Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pariah: A Film About A Black Lesbian Young Woman Finding Herself in White Het Male Supremacy, Written and Directed by Dee Rees. Produced by her spouse in life and partner in work, Nekisa Cooper

photograph of couple Dee Rees and Nekisa Cooper, filmmakers of "Pariah" is from here

Telling a story is difficult when you struggle to know the story you're telling--because you are living it; because the story isn't done. But any partly autobiographical story will necessarily be a work in process. So it is for partners in life and work, Dee Rees and Nekisa Cooper, writer/director and producer, respectively, of a film getting a lot of attention at Sundance called Pariah. This is a deeply personal story, which means it is also profoundly political.

In a Western world where, far too often, human = white and male, queer = white and male, lesbian = white, and woman = white, it is difficult for me, a white gay male, to fully appreciate the struggles for visibility and validation faced by those of us in the queer community without white and male privileges. Why it is that white queer people think telling stories primarily about whites and men is representative of "us" is beyond me. Most queer people aren't white, after all; most queer people are not male either; and most queer people do not have the kind of economic privileges, social status, and professional clout with which to get films made. So movies from Making Love, to Birdcage, to Brokeback Mountain, to TransAmerica, to The Kids Are All Right do not tell "our" story so much as they tell a small part of our story made to seem complete.

I recommend checking out these films about queer people of color and/or LGBTIQA people who do not live in Anglo-white societies: Black Womyn: Conversations with Lesbians of African Descent; Johnny Greyeyes, The Watermelon Woman, A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, Fire, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, and XXY. I welcome the readers from all over the world alerting me to other films depicting the lives of queer and Two-Spirit people of color, and queer people living in the Pacific Islands, South and Central America, sub-Saharan Africa, Northern Africa and The Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous people globally.

White gay activists like Dan Savage state that, increasingly, our people's stories are told in dominant media--on television and in films. But these voices, such as those in Will and Grace and Modern Family, lack authenticity and depth when they are only white or only male (or both). They aren't "us", in other words; they are "the voices of the most privileged" which means the most complex struggles, told as stories in whatever televised or cinematic form, are not familiar to most of us.

As anyone knows who remembers the first lesbian or gay person you saw on television or in film, seeing ourselves reflected back to us in affirming and three-dimensional ways is critically important to our self-esteem and sense of self-worth. This is particularly true for queer youth, who generally and usually do not have any validation or support within families of origin.

I didn't come out to my family of origin until after I was out to myself and my friends. It's the friends that so often help us prepare to tell those family members, who can be liberally accepting or conservatively rejecting. This is one theme in the movie discussed below.

Here is an in-depth article and interview with the filmmakers of Pariah from three and a half years ago when the film only existed as a feature length screenplay and a short film. I have added several links to the article when writers and spiritual-political-creative movements are mentioned, in case any readers here aren't familiar with them. What follows is from and may be linked back to by clicking on the title just below.

Giving Voice to a "Pariah"


Dee Rees never thought she would become a filmmaker. "My journey into film has been pretty roundabout," she told The Tennessee native started out in the business world, where she met her girlfriend, Nekisa Cooper. The two recently collaborated on the award-winning short film Pariah (Rees wrote and directed; Cooper produced), a coming-of-age story about an African-American lesbian teen who struggles with her sexual orientation in the face of a conservative family.
"Going into undergrad, I knew that I loved writing," explained Rees, "but was afraid to major in English or journalism because it didn't seem 'practical.'"

Thankfully, Rees didn't stay long in a field she was unhappy in, but her stint in business did beget the essential partnership behind Pariah's creation. "I met Dee while working at Colgate," Nekisa Cooper recalled in an interview with
"We had taken similar paths to get there — we both went to business school and graduated thinking we would take the marketing world by storm," she continued. "Dee was a breath of fresh air for me, and we became fast friends." The pair began dating while Rees looked for graduate programs in which she could follow her true passion.

Her creative drive was originally centered on writing, but film also had a certain appeal. "As I started learning about screenwriting and film programs," Rees said, "I was completely sold on the idea of being able to literally bring my characters to life." She enrolled in film school at New York University, throwing herself into her new craft, and soon called upon Cooper's organizational skills to help produce her films.
"I should've gotten an associate's degree from NYU," Cooper said with a laugh, "because I spent so much time going to classes with Dee and meeting the people in that world!"
Pariah was a labor of love for both women, who have been blown away by its runaway success on the film festival circuit. The film is the story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old African-American girl who struggles to find herself and her sexual identity in between two unforgiving worlds. She dons one set of clothes around her gay friends and another around her family, hiding who she is from her judgmental parents.
Even the title evokes the outcast, the unwanted — and an emotional chord has been struck within many communities. The film has received high praise and awards from circles as diverse as the Los Angeles Film Festival, Urbanworld and the biggest LGBT film festivals, including Frameline, Outfest, NewFest and the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. "It is has been more than we ever could have hoped for," said Cooper.

Rees wrote and directed the film as her graduate thesis, with the intention of creating something that could open the doors of communication between families and communities.

"I think awareness is the first step in creating change and to opening discussion," she said. "And the film has definitely done that. We were really excited that the film was well-received at Urbanworld [a film festival that focuses on the black community], because it means that people are starting to listen and be open, which was exactly what we were going for."

