On Tuesday, Michelle’s second short film, “SUGAR,” was released on Studio Anansi Tv. The film was developed and produced as a part of the inaugural JAFTA Propella, a program developed by Jamaica’s Film Commissioner, pairing filmmakers with funders. Through the program, selected finalists are given training in film production and a small budget to produce their film scripts. The films are then given financial support for submissions and travel to festivals, worldwide.
For the lead role in “SUGAR,” Michelle selected Shantol Jackson, who owned the role. Shantol was also selected for a lead role in Idris Elba’s directorial debut, YARDIE, which will be making its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Michelle’s first short, “MISSED,” was made as a part of the pioneering effort of the New Caribbean Cinema, a group of filmmakers in Jamaica, who formed in collective to produce each others projects. The result was a film anthology, “RING DI ALARM,” also available on Studi Anansi Tv, and featuring short films by Nile Saulter, Storm Saulter, Kyle Chin, Joel Burke, and Michael Tingling.
Watch “SUGAR,” now:
We vybed with Michelle about making the film and Caribbean filmmaking, in general.
caribbeanfilm: In your own words, tell us what this film is about and why you chose to tell this story.
ms: Sugar is a story about unequal power dynamics and the lengths the disenfranchised have to go to to be able to carve out a space for themselves in a very unbalanced universe. On the surface, it’s a story about a young maid who faced with some heavy economic pressure, exacerbated by a bit of an exploitative relationship with her mother, has to make some tough decisions, the outcome of which will affect not just her but a lot of people within her radius, including her younger siblings.
When Sharon Leach wrote the short story Sugar, there was perhaps a different intention in terms of Sugar’s main motivation. But for the film, I was truly excited about using the continuous take, to create a heightened subjectivity, which would really grab the viewer and take them in to this girl’s situation of unrelenting pressure. We explored her motivations and decided on something more grounded in her need for self development and self actualization. The film ultimately asks the viewer if you were in her shoes, in this situation faced by countless women in the developing world, what decision would you make? Where would you look for solutions? The film is not intended to be didactic in any way, but presents a real situation with no easy answers.
caribbeanfilm: Did the film turn out the way you envisioned? If yes, in what ways. If no, why not?
ms: The film was a very challenging undertaking, especially considering the decision to film in the style I chose. My inspiration came from the Cuban film, Yo soy Cuba, German film Victoria, Argentinian film Los Olvidados, and my good friend Chappie St Juste, showed me Hitchcock’s Rope, as an example of how to use transitions to simulate a continuous take, instead of actually trying to do it.
I knew I wanted to experiment with a style I am calling Caribbean neo-realism, and I knew I wanted to create an experience which did not let the viewer escape from the situation our protagonist was in. So, I really had to fight to maintain my vision of telling the story via this continuous take. I had been shooting a lot of documentray work over the past years and really appreciated the way in which that kind of verite approach could create a more immersive experience. It was the first time a film would have been tackled in this style here and so many people were extremely skeptical, but everyone eventually rose to the occasion. We tried something different and innovative for the sake of the story and I am glad we were able to achieve it.
caribbeanfilm: What was the most challenging aspect of making the film and why was that so?
ms: The most challenging aspect was the shooting style, which could best be described as camera gymnastics. It was a bit of a dance synchronising the actors’ movements with the camera, and having to use a gymbal, which needed an operator, focus puller, remote controller and someone else to hold the monitor. Added to that, it was a wireless operated system, so we had to figure out really innovative ways to hide, get ahead of the actress for scenes where we needed to not break the continuous take but also get ahead of her, and also make sure everytime we orchestrated one of these moves, we did not lose the signal. This happened a few times but it was so worth it when we eventually got the shots. A downside to this was, everytime we had to re-shoot a take we had to start from scratch, but my actors, especially Shantol Jackson, who played Sugar, and her mother, Karen Harriot, were absolutely amazing with their patience and dedication to making this work. The camera team as well, lead by Gareth Cobran was also very committed.
caribbeanfilm: What do you want the audience to take away from this film?
ms: I want the audience to look underneath this story and see themselves, see all of us in the developing world, as this story transcends nationality/geography. For me, this film is really a post colonial narrative, speaking to dynamics of underdevelopment, the unequal power relations between developed and developing world economies and the transactional and exploitative relationship that exists between the two. The tourist couple represent a lot more than just a pleasure seeking duo. Theirs is the story of most of our islands, which, at this point, are still dependent on former colonisers and other more economically advanced nations dictating the terms of engagement, at our peril. It’s about the IMF, the IDB. It’s about the parallels between the institution of slavery and the tourism/service industries. It’s about the “old slave mills grinding slow and grinding still.”
caribbeanfilm: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a filmmaker.
ms: I became a filmmaker because I respect the power of cinema as a medium for representation, reflection and understanding of self as individual and as part of community. It’s the hardest, most difficult artform to engage in, in my opinion, as it requires so much, and sometimes its really difficult to find the right people with whom to collaborate, and more difficult still to convince yourself that the sacrifices you are making to be able to make work that adds something meaningful to the conversations that are had in the moving image, that is all actually worth it.
