Q&A with Maya Cozier | Screenshots (May/June 2019)

Trinidadian filmmaker Maya Cozier talks about her new short, She Paradise

  • Courtesy Maya Cozier

“I’ve sat through enough films where the directors get the female characters wrong”

A star is born — almost — in the short Trinidad and Tobago film She Paradise. It’s the story of Sparkle (Onessa Nestor), a young woman desperate to be a soca dancer. Lacking in self-confidence, she botches her first audition with a dance troupe. The brash, extroverted Mica (Cheneka Clifford) takes her under her wing, eventually leading to a climactic moment in the spotlight for Sparkle to show what she’s got.

Directed by Maya Cozier, She Paradise is a prelude to a feature-length version of the film currently in production. It’s a bracingly unsentimental distaff drama, one attuned to the complexities and joys of young women’s friendships with one another. It’s also sensitive to the working-class realities of its characters, a quality that was on display in Short Drop (2016), Cozier’s previous, prizewinning short. Here Cozier tells Jonathan Ali about bringing She Paradise — the short and feature — to the screen.

She Paradise considers themes of girlhood and female camaraderie through a Carnival-and-soca context. Which came first, the wish to make a Carnival film or the desire to explore these themes?

I think I was initially driven by wanting to tell a story that felt like the experiences of my girlfriends and me growing up. It was an exciting time of self-discovery, loss, heartbreak — and it all happened against the backdrop of a contemporary Caribbean space.

The film is set within a working-class milieu. What draws you to this world, and how do you approach it in terms of being authentic to people’s lived experiences?

I was an introverted child, so early friendships have really impacted my work. My best friend, who I met at dance class when I was six, danced as a way to find escape from her lived experiences. The first film I ever made in college was about that friend. Also, my co-writer Melina Brown and I interviewed dancers before developing the film’s characters and crafting the story. That process helped us tell a story that feels authentic to these women’s lives. I think that’s the most important thing for me to accomplish as a director, because I’ve sat through enough films where the directors get the female characters all wrong.

Watching the film, there’s this sense — not fully verbalised or shown — that the competitive, even mercenary, world of dance these young women are in is on a continuum that also includes the world of sex work.

I would never judge women for their decisions. I also don’t want to sentimentalise the sexuality of the dancers in the film. I know how my friends and I felt when we danced on stage for Carnival, and it’s a liberating and empowering experience. Of course we’re doing it within the culture of a misogynistic male space, and those are issues that I grapple with in the short film and the feature-length version.

Your leads give contrasting, convincing performances. How did you cast them?

We put out an open call for actors/dancers and personally invited some dancers to the audition. Cheneka and Onessa are both from [the dance troupe] Malick Folk Performers. They had no prior acting experience, but their lives are so close to the actual characters that it works. Onessa and Cheneka are also friends in reality, and they have the same friendship dynamic of their characters. Cheneka is the theatrical, self-assured friend and Onessa is the more reserved, introspective friend.

The feature-length version of She Paradise will be your first feature. What do you see as being key to making it a success?

I don’t want to give away too much, but if I can challenge the way people think about consent and sexual harassment, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something with this film. If I can demystify some preconceptions of Caribbean girlhood, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something. I think making a film that feels real and authentic is successful. If I can tell a story that makes audiences, regardless of where they are in the world, relate this film to their personal experiences, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something.

She Paradise
Director: Maya Cozier
Trinidad and Tobago
15 minutes