LBB> Can you describe for us, the theme of the film and the overarching message?
Meena> I really wanted to delve into the concept of a workplace being unintentionally toxic.
It can be hard to describe a microaggression to someone who has never experienced one. In addition, for a lot of people who have never experienced it, the whole concept of 'racism' can be seen as antiquated. Racism isn't necessarily being called an offensive name, being beaten up for being a different shade of skin or someone mocking your accent if you happen to be Black or Asian.
For many Black and Brown people, it is this system that oppresses us in a range of everyday scenarios. A system that we exist in, rather than an isolated single incident, and this is what I wanted to convey in the film.
In addition, because micro regressions are often subtle and unintentional, it can be difficult for the person on the receiving end to feel valid in the experience they are having of said microaggression. I know this might sound a bit abstract to anyone not familiar with this concept so I'm going to try and give an analogy:
If someone happens to be transgender and is mercilessly bullied, trolled or mistreated because of their gender, the victim has a clear reference point, the people responsible for the abuse and trolling are obviously in the wrong and should be reprimanded
However, if that same person is consistently being denied decent housing or healthcare, whereas their non-transgender friends in otherwise identical situations have no issues doing the same, or being denied work opportunities, whereas their counterparts have no issues getting a job - then it becomes clear that there is a pattern emerging - the system in which we operate is discriminating against this person because they are transgender. This is a lot harder to prove, but the pain that the victim feels is no different in either scenario.
It is this constant series of systematic failures that I wanted to describe in the film and really hoped would connect with the audience
LBB> You’ve expressed that your work always comes from your heart, conveying messages you feel are necessary to hear and that will make a difference. Can you tell us why the idea behind this project resonated with you?
Meena> I've had so many excruciating uncomfortable experiences which I have often tried to dismiss or erase from my memory at the earliest opportunity. Often, long after that incident or interaction, I've thought back to myself and said 'that was kind of racist!'
But as the events are often in the past there was no way that I felt I could either confront the person in question or even verify myself that the incident took place in the way that I remembered it. Was there a possibility I was being too sensitive? Perhaps I misremembered the event? If this was the case then why did the scenario replay in my head and why did I feel as if I was on the receiving end of a microaggression? It’s this self-doubt and internal dialogue I often feel that I wanted to explore.
That internal dialogue often continues... but what if I am remembering the event correctly? What if I am feeling this way because either intentionally or unintentionally, the person with whom I had been speaking had made me feel like I was ‘less than’ because I happen to be Black and female? What if this is the actual reason I’m feeling this way?
LBB> The project is part of the Racism At Work (RAW) initiative, to raise funds to provide therapy for People of Colour (POC) in the creative industries who experience racism. How involved was the RAW team in the creation of this film?
Meena> Davina and Xavier of BADLANDS originally approached me to be involved in the project in mid-2020. It was the height of the pandemic and I was juggling several projects including the finishing of my first feature film Black Creative. I knew it was something I wanted to take on. Using the responses from the RAW survey, I drafted an initial script outlying my idea. With feedback from the RAW team, I redrafted the script several times, with it improving (I hope!) with each draft. In early 2021 I had a final script that I was happy with, and the team at RAW and BADLANDS thankful agreed that it was good to go.
LBB> From initially hearing the idea to the completion of the film, what was the timescale of production and were there any factors that got in the way of its completion?
Meena> I originally agreed to come on board in mid-2020. The pandemic obviously slowed us down quite a bit as we were unable to shoot due to COVID restrictions but this also meant that I had time to rework the script several times and carve it into something that I felt was authentic and reflected my own experiences, as well as those who answered the RAW survey. I've been juggling quite a few projects over the last 18 months including 'And I Shall Rise', which was developed and shot in Cape Town and this also affected the time scale slightly. However, in April 2021 restrictions were lifted which coincided perfectly with the version of the script which we all agreed was the best one.
LBB> The subtlety of the piece is both striking and echoing, conveying a message without explicitly saying it. How did you go about creating the script and how long did it take to strike this balance?
Meena> The script itself was the lengthiest part of this project. This subject matter is so nuanced and sensitive that I really wanted this to feel right. This meant several redrafts, leaving the script for a little while, then returning to it with fresh eyes.
The script itself evolved hugely from the first draft, partly because of COVID and filming restrictions but it also evolved in a sense that the things that Adae experiences in the film became more and more subtle. I think this subtlety is key, in the film the events Adae experiences are so subtle that he doesn't even feel comfortable calling people out because the moment has passed, it's hard to prove and ultimately he feels his career is on the line. However, as we see, these are experiences although subtle are still undeniably painful for him.
LBB> Why was it important to play on the silences and how effective was it in the completed piece?
Meena> So much can be read through silence. For me, playing out those moments of silence or little dialogue allows us as the audience to fill in the spaces with our own thoughts and questions, what is this character experiencing, what can I gauge from their body language or facial expression?
For the actor also, it is a wonderful opportunity to really inhabit the role they are playing. The subtleties of their movement can be just as informative as their lines.
LBB> Were there any challenges when it came to the production side of the film and can you share details of the experience?
