Exploring rootlessness and confusion

The director, Frances Bodomo, originally from Ghana, talks about her film "Boneshaker" and African globalization.

The director Frances Bodomo (center) and the lead actres of "Boneshaker," Quvenzhané Wallis (Credit: Imdb).

The latest film by Nuotama Frances Bodomo, a Ghanaian filmmaker based in New York City, follows a Ghanaian immigrant family taking a road trip to a Pentecostal church in Louisiana to cure their violent daughter. As the family journeys to a tent revival at the ends of the levee-less Louisiana delta, they discover the complications of trying to perform a traditional ritual away from home. “Boneshaker” is a short but ambitious film that focuses on feelings of homelessness, landlessness, and rootlessness that accompany migration. I spoke with Frances Bodomo at the start of the 2012 New York African Film Festival.

Eardley: Boneshaker starts on the road in a car — a place usually associated with notions of freedom and sovereignty. So before I saw the film, I was preparing myself for a kind of long, Odyssey style epic that tests the possibility of human freedom, and ultimately leads the characters back home. But actually, you’ve given us this very compact, tight ten-minute action driven story. A sick girl enters a small African revivalist church in the middle of this swampy forest. She tries to submit herself to the healing that her grandmother knows will cure her. And that’s it — even though no one is completely satisfied by the outcome. There is a very interesting contrast between the epic framed by the road trip, and the almost microscopic journey that takes place within that frame. It is very straightforward storytelling that leaves a lot for the audience to sort out. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to tell this story around a car?

Bodomo: “Boneshaker” could be a long epic about an immigrant family’s everyday struggle in America. It could be about all the micro-aggressions (and overt aggressions) they face. But that’s a trope and that’s not the story I want to tell. I like the idea of telling the story at the end of the trip because, in a ten-minute space, you can read all the history of their struggle and yet watch it at its most active moment. That’s what film is good for! As for the car: in this small, confined space things reach a boiling point. The car is a wonderful microcosmic space that condenses the immigrant story to a moment of eruption and crisis. It makes the story about migration itself. And that’s a whole other set of questions and problems: who am I? Where do I belong? what happens when we move away from what is, or at least should be, familiar? I’m interested in exploring this rootlessness and confusion.

For me, these are very personal questions. I was born in Ghana to Ghanaian parents, but I grew up on all corners of the earth. My parents tried to take me (and later my sisters) to Ghana as often as they could. They wanted us to know that we were from Ghana and that it was home. For me, this felt arbitrary at best (in a powerful, painful kind of way).

But I don’t think you have to have a migrant childhood to ask these questions. The “country mouse moving to the big city” story is a varied one. As long as there have been cities there have been these stories that question a concrete sense of home. If you’ve moved, you’ve felt it. What seems distinct now is the radical acceleration of travel. We’re moving so quickly and to such varied places that the cultural mixes/juxtapositions make us feel like characters in the weird world of some absurdist play. Alice in Wonderland has very often been an inspiration for me — for Boneshaker, but also for a film I made in college called Coming To Coca-Cola Land.

The grandmother and father have such different frameworks for understanding the world; they fundamentally disagree about the cause of their daughter’s illness, and they argue about how to help her. The sick daughter is in a particularly tough situation because of this. There is a scene where she is looking out at the water, and she asks her sister how long would take to get home…

Yes! Blessing does not have roots in any tradition and, on a day-to-day basis, she won’t notice. But in these moments of crisis, when shit hits the fan, she doesn’t have the answers that a community identity would provide. The question becomes, what is she going to do next? Quite literally, how can she take her next steps when the land she’s standing on is shaky? Blessing — played by the wonderful, clairvoyant Quvenzhané “Nazie” Wallis, the actress who made her film debut in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” — is a little girl who is in over her head in ways no 8-year-old should be. We want to remember our childhoods as the time when we peacefully played in whatever landscape we grew up in [like sandboxes or sand dunes]. But I feel like it was also a time of crashing world views – Santa Claus’s non-existence, for example –  were an everyday thing.

Your previous work has featured doppelgangers, imaginary friends, ventriloquist dummies, and other unstable people break our understanding of our society. I wonder if you see Boneshaker’s protagonist as one of these people? And how bringing an African experience to the forefront of the discussion of globalization changes our understanding of globalization as accelerated movement.

This is definitely an African experience of globalization. It’s set in the American South, so right away you have all these issues to talk about with the history of forced migration, slavery, and racism. At the same time, I think it is also a more universal problem.

I think we are used to ascribing human beings to sectioned portions of earth, giving them a place that is holistically and naturally theirs (the same way we are used to thinking that a person has a soul that cleanly lives in a body). But this understanding of home is culturally specific and has a history, which means that it changes and is changed over time. Something about a home-space feels obsolete nowadays. To organize ourselves in terms of nationality or homeland feels obsolete. But there is still a desire to have that. We haven’t quite made the paradigm shift. Something feels lost, but I can’t tell you what we have to replace it with. And that feeling is all I want to convey in this film. It’s a question, not an answer.

