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12 Questions with Sonja Dumas

—Published on 30th Nov, 2020.

Trinidadian filmmaker, choreographer and dancer Sonja Dumas is passionate about, and driven to tell, the beautiful and rich stories of our Caribbean culture.

Sonja grew up in Trinidad, the US and in East Africa, and although she pursued her MBA, which was carving out a path to places the likes of Wall Street, the arts bug had bitten Sonja early in her childhood; she would eventually turn her full attention to this dynamic creative industry.

With a growing number of films completed, such as “Julia & Joyce” and “Avocado and Zaboca”, and seven scripts in different stages of the pipeline, Sonja is determined to share our stories with the world.

FILMCO: Sonja your background is in dance. Can you tell us what inspired you to get into film?
Sonja Dumas: After dance which is a highly visual experience for the audience, it really spoke to me in terms of how you could tell a story.

FILMCO: How did you get your start in the (film) industry? What role/s did you first become involved in?
SD: As a teenager I was involved in a couple of local productions – dancing on television for the famous “Aunty Hazel” Ward with my then-dance school, and having a bit-part in an anti-smoking tv special called “Throw Away the Pack” by Christopher Laird. It was one of Banyan’s early productions. I think the bug might have bitten me then. At university, I was mildly interested in it but too busy dancing and attending to my academic work, and the university didn’t have a film programme anyway. However, little by little, I began to pay attention to the unconventional, socially conscious and very human stories of filmmakers like Spike Lee and Pedro Almodovar, as well as the epic narratives of Akira Kurosawa. I think I also saw Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus around that time, and was absolutely blown away (I still am) by the way African-Brazilian tradition was so seamlessly woven into Greek tragedy. By the time I got to my MBA years, I just got more interested in the power of film to tell a story and change the game. Mind you, the MBA had nothing to do with film, but I used to take as many elective courses in film or arts administration as I could, because I realized early o’clock in the programme that we business students were being groomed to be sharks on Wall Street or in some multinational company, and I wasn’t that interested in those spaces. I admitted to myself only after the fact that I really did it as a “something to fall back on” degree. In fact, during that time, I took a summer intensive at New York University in video production. I enjoyed that more than all of my intense business school hours put together. When I returned to Trinidad and Tobago, I got a part-time job as a presenter on Gayelle (the cultural magazine show – not the station that it is today). That also influenced my love for representing our culture on screen.

FILMCO: With your background in dance- more than three and a half decades as a dancer and choreographer- do you see any similarities between the disciplines of dance and film, and have you drawn any skills or knowledge from dance to move you forward in film?
SD: They’re both about telling a story with the right rhythm. For me, rhythm is a key factor in the success of either medium. It might sound easy to achieve, but it isn’t.

Sonja Dumas’ 2010 film “Julia & Joyce” on dance pioneers Julia Edwards and Joyce Kirton.

SD: I have an old university buddy who’s a rocket scientist. One day, we were chatting and I asked him why the term “It ain’t rocket science” suggested that something wasn’t that complicated. What was it about rocket science that was so challenging? He said that it’s the science behind the fine balance among all of the parts of the rocket. They must work in absolute synchronicity in order for the rocket to function. I responded, only half jokingly, that it sounded  a lot like choreography. I extend the same courtesy to film: it’s a series of micro-decisions in timing and gesture that make the rhythm of the film sink or swim.

FILMCO: You were born in Trinidad but grew up here, in the US and in East Africa. How has living in three different places such as these affected your work as a filmmaker?
SD: It makes me feel as if I belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time. This can feel isolating, and it often makes me feel severely misunderstood; cultural codes get mixed up and people just don’t get where I’m coming from or I don’t get where they’re coming from – in and out of film. But it can also be liberating, because one has multiple, global reference points from which to solve problems – including creative ones. Net-net, I feel blessed that I was able to see so much of the world at such a young, impressionable age. My lens, literally and figuratively, was widened very early.

