#TIFF20: IN CONVERSATION WITH…. AVA DUVERNAY
By Mr. Will Wong
She’s been nominated for Oscars, juggling Writer, Producer and Director caps and TIFF was fortunate enough to have Ava DuVernay appear virtually for an In Conversation With… tonight with TIFF‘s Artistic Director and Co-Head, Cameron Bailey. DuVernay reflected on her career path which has included many firsts including being the first ever black female Director to be nominated for an Oscar with 2014’s Selma.
On the success of Netflix Documentary 13th which looks at the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed slavery:
“Though you’d think it would be Selma and A Wrinkle in Time, most people know me internationally for 13th as those two didn’t get a wide release.”.
On the impact of Netflix‘s When They See Us. Bailey let DuVernay know that No. 1-ranked Tennis Player Naomi Osaka has been wearing masks donning the names of black people whose deaths have been named in protests against racial injustice. She was inspired by the DuVernay-created, written and directed Mini-Series.
“Did she do that really? This is a story of Black Criminalization. The idea black people are inherently criminal. It doesn’t matter that Cameron Bailey is the Maestro to one of the biggest Film Festivals in the world. He’s a black man and he will be suspected for whatever’s gone wrong within a two mile radius. This is ingrained in our systems. When you can find a story that allows you to interrogate this – like this particular story – about five boys and how young they were and their story was catapulted to the top of the news in the U.S. What did they do? Are you sure? Should they stop resisting? Where were their parents? All those questions make the victim accountable for a crime against them. As much as Trisha Meili (the victim) was traumatized, these boys and all their families were traumatized. When you convict one person, we see the tentacles of that accusation on a family and a generation. Making a five-hour Movie was an adventure, but a forum I really embraced because it allowed us to tell this story from boys to men and how the system applied to every stage of their lives.”.
Bailey asks DuVernay how she feels about this age of using image and video as evidence.
“We’re able to use it to further our cause, but it’s always been used as that. You saw white folks who’d go to lynchings and see bodies hanging as entertainment. Martin Luther King – and I wish I had time to name the rest – all the people who made Selma and the Civil Rights Movement happen. They all did it before cameras so that it could be talked about by following generations.”.
“Images bear witness to tell the story to change the story. We have to make sure it’ts not used as propaganda and is used for truth-telling and protection. I look forward to using image in a fashion not to state that we matter, as much as I’m an advocate and participant in the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m resentful we even have to say the words. Images help that conversation be had. Hopefully, we can keep looking at these things and get to a time when it’s not needed.”.
On balancing real-life trauma with her own vision:
“Asking people to relive a tough time in their life is difficult. But to be able to get them to participate, say their truth, see the Script, be on-set and look at Editing Room material – to be involved in a progressive way – helps them to recreate the process so it’s not so traumatic when they see it on screen and so they feel it’s part of their story.”.
On casting Toronto’s Stephan James in Selma:
“A friend of mine had seen him as a side character in something else. We couldn’t find his agent or the kid. Aisha Coley (Casting Director) found the kid and the agent, and the agent didn’t call back. We are down to the wire to cast this and we needed to see him. We say it’s for Selma and it’s Canada and they don’t know what that is! We get him on tape, off to Atlanta and he’s spectacular and sublime. He’s beautiful and eager and gave a great performance. I just see him and go ‘My little Stephan!’.”.
On creating a creative space:
“I’m always welcoming you into my space, ‘Come on in, this is my space!’. I expect everyone to treat the space with respect and others with respect. This is space we’re sharing, it’s like our home while we’re shooting. These are Mama’s rules and stay within rules you’ll be just fine. I believe in just being welcoming to people and being kind from Actors to Crew to Executives.”.
On “safe spaces”:
“We’ve progressed from 5, 10 years ago. You put the onus of nervousness on them. You didn’t do anything. We need to change our perspective on these things and not see yourself as a victim, but a victor. I went into a meeting where I was the only one like me and asked, ‘How many women, how many black people, are there any indigenous people?’. These are questions I need to know if i want to participate. Put the onus on those people who keep things looking one way and not on us.”.
In addition to producing a Netflix Series with Football star Colin Kaepernick which will be shooting in the next 4-5 months, DuVernay has series of Warner Bros. projects to come. Her Series Queen Sugar is now shooting with Crew and Cast having moved back to new Orleans.
(Photo credit: TIFF)