Toronto International Film Festival 2021
Short Cuts: YYZ Edition
Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah & Araya Mengesha
CANADA | 2021 | English
Brother and Sister are Millennial twins, trapped in their apartment and trying to stay sane at the height of the 2020 pandemic. Brother and Sister are also Black and watching the BLM uprisings unfold on their phones. Brother tries to maintain a cool head, while Sister is ready to burn it all down. Fed up with sitting on the sidelines, they head out under the cover of night to discover that activism on the streets is very different from what they’ve seen on their screens.
Hi Khadijah & Araya thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you held up during these very strange times?
Khadijah: I think we’ve been holding up as well as anyone can expect to with what’s happening in the world. I feel very lucky to be an artist at this time because it’s afforded me an outlet and a way of coping with the difficulties that came with the last 18 months of pandemic life. I certainly didn’t expect for us to come out of the pandemic with a short film, let alone a world premiere at one of our dream festivals.
Araya: Having this and other creative outlets have definitely been a gift. Also, being roommates has meant that we haven’t had to go through this period in complete isolation. It has its own challenges, but having each other throughout this has meant that we could channel all of that energy into DEFUND, so much of it is pulled right from our day-to-day experiences last year.
Has this time provided you with any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
K: I took an editing course last winter. I think I was bored and preparing myself for a possible career change, but thankfully there was a lot of acting work that came my way. The editing has still come in really handy for self-tapes and certainly informed a lot of our awareness during the editing process for DEFUND.
A: Similarly, I took a couple of courses around screenwriting and have just finished the first draft of a feature film. It has also meant that there was time to connect with other creators and have a virtual version of all those coffee’s that we had talked about having in the past. Hopefully, that means many more collab’s in the future with all of the exciting voices our city has to offer
What does it mean for you to be Premiering DEFUND in the Short Cuts Section at TIFF?
A: Having the World Premiere of DEFUND at TIFF is a dream come true. When we decided to go down the festival route with this film, TIFF was our top choice for the first audience screening. It is so important to be at our hometown festival and to be receiving love at home first before our film ventures out into the other festivals of the world and beyond.
How much has your background as actors helped you prepare for your directorial debut and did you seek out any advice before you started shooting?
A: The best thing you can do as an actor on set is absorbed what everyone else is doing around you. I think it makes for better collaboration when you understand how the machine works and what your part in all of that is. There were so many things that felt like instinct kicking in, but I’m sure they were bits and pieces of all the directors I’ve worked within the past. We spoke to a few different people after we had a draft of the script ready and in the early stages of getting to our final cut, but directorially we kept it pretty close with the team.
Can you tell me a little bit about how DEFUND came about, what inspired the screenplay?
K: Last spring, I got a message from J Stevens offering their services and skillset as a cinematographer towards any project that I had in mind. I had worked with J on a few other projects, Slo Pitch and Body so Fluorescent. We really connected and I was so touched when they made this offer- it felt like the first step in the community building that was such a huge part of this film. I knew I wanted to make something that spoke to the state of the world and what we were all experiencing on a global scale, but also to touch on some of the feelings that come with being a Black person at this time. Araya and I had been roommates for a few years at that point and I’ve always admired him as an artist, so it was a no-brainer for me to invite him into the process and for us to collaborate on creating something together.
As co-directors/writers/actors on DEFUND how important has the collaborative relationship between you both?
K: The work we do as artists is so vulnerable, so when you’re inviting someone else into your process and witnessing their vulnerability at the same time, it’s important to lead with understanding and empathy. The two of us created a partnership every step of the way to be able to navigate this process and our friendship and respect for one another are at the core of that partnership.
A: It was everything. Thankfully we’ve been living together as roommates for a few years now, so we had so much going for us in terms of having a short hand and knowing how to work with the other person.
What have been the most valuable lesson you've taken away from directing DEFUND?
K: Know your vision and stick to it. Of course, remain open to the new and accidental discoveries that can take you to unexpected places, but know what you’re setting out to create with clarity and be proud to execute that vision.
A: That there is no time like the present. Trust the investment you’ve made in your community because when the time comes that you decide to take a step forward, they will be there to support you.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
K: I feel quite lucky in the sense that I’ve always known I wanted to be an artist. I had a passion for film, television, and art as a child and was always tinkering with some form of performance or artistic expression. Although I didn’t always know I’d be a filmmaker, it feels like an appropriate place for me to have found myself.
A: I started out as an actor at 10 years old, so it’s felt like I’ve been on this path my whole life. When I was a kid, I would always get caught staring out into blank space with my mouth open; I was a big daydreamer. Whenever I was lost in those daydreams, I was watching little scenes play out. I didn’t know when or how it would happen, but I’ve known that telling my own stories was something I would do for a long time.
"I had a passion for film, television, and art as a child and was always tinkering with some form of performance or artistic expression."
Is there any advice you would offer someone thinking about getting filmmaking?
K: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the support of our collaborators and community.
A: Make the thing that calls you and doesn’t wait for the perfect time. Just start.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from DEFUND?
K: I want audiences to go home with an understanding that so few things in life, especially opinions on social matters, are absolute. We are living in a very divisive time and I hope that DEFUND offers people an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be confronted with ideals that go against our own, as challenging as that can be.
A: I hope that audiences will recognize themselves in this film. That they will relate to the sense of urgency, but also the need to acknowledge that although many of us have the same overall goals: our life experiences are different, our approaches are just as varied. But if we can continue to engage with each other - despite our differences - there is a path forward.