Festival de Cannes
61e Semaine de la critque 2022
It's Nice in Here
2 May 2022
A fragmented portrait of a moment seen through the subjective memories of a young Black girl, Imani, and a rookie police officer, David, who both have different recollections of the same fateful moment that will alter their lives forever.
Hello Robert-Jonathan, it’s great to get to talk with you, how have you been keeping after everything that’s been happening? Have you been able to remain positive and creative at least?
Hi! Thank you for having me. I've been doing well, despite the intense period of time that we have, and are currently living through. These last few years of enduring a global pandemic, seeing more Black bodies casually slain by police officers, all the while trying to finish my biggest project to date, certain has been tough. But I've tried to stay positive by reminding myself of the film that we're making; no matter how long it would take us to get there, I never lost sight of our intentions and goals with the film. Much like a north star, it helped guide me through a lot of precarious situations and traumatic world events.
Congratulations on having the World Premiere of It’s Nice in Here at the 61e Semaine de la critque, will there be any nerves ahead of the festival?
I think there are certainly some healthy nerves that I'm feeling. After several years of just seeing different iterations of the film on my tiny screen in my studio, being able to share it on a big screen in Cannes, of all places, is an absolutely exhilarating prospect.
It’s Nice in Here is also in the Competition Short Film, does this add any extra pressure on you or will you be able to enjoy the festival and not think to much about awards?
I'm already so excited and grateful for It's Nice in Here to be selected that I'm not really feeling any pressure surrounding the awards. Besides, it's something that is out of my hands and that I don't have any control over, so I don't think there's much use worrying over it. Honestly, I'm more excited about enjoying the festival, meeting other filmmakers, and getting inspired by their work.
How important are platforms like Semaine de lacritque in championing and supporting the short films and filmmakers?
I think platforms like Semaine de La Critique have the power to shine a much needed light on the work by filmmakers that normally might not get the chance to get seen or discovered. Especially for short films, that might sometimes struggle finding an audience, a platform like this feels very much needed. I'm very eager to see the world through the different lenses of these other filmmakers and learn a bit about them through their work.
Your graduate film Here was award the Threshold Award, what did getting this type of recognition mean to you?
Winning the Threshold Award and an Incentive Award by the Netherlands Film Fund helped confirm to me that my experiences and my way of processing them, could resonate with people that lived wildly different lives than I did. Whereas I thought I made an unapologetically personal and self-seeking film, actually turned out to be more universal than I thought. Aside from this, the awards also directly helped me in making It's Nice in Here possible, so I look at my graduation film as an incredibly important stepping stone to what was to come.
How did It’s Nice in Here come about, what inspired your animation and what was the message you wanted to convey with this short film?
Back in 2016, I came across a harrowing video of a woman live-streaming her boyfriend bleeding to death in the driver’s seat next to her. Her pleads and prayers were occasionally interrupted by the police officer yelling at himself in the background with a genuine sense of panic in his voice. This was a day after another Black man had been shot by a police officer for selling CDs in front of a convenience store. I felt a wide range of emotions wash over me and had to process them in the only way I could. Over the months I kept tuning in to see how these stories were unfolding, as my own story and characters gradually started revealing themselves to me.
What immediately struck me was how polarizing the accounts of the people involved often were. Were they lying in order to convince the jury of their innocence, were they trying to justify their actions in the only way that they could, or did they genuinely remember the situation playing out in their specific way? The questions formed the foundation of It's Nice in Here, where I wanted to explore how multiple things can be true at once and how different memories can take on a life of their own.
When working on a short animation like It’s Nice in Here do you allow yourself much flexible or do you like to stick to what you have planned?
Before I studied animation at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, I had a background in Live-Action filmmaking. Because of this, I actually approached much of the animation in a similarly intuitive way, often trying to imagine a camera-operator filming the characters. Also in terms of the structuring of the film, I very much relied on my background as an editor.
We had a script and storyboard that served as a solid foundation for our production, but I wanted to keep editing the film and keep finding interesting and poetic associations between certain scenes. So, I made sure that we created enough space for the animators, the art director, and for myself, to work on additional shots, much like B-roll footage. Being able to work with these puzzle pieces and put them in the right places, helped make the film feel more intuitive and honest.
What where the biggest challenges you faced bringing this film to life?
There have been many bumps in the road and hurdles we had to overcome while working on the film. About a month into production, we entered our first lockdown and all had to work remotely. Luckily, due to the film being animated, we could continue working on It's Nice in Here, but we've had to adapt and sacrifice a lot in order to make it all happen. A few months later, right when we were about to start with animating the police officer's perspective in the film, we heard the news of George Floyd’s murder and watched how the #BlackLivesMatter movement that was globally picking up steam. Through that trauma and pain, we had to find it within ourselves to work on the police officer's perspective without too much judgement. It did serve as a reminder that the film we were making was still very much needed, and will sadly stay relevant for a longer time to come.
How different was your approach It’s Nice in Here compared to your previous films?
I tend to use a lot of mixed-media elements in my films, and that was again a large consideration for this film. In 2019, I started exploring the possibilities for Live-Action components to be incorporated, but ultimately it became my first entirely animated film. Within that animation, however, we did manage to still experiment with different visual styles, animation techniques, and software.
Another big difference is the fact that I worked together with a relatively large team. As a multi-disciplinary artist, I often tend to be responsible for every piece of the process, but now I had the opportunity to rely on a team of incredibly talented artists that could help bring the characters to life and put pieces of themselves into the animations.
Where did you passion for animation come from?
It started from the idea that there are no real limitations. As long as you can draw or model something, you can directly incorporate it into your story. This flexibility and way we could quite literally think things into existence, offered us a lot of freedom and possibilities to quickly explore which direction we wanted to go into. Animation is all about constructing a reality rather than capturing reality, and for a film that deals entirely with subjective memories and contradicting testimonies, this felt vital to the story.
Had you set out for your work to be grounded in such personal themes?
I feel like I need to have a personal connection to whatever story I want to tell, especially if I end up spending years telling it. These are the projects that keep you up at night and teach you something about yourself as you're making it.
Although I've never had to directly deal with police violence, I certainly have been shaped by the many stories I've heard that have had a tragic ending. I am reminded of watching a group of police officers beat an innocent Black man on the side of a road when I was about 9 years old. I remember how it shook me to the core and terrified me. Looking at these victims, I see my father in them, or my cousins, or myself. They don’t ever feel like strangers to me.
So, in a way, this project feels personal in the sense that the characters that I wrote, became like the people that I know. There's a little bit of everyone I know in them, including experiences that I borrowed from my own life. Hopefully these lived experiences will make the characters feel more grounded and will make their world feel more lived in.
"Stories are often more nuanced than they are presented as, and there's a lot more messiness hidden underneath the surface."
Because of the personal nature of your work is it hard to ever give it up to audiences?
Sometimes it can definitely feel quite disarming and vulnerable, but I've learned to use my vulnerability as a way to connect with my audiences. I trust that there will be viewers who can, in one way or another, relate to my experiences, or thoughts, or feelings. So, although it might feel frightening to share my personal work with others, ultimately, I've discovered that there's no greater and more rewarding feeling when this sharing becomes a bonding experience with the audience.
What is it about the human condition that engages your creativity and what do you think you work says about you as an artist and filmmaker?
I see my work as snapshots of moments in my life that I can look back at and know where I was at that moment in my life. I’d like to see what I was trying to process, or felt like I had to unpack at the time. Rather than tackling big and abstract world issues, which I don't feel like I'm particularly equipped to do, I feel like there's enough internal messiness that we as human beings are collectively trying to make sense of, to continue to make enough interesting films about.
Is there any advice you wish a younger you could have been given as you started your filmmaking journey?
I would tell myself not to stress over things too much and to enjoy the ride. Wherever you want to go, do things step by step, one by one. Trust your vision, trust your stories, and trust yourself. Now go make some movies.
And finally, what would you like audiences to take away from It’s Nice in Here?
Not every situation has a simple answer. Stories are often more nuanced than they are presented as, and there's a lot more messiness hidden underneath the surface. This is not a film that intends to provide the audience with all the answers presented in a neat package, but instead aims to have them walk away with questions about the truth, about memories, and perhaps even about their own biases and perceptions.
Sometimes we can look at the same things but come out of it seeing different things. That's what the characters are doing and, perhaps, that's also what the audiences might do. And that's okay.