'Kalu Oji, Faro Musodza and Dalitso Mtunga talk 'Blackwood'' / Ivana Brehas
Blackwood (2018) is a short film directed by Kalu Oji, starring Faro Musodza and Dalitso Mtunga as mother and son living in a small town of the same name. Coming off of its premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival, the project is making some exciting headway. We spoke with Faro and Dalitso over email about their experiences of the shoot, and caught up with Kalu in person to reflect on the film.
INTERVIEW - FARO MUSODZA & DALITSO MTUNGA
What does the story of Blackwood mean to you?
Dalitso: Blackwood means a lot to me since I felt like I really was David; to know the struggles that the characters have to go through and that its like that for a lot of people in real life; it just means a lot.
Faro: It’s an authentic depiction of a single parent household held down by a strong black woman who is equally career driven, ambitious and nurturing. This is the first of many yet to come — stories that don’t focus on why you are in Australia but instead show us living in country town Australia and being the people we set out to be. In the short film, my son and l live well and we are happy. We live in a regular household, facing day-to-day issues coupled with racism hidden in multiculturalism. The story shows how deeply connected my son and l are, despite our personal challenges.
Faro, you have a child yourself. Tell me about your experience playing Mary.
Faro: Yes, my son has ASD and is non-verbal. My mothering skills are acutely different to Mary. This time around, my son was older, spoke back to me and was able to express his emotions. I could communicate with him knowing he understood me deeply and was able to comfort me and tell that l was upset, and l could do the same for him as his mother. Playing Mary allowed me to be more forgiving of myself as a mother, and truly honour the fact that as a mother l am enough — no sugar, no cream, just me through and through. Trusting that my son is okay, because l am here for him, and if he needs me he will make sure l know! And allowing my son to make mistakes. Mary trusted David to fall and learn from it, but she was always there to support and encourage him to rise up. I found that really beautiful.
Tell me about working with together, and working with Kalu.
Dalitso: Working with Faro and Kalu was super fun — always having that happy mood, but they were also both serious and professional at the same time. I just felt happy and welcome, and I knew that it was going to be a great film.
Faro: Dalisto ended up feeling like my true son! I honestly was watching my potential future play out in front of me. I spent a lot of time with him before filming. We fostered an honest relationship, and l felt like I stepped into his mother’s shoes and were we really living in Blackwood. He is so full of energy! He took all the exercises with genuine enthusiasm. It was an absolute joy!
Kalu was truly generous and humble. I understood how much this film meant to him, and was truly honoured to bring Mary off the page, and for him to allow me to add my own touch to her character. He allowed me to really play out the mother I needed to be, including reigning in Dalisto and Landry when they went a bit off script with their cheekiness! I’m so glad the film has been well received. Kalu’s energy brought people together, and he spoke to us in a calm and encouraging manner. I hope I do more projects with him, and Dalisto too. They were wonderful to work with, and professionally fun!
Were there any challenges you had to overcome on the shoot? Did you learn anything new?
Faro: l had not acted with a minor before, and l wasn’t sure if he would be focused enough. To bring out the best in us both, l made it a point to connect with Dalitso’s mom, Elasma, to create a safe space for him to feel free and open up communication, because of how close we needed to be as mother and child. It also allowed me to create ways in which we could focus in work and also have time for play. That went really well, and Kalu agreed that it was thoughtful to put that first. I know if l had my son I would want to make sure he was comfortable and able to speak up if anything happened on or off set. Personally, I had to bring my son to work! Basically, I was unintentionally method acting. I was a bit tired, but realised that was something honest to the role I was playing. A lot of us parents often have to buckle up and get on with it. This was genuinely an amazing opportunity. I tend to overthink a lot, but had a supportive crew, and they were very understanding and made allowances at times when my son needed my attention or came in earlier than wrap up time. I definitely learned a lot. To trust that professionals are people too, and will make allowances for families. In a work space, regardless of your job, it’s so important to know that people will be understanding and accommodating.
Dalitso: I learned that life is not always as fun as we think it is, and that it does have challenges, but we just have to be strong and trust in family and friends. The most challenging part of the shoot was keeping a straight face, as the cast and crew were a lot of fun, and my favorite parts of the shoot were making friends, and each time when we successfully finished a scene.
What drives or inspires you as an actor?
Faro: The ability to tell stories, learning about humans’ behaviour and what drives them. Being in the midst of it all is truly fascinating and mentally rewarding. I no longer judge myself so much. I live and take each day as it comes.
Dalitso: It just feels good to be part of something. The acting itself is really fun too, and working with the crew is great.
INTERVIEW - KALU OJI
Why do you make films?
Oh, wow. There’s a multitude of reasons. I mean, I love storytelling. Everyone has their own unique experiences, and for me, translating those things into something tangible helps me understand the world around me better — it helps me understand my own experiences, and connect with people through common experiences. There’s also a whole bunch of things that I’m very angry about, and film is also my way of, I guess, channeling that energy. My films are very often personal stories, and stories that are very family-based, or character based, but that can be a commentary about what I think isn’t working yet in our world; stuff like that. Film is my way to express how I feel about where we’re at right now, and voice my opinion. Putting those things into an art form that people are able to experience or access is almost like a form of activism.
Having known you for a few years, Blackwood feels very accomplished. It feels like the result of the past years’ experience. Did the process feel different?
Definitely. I’ve been so perfectionistic in a way that hasn’t always been healthy. Making films at uni, and outside of uni, I don’t want to show anyone anything if I’m not happy with it, and, like, I’m never happy with it. So I just have this big bank of films — all this work, and not wanting to put it out yet. So people watch Blackwood like, “Oh, it’s his first film,” and they haven’t seen, you know, the fifty other films that are on my hard drive (laughs) that I’ve made with friends over the years. Blackwood definitely feels like the result of all that practice — learning how I want a set to operate, how to direct actors, how to connect to people, how to cast, how to work with different creatives and give trust to people. But also, as a person, while I was growing creatively or technically while making those films, over those years, I also begin to understand myself better each year. I mean, I’ve kind of known what I’ve wanted to say for a while, but Blackwood was very much figuring out how I wanted to do it, or wanted to say it. Making work that is more honest to me — Blackwood definitely feels like it amounted to that.
Did it feel different on set?
So much. And that just comes down to being fortunate to work with people who are really, really, really technically talented and awesomely creative, but who are also close friends of mine, and who are really lovely people. I think I definitely found my community last year, so being on the set of Blackwood, it was like, “I have all these people who are my peers, but are also the people I’d want to have in that role if it just came down to the technical side of things.” And I curated the set very meticulously. I was like, okay, after being on so many and knowing, or at least subjectively feeling, what works and what doesn’t, and what sort of energy I want to create on set, I knew how I wanted it. Especially ‘cause we were staying out on location for four days, like, sleeping together and eating together — you have to create a family. Lin [Yuan Goh, gaffer] said this quote that was really beautiful — her philosophy, and I very much feel the same way, is ‘First make a family, then make a film’.
Ugh, she’s so wise!
(laughs) Yeah, she’s so wise. So that’s how I wanted to approach Blackwood — I wanted to be making the film with people who I felt were family. I really believe that the energy on set translates so much on-screen. It’s not just what you point the camera at, it’s what’s behind the camera as well. If everyone’s at each other’s throats, or if there’s one person who’s particularly pissing people off, that energy translates into the final product. So the fact that it was wholesome — the film’s wholesome in its own way.
The composition and the cinematography is really dreamy in Blackwood, and on re-watching there’s lots of subtleties — earthy tones and soft greens; the globe in David’s room, turned so that the continent of Africa is in view; complementary patterns on the tableware and costumes. Tell me about collaborating with Ranima and Gabriel.
It was a blessing to find Ranima and Gabe that year. I worked with them on Ranima’s ‘Calendar Girls’ shoot, and we just connected as people and creatives. Blackwood felt like the project I was most able to let go of, creatively. Me and Gabe are very much on the same page about references — we like the same films; we like the same aesthetics — so when we’re building up mood boards, it’s just stuff like music videos that we’ve both liked in the past. We had a very solid idea of what we wanted this to look like. For it to feel natural, but framed — this portrait of their lives. And with Ranima — I’ve shot stuff before, but I haven’t done that much production design, that was so cool, because she came in with all these ideas. We were working with three main colours —beigey-orangey-brown, purple, and green — and they all represented the stages of where the characters were at. When David comes home from the soccer match, he’s dressed in purple — that’s his phase of being unsure, and that’s why Channel 6 was all designed kind of purple — and when he comes home, Faro is wearing this all-green outfit. Then at the dinner table, when David’s kind of moved on from it, he’s wearing all green. Having someone who put that level of thought into something was really awe-inspiring. Besides looking beautiful, it brings a whole ‘nother level to the project, which is deeper than just the script.
Did you have any visual influences that you want to mention?
Rina Yang is a cinematographer me and Gabe both really like. Everything she shoots just looks incredible. Gabe put me on to this Nigerian artist, Njideka Akunyili Crosby — for both production design and framing, there were so many elements of her work we really liked. Me and Ranima talked a lot about having everything be patterned — patterns on patterns. We didn’t want plain block colours. We wanted it to feel like there was life everywhere. There’s this painting, Predecessors by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, which we basically replicated — after the TV crew leave, and Faro’s sitting in the chair — it’s so constructed, the way I’ve got her sitting. It’s this beautiful painting, and there’s this woman sitting the same way in a chair. Also, direction-wise, there was so much in that painting, in terms of how the woman looked, and how much you were able to read from something that wasn’t moving, that wasn’t making any sound — so we tried to imitate that in the film. There was also a lot of this photographer, Roy DeCarava — having stuff going on outside of the frame is a common theme in his work. Personally, direction- and story-wise, all my inspiration for my work comes from Kathleen Collins. So I showed Gabe Losing Ground when we started. But cinematography-wise, and production design-wise, those other people were big, big, big influences.
I love when people sneak in things like that, like recreating the composition of a painting.
Hiro Murai was also a big influence. When David and Samuel are walking across the field, and Terrence [played my Emmanuel Mgbadiefe] runs over and runs back — there’s a scene in Atlanta with the ‘invisible car gag’, when the invisible car runs someone over after they get out of the club, and I listened to a podcast of Hiro Murai talking about how they decided to shoot that. It all happens in one shot — we’re following the characters that come out, we pan over to the car, and then come back and follow them — and he said that scene wouldn’t have worked if they’d have followed the characters, cut away to the invisible car, and then come back to the characters. That gag wouldn’t have had the same effect. So when we were filming that Terrence scene — it wouldn’t have worked if we’d just cut away to him at the end of that scene. So we follow these characters, and they leave the screen, and it’s almost like we accidentally land on Terrence, but that’s actually exactly where we needed to be for that moment. So yeah, Hiro Murai was a big influence for a lot of stuff.
I see you as an actor’s director. For an actor it’s quite a gift to be on a set with you, because you’re interested in humanistic stories, and character studies with focuses on subtleties of everyday life over spectacle that doesn’t give the actors that much to do. Tell me about working with this cast.
Faro [Musodza] and Dalitso [Mtunga] are the actors you find and you just feel lucky to direct them, because it’s like the character is there. Their performances are amazing, and that comes down to them. Most projects, I’ve tried to cast people who aren’t traditionally trained as actors, or who are just getting into it, because I feel like they have a freshness and authenticity that seasoned actors kind of lose over a while. Faro hit up Mimo [Mukii, producer] on Instagram and was like, “Hey, if you guys have smaller roles or anything, I’d love to come in and chat.” We auditioned her, and she was amazing — I mean, you were in the room when that happened. She walked in and she read the poem, and the first time she read it, it was like, “Okay, that’s it.” Faro’s her own person, completely, and when she was playing Mary there was so much stuff she did to get in character — but because she has an eight-year-old kid, and she’s a single mum, she was playing a role but wasn’t stepping that far outside of herself. So she was able to bring so many things which, as a director, I wouldn’t have been able to bring out, because that only comes from lived experience. The proximity of her as a person to Mary as a character worked amazingly, In scenes with Dalitso, a lot of the time, we’d use her son as a reference. It wasn’t a struggle to figure out, “Okay, how would Mary feel in this situation?” because Faro was like, “Oh, I know how I’d feel in this situation.” (laughs) There were all these different things we were able to try and explore because it wasn’t foreign for her. It’s the same with Dalitso — he’s playing an average twelve-year-old kid. He plays tennis, so we translated that to soccer. He was definitely playing a character — Dalitso’s not as bratty as David, and David’s kinda shy, a bit unsure of himself — Dalitso is none of those things (laughs). He’s the most animated, confident, happy, awesome twelve-year-old kid. But he brought so much of himself to the character. The clunkiness of being a twelve-year-old kid showed up on-screen in David, and that existed in Dalitso. The thing I love about that age is that you’re at this point where you’re kind of maturing as an adult, or coming into your own as a grown-up person, but you’re still so much a kid, and it’s this weird tension between being not grown at all, but being almost grown, almost there
I remember you telling me at the start of last year that your original idea was for a short film called Pride, about a Nigerian family. How did you go from that to Blackwood?
