This guest post by Amanda Parris appears as part of our theme week on Dystopias.
Interview with the filmmaker below.
I was in my first year of university when I first read Nalo Hopkinson’s critically acclaimed novel, Brown Girl in the Ring as part of a Humanities course entitled Cultures of Resistance in the Americas. It had never occurred to me to think of futuristic dystopias and sci-fi literature as part and parcel of a resistance culture that has sustained African Diasporic cultures in the Americas until I was introduced to this work. A few pages into the novel, I was hooked. Located in the city where I have spent most of my life, the story is set in Toronto, a downtown core cordoned off from the surrounding suburbia where the rich and wealthy have fled. In the opening pages Hopkinson sets the scene:
When Toronto’s economic base collapsed, investors, commerce, and government withdrew into the suburb cities leaving the rotten core to decay. Those who stayed were the one’s who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave. The street people. The poor people. The ones who didn’t see the writing on the wall, or who were too stubborn to give up their homes. Or who saw the decline of authority as an opportunity. As the police force left, it sparked large-scale chaos in the city core: the Riots. The satellite cities quickly raised roadblocks at their borders to keep Toronto out. The only unguarded exit from the city core was now over water, by boat or prop plane from the Toronto Island mini-airport to the American side of Niagra Falls.
Seventeen years after the publication of Brown Girl in the Ring, Toronto was named the No. 1 city in the world to live in by The Economist. But who benefits or lives the reality of this status? The rise of condo-mania in the downtown core has also led to the rapid gentrification and resulting dislocation of numerous communities – the individuals affected fit a disturbingly similar profile to the ones that Nalo envisioned eventually cordoned off from health care, electricity and technology. Her description of The Burn, that walled-off section of Toronto, feels hauntingly familiar and it is this resonance that writer/director Sharon Lewis feels will hook people into the film adaptation of the novel that she is currently working on: Brown Girl in the Ring – The Prequel.
The Prequel puts the coming-of-age story of the novel’s protagonist, a young girl named Ti-Jeanne, front and center. The film will illustrate her first steps as she moves into the role of the heroine that she becomes in the novel. Beyond an exploration into the particular otherworldly gifts Ti-Jeanne possesses and her ability to navigate the dystopian landscape that defines her home, Ti-Jeanne’s character is also challenged by a more familiar narrative of conflict between her Caribbean and Canadian cultural identities. When speaking over the phone, Sharon’s enthusiasm for this pioneering adaptation of a Caribbean Canadian sci-fi novel emanates as though this was a fresh and newly discovered idea. In fact, Sharon has been working on creating this film for the past 15 years (while also establishing herself as a published playwright, writer, actor and award winning director) and although the journey has been long, she strongly believes that now is the perfect time to transition this well-nurtured idea into tangible reality. Last week Sharon successfully completed a crowdfunding campaign to support the film. Achieving this recent milestone has affirmed her belief that there is an audience out there excited for a story like this and that the moment is now for the film to be realized. She says,
Well I think we’re in the zeitgeist. I think that the novel and the film are coming to life in an appropriate time. I’m not sure if in 1998 we would have understood that this is so relevant to our present day lives. I think that with the rise of social media and technology we have a lot more access to those images so all of a sudden Ferguson, Baltimore, Detroit, all of those are in our consciousness in a way that it wouldn’t have been in 1998 because we didn’t have the same kind of access and the people living within those situations didn’t have the same kind of access. We see the rise of public videos being used in legal battles. That was never the case in the late 1990s. So all of a sudden police officers are being held accountable according to public videos. It doesn’t mean that they’re always being held to justice but they’re actually being held accountable which again is being used as a catalyst for people to riot. In the film that is the trigger for all of the things that happen. There is an economic collapse and the poor people are tired of being poor and they rise up. I think that if you look at why they are rising up it’s because there’s an access to social media in a way that they didn’t have before and then the only way to shut them down is to seclude them and cut off their electricity and cut off their ability to communicate with the outside world where their reality is going on.
