Filmmaker Jessiline Berry took time this week to share about her new film project A Night to Remember, her personal experience of sexual abuse, and her decision to utilize her skills as a filmmaker “to do right by [her] survivor sisters.” I hope you’ll read what she has to say, back her film project, and pass the word. Let’s help get her film made and out into the world.
DBW: Jessiline, I was so moved by your Kickstarter video where you describe your film A Night to Remember, talk about the devastating impact of date rape, and convey the importance of getting this story out into the world. What inspired you to create this film and who do you hope will see it?
JB: Violence and abuse have, unfortunately, been significant in my history. I could say I’m a strong woman now in spite of it, or because of it. But as strong, smart, and articulate as I am, when it came to dealing with being date raped, I was kind of surprisingly silent. I was 29 years old when it happened. I was about to finish my masters at an Ivy League institution. I had been in therapy to deal with the trauma of an abusive marriage. I had overcome. I started dating again after my divorce, and met a nice guy who took me to nice meals, and movies at the Magic Johnson theater, and eventually raped me. And I was like…how did I miss this…how did I misjudge this man? I thought I should’ve known better. At the time, I spent way more energy blaming myself than blaming him. I remember I didn’t even tell my therapist because we were wrapping up our time together because I had done so well, and the trauma of my abusive marriage was basically behind me. I was embarrassed to tell her I had been victimized again.
I felt I was feeding into rape culture by not speaking out.
Society too often treats sexual violence against women as debatable, as a crime. I can’t even say I don’t get it because, after my rape, I victim-blamed myself, and in large part, didn’t report because I didn’t want to ruin this bright young man’s future; who cares about my future, right? And when I eventually started disclosing what had happened to me, there were some challenging responses, even among allies–friends, and family members who had been victims of sexual assault themselves. I’d hear things like, “Well, men are like that. You have to be careful.” Someone even suggested that if I wore lacey panties people might think I was a slut and not believe me when I said I was raped. I was shocked and saddened by these comments, but, thank God, eventually I got mad. And this year, it just felt like I was existing in an alternate universe when it became clear how widely acceptable it now is for a man to sexually assault a woman, knowing that “she won’t say anything.” I mean, you can think and talk this way and get elected President of the United States! That shocked me out of my silence. After all the abuse I’ve experienced, I’ve never reported any of it to the police. Whether I was too young to know how to stand up for myself, or too scared of retaliation, or just too filled with shame, I didn’t report. And this year, I just felt my silence was compliance. I felt I was feeding into rape culture by not speaking out.
Since I went public, so many women have reached out to me with their own consent stories. Some of those stories fit the legal definition of acquaintance rape, and others just fit the moral definition of screwed up. And it’s disheartening how many women just deal with the aftermath of these experiences on their own – never talk about, or never even let themselves acknowledge that something possibly illegal, but definitely shitty happened to them. I’ve now connected with so many women and organizations that provide safety, healing, and sisterhood for victims of rape and sexual abuse. I feel duty-bound to do by right by my survivor sisters. The most natural way for me to help is through art. Although date rape, and the issue of YES is YES consent, is at the heart of this film, A Night to Remember is not an issue film. It really aims to explore how two people can be in the same moment, yet have very different experiences. It examines the notion of your truth, my truth, and the truth.
At this time in our country – even beyond the issue of date rape – that’s a really important examination. I’ve talked with so many men about the issue of Yes is YES sexual consent, and they’ve acknowledged that it’s confusing for them, and that even a guy who wouldn’t consider himself capable of rape, could ruin his life by not understanding the idea of YES is YES consent. In fact, someone very close to me was accused of acquaintance rape, and it was really challenging for me to show up for him. Ultimately, the charges were dropped, but from my vantage point, it was just even more clear that everybody – men and women – needs to have a really frank discussion about consent.
DBW: Something that really struck me in your compelling description of the story you’re preparing to film is the way that two people can discover they share so many cultural connections but are startlingly far apart when it comes to the issue of consent. As you were working on the script, what helped guide you to work through this complex interpersonal landscape to bring this situation alive through a story that goes beyond addressing a pressing social issue and takes viewers into a powerful film experience?
JB: That’s a really interesting question because the film is art before it is activism. But, for me, the two are never really that far apart. The main character, Rayna, is an educated, bohemian-chic, Black woman who exists in an unapologetically multi-culti bubble in Los Angeles. Her crew are the type that are “woke” enough to scoff at the idea of being post-racial, but are themselves the picture of a post-racial utopia. So, when Rayna meets Will, smart, sensitive, funny white guy at her friend’s party, and it seems that he really sees her – like, not just sees her body, or her style, but sees her – she’s taken. Things take a turn for the worse in the final act of the film, but before that it’s really a story about two people negotiating, between themselves and within themselves, their willingness to experience intimacy – emotionally and physically. Rayna and Will decide to be really frank with each other on a lot of levels.