As much as Blackwood is a film about family, mother and son, and how we all face common losses, get over disappointment, stuff like that, it’s also bringing another version of the African-Australian narrative to Australian audiences. It was made with so much anger on my part, because we have this one narrative of Africa at the moment, this kind of ‘Apex/refugee’ — everyone’s either big and scary, or someone to be pitied. When I was growing up, we had, like, Fuzzy on TV, and that was kind of it in terms of representation, and now we’re at this point again where there’s this one narrative. When I was writing Pride, I was thinking, “I want to make a film which explores family in some way”, and that changed with Blackwood, but in a greater sense, the other narrative is still happening — of reclaiming the African-Australian narrative, and sharing a perspective on what it means to be African-Australian. Pride was so specifically a Nigerian-Australian story, quite a specific lens, whereas Blackwood kind of allowed for the same message in terms of this ‘yelling back’ thing, but allowed it to be more, I don’t know, pan-African. I was telling you about Lions Love (…and Lies), that Agnes Varda film — I kind of wanted to do that same thing with Pride, this quasi-doco thing. I think I still want to revisit that. But post-colonial history here is still so recent, and also in terms of African-Australian history, I don’t know anyone my dad’s age who didn’t migrate here as well. The community here is a bit smaller, so casting is difficult — finding people here who are interested in acting and who could do justice to the role. That comes from people not yet seeing themselves being represented. It hasn’t been an option to be an actor. I guess that’s what we’re trying to change.
Although you tell humanistic, character-study stories, you don’t always go for stylistic naturalism — the surreal kind of bleeds in. The ‘quiet on set’ scene in Blackwood becomes quite tragicomic and absurd. How do you balance those tendencies?
Honestly, I think that element in Blackwood just comes from, like, Atlanta. That show inspires me so much — it has all these completely surreal and ridiculous scenes, but so many of them are still very grounded in reality. In Blackwood, I was trying to find those moments that are a bit more ridiculous, like the TV crew scene, or the scene with people staring at them from across the road — which are both things which are informed by real experience, but when you watch them, you’re a bit like, “What the fuck was that?” They’re kind of absurd. I think those moments are really fascinating for that reason. I was trying to have this thing where, on one level, we can watch the TV crew scene and it’s kinda funny, a bit ridiculous, but if you break down the politics of what’s happening on that set, it’s a really complex situation, and alludes to a much bigger problem with the Australian film industry, and how there’s a lack of connection coming from lack of representation. I expect some people are going to watch Blackwood and it’s going to be a kinda funny, kinda clunky story about mother and son, and that’s what they’ll get from it, whereas I want some people to be able to watch it and think, “Oh, that was actually an intricate and different way to approach a comment on the politics of this country.” Even with Terrence — that scene where he runs over and laughs at David’s hair, then runs over to the other boys — that’s a really innocent scene of kids teasing each other. Playing around. When he calls him “carrot hair” it’s kind of funny. But that scene, in essence, is a comment on colorism. You have three African-Australian kids in the town, and Terrence, because he’s light-skinned, can hang out with the other kids on the soccer team, whereas David and Samuel walk away from them. I think a lot of people probably won’t get that, but a lot of people will — especially African-Australian audiences. I was trying to balance that with the humour in the film — moments that some people will read into and understand that they’re much bigger comments.
You’ve kind of covered my last question with that. I was going to ask if there was anything from this film you wanted people to come away with.
I want African people who watch it to feel warm, to feel happy, and to feel empowered when they watch it. And I want everyone else to reflect. (laughs) It’s meant to prompt everyone, regardless of background, to reflect on why things are the way they are, but it’s mainly made for the African community here as something that isn’t ‘five teenage boys break into a home in Werribee South’. A different perspective — that’s what I want. A different perspective of what it means to be African in Australia.