I became a filmmaker because my mother read stories to us everynight as a child and Sunday morning breakfast became the ritual space when my father especially would reminisce about his own youth and both my parents would share stories and memories about their adventures as children and also remind us of some of the amusing things we did that we couldn’t recall. Storytelling was a ritual in my home environment and I have realised, this is really the foundation for my love of cinema, the power of shared memories, images, stories to bring people together, which is really the main purpose of all of my work.
caribbeanfilm: If you were to pick an aspect of filmmaking – producing, writing, directing, cinematography, editing – which would be your favorite? why is that? – which do you dislike the most? and why is that?
ms: I am a process person and love all aspect of filmmaking. I absolutely love the development process, I love watching and experiencing actors do their work and I love seeing it all come together in post. I am completely engaged through out every single step of the process and can’t imagine being any other way.
caribbeanfilm: With respect to the main actor, Shantol, how/why did you want to work with her? And how do you think her role in Idris Elba’s film will impact the local filmmaking community?
ms: I wanted to work with Shantol because she seemed like a committed actor. During the casting process, I looked at a short film she had appeared in and there was that one moment, an expression conveyed in a glance during her performance that displayed a commitment to craft, to telling the truth. I saw it and thought she would be willing to do the work required for Sugar to come alive as a full person on screen. I interviewed her and had a very personal conversation with her about her life, and we spoke about specific instances, I figured I would need to use to get her to drop into her character’s inner world. She did not disappoint. We sent the film to Idris Elba’s people when they were casting for Yardie and I think they saw that same commitment to craft there. I think the impact of her landing that role will serve as a testimony to actors especially that short film or 30 sec spot, give your all with every performance, represent yourself well at every opportunity because your talent and commitment will be the bridge that connects the next opportunity to the next and the next and the next.
caribbeanfilm: Do you think there is a “Caribbean film aesthetic” being created as more and more films are being made? If so, can you describe what you’re seeing as that aesthetic?
ms: I have some concerns about us trying to homogenize the artistic work coming out of the Caribbean into one overarching aesthetic. In my view, “a Caribbean aesthetic” cannot be monolithic. A big part of what it means to be “Caribbean” is acknowledging our Creolite and Antillanite and the diversity of influences stemming from those cultures and so diversity has to be a major part of that aesthetic. For me, specifically, part of my exploration as a African identified Caribbean woman, is finding ways to de-colonise my own filmmaking practice and purposefully include more African-derived and indigenous influences in my work, in terms of how we perceive time, space, philosophy of life, relationship with our environment a variety of things I think should also be expressed/contained within the cinematic expression. My contributions to the body of work being classified as Caribbean cinema, will be my injection of this African-ness into my work, which is directly derived from the ways I experience this in my lived reality, via my own research into African visual art, culture and philosophy, my individual owning and re-presentation of that identity and its subsequent incorporation into my own aesthetic as a creative artist. So I guess for me, the Caribbean aesthetic is personal to the filmmakers and what influences they bring to their own work.
caribbeanfilm: And then some completely random questions: What is your fav film (or 2 or 3) all time? What did you enjoy about it the most?
ms: My favourite film of all time, which is also my favourite Caribbean film directed by my favourite director, is, “Rue Cases Negres,” or “Sugar Cane Alley,” by Euzhan Palcy. I cannot begin to explain the impact that film had on me as a student at UWI, and its continued impact on my life. There is so much history and memory and beauty in this story, it is so truthful and transparent in its honesty, for me this film is everything I admire in cinema. Within its frames I could see myself, my parents, my grandparents and their parents before them all in that one story universe. For me, the biggest dream is for the next work I create to continue the conversation were that story left off. If I could create a film that has the impact on a viewer that Rue Cases Negres had on me, then my work would be done and I could retire from filmmaking happy and fulfilled.
That’s it for now. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, Michelle. Looking forward to vybing with you again soon.
Photos by Jeff Crossley.