FILMCO: Your work is very diverse- the subjects, topics and genres of your films vary greatly from one another. Can you speak to us about that, and specifically what interests you – if there are one or two particular topics?
SD: I made the decision many moons ago to delve into the stories of my region. Ironically, the MBA helped me come to that decision; in business and economics, there’s this theory of comparative advantage – loosely, what product or service a country has that it’s better at producing than another country with which it wishes to trade. The idea is to export what you do best. I believe that we have a comparative advantage in a richly layered culture that people both here and beyond our culture are ready to consume, so I wanted to tell the universal stories from our point of view – regardless of topic or genre. That said, I seem to gravitate towards comedy and experimental abstraction. I can’t really explain why; perhaps it’s because my choreography also veers in that direction. In terms of topics, the characters might be different – from a drag queen who befriends a woman clinging to her church, to two estranged Carnival buddies who have died and have to do a few things for each other before they get into Heaven – but I try to mine the friendship of my characters. People are at once very complicated and very simple. They hurt each other but also hold each other up. I like to explore those dynamics in my buddy movies, within a Caribbean context.

FILMCO: You’ve said that you try to produce work that has a historical aspect to it. Why is this important to you?
SD: This Caribbean region has so many untold or under-represented narratives that I feel that I need to do my part to correct that. You have no idea how many people (adults and children alike) told me that they didn’t realize how little they knew about the limbo after they saw “Julia and Joyce: Two Stories of Two Dance Pioneers”, and that’s just a drop in the bucket. It sounds corny, but there is much to be done.

Sonja working with the performers of “Avocado and Zaboca”

FILMCO: From your film “Avocado and Zaboca” to “Once Upon A Caribbean Time” and the Zum-Zum Museum, your work includes children – our Caribbean children. Can you speak to us about this – why you seek to produce work (for children) across various mediums?
SD: My family immersed me in the power of the arts and in imagination as I was growing up. They also made it clear – regardless of where we lived – that Caribbean culture was something of which to be proud. But a lot of Caribbean children don’t grow up that way; they struggle with foreign notions of excellence, and despite our larger-than-life festival culture, the external gaze is a powerful draw. They grow up and hold on to adult versions of that insecurity. So I thought I’d try to provide an alternative world of learning and creativity for the children of this region, and particularly Trinidad and Tobago. It’s one that celebrates their imagination and the wider Caribbean culture at the same time.

FILMCO: Do you have a preferred format when it comes to film- short or feature-length; live action or animation?
SD: I don’t think that I have a preference. It’s whatever format I think serves the story. I like the short film format because it forces me to be efficient in a laser-sharp way. In the true spirit of “less-is-more”, it’s a way of distilling the plot and characters down to their bare essence. These days, however, I’ve been writing full-length works and I’m in love with all of them – despite the tedious task of writing and rewriting each one multiple times. I also have a really soft spot for stop-motion animation – so maybe one day I’ll do a full-length film in that format (“Avocado and Zaboca” only scratched the surface of my stop-motion ambitions). But that’ll come after the Oscar or the BAFTA (*wink-wink*).

FILMCO: Have you ever combined your passions in dance and film to tell stories?
SD: Lol. I always combine my passions in dance and film to tell stories. I actually say that I choreograph films, because choreography is what I know best so I use the same formulas to analyse the rhythm, weight and “feel” of my films. And many of my experimental films are dance- or movement-based. The most recent one is “Life and Death” which was an official selection at the 2020 Caribbean Tales International Film Festival, and the 2019 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. It’s essentially an experimental documentary (and a silent fllm) which uses movement in various environments to warn about dangers of plastic pollution. The dancers from my dance company are the performers.

FILMCO: Filmmaking can be a difficult path for many. What drives you to continue to make films and to tell the stories that you do?
SD: Sheer madness – that is all. Imagine leaving a corporate career (which I did in fact do for a short time, but in Trinidad – not on Wall Street) to make dances and films in a place that’s economically hostile to both! But I suppose it’s the satisfaction of crafting a work that I enjoy – making something with care and with my heart, and with my own blood, sweat and tears buried inside of the effort, and eventually giving it life for others to see and absorb.

