1. Why did you become a filmmaker?
I’ve always been a writer of all things creative. As a kid, I started with short stories, then poetry, then stage plays, and once I found myself in Hollywood, the natural thing became television and film. Looking back, becoming a filmmaker was always a dream, but being from Charlottesville, Virginia, Black, and without the knowhow, I wasn’t sure it was something I would or could achieve. Then came the murder and the trip abroad that changed all of that. (see next question)
2. You have a film titled seeking asylum, can you talk more about the film?
Freddie Gray was murdered in Baltimore by the police, though they blamed his Blackness. I was scheduled to take a flight to Norway to begin a backpacking trip around Europe and had to decide if I’d still go or head to Baltimore to fight in the streets. I needed to go. The years leading up to Freddie’s death were full of the same stories. Black men and women being shot down by police for no reason whatsoever. I needed to leave America and find happiness somewhere, or some version of happiness. I couldn’t shake the thought of my folks back home in America still fighting for what should be a given right: the right to a peaceful life. I pulled out my cell phone and talked to anyone willing to share their thoughts on the how Black people in America are treated and if they’d welcome us to their country should we decide to seek a new land. This took me through Norway, France, UK, and the Netherlands. Question after question, answers after answer, and revelation and revelation. I collected over 75 hours of footage over the weeks I was away and returned home, not sure what to do with it. Someone suggested I turn it into a film. I taught myself to edit and score, and bam! Seeking Asylum was born.
3. Can an American citizen seek asylum?
In theory, yes. I’m not 100% sure this works in practice, however. I feel some other countries look at us and wonder why’d we leave our homeland for another. Sure America has its problems, they think, but are they so grand that their citizens would leave? Hell yes! I hate it here. I fear for my life, my kid’s life, every Black life in this country is in danger. Every last one. Those I’ve known to seek asylum have all been denied by other countries.
4. In 2017, you created a film about Black people and mental health, a topic often taboo in the community? What sparked the doccie?
I lost too many friends to suicide, and even after the mourning, no one was willing to talk about it. I needed to talk about it and I needed people to start listening. I created a Facebook post, asking Black people “Why did you seek mental health assistance?” And the doors opened for people to share their deepest secrets, and I saw how therapeutic that was. The film had to be made, so others could see that they weren’t alone in what they were struggling with. I was tired of people dying in dark places, feeling alone.
5. What was the response been for that film?
It’s been rather powerful! When I finished the film, I uploaded it and sent out the link through social media channels and went to sleep. I woke up with over 15 personal messages from strangers telling me how the film literally saved their life. I’ve watched how the film provided safe(r) spaces for people where safe(r) spaces never existed, and I watched conversations happen there that I’ve never witnessed. It’s been a beautiful reception.
6. In 2018, you created a film about rape, would you like to tell us about this film? Why did you create it?
Set Yourself on Fire happened naturally. When speaking about mental illness, we touched on sexual abuse, assault, and rape over and over and I needed to make that film happen next. It had to come. I wanted to make something happy after Outside The House took everything out of me, but that wasn’t possible. I felt an obligation to the world to make this film.
7. You titled it set yourself on Fire? Why is that?
Because Warsan Shire’s poem, “In Love and War,” hit me in the gut years ago, and stayed with me. When me and my Executive Producer, Tonja Renee Stidhum were thinking of titles, I threw it out there and it felt good. It felt like home. In the poem, she writes, “To my daughter I will say, when the men come, set yourself on fire.”
8. The film has received an overwhelmingly good response, did you anticipate that?
I didn’t anticipate that at all. Because the topic is still so…hushed…I thought no one would actually take the time to watch this film. And I do get those people who verbalize that, and I completely understand. Usually, it’s because it’s very triggering, but sometimes it’s because people just don’t want to deal with the topic.
9. The lens through which the film is created is through a complainant-centred approach, why was that a deliberate decision?
It was extremely important for us to use the safe space to help survivors tell their stories. Because their stories are important. They are necessary. They will save lives!
10. In the film, there is a moment where one of the people realised that they were raped, do you know if the person sought counselling?
I’m not sure what person this is, but I do know some did seek counselling and some did not.
11. You also touched on the heinous rates of homophobic rape in South Africa, tell us more about your decision to include this story?
We wanted to tell as many sides of this story of rape as possible. Rape for so many people looks like one thing. It’s not just one thing and there isn’t just one reason. It was important to show the world that it exists in many forms and by many.
12. Further to this, the film is unique in that it elevates the stories of members in the queer community, was this a deliberate decision?
It was very deliberate. Survivors who aren’t featured need to feel seen. There are queer people in the world who sit in silence because they feel they are alone. They aren’t. I need them to know that.
13. You also take us through the prison system and the rape that takes place there, why was that included?
Rape is happening everywhere. There are survivors in prison who don’t get to share their stories with empathetic listeners. I need this safe space to be for them too.
14. Watching the film was difficult, we imagine creating it was more difficult, tell us about the process?
Self-care was so important to me. I was interviewing friends and family who never told me these stories until they reached out to say “include me in your film.” I felt so useless sometimes, knowing I wasn’t there to be a shoulder, a helping hand, a resource when they needed me most. Those thoughts come naturally to anyone who’s a friend of a survivor, I think. After each interview, I’d take a week or so off to clear my head. At one point, I didn’t think the film would be completed. I’m thankful it was.
15. What are your hopes about the film?
I’m hoping the film creates the needed conversation around the topic. Honestly, I want the film to END RAPE WORLDWIDE. It’s a big dream, but I remain hopeful.
16. For people who haven’t seen it, where can they find it?
I have it available for free at TheRapeMovie.com
17. What future projects are you working on?
I’m working on a film about a little boy I met in a South African township. We’re in the early stages, so it’s hush-hush.
Follow Darnell on social media Twitter @Writer_heathen / IG: @CleverBastard