Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Caribbean Sci-fi Film 'Brown Girl Begins' Premieres in Toronto

By Neil Armstrong

Photo credit: Jelani Grant. From left: Emmanuel Kabongo, who stars as 'Tony,' Mouna Traore asn"Ti-Jeanne," Measha Brueggergosman as "Mama Ache," Sharon Lewis, the director; and Sonia Dhillon Tully as "Melba" of the film, 'Brown Girl Begins.'

The gala premiere of the film, “Brown Girl Begins,” directed by Sharon Lewis was held at Jackman Hall at the Art Gallery of Ontario amidst much glitz and glamour.

The Afrofuturist feature which is a prequel to Nalo Hopkinson's award-winning novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, had its debut at this special screening in Toronto on February 24 before opening at the Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas, March 2 to 8.

It was a celebration of Black Future Month with Lewis, Hopkinson and stars of the film.
Enthusiastic drumming escorted the actors, director, producers and creative team onto the red carpet.

Shortly after, there was a gala reception held in Walker Court featuring performances by musicians in the film: the legendary calypsonian David Rudder, blues dynamo Shakura S’Aida and opera sensation Measha Brueggergosman. 

“Brown Girl Begins” is an afrofuturist feature film about a young black woman who is trapped in a world forced upon her. Ti-Jeanne, a reluctant priestess, must resurrect Caribbean spirits and survive the possession ritual that killed her mother, or her people will die. 

S’Aida, who plays Mami, is a huge fan of Nalo Hopkinson’s novel. She read the book several times and knew the major part that Mami has in the story.

“I think it was an embodiment of every mom that I’ve known, every grandmother that I’ve known, and also a really huge embodiment of what I knew Nalo accomplished in the book, which was this strong character who only wants her children, her daughter, granddaughter to survive. 

"And that’s what we do as women, as parents, is we’re tough on them cause we know that we have to make them tough to get through the world. So for me it was a lot of pressure to have this role but it was also very gratifying to be able to embody everything I’ve learned as a mother from my mother, from my grandmother,” she says about her role as Mami.

S’Aida says this is a full circle for her because Hopkinson’s book was the first sci-fi book that she had ever read.

“It was in my neighbourhood, and it was in my city, and it was by my friend and I saw myself in the story. And because I read Nalo first I was able to then go to other authors, other black female sci-fi authors and read their works and from there I went on to other sci-fi works so this book, ‘Brown Girl in the Ring,’ actually started my whole love of sci-fi, and so that whole thing about Afrofuturism for me is normal because Nalo normalized it before it was actually normal. And then she turned me on to Octavia Butler and all these other women who are just wonderful.”

Mouna Traore, who plays Ti-Jeanne, says it was a lot of work.

“I think we all dream of being a lead actor, like working on a film and being the star but when you actually have to do it and you’re in every single scene and you’re in every single day, there’s nothing that can prepare you for the amount of work that you have to bring. And also being able to like do things on the fly and just roll with it because things change all the time so it was a lot of work. It was exciting, it was crazy, it was hard, it was tiring; it was everything that your dream job should be.”

Traore said dealing with the Caribbean spirits in the film was very interesting and kind of familiar for her because her mother is Haitian.

“And so I grew up with her spirituality around me and I had a very strong understanding going into the project of like Haitian spirits, the Loa, and having my own connection with them. I don’t remember what I did but I probably did some sort of ceremony before I started the project because I usually do. But it was marvelous to see how Sharon brought them to life, living representations of, like Papa Legba, and whatnot; it’s beautiful.”

Describing herself as a sci-fi fantasy fan, especially of afrofuturism in the last few years, Traore said she was only introduced to Octavia Butler a year and a half ago and since then she has read all of her books, except one which is saving “because I need that for a rainy day.”

She said it is her favourite genre and she thinks this is because when she was a kid she never saw herself in the genre before so now as an adult “it’s like the only thing I’m interested in.”