Sonja Dumas on set

FILMCO: Can you tell us about some of your current projects in development such as “Angels in Tunapuna” and “Come Up, Mr. Coleman”? What are these films about and where are these projects in the pipeline?
SD: I am working on about seven different scripts – three full-length narrative features, two documentaries, and two shorts. The shorts are ready for shooting – all I need is the production money! All the full-length ones are at the rewriting stage, and some are further along than others. The one that is furthest along is “Right and Left”, which is the one with the drag queen and the church lady. It’s set in contemporary Port of Spain and is a buddy movie about a halfway closeted security guard who moonlights as a drag queen, and a young woman who is bravely facing a double mastectomy on her own while trying to keep up appearances at her church and hiding her Grace Jones alter ego. And, yes, it’s a comedy. I have some tweaking to do, but it should be ready soon. “Angels in Tunapuna” needs a complete overhaul, and after thinking about it for about a year (yes, a whole year), I think I’m ready for rewrite number five (or is it six?). That’s the buddy movie with the two septegenarians who die and get to Limbo where it’s discovered that they haven’t mended their earthly grouses so they’re sent back to earth to prove that they’re worthy of redemption. It’s another comedy with rum-shop attitudes and a Carnivalesque setting.

“Come Up Mr. Coleman” is a docu-drama that I’m co-writing with my friend from my teenage days, Robin Foster, who wants to memorialize the contribution of the great Trinbagonian guitarist, Fitzroy Coleman, who has made at least one list in the world as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, but who apparently died in relative obscurity. Again, these are the narratives that few people hear about or see in our context. The latest feature that I’ve added to the list of full-length screenplays is “Kru” (working title), a Afro-futurist work, full of magical realism, where a young Trinidadian soca singer with an uncanny fear of the sea is mysteriously swept hundreds of years back into her past on the West African coast, and must navigate her return to her beloved Caribbean and assume her rightful role in the future in a mystical boat that tests her resilience on the Atlantic Ocean. And yes, it’s set in the middle of the Atlantic for the most part. Let’s not talk about the budget for that one…

FILMCO: What are your thoughts on the sustainability of the film industry here in Trinidad and Tobago?
SD: While I believe that it will continue to grow and improve in content and quality through individual effort, fortitude and sweat equity, I honestly don’t see it moving forward financially with the rapidity that all of us would like to see without co-production treaties and major public or private investment. People of influence outside of the industry still don’t understand that an average low-budget film with all the proper line items accounted for could easily cost US$3 million. I had a script mentor in Los Angeles once who looked at my US$550K budget for a full-length feature film and told me that no-one would take me seriously with so small a budget. And if you factor in known talent for the project, it will escalate further. Even beyond the US$3 million, you would likely need additional funding for the marketing budget if you’re thinking of taking it to large or even medium-size international markets. Of course, most independent filmmakers soldier on with impossibly minuscule budgets that sometimes don’t even reach US$3K far less US$3 million, but financially that could also mean fewer distribution opportunities since there’s no marketing budget to find sales agents or to promote the movie to distributors who could deliver a good financial return on the film. Plus, production values would likely be compromised, so the film wouldn’t have as high a quality to compete well. This is a real challenge because we’re one tiny little fish in the ocean of countries trying to get their films sold or distributed. That’s why I think that co-production treaties are so important to micro-players like Trinidad and Tobago.

In an effort to be helpful, people suggest to me on occasion to “just shoot it on an iPhone, nah” in order to reduce the cost of production. Bless them, for they have no clue (although I got so frustrated with not getting funding for “Life and Death” that I almost did that). But high production values in an increasingly competitive market are essential, so high-end professional equipment is still absolutely necessary in most cases. Until investors and supporters of film treat the filmmaking community as economically viable and provide the proper seed money or opportunities, we might have the very, very rare financial hit, but we’ll also have many more misses that shouldn’t have been misses. I know it’s a tough call because film is such a risky investment. But in that risk, there could be a high reward, so it should be treated like any high-risk stock on Wall Street: research the market and the products and take the plunge if your gut instinct tells you to. There I go with the business school talk again.