Some films remain forever embedded in your psyche and stick with you long after the final credits roll. Writer/director Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s searing short story Haven is exactly this type of film. In a few short minutes, Haven hones in on the beauty and horrors of black girlhood — tackling a subject that is often buried in the black community. After the film’s premiere at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, I chatted with Fyffe-Marshall and Haven executive producer Tamar Bird about the film, its perfect casting and why it’s so important to tell painful stories.
The idea for Haven was sparked by a conversation that Fyffe-Marshall had one day with her director of photography. “My DP Jordan Oram (Drake’s “God’s Plan”) had shown me another film, and it was about two people in a room,” she remembered. “So he sparked something in me. I thought, ‘What’s something that as black women we don’t see a lot of on TV?’ For me, it was a black daughter getting her hair done. That’s something that nearly all black women went through at least once a week as a child. So, I started with that, and it just became Haven.”
Once the idea was formed, Fyffe-Marshall found the perfect collaborator in Bird, an actress and award-winning Canadian filmmaker. “Kelly and I have known each other for about six years,” Bird revealed. “When she presented this to me, I remember saying, ‘This is it. Don’t do anything to it, don’t change anything. This is perfect. This is what we need; this is what the world needs.’ From there we just wanted to make it as true to our childhoods as possible — that nostalgic feeling of listening to reggae music in the background and watching TV while you’re getting your hair done.”
Along with the sentimental aspects of a young girl sitting between her mother’s legs getting her hair done, there is also a shocking and tragic component of the film – one that centers around child molestation and sexual violence. In the black community, these issues are often swept under the rug. Fyffe-Marshall and Bird were determined to use this film to say something – and say it loudly. “All my films have to be impactful,” Fyffe-Marshall reflected. “They have to be films that are going to help the community. There was a point in time where it felt like every time I turned on the news; the police had killed another black man. I was at a point in my career where I was like, ‘How am I helping this?’ I can go out and protest, but what am I doing as a human, as an artist, as a filmmaker to help this situation? I decided that I was going to make films that change people’s perspectives. Haven was born maybe a year or so after that. It’s important to heal the community and to change the way that we think about the things that we’re going through. It’s important for all my films to bring up things that we don’t necessarily talk about because it’s easier to talk about them in the medium of film. It’s also easier to bring them up with your family after you’ve seen it during the film. That’s why Haven is so short; I want the conversation to continue at your house. I want it to continue with the people around you. I want it to continue when you see the children in your life. The film is the start of a conversation that ends abruptly, and I want you to be the person who finishes it.”
For Bird, it wasn’t necessarily the story itself that deeply affected her, it was the angle in which Fyffe-Marshall decided to present it. “This is nothing new,” Bird emphasized. “But the way that it was presented was something new and different. That’s why I felt like it would make such an impact for us to do it. Like I said, sitting between your mother’s legs, getting your hair braided—it’s just something that I know, and I can go back to as a kid when I felt safe. I felt comfortable, beautiful, loved and relaxed. I felt like putting such a heavy topic and something that is so reminiscent of the majority of black women’s childhood together was going to be so impactful. Typically, we shy away from stories that hit us right on the nose.”
To bring their vision to life, Fyffe-Marshall and Bird knew they had to get the right actresses for the film. For the challenging and heartbreaking role of Jade, Fyffe-Marshall turned to newcomer D’evina Chatrie. It took Fyffe-Marshall four long months of searching to find the right young actress, and she didn’t take her search lightly. “I’d approached so many moms and sent them the script, and they were all like, ‘No. My daughter’s not doing that,’ she said. “I had given my services as a videographer for a Mother’s Day makeover, and I met D’evina then –she was so mature and so lively, so, I reached out to her. Her mother read the script and said, ‘Wow. This is really heavy, but D’evina’s really mature, and I think she can do it.’”
Fyffe-Marshall continued, “About two weeks before we were going to shoot, I went to their house, and I sat down and spoke with D’evina for about five hours. I taught her about everything from menstruation to what do if a man tried to touch her. I was one of her first sexual education teachers, and I didn’t take it lightly. It was hard because I was scared that I was going to give her all this information and then leave her — that was one of my biggest fears. I told her that I was her new best friend, and we were going to be really close. I gave her my number, and I told her, ‘You can call me at any time if you want to talk or if anything happens.’ We still have a very close relationship. That was important for me because I was just scared that I was going to do this for a three-minute film, and I was going to mess up her life. She dealt with it very well.”
For the role of Jade’s mother, Janice, Fyffe-Marshall enlisted artist and activist Tika Simone. After reading the script, Simone was inspired to be a part of the film. “Tika’s an artist in Toronto, and she’s always been outspoken,” Fyffe-Marshall reflected. “I just really loved her, so I DM’d her and she said that she was really busy and she didn’t think that she could do it, especially since we weren’t offering any money because we didn’t have a budget. But, I sent her the script anyway, and the next day she emailed us back, and she was like, ‘You cannot do this film without me.’ The morning we were on-set, she came to me, and she whispered, ‘This is my story. This actually happened to me.’ I had no idea, and she whispered that to me right before we were about to shoot. That pushed me harder to get it right.”
Presenting Haven at SXSW gave both Fyffe-Marshall and Bird the opportunity to see how the film was going to be received on a national scale. “I think it was very interesting because the crowd itself at SXSW is not a predominantly black crowd,” Fyffe-Marshall said. “This film is very much Caribbean-based, but someone who’s of any African diaspora could connect with that first part of the film. Also, there’s a lot of jokes in there that are Caribbean-based jokes, so the things that we would laugh at aren’t the things the audience would laugh at. I just wanted it to be lighthearted in the beginning so that the end really gets you. I feel like the end message really works if you feel super comfortable in the beginning. Overall, people reacted the same way. I had a lot of people crying in the lobby, coming up to me, being like, ‘Oh my God. You don’t know what you’ve done.’ I was very happy about that.”
Haven premiered at SXSW in March 2018.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.