Antiguan and Barbudan filmmaker Melissa Gomez (recently featured in Canada’s largest ethnic paper and on this site) claimed the Caribbean Tales Film Fest prize for Best Documentary Feature (2012) up in Toronto recently. Much props to her! And for your reading pleasure, the transcript of an email interview I did with her for this Daily Observer article.
Me: What were your expectations when taking on this film project?
Melissa: My initial expectations were that I’d make a simple film about my deaf parents; I wanted to give them a “voice”. For as long as I can remember, people have been intrigued by the fact that I grew up with deaf parents. And almost always, when I’d explain what my parents are like, people respond with their stereotypes about the deaf – they’d say things like “Oh I thought they were dumb”.
So I thought, “why not make a film about my parents and show what they are really like?”. I worked on the film for some time on my own, then quickly realized that I needed to bring on an editor who could lend some objectivity to the story (I quickly discovered being objective about your family is incredibly difficult!). I found an amazing editor – Jay Prychidny, based in Toronto, Canada – who was willing to take on my project. When Jay came on board, he helped me realize that the most interesting thing about my parents was not the fact that they were deaf, but rather who they are as unique individuals, deafness aside. And I immediately fell in love with telling that story. It meant that the story became much more complex and that I had to dig a lot deeper into my family’s history than I was initially expecting, but the result has been completely worth it!
Me: What were your fears?
Melissa: The minute I realized I had to dig so deep into my family’s past I had a lot of fears. Would my family be willing to open up to me? What would they think about making themselves so vulnerable on film? I also worried about whether audiences would understand my reasons for making such a personal film… the last thing I wanted was for it to be interpreted as an impetuous child “airing dirty laundry”. My motivation was the exact opposite of that… I wanted to honor the the sacrifices that my parents have made in their lives and I wanted to show the beauty that comes from being honest with the people closest to you. I ended up inserting myself into the film, and making myself just as vulnerable as the rest of my family – I didn’t think it would be fair to just point the camera at everyone else!
Me: How does it compare to your previous projects?
Melissa: Silent Music is my first documentary feature and it took me 7 years to complete – so in a lot of ways, this is the project that started my career in film and television. It was a labour of love like no other, so it’s very hard to compare to any other project. The personal stakes were very high for me – I really wanted it to be a film my family would be proud of; I didn’t want it to disrespect them in any way; I remain very sensitive to their reactions. So I invested a huge amount of emotional energy trying to accomplish all of that.
My documentary short, Share and Share Alike, was another film that meant very much to me – for that project I challenged myself to complete the film in a very short space of time – 3 weeks of shooting; 6 weeks of editing. After working on Silent Music for so long I needed to prove to myself that I could actually finish a film within just a few months. So it was great to have accomplished that in the middle of making Silent Music.
I do think that making films about personal family stories can be one of the most difficult, but also the most rewarding things that one can do. It feels exhilarating to have finally finished Silent Music, but I have to admit – I’m looking forward to making a film about people that aren’t my relatives!
Me: Is it difficult to separate when taking on a project that involves your
family…do you need to separate…or is that inside perspective key to the
Melissa: I do think objectivity is extremely important when telling any story… after all you have to make sure your story is interesting to people who aren’t your relatives. Objectivity helps you to tap into the universal themes that larger audiences can connect to.
But at the same time, the personal “inside” perspective allows you to tell a story like no one else can – which I believe is equally important. I keep asking myself “why should I be telling this story, vs. someone else?” And for me, the answer is my personal connection / what my personal experience can bring to the story. I definitely have to feel very passionate about a subject before I endeavour to make a film about it. Independent filmmaking can be very grueling – so sometimes passion and personal connection are the only things that prevent you from giving up!
For me, it’s definitely about maintaining a balance between using your personal connection to a story to make it unique, and also being able to take a step back and see the universal themes that make your story accessible to wider audiences.
Me: Given that it’s such a personal story what do you think makes it universal, makes others connect with it?
Melissa: Silent Music is about the things that are never spoken about in families; it’s about the complex nature of long-term relationships; the sacrifices that parents make for their children and how these things ultimately define the people that we become. It’s also about acceptance. I have yet to meet a family that has perfect communication, or a person who hasn’t wished they understood a particular family member better. So I’d like to think that anyone who has ever wished for more open and honest communication in their families can relate to my family’s story in Silent Music.
Me: What’s been your favourite response to date?