As a film that encourages discussion, Pariah hits on quite a few heavy topics within its brief running time. Rees sees the film as a parable that everyone can relate to, but it examines the struggles of queer black youth most closely.
"Pariah is about identity," Rees explained. "I think that identity is something that everyone has struggled with in some way and at some point in their lives, so I think it's a very universal struggle and experience that all audiences can relate to. At the same time, I did want to bring to light the experiences of gay youth of color because it's a story that hasn't been fully told and needs to be seen and heard."

The project was a tough sell from a production standpoint, hampered by the usual hurdles of making a successful short film: access to good actors, equipment, locations and support that can ruin even the most masterfully written script. "The production experience was extremely intense; it was really hard, dirty work," Rees said. "It was definitely a labor of love, but the actors were amazing. My DP [director of photography], Brad Young, was a genius."
She continued: "Nekisa did all the heavy lifting and was a miracle worker in making everything happen and cultivating relationships. [She is] a really supportive and amazing girlfriend and producer, and I feel really lucky to be with her."
The film is a highly personal project for both women. Rees originally wrote Pariah as a feature length, semi-autobiographical piece and based a great deal of Alike's experiences on her own. "Pariah is definitely very personal for me," Rees said.
She explained: "When I was growing up, I felt like I was never really comfortable being myself. I've only recently come into and accepted my sexual identity, and when I first moved to New York, it blew my mind that there were these out and proud teenage women who not only knew who they were, but weren't afraid to be themselves. I didn't even know who I was in that sense as a teenager, and I asked myself whether even if I did know back then, would I have had the courage to be who I was? The answer was no."
Cooper had a similar connection. "Alike's struggle was and is definitely my struggle, and the struggle of many lesbians," she said. "I wore many masks for a long time — I was one way with my family, one way with my straight white friends, and another way with my straight black friends. It took me a long time to become comfortable with me — with my spirit and all of the good and bad that encompassed it."

In fact, some of Alike's experiences are still all too familiar to the filmmakers. In terms of dealing with a lack of acceptance within her own family, Rees said, "[It's] something I'm struggling with now, and something that's going to be a long-term fight for me."
Cooper agreed. "Yeah, it's funny, but not funny — our parents haven't seen the film yet, so that kind of will tell you. My family was more accepting, but it's still going to take some time. I'm going to have to sit down with them and sort of preface the film before we watch it together."
Cooper grew up as a military brat, constantly moving from town to town. She credits her father's military influence as one of the biggest factors in shaping her savvy business sense and ability to manage a crisis — talents that came in handy during Pariah's production.
Rees grew up in rural Tennessee, reading Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Gloria Naylor, Nikki Giovanni, Zora Neale Hurston and "pretty much any of the writers that were part of the womanist movement and the Harlem renaissance."
Living and working together in a creative medium hasn't always been easy, but Cooper and Rees have found a balance that works for them. "I think both of us, coming out of the business world, out of corporate America, we pretty much have a good sense of trying to set boundaries," said Cooper. "I mean, not that it isn't a struggle sometimes — especially when we were in preproduction and shooting — it was kind of difficult to take time just for us and the relationship."
That's all changed now that Cooper has left the corporate world for good, and they have both made the jump to the West Coast to pursue their future projects together. "I finally said, 'When are we going to have an opportunity for me to sort of jump?'" Cooper recalled. "So this is it: I'm here — hopefully for the long haul."
Pariah was originally intended to be a feature film, and in fact, the full-length script was written even before the short was made. Rees and Cooper are currently working on making the feature-length Pariah a reality, with Rees finishing up rewrites on the screenplay and Cooper gearing up for the Independent Feature Project market in September.
"Nekisa is banging out the final board and budget," Rees said, "and we plan to be done in time for the IFP market this September so that we'll have a complete package and hopefully attract some funders. We've had a lot of industry interest so far and look forward to moving forward soon." She added, "We'd love to shoot this next spring or summer."
Additionally, they are currently working on finishing up their feature documentary Eventual Salvation, based on the experiences of Rees' grandmother. "My grandmother is a Louisiana native and was born during the Depression," Rees explained. "She got fed up with all the racism and Jim Crowism here in the United States and decided to move her family to Monrovia, Liberia, in the 1950s.
"She lived there for almost 40 years, and remained through much of the civil war until her name turned up on a death list and she was forced to return to the States. In the winter of 2005, with the war finally over and the election of Africa's first female president, Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, she returned to Liberia to rebuild her home and her community, and Eventual Salvation is the story of that journey."
Cooper added: "It is the Africa you haven't seen in the media — images of hope instead of images of despair. Dee, Bradford Young and I are extremely excited to bring these images to the world."

Right now, the filmmakers are raising funds to complete the film. "We've been working over the last couple of years to get funding to finish it, basically," Cooper said. "In terms of timing, we're looking to finish it by the end of third quarter this year, and looking to hopefully get it into the festival circuit starting in January."
What with getting a feature-length Pariah off the ground and finishing up a multi-year shoot with Eventual Salvation, the filmmakers have their plates full at the moment. But Pariah's success hasn't left them blind to the whims of the business.
"This industry is just so fickle," said Cooper ruefully. "You can be hot one day and not the next. But from our perspective, we don't really try to focus on that. We try to focus on telling these stories in the best way that we can." 
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The place to do that is HERE:

image of poster for the film, Pariah, is from here


Cerien said...

I need to watch this film. Any information on where to donate, Julian?

Julian Real said...

YES, Cerien, I do. Here is the link, html coded but also written out in case it doesn't work (and I'll add this info to the main post as well). Thanks for raising this issue!!