Meena> We had a lot to shoot within two days. Luckily we had a fantastic team and Lorena Pages, my DOP instinctively understood the atmosphere I wanted to create. It helped that we had reccied the space a few times ahead of the shoot which meant we had a good sense of the space and lighting.
LBB> The most prominent imagery is Adae (played by Dimeji Ewuoso) glancing at himself in the mirror and seeing his body littered with scars. How did you achieve this?
Meena> We had a wonderful make-up artist, Sarah Phillips who was able to generate a complete array of scars that looked realistic. It was a time-consuming process which meant that we had to shoot the scenes in a way that would allow Adae and Cliff (who plays Cliff, the cleaner) enough time to have both the make-up applied and removed between scenes. There was some trial and error as I wanted some realistic keloid scars across Adae's back but we got there in the end. There were some final bits of clean up with VFX as well.
LBB> The scars on Adae’s body and the timing of this piece being released within Black History Month bring an extra level of depth to your message. Why was it important to include this imagery within the film?
Meena> Absolutely. Emotional scars can be just as life-altering as physical ones, and this is something I was keen to highlight. In addition, it can often be difficult to see emotional scars on a person from the way that they behave or act. By having these physical scars across his body, both Adae and the viewer are left with the discomfort of what he has experienced. We can't deny what has occurred as the physical scars are there as proof.
It is often the case with micro regressions that they live in this grey area where they are experienced by the victim in a very real way but also often easily dismissed by people who often can't grasp the severity of the scenario and thus either intentionally or unintentionally explain it away, undermining the act itself and the feelings of the victim.
As Black and Brown people, the more we discuss the daily experiences and challenges that we face, the more that it will cultivate an environment with more empathy and understanding. Black History Month is a time that people hopefully use to pause and reflect as well as celebrate. If this film is able to convey a tiny slice of what it can feel like to operate in a predominantly white space, then I feel as though iI have done my job and left the viewer with something to think about.
LBB> The end of the film provides a moment of solidarity between Adae and Cliff as an unspoken understanding is reached. Why was that particular scene important to include and what was the effect of it being at the end of the film?
Meena> I often think about what it is like to be the 'first' person to call out any kind of discrimination. There can often be a lot at stake, a job, a career, acceptance among your colleagues. Adae, as a young creative in a London advertising agency, feels like he has too much to lose and remains silent. He is complicit in the very system that oppresses him.
In the end, he has a moment of silent understanding with Cliff, who also felt that too much was at stake to say anything. I wanted to show that the effect of their silence has weighed heavily on them, not only in the physical scars they both have but the shared understanding that they had a chance to speak out but did nothing.
I hope by ending on this scene the viewer will ask themselves, will they stay silent, or will they speak up?
LBB> What did you want the audience to feel and what did you want them to take away from watching the film?
Meena> I really like making people feel uncomfortable! I honestly believe in allowing people to sit through discomfort and then analyzing where that discomfort comes from. In the context of this film, I think although we have made huge strides in the aim of being more equal and representative within the creative industries, we still often find it difficult to face uncomfortable truths about unconscious and racial bias.
A lot has changed in the last 18 months in the sense that we are seeing and hearing experiences from a broader demographic of people whether it's on TV, in film or in literature. Representation is crucial. Equally, I think it is helpful to dissect the system of oppression that has existed up until now. Why is it that advertising agencies in London remain predominantly white and middle class? Why are there so few Black people at senior levels? Why is it almost always that the people cleaning these offices when we go home at night are overwhelmingly from Black and ethnic backgrounds? Why do Black women often feel uncomfortable wearing their natural hair out in their place of work?
LBB> As the industry evolves, what would you like to see going forward and how does RAW support that?
Meena> I would love to see conversations regarding unconscious and cognitive bias be normalized in our industry. Things are changing but I do feel as though the industry has more work to do with respect to making people of colour feel as though they are in a safe space where their experiences are valid and not questioned. This evolution will take a while and I don't think we will see the true effects of this change that is happening for years, perhaps even decades.
The incredible thing about what is happening today is that audiences are seeking authenticity throughout all mediums. In order to hear these authentic voices, our industry has to make it a priority to have inclusivity and diversity across the board, including higher management where they can implement real change. RAW is about making voices heard and I think that sharing our experiences like the survey respondents did ahead of me writing this film, generates empathy, understanding and hopefully a better environment for anyone in this industry.
LBB> Were there any moments on set that you’d like to share with us?
Meena> There was a wonderful moment when we were shooting the scene in the men's bathroom when Adae first notices the scars. We did do many takes of this scene but I could tell Dimeji was really getting into the zone so I made sure he was OK to keep on going.
At the end of one of the most intense takes, there was a tear that silently trickled down his face and the whole room was silent. That take didn't end up in the final cut of the film but it was a moment on set where you could just feel that everyone in the room was resonating with what Adae was experiencing. It’s Demeji's talent as an actor that made this moment so memorable.
LBB> Is there anything you did on this project that you would like to incorporate within your future filmmaking endeavours?
Meena> Incorporating real-life experiences into the development of a character is something that I always try to do in my writing. It was great to channel these experiences into subtle looks and gestures which are almost imperceptible but still hugely felt. Exploring the nuances of what a single person experiences throughout a day is a fascinating study of human behaviour. As a filmmaker and psychology nerd - it fascinates me.