Melissa: That’s a hard one – I have a few! One of my favourites was after the World Premiere at CaribbeanTales, when the credits rolled and Frances-Anne Solomon, Founder of CaribbeanTales, invited me to come up to the stage for the Q&A. She was completely choked up and overcome with emotion that she could barely say my name. That said to me that she connected with the story on a deep level and that meant the world to me, especially knowing what a talented and accomplished filmmaker she is herself. It was incredibly humbling.
Then of course, there was the person who came up to me after the film who said, “You NEED to get your father to star in all of your films! I LOVE him!”.
And during the screening, there was so much laughter in the audience – I was surprised at how comical certain moments in the film were. I loved discovering that the film can make people laugh and cry at the same time.
Me: Why’d you want to tell this story?
Melissa: There are so many stereotypes about what it means to be deaf, and growing up in Antigua I was always painfully aware of that. There is a surprisingly prevalent assumption that “deaf equals dumb”. I can’t tell you how many times people have said that to me, and I needed to do something to illustrate the falseness that assumption.
People often get intimidated by my parents’ voices, since they don’t sound like most people. I made a very conscious choice to use subtitles instead of “dubbing” over their voices. I intentionally highlighted my parents’ deaf voices in Silent Music – to show how proud I am of them, of the challenges they’ve overcome, of what they’ve accomplished in their lives and how much they mean to me.
It was really important to me that by the end of the film, audiences see that my deaf parents and my family are actually not that different from any hearing family. We have the same joys and sorrows, ups and downs. My parents just sound a little different!
Me: Tell me your awards/accomplishments to date for this film or others? and also your future plans for the film?
Melissa: I’m ecstatic that Silent Music won the award for Best Documentary when it World Premiered at the 2012 CaribbeanTales Film Festival. It was completely unexpected and very humbling.
My documentary short, Share and Share Alike, won the award for Best Documentary Video Production at the 2010 Black International Cinema Festival in Berlin, Germany; and was also nominated for Best Documentary Short at the 2010 Pan African Film Festival in California.
In the short term, my plan for Silent Music is to get it into as many film festivals as I can, and once it finishes the festival circuit, to get distribution.
Me: Will it ever screen in Antigua?
Melissa: That’s a very good question! At this point the honest answer is I’m not sure. The personal nature of the film makes it tricky. I’m so grateful for my family’s generosity in allowing me to tell their story that I feel like the choice to show it in Antigua needs to be made by them – it’s the least I can do! I’m very protective of them and it’s very important to me that they are 100% comfortable before I take that step. My family is incredibly supportive and excited about all the positive responses that the film got at the CaribbeanTales World Premiere – so I suspect that the more those positive responses continue, the stronger the chances are that it may one day be shown in Antigua!
Me: What made the Caribbean Tales experience so meaningful to you?
Melissa: The CaribbeanTales experience was so meaningful because for some time I was a bit fearful about how people would react to my film. I reached out to Frances-Anne Solomon for advice and she immediately encouraged me to take part in the CaribbeanTales Market Incubator program and to screen the film at her festival. She pushed me to let go of this labour of love, and in doing so I made connections with an amazing group of incredibly supportive Caribbean filmmakers from across the region who genuinely want to see each other succeed. That sense of community and support is incredibly important to me as a filmmaker, especially in an industry where Caribbean stories are so underrepresented.
Me: What’s your advice to other young people dreaming of making their own films?
Melissa: My advice would be to go for it! Do as much research as you can – there are many books (Directing the Documentary by Michael Rabiger is one of my favourites) and courses out there, but your best teacher is experience. Figure out what role suits you best (Producer, Director, Editor?), but don’t forget that filmmaking is inherently a collaborative process – so be open to getting help and feedback from others. I’d recommend starting with making a short film and a simple story to test the waters and see how you like the process. And most importantly – don’t stop dreaming!
As for what I’m up to now, I currently work with AMC (American Movie Classics) Networks, in their Digital Video department where I produce and production manage behind-the-scenes content for AMC’s original series. I recently returned from Detroit where I interviewed the main cast and crew for one of AMC’s new Pilots. It’s fantastic experience as it allows me to stay on top of the same skills that I need for making my own films. I’m in the process of determining what my next documentary will be and am aiming to be in development before the end of the year. Stay tuned!
Indeed we will, Melissa. Full disclosure, I’ve worked with Melissa Gomez on projects a few times and her success with this project doesn’t surprise me, especially as I am one of the folks at home here in Antigua who has seen (and loved) both Silent Music and Share and Share Alike. Heartfelt congratulations to a talented young Antiguan and Barbudan sister.
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