Emmanuel Kabongo who plays Tony says he felt fortunate and grateful to have worked with such wonderful and powerful women of colour such as Lewis, the director; Traore, his lover in the film; S’Aida, and Jenn Paul, one of the producers.

“The ability to play this role and the opportunity to play Tony allowed me to tap into something that I don’t usually do which is the romantic lover. Usually I’m swayed towards more of the bad boy type, the guy that comes in as a troublemaker but this role allowed me to really delve into being able to fall in love with somebody on screen and not make it about me being all bad.

“I felt like this whole time throughout the film, through the shooting it allowed me to just tap into the vulnerability side of me that I don’t get to do when I’m playing  roles.”

Kabongo, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says he grew up in the church so he believes in spirits and in a higher power.

“But for Tony I had to go in a place where that stuff was not real to me anymore because of the implications it had in terms of him losing a loved one. So for me, I had to go back and look at when in my own journey as an actor there were moments when I had to question my faith, question if God is real, questions if ghosts or sprits were real and there was a time when I basically just shut all that out.”

Director and writer Sharon Lewis was delighted with the premiere of her film.

“I am giddy with excitement seeing all these beautiful brown and black folks here, seeing it in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario where there’s not usually a lot of us inside here, knowing that an afrofuturist film just played there, there’s an afrofuturist display, there’s art. You never see opera singers, soca and jazz and blues singers in one night or all in one film,” she says.

“I feel that it’s showing that we are diverse; there’s not one way to define us. Look at the Caribbean -- that’s who we are.”

Lewis said she was studying directing in Los Angeles at UCLA when she walked into her favorite bookstore and saw her colleague’s award winning novel, “Brown Girl in the Ring on the shelf.”

“#blackgirlmagic unfolded from the moment I read the first page. I knew then that I had to bring this bold and unique story of a young black teenage heroine growing up in a post apocalyptic Toronto to the screen. Just like the epic journey of Ti-Jeanne, the heroine in the book, it has taken me time to acquire the creative skills, experience and resources needed to be ready. And ready we ready. I am now part of a movement of people who have brought this project to life - all working their own magic. Ti-Jeanne. She is the future,” writes Lewis on the website about the film.

David Rudder has a cameo appearance in the film as a dweller in the Burn.

“Well, it was a strange experience in the sense that they’d ask to use some of my music in the film and I just happen to be on the set and the producer, Sharon, she’s a very close friend of my wife, then she said, would you like to do a little cameo spot in the film, kind of impromptu like.”

Rudder said he had done a little bit of acting before so it was a small spot but it was a recognizable one.

Brueggergosman plays “Mama Ache” and Nigel Shawn Williams plays the multiple roles of “Papa Legba,” “Jab Jab,” and “Brukfoot Sam.”
The cast also includes Sonia Dhillon Tully as “Melba,” Rachel Crawford as “Crack,” Allison Augustin as “Young Ti-Jeanne” and Hannah Chantee as “Grace.” The producers are Floyd Kane, Vince Buda and Jenn Paul.

Hopkinson, who is currently a professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside in the U.S., said she was very pleased to see that Lewis succeeded in making the film.

She is the published author of nine novels, a collection of short stories and a chapbook, and the editor/co-editor of four anthologies.

The author lived in Toronto since 1977, but spent most of her first 16 years in the Caribbean, where she was born.

It took Lewis twenty years from the time she read Hopkinson’s novel to the premiere on the film in Toronto where it as shot.  She will be selling the film in Canada and the US and then it will be available by DVD, in I-tunes, and there is a planned tour for the Caribbean as well, possibly in April/May.

Itah Sadu of A Different Booklist Cultural Centre: The People's Residence and Sharon Lewis, writer and director of 'Brown Girl Begins' at the gala premiere and reception at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Nalo Hopkinson, author of the novel, 'Brown Girl in the Ring,' and Maxine Bailey, vice-president of advancement for TIFF.

Photo credit: Jelani Grant.       Shakura S'Aida plays "Mami" in the film.

Photo credit: Jelani Grant.    David Rudder is a Burn dweller in the film.

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