Corporate and government decisions to seclude a section of the population following their mass politicized mobilization as a result of increased connectivity and communication feels eerily prophetic in the current era recently dubbed “Black Spring.” Sharon revealed that part of Nalo’s inspiration for the novel came from poignant observations of the harsh realities occurring south of the border:
When I talked to Nalo she was inspired by Detroit in terms of what post-apocalyptic Toronto would look like and this is 1998. So she was in Detroit and looking at a city that basically had an invisible wall around it. You had all the wealthy industrialists living in a particular area and then all the Black neighbourhoods were burnt out, abandoned, policed – heavily policed and the public school system was on its way down. So that’s the Toronto that you’re going to see in my film.
Although set in Toronto, Sharon recognizes that this story of economic flight and extreme disconnection and alienation is one that can resonate beyond the city’s borders. As a child of the Caribbean Diaspora, the extremes of wealth and poverty sitting side-by-side in an imbalanced yet normalized fashion is disconcertingly familiar for Sharon:
I spent a lot of my childhood in Jamaica and Trinidad and a lot of that reality is already there. There were already people that were cut off from technology or cut off from electricity who were having to make do. And right across the street they were seeing the glistening lights. I remember in Jamaica driving through Kingston and on the hillside you’d see people living in zinc shacks, still walking to the river to get water and then just a couple of feet down from them was this massive, beautiful house with satellite dishes and massive technology.
Prescient in the film will be the way that these kinds of divergences in experiences create walls between people – sometimes physical but often subconscious – thereby separating them from each other in ways that enable the current world order:
There is a wall but like any ghetto there’s an invisible wall. There’s a wall that basically you don’t step into the other world because you don’t belong there. And you won’t see the wall in the film because again my whole point is your own psychological barriers are much more destructive than any actual physical wall that’s built.
The setting constructed by Nalo Hopkinson in her novel was, as are many dystopian landscapes, a prophetic warning of what will come to be if we continue to ignore the signs of the times. And yet it sets itself apart from other popular dystopian literary tales with a distinctly Caribbean Diasporic influence, one which director/writer Sharon Lewis is excited to push aesthetically in the cinematic adaptation. She cites Marcel Camus’ 1959 Oscar Award-winning film Black Orpheus as a key inspiration in imagining an aesthetic that is steeped with a heavy Carnival influence:
I’ve never seen a Caribbean set in a dystopia. I’ve never actually seen a dystopia that has a Caribbean aesthetic. For me it makes sense because what I saw in the reality of Jamaica or Trinidad where people had to adapt with little resources…it’s dystopia. Aesthetically it will be interesting because you’ll see Caribbean people and that will affect the way they dress and you know the food and all of that, but also in the way that they talk and the way that they relate to each other in terms of what those moral values are.
To step into the unchartered territory of Caribbean-Canadian sci-fi film, Sharon has cast a wide net in considering her aesthetic and story inspirations. She celebrates the rise of female heroines in Sci-Fi and Fantasy film such as Bella Swan in Twilight, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. Although an avid fan of sci-fi, the unbelievable dearth of Black female heroines in the film genre has meant that Sharon has had to look elsewhere for reference points when conceptualizing the heroine Ti-Jeanne for Brown Girl in the Ring – The Prequel. She cites Julie Dash’s seminal film Daughters of the Dust as a key inspiration in seeing Black women as magical, full, and rich characters.
With the success of her crowdfunding campaign, Sharon has launched a Brown Girl Movement, led by women of colour who are coming together to tell this story in a new genre that will inevitably feel strangely familiar for so many: that of the Caribbean-Canadian sci-fi.
To learn more about Brown Girl in the Ring – The Prequel, visit the website.
Amanda Parris is writer from the 6ix who dreams of screenplays to come, has a couple of theatre plays under her belt and sometimes really geeks out and writes for “the academy.” In her spare time she is an actor, Critical Hip Hop educator, and producer of all things cool, creative, and disruptive that started from the bottom. You can follow her on Twitter at @amanda_parris