I’m always fascinated by differences in perspective and point of view.
They represent pretty common opposites, in terms of identity politics–woman/man, Black/White, even educated “elite” and working middle class. As these two opposites adventure throughout the city of Los Angeles on their epic first date, they come to understand how much they have in common and they even seem to be willing to respect what makes them different. There’s a lot of examination of race and sexual politics in their coming together. It’s almost as if these two are setting themselves up for a uniquely honest love affair; they talk about all the things we’re often scared to talk about with our friends from other cultures, because we don’t want to be seen as culturally insensitive, or worse. But this stuff manages to bring Rayna and Will closer to the potential for love. Even the way I want to portray the city of Los Angeles – it’s a visual interpretation of identity politics. The L.A. in this film is not the LaLaLand we see portrayed in so many Hollywood movies, because it’s not an extreme. It’s not Beverly Hills, or Hollywood, or Compton; it’s everything in between. And I love that the viewer gets to experience different parts of L.A. through the eyes of these two very different characters. It’s a photographic study of the tale of two cities so much of us experience in our everyday lives. I was working on a commercial once, and the Art Director came to my apartment in Mid-City to settle up accounting and commented on how he usedta live in a bad neighborhood once too. And I was like…”too.” Is this dude saying I live in a bad neighborhood? And, bless his heart, I just felt like him seeing a lot of black and brown folks made him think it was a bad neighborhood, but to me, black and brown folks feels like family.
I’m always fascinated by differences in perspective and point of view. I’m excited about exploring that, not just in the dialogue, but by really exploiting the tools of cinema. How a city, a relationship, a moment can look, sound, feel so different depending on whose point of view the viewer is experiencing.
DBW: When and where are you planning to shoot the film… and how do you envision managing the production so cast and crew can handle the emotionally challenging nature of the story?
JB: We are just at the midpoint of a Kickstarter campaign to raise $55.5k to start production in the Spring of 2017, in Los Angeles. Ultimately, the film is indeed emotionally challenging. Much of it is reminiscent of my experience being date raped, and I anticipate that there will be challenges for me, and the cast and crew.
But we can’t play the mood of the ending. That wouldn’t honor the film, or the issue. Because nobody starts a date thinking they’re gonna get date raped. So, that energy can’t be the energy of the majority of the film, or the shoot. I have to lead the crew with professionalism, and really, I have to make it fun. The DP, Layton Blaylock, is this super chill, kind, seasoned filmmaker with whom people just love working. I’ve worked with Layton before, and I feel really safe in his hands, and I think he feels really inspired by my vision. I trust him, and he trusts me, and that leaves space for me to work with the cast with freedom and spontaneity. We gotta stay in the moment, you know? The characters are on a date. The characters are falling in love – with the city, their youth, and potentially each other. So the shoot needs to feel like an adventure. And we’re going to be shooting in some really fun, quirky, quintessentially L.A. locations. We’re gonna have fun!
In a way, I want to simulate intuition, and how we often ignore it.
DBW: Can you share about some of your earlier directing or other film work? How has it prepared you to tackle this project?
JB: This won’t be my first time tackling challenging subject matter with nuance and even humor. My short film, That’s Good, That’s Enough, was about right to life issues as it affected a middle-aged married couple, but it was also a really artful, nuanced piece of filmmaking. That short was invited to several festivals, and won Best Student Film at the Mid-Atlantic Black Film Festival. Another short, Spring Cleaning, was a psychological drama that touched on grief and mental illness. Layton was the DP for that short, and it earned him the International Cinematographers Guild Emerging Cinematographer Award. So, Layton and I are a pretty great duo, and I’m excited about what we’ll do with A Night to Remember. Also, one of my favorite directors, Karyn Kusama, is a mentor, and is working with me on a boxing movie I developed in the Film Independent Screenwriters Lab. I want to infuse A Night to Remember with a slow-drip of uneasiness. The viewer should feel something is a little “off,” but never know what that is. In a way, I want to simulate intuition, and how we often ignore it. Karyn’s film, The Invitation, was like a masterclass in creating and maintaining tension from an unidentifiable source. After I saw that movie, I realized my body ached because she had made me so uneasