What is the story of Toronto?
That’s what Keesha Chung has spent five years exploring — and now, sharing in her first feature film “grey area,” a story of a young aspiring model in Toronto navigating her Black identity, day-to-day microaggressions on a casting set and the city’s underground art culture that’s seldom talked about in the mainstream.
In the creation of this film, Chung said it was important to shift from Black stories only rooted in pain and trauma.
“A lot of content in the media with Black protagonists, or films that speak to the Black experience, is centred around pain and trauma. These stories are essential. But when we play into this (pain and trauma) cycle too much, we gain this pseudo-humanization where we are validated as human beings solely based on our trauma,” she said.
A first-time director, Chung also discovered the importance of control and investment in Black creators, which enabled her to intentionally hire talent from diverse backgrounds. “Black people and people of colour need to see themselves represented, but those representations will not be accurate if the people working behind the camera are not the same as what we see in front of us on screen,” she said.
Chung’s debut film was recently featured in festivals like the Montreal International Black Film Festival and the Reelworld Film Festival. It is available to watch virtually until Oct. 30 at the CineFAM International Film Festival.
The Star spoke with Chung about her new film and why it’s important to allow new creators to tell their stories.
What is “grey area” about?
“grey area” follows a main character, Dre Nassir, an aspiring model in Toronto, navigating the harsh realities of her professional life and personal relationships with friends, an ex-partner and herself. At its core, this film is about transition and the mess that follows a Black woman trying to make it in Toronto.
I am always inspired by the talent in this city. I am fortunate to have found this cast. They really brought this story to life. I wanted this film to showcase Toronto in as many ways as possible. But not just through the actors, also in the brands, music, and artists we featured in this film.
So often, Toronto is a stand-in for other locations, so it was essential for me to create a film that looked, felt, and sounded like a version of the city relatable to the people around me and me. When I look at shows like “Insecure” or “Sex and the City,” I see how pivotal Los Angeles and New York are to the story’s fabric. I wanted Toronto’s presence to be felt in the same way for this film.
As a city, we have so much to offer.
Taking the reins as a director for the first time, what did you learn?
A lot of content in the media with Black protagonists, or films that speak to the Black experience, is centred around pain and trauma. These stories are essential, and they need to be told. But, for my first film, I wanted to create something lighter that people could relate to.
Most of us have been in love, experienced heartache, struggled with our identity, or been put in positions to choose between what we know to be right versus what’s easy. Unfortunately, this industry doesn’t make much space for Black people to tell these kinds of stories. That was a big motivator for me.
Also, many Black creators are made to feel that they need to deal with pain and trauma to be validated by the media industry and the white gaze. And in many ways, this is true; capitalism and racism reinforce the importance of these types of narratives. But when we play into this cycle too much, we gain this pseudo-humanization where we are validated as human beings solely based on our trauma.
Coming from a women’s studies background made me aware of how important it is to humanize Black people outside of this cycle. It is important to see stories highlighting our joy, love, triumphs, mistakes, poor decisions and complicated relationships. Transitional moments in life are often very messy but award us with essential life lessons. We need to create more stories that reflect that.
How did your own experiences influence who you picked to be who to be on the crew?
Black people and people of colour need to see themselves represented, but those representations will not be accurate if the people working behind the camera are not the same as what we see in front of us on screen. Representation needs to be prioritized on both sides and at all levels — it’s really the only way things will change. We need to be in charge of our own narratives, and for me, that starts behind the camera.
I have been building the “grey area” world for over five years, and I made sure I picked people to work on this project that understood my vision and had the creative confidence and skill to elevate it. As a director, it is not just about actualizing my vision for a project. It’s creating a platform for creative collaboration that allows everyone to insert a piece of themselves into the final product.
Whenever I have the opportunity and authority, I create crews that include people of colour and creative teams with as many women and queer people as possible. Working in the media industry for over 10 years, I have felt the positive effects of these experiences, and I wish I had more of them earlier in my career.
What do you hope for the future of storytellers in Toronto?
Unfortunately, in Toronto’s media industry we have a lot of people in positions of power that publicly advocate for shifting representation dynamics and uplifting women, queer people and Black, Indigenous and people of colour, but behind closed doors, they do the opposite. We need to build more supportive communities headed by authentic leaders.
I’ve been lucky enough to work on shows like “Next Stop” and “The Shift” — both of which have been led by people who want to make changes in the industry and have given creatives like myself opportunities to grow and evolve.
At the end of the day, it can’t be about one person, project, show or movie. It has to be about creating an industry that makes room for all of us to tell our stories. A space that embraces difference and encourages unique perspectives.
How about Canada and beyond?
In terms of Canada, I want audiences to realize that we have a rich tapestry of stories. We don’t have to import them from elsewhere. For example, when speaking about Black representation, much of our understanding of Blackness in Canada is linked to the Black American experience, yet the cultures are vastly different.
Our talent doesn’t get the exposure or support they deserve in Canada until an American audience validates them. It’s why so many people leave. It’s hard to feel encouraged to build a solid career here when you aren’t supported by your own people. This ties back to my first point: we need to be more intentional about the communities and industries we want to build here in Canada. There are definitely people making moves to change this, but it’s still hard, and we need to do more.
Overall, my hope for future storytellers is that they don’t struggle with these same issues. I created “grey area” because I wanted to tell a story I hadn’t seen before, and I wanted to do it on my terms with creatives I admire and look up to. I did that, and I am genuinely proud of what we accomplished. But there is still so much more of this story I want to tell. I hope the industry continues to make more space for myself and others to create with fewer limitations and more support.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Credit: Source link