This year’s short film ominibus collective:unconscious brought together five local filmmakers to adapt one another’s dreams, but Frances Bodomo’s Everybody Dies cut through the magic realism, all the way down to the bone. The premise is horrifyingly entertaining, full of existential dread and black humor (in multiple senses): a public-access children’s show hosted by a tearful Grim Reaper, who serenades the kiddies with lullabies to prepare them for a life of state violence against black bodies, before dropping the hammer.
Bodomo was born in Ghana, raised in Norway and Hong Kong, and educated at Columbia and NYU Tisch film school. Her debut short Boneshaker (2013), starring Quvenzhané Wallis as a rambunctious seven-year-old getting the demons out at a tent revival in the Louisiana bayou, is intimate, textured and emotionally volatile—“I wanted to express this feeling of having no place to call home,” she recently said of the film. Her second short, Afronauts (2014), was inspired by the true story of the Zambian space program; it’s now being expanded into a feature, and was one of the eight projects selected for the Sundance Institute’s Directors Lab this June
Where do you live and how old are you?
Ridgewood, Queens. 28.
What made you first interested in your profession, and how old were you when that happened?
I’m a filmmaker but I didn’t grow up watching many films. I read a lot of books and had a wild, emotional imagination. I spent my teen years in Hong Kong and was unimpressed by the big English-language film we used to get (blockbusters, Olsen Twins vehicles…). I wanted to be a poet: I wanted to find new ways of expressing the unique worlds I’d seen in my nomadic childhood; worlds that haunted me but which I couldn’t really talk about in everyday conversation. Then as a college freshman I took a film class and something exploded. That summer I borrowed about four or five films per day from the library and watched obsessively. It was such a visceral love—cinema was an emotional language I understood innately, and finally here was this medium that could do justice to the sort of cross-cultural dialogue necessitated by my nomadism. It was a new language with new tools… and it just grew from there.
Do you feel Brooklyn is still a viable place for a young person to build a career?
I don’t think it’s Brooklyn’s job to be a place for a young person to build a career. It’s a place where people live. If you’re not there to live (and invest in your community/neighborhood) then it doesn’t owe you much. I’m no longer here for this narrative of renting windowless rooms in bedbug-ridden apartments just to be able to afford Brooklyn-as-creative-brand. I’m an artist, and I think if artists want to foster this sense of a place to create and be in conversation with other creators—if artists want to even keep creative work viable in this city—then we have to really look hard at how we’re used in this city: as an important stepping stone in gentrifying neighborhoods. I don’t think this has to be the story.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Making films, hopefully! Using them to be in constant conversation with this world around us; using them to travel and live in many other places because the world is so much bigger than New York & I’ve been here ten years. I hope to have returned home to Ghana to make work at some point in that time.
Have you ever felt like leaving your career path?
Not really, but I’m open. My feeling is if you’re a filmmaker or an artist it’s because you can’t not do what you’re doing. I had a writing professor who used to say: If you’re good anything else, do that!
What’s felt like you’re biggest professional accomplishment?
I’ve been accomplishment-focused for most of my life. But recently, more intimate/introspective events have meant the world to me:
My producer (Laurie Thomas) and I recently put on a screening for the kid stars of my most recent short, Everybody Dies! and I recently put my first short Boneshaker online. These feel like accomplishments because I’m constantly shy about showing work to collaborators, very anxious that they won’t see the work they put into the film on the screen (which is a part of the process…), but the feedback has been stupendous.
I also made a promise this year to be a stickler about getting paid for work and it’s really helped peel away this idea that, as an artist, I’m lucky to do what I do and can therefore work for free. Nope, this is labor. This is a skill I have built that warrants space, time, money.
What’s some advice you’d give to people trying to get a foothold in your industry?
Find your people, because you don’t have to do it alone. And don’t think that a collaboration isn’t working because it’s hard. I’ve been in collaborations that have only worked because they’ve been positive. We promised to move mountains for each other, and anything that fell short of that felt like a betrayal. I’m much more interested in the collaborations in which we are unafraid to make mistakes, unafraid to look silly, unafraid to give criticism, unafraid to argue. And it can be tricky to get to that point. But the hard work of collaborating is worth it! (That said, don’t hold on to toxic people. I’m still trying to figure that one out, but I think if you’re completely drained by interactions with your “people” they’re not your people.)
Also: find some way to be check in and honest with yourself. There’s so much in the film industry that feels like opportunity and feels like success, but is literally just noise.
Who are your role models in your industry?
I love my fellow members of The New Negress Film Society (Chanelle Aponte Pearson, Dyani Douze, Ja’Tovia Gary, and Stefani Saintonge) because they’re constantly unapologetic in the work they make and it’s stunning. I love the work that Maori Karmael Holmes does in putting together the BlackStar Film Festival in Philly. The conversations that this space fosters are life-changing.
Who would be your pick for a 30 Under 30?
Warsan Shire. Two years ago I read her book of poetry Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth and was so floored by the level to which she embodied and reified ideas about displacement and otherness… and she constantly does this so tenderly and truthfully. I think it takes a specific kind of strength to do that (especially in a world/market that wants to cleanly package African diasporans as “afropolitans” or whatever term is most marketable).
Tell us about your next film…
I’m making a feature version of a short film I made called Afronauts. It follows the true story of the Zambia Space Academy, an unofficial space program from the 1960s. I’m hoping to shoot it in Zambia, with Zambians, and shift my filmmaking process away from individualism/auteurism and towards community. That’s one of my big goals with this one. It’s been a long road with this film—going on four years—so I know I have to make it. I’ve tried so many times to do something else and I keep coming back to this film about the impossibility of proving yourself to a power structure that wasn’t made to value you. Getting to the moon with handmade materials is a task that’s absurd and impossible and hilarious and existential… but we can’t look away.
To read about more sub-30 standouts, visit this year’s list of 30 Under 30.
Image by Jane Bruce