Right. And it seems like despite the displacement of characters, some sense of place is fundamental to the visual narratives/counternarratives that make this film so rich.

Yes, space and place are both very important in this film. The Louisiana landscape is my most effective tool. You have this swampy, literally mythical place that occupies a certain space in the collective American psyche — then you have the African family that has never had a place here. The landscape is perfect not only because it is beautiful and evocative, but because Louisiana is at the ends of the earth. What better place to talk about having no land?

 I live in New York, but I just knew I couldn’t tell this story here. New York is a heavily documented and sectioned place (with its grids and traffic lights and numbers and concrete and man-made parks). Even if you get lost in a park or industrial wayside, you know the grid is close-by. There are also many established African communities here. This environment and landscape make the story political in a clean way. It makes the question: what can the government do to “fix” this? In southern Louisiana — which has constantly had to rebuild and redefine itself in recent years — the drooping trees with their Spanish moss, the humid almost tropical landscape, form the perfect space to tell a story that involves spirits, magic, and psychology. This space lends itself easily to breaks in reason and rationalism. As I said, it is mythical and I really like that: it’s a space that anyone can place their own experiences into.

How did you choose to shoot in New Orleans? Maybe we can talk a little more about the practical process of making the movie.

Casting was a whirlwind. It all came together due to an extremely fortunate series of events involving friends, old and new… 
I had told friends I was going to Louisiana to shoot and was looking for a young Black girl to play my lead. As luck would have it, I had about three friends who recently worked on Beasts of the Southern Wild and spoke immeasurable praise for their lead, Nazie. I drove down to Houma with my CouchSurfing host. We ended up playing freeze tag with her as part of her audition! Nazie is just … I can’t start because I’ll never stop. You just want to see what she’ll do next. I just remember the audition quickly went from, “Nazie, tell me about yourself,” to “Nazie, what do you want to do?” Which is how we ended up playing freeze tag in that Houma park. Nazie is wise beyond her years and to this day I’m at awe of how she understood my character, Blessing. It’s just not her experience: she grew up in a house with very involved, amazing parents (plus she aces anything she tries and wins most everyone over in the process). Something just clicked and she just got it. She got it to the point that, on set, when I would try and explain what her character was going through she would just look at me, roll her eyes, and say, “Frances, I get it!” Nazie’s going to be a superstar. And she deserves every second of it.

Playshena Rose Thomas, who plays Willie (the younger sister), was another perfect firecracker. My CouchSurfing host picked me up from the New Orleans airport in this ratty boneshaker car (which ended up being the eponymous Boneshaker) and took me to this bikeshop called Rubarb in the Upper 9th Ward where kids are encouraged to bring in their broken bikes and learn how to fix them. Playshena was busy conning people into fixing her bike for her. So obviously she was amazing.

But finding African adults in New Orleans was the hardest part of casting. It was down to the wire, literally 48 hours from our first call time, and I was still scrambling. I had been to hair salons and braiding place and to the French Market where there are a lot of African sellers. But most Africans were telling me, “I don’t hang out with Africans in this town.” It was depressing. I tried to approach people like, “I’m from Ghana, you’re from Senegal, let’s hang out.” Literally door in face. But I’m a masochist, so I loved this concrete version of everything I was making a movie about (alienation from your own people).

I ended up casting an African artefacts vendor, Moussa, as Father. He was very outgoing and friendly. He practised his Twi with me (he’s from Côte d’Ivoire), like any good businessman with a prospective buyer. When I discussed the project with him, he liked it. He said, “If I’m getting paid, I’m there.”

I cast Grandma in a more roundabout way. At the end of my tether I went into this New Age African-American/Rastafarian store on Bayou Road in New Orleans and just said, “WHERE ARE THE AFRICANS?!” The woman calmly made some phone calls and into my life walked Caroline, who’s Nigerian and in her 60s. She’s very sweet and wonderful and just a rock of support. I told her about the project and she had her own similar stories, mostly revolving around her adult children and their complicated marriages to African-American men. It was the same story: no matter how well we assimilate, in comes a crisis to enunciate the alienation and BAM! we’re lost again.

You also appear briefly in one of Boneshaker’s later scenes. Can you tell me more about why you chose this role for yourself?

The honest answer to that question is, we didn’t have enough extras! I’m really glad I set out to tell this ultra-personal story, even though it’s an ambitious story for a short film. I’m currently in the throes of editing and raising finishing funds — supporters can donate via the film’s tumblr here — so everyday is a battle, but I really learned so much making Boneshaker. And I still feel like it’s a special and unique film that not many people have seen before. As long as I keep feeling that, I’m golden. I’m incredibly proud of this project and cannot wait to show it to the world.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

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The Mogadishu analogy

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Kwame Nkrumah today

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