DEE REES wrote and directed the film Pariah. TRACEY SAUNDERS spoke to her before her arrival in Cape Town for screenings at the Out in Africa Film Festival at Nu Metro, Waterfront, on Wednesday and Friday at 8.30pm.
Pariah tells the coming-out and coming-of-age story of Akile, an African-American teenager. It won the Best Cinematography Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was also a Grand Jury Prize nominee. Before you became a director you worked at Colgate- Palmolive? How did that transition to screen come about?
Film-making is actually my third career. I was working in marketing and writing had been my first love. I thought there must be more to life than this, and quit my job to study and work in film. I met my producer, Nekisa Cooper, at Colgate-Palmolive where she was marketing toothbrushes.
What is the genesis of Pariah?
When I was studying at NYU in 2005 I made a short film based on the first act of the feature I had written. It is about my own coming-out process in Tennessee.
I had felt invisible in both the gay and straight worlds, not seen for who I was. I didn’t follow the stereotype of gay women and I couldn’t be myself in the straight world. I never suffered from any form of physical abuse as portrayed in the film. It was rather an emotional crisis. My grandmother, mother and father did an intervention when I was at university.
Audre Lorde coined the term “biomythography”, a story which “has the elements of biography and history of myth, fiction built from many sources. This is one way of expanding our vision’’. Would you describe Pariah as being of that genre?
Her work really inspired me, particularly her audacity and courage, her ability to redefine her history and herself, dropping the y from her name. Nekisa had encouraged me to write my story. At the time I was going through it, I thought: once this is over I want to forget about it, not write about it.
Have your family seen the film? What was their reaction?
My parents haven’t watched the film yet. They know about it and our relationship has improved, but they don’t want to see it yet. For a long time we didn’t speak to each other at all. We have reached a place now where they love me but don’t accept my life. Maybe that’s part of the process, to watch the film with them.
Homosexuality is still illegal in many countries in Africa including Liberia, where you made a documentary about your grandmother’s return to Monrovia. Has Pariah been screened on the continent before, and what impact do you think it could have on African audiences?
Yes, my grandmother lived in Liberia during the 1950s and then came back to the US. She passed away last year and was a teacher. I made the film about her before Pariah and it was a different kind of difficult.
I would be reluctant about screening there, but maybe it could. I wouldn’t assume to be able to make an impact. I know in South Africa black lesbians have been victims of terrible crime and rage, and I hope they come to see the film.
Adepero Oduye wears the role of Akile with such ease and is an absolute delight to watch on screen. How did you find her?
She came to the casting for the short film. We couldn’t believe that we had found the lead actress on the first day. We kept on with the castings, but she was the one. She was a natural and just fitted into the part. I knew I wanted her for the feature.
Funding the production of any film is difficult, but even more so for independent films. Was it tricky?
It was very difficult to get funding. It was seen as a niche film, too “small and select”, which is code for “too gay and too black”.
Private investors who believed in the story, and not necessarily if it would make money, backed the film. Screening at Sundance helped.
We sold our house to fund the film. I hope black lesbians will have the courage to come to the screenings. We made this film because we wanted to tell our story, but it is more than just a black gay film.
The soundtrack is diverse and an integral thread throughout the movie. What informed your musical choices?
I wanted each character to have their own distinctive musical voice. Each character has theirs; Akile is acoustic soul, Bina is punk, Laura is hip hop.
As Akile’s journey unfolds so too does her musical taste. It was important for me to have all-female independent musical artists.
There is music by Tamar-kali, Sparlha Swa, Honeychild Coleman and MBK Entertainment. The only commercial song is featured in the opening, which was really playing when I went into a club for the first time. We have had several requests for the soundtrack, so hope to make it available soon.