project.

Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?

That it will be a pipe dream that never gets realized.

Toughest decision(s) you've had to make so far?

Pursuing a career that I have been told is a dead end in my part of the world.

Toughest challenge(s) you've faced so far?

Overcoming self-doubt; it is a daily battle.

On set of The Knot On set of The Knot

When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything's been done before, and we've seen it all. Agree/disagree? How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?

I agree and disagree. Every type of story has been told, but every story has not been told. My story is about an older Saint Lucian woman who returns to her island after living many years in the UK and has a contentious relationship/friendship with a much younger woman who she needs as a nurse. This older woman is living with the guilt of leaving behind her 1-year-old son when she migrated 50 years earlier.

This type of relationship has been seen (young/old, etc.). This, however, is a unique Caribbean story which many persons have experienced or know of but that has not yet been brought to the screen. What happened to the children of persons who left the Caribbean in the 1950s, and how did the parents deal with the guilt? How did the children deal with the anger?

Hopes for what kind of life you want the film to have after it's made?

I want the film to do well obviously, festival circuit, etc., but I see it as a film that will do well in the Diaspora, mainly among Caribbean people who are familiar with this type of situation.

Ever been discouraged (whether on this specific project or at any other time)? How do you keep your head up when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges?

It comes with the territory. When things have not gone well on a project or the way I want it to, I still believe it’s happening the way it should, so I try not to get too discouraged. In the end, it usually works out for the best. My Caribbean mother’s advice, which I take: "Everything happens for a reason; there are no disappointments in life."

Do you have a support system?

Yes, I have an amazing support system of family and friends, even people I don’t personally know who want me to succeed. If I did not have this, a career in film would not be possible, especially in the Caribbean where most persons are encouraged to be a lawyer, doctor, accountant or engineer, and some people still view filmmaking as a hobby.

How active are you with your use of social media as a tool for any part of the process? Do you think it's necessary? Do you embrace it?

I am active on social media when I have to be. I use it for promoting my projects or for casting calls, etc. I sometimes want to quit social media because it can be such a negative space, but I think it is necessary for the moment when it comes to my work. I just use my "block," "unfollow" and "unfriend" buttons a lot.

Are you inspired by what many are calling a "black film renaissance" (in the USA specifically)? Do you buy it? Are you encouraged by the success of films like Black Panther, or the success of specifically black women filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, etc.?

It is extremely inspiring. Especially when it comes to Ava because here is a black woman doing big things, not just independently, but in Hollywood. She shows that it is possible. Also, the critical and commercial success of those products is encouraging when it comes to seeking financial support.

Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion (I know that similar initiatives have been announced in other parts of the world). Do you think all of this will lead to something sustained that will assist up-and-comers like yourself?

It will definitely help because the gatekeepers will be forced to look outside of what they believe is the norm and see the talent that exists. Also, certain diverse creators may not have access to certain types of education, funding and distribution, etc., so nurturing is important.

If you're not in the USA, describe what the film and TV environment is like in the city/country where you live and work. How do the trials (and triumphs) of black women filmmakers where you are differ from those in the USA, if at all? Any desire to move to the USA to pursue your filmmaker dreams?

I am not in the USA, and the good thing is that more and more persons in the Caribbean are getting into film and television and are producing more. It differs, I think, because persons don’t look at it as a woman achieving, but just that you are achieving -- at least that's been my experience. I would only move to the USA to pursue filmmaking if it gave me the opportunity to make Caribbean films in the Caribbean.

Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, Facebook, Apple and others like them, are all now competing with the big studios and TV networks. Thoughts on the emergence of these "new media" platforms, and how (if at all) this new reality factors into the business, creative, career choices you make, or plans you have for yourself? Are you targeting any specifically?

It gives more choice and opportunity, and that is good.

Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?

Networking is very important even though it can be quite a task when you’re an artist who prefers the company of yourself to socializing. But, I would say, stay in contact with your contacts.

What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?

A well-written, well-told story is number one for me.

What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?

Mexican and Brazilian films and filmmakers have shown a lot of possibilities for me. From their storytelling and filming styles, to how some of those filmmakers have infiltrated all markets. I like the fearlessness in their storytelling that even with big budgets their films maintain their edge. Films that I love are Amores Perros, Central Station, City of God, and Y Tu Mama Tambien. They all show possibilities for Caribbean films in terms of the texture of the setting and the story, things that I can reference.

Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that, as a black woman filmmaker, being a creative person requires that you "give back," or tell a particular story, or not do something specific? Why or why not?

I believe you can only tell a story well if you believe in it, not because you are trying to tick a box. I think people should make whatever they want. If you are passionate about something or want to promote a certain culture or ideal, it will come through in your work.

Paint a portrait of the kind of career you'd like to have. What does success look like for you?

Ava DuVernay in the Caribbean. That’s what success looks like for me.

Where can I (and others) watch your past work, if available?

Some of my work can be seen at https://vimeo.com/davinaleefilms.

I can also be contacted via Twitter @davinaleefilms; Instagram @davinaleefilms; email davinaleefilms@gmail.com; and website www.davinaleefilms.com.

Anything else you'd like to say that I didn't ask? You have the floor, so feel free to dig in here.

The Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival is doing great things for Caribbean film, in terms of bringing filmmakers together, as well as screening a huge amount of quality films from Caribbean filmmakers.

Here's a trailer for my short film The Knot:

by Tambay Obenson on July 24th 2018
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