Interview by Alexis Jackson
We recently had the privilege of previewing the award wining short film, Only Light, written by Thembi Banks and directed by Evita Castine of USC's School of Cinematic Arts. This film explores the dehumanizing world of International Human Sex Trafficking in the United States and the Congo. It blends elements of fantasy and magical realism while telling the story of the second-largest criminal industry in the world. Only Light is emotional and moving, allowing viewers to connect to a very difficult subject.
Evita and Thembi have made history by creating the first short film written and directed by Black women to be funded by USC, the premiere film school in the nation. Only Light has also been selected to compete in the 2015 Diversity in Cannes Short Film Showcase, which screens films that address global experiences. We were able to ask Thembi and Evita questions about their awarding winning film, as well as their experiences as black women in the film industry.
View the trailer for Only Light below and read our interview with the creators of this film.
For Harriet: What inspired you to create Only Light?
Evita Castine: In our school at USC, I was short listed to direct for an advanced project. It's a very competitive process so each director reads every script very carefully. Thembi's script was the first one I read and I knew I wanted to work with her right away. I've been following the news in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since I was a teenager and human trafficking is a big issue there now so I jumped at the chance to find a way to make this movie.
Thembi Banks: Only Light was born out of my interest in telling stories that revolve around sex and women, especially women of color. The sexualization of Black women is a very complex topic and one seldom told in an artistic and meaningful way. From Sara Baartman (The Hottentot Venus) to the current day over sexualization of young girls, I think it’s important to tell very real and honest stories about what is happening to these young women.
FH: What did you learn about human trafficking while making this film?
EC: I think the biggest thing I learned about human trafficking is that in order to traffic someone you have to enslave the mind. There is a psychological approach to it and being that it's the 3rd largest criminal industry in the world — there is a lot of it happening. There are so many who start as children who are enslaved world wide — I saw fully the epidemic. It's all around us and yet we see nothing — it lives under our noses. I just like to emphasize how important it is to listen to children and be involved in their lives.
FH: What role do you believe art plays in bringing about change to social issues such as human trafficking?
EC: I think art matters — it's a cultural communication, it tells the story about the time we live in and how we feel about what's happening. As a director, I get to present my perspective in a film — and hopefully maybe someone feels something. Mostly I hope for awareness about how someone feels, for someone to be seen, to be understood and I don't expect people to join a group or anything, but I do hope that maybe a mother reaches out to her young daughter to make sure they have a connection — that we start to check in with each other more to make sure people feel connected to someone.
TB: I was raised in a home that greatly valued art, so for me it plays an incredible role in socio-political change. Throughout history artists have been at the forefront of revolution and activism. Art inspires people in such a unique way. When you have an important message but you are creative in expressing it, you can touch people in an emotional way, which will leave a lasting effect. This is why Evita and I wanted to tell this story utilizing poetic cinema. We didn’t want to preach; we wanted this film to be powerful yet beautiful.
FH: What do you hope audiences take away from Only Light?
TB: We hope audiences first and foremost learn how big of a worldwide epidemic sex/human trafficking is. It is bigger and more profitable than drugs. Once you sell a drug, it’s gone. But someone can keep re-selling a girl/woman hundreds of times. I also hope people realize that it is everyone’s problem. It’s not just happening in large urban cities, there are traffickers operating in quiet suburban neighborhoods like the one on our film. Researching the topic in preparation for our film led us to become more involved in trying to help these young women so hopefully people who watch will be inspired to do the same.
FH: What piece of advice would you give to advice young black women who are aspiring filmmakers?
EC: I think it's important to read books, see plays, watch movies, study different art disciplines, and get to know yourself. The story isn't plot — it's emotional and you have to know how you feel. At the end of the day, you are expressing your emotions but you have to learn how to communicate it a million different ways to a million people and it takes time to do this. I know it's easy to pretend like you don't care because it's kind of cool now to act unbothered, but you can't be an artist being unbothered.
TB: Learn your craft! I think filmmaking is one of those things that people think they can have success in by winging it. Whether you go to film school or watch a ton of films and read scripts daily, you have to put your 10,000 hours into building a skill set and finding your voice. I also think it’s important to not be afraid to tell the stories that matter to you. Black women have such layered stories and existences. Our perspectives, struggles and experiences don’t always lend themselves to traditional storytelling but don’t let that deter you from writing or directing something that is different or not mainstream enough.
FH: Who are some of the black female filmmakers you look up to?
EC: Ava Duvernay, Kasi Lemmons, Stephanie Allain, Oprah, Effie Brown, Jackie Stone, Julie Dash, Victoria Mahoney. I'm also a big fan of visual artists like Bill Viola and Mikalene Thomas. There are so many people I look up to, to be honest, sometimes I sit in awe like, "How did they do that?" I love that part.
TB: I absolutely love Gina Prince Blythewood. Besides being a phenomenal director she is an amazing spirit, her courage and steadfastness is an inspiration. I also love Dee Rees — Pariah totally blew me away. Of course the incomparable Shonda Rhimes is one of my favorites. Zola Mashariki is somewhat of a mentor; I’ve learned so much from her as she was my professor. I love Debbie Allen — I mean A Different World!!! I’m also excited to see what Ava Duvernay has in store.
FH: What struggles and what triumphs have you faced as a black woman in the film industry?
EC: My triumphs come with finishing a project, that part is like oxygen for me, there is a lot of thinking and physical labor so it's like "Yes!" I finished and then being able to share it with people is great. My struggles came with, I don't know if you can call them struggles, just process work the same way a musician does scales. You just try to get better every project. I think being a woman of African Descent has only served me well. I have a lot of life experience. I am expressive, it's in my DNA. I've learned how to communicate very well to different personalities. I know I have to work hard at being technical and expressive. I went to USC, there is an insane amount of pressure and competition there, but I was always myself. I learned how to get my point across and get what I want. I learned by failing. I don't know yet what it will look like when you get to another level in the industry.
TB: USC is like a microcosm of Hollywood in some respects. The processes, and structures set up in the classroom mimics real life in many ways so being a Black woman with a strong and different point of view can sometimes be challenging when trying to be understood as a creative. But there were also many rewarding moments, like having one of my actors, Deborah Lacey (Mad Men) write a heartfelt note telling me how great of a director I am and how much she trusted me. This is a woman who worked on an award winning show with an amazing team, who believed in my vision. I still can’t believe that.
FH: What is next for you?
EC: I'm continuing to shoot portraits of Afro-Parisian artists in Paris as part of my "Mes Potos" photography exhibit that debuted at Project A at the Phantom Galleries Los Angeles, debuting a new short film "Bart and Cleo," a love story set in the Los Angeles black rock scene of the early 2000s, and always writing and shooting!
I just finished another short and I will begin the festival route with that very soon. I am a development coordinator at Fluency Studios currently and I am shopping two pilots I’ve written/co-written with my producing partner this year.
FH: When and how can For Harriet’s readers view Only Light?
Please check our website for screening updates. We screen in New York City at the New York Shorts Festival on May 27th at 5:30pm.
Alexis Jackson is a visual artist, writer, and editorial assistant at For Harriet. You can follow her on twitter @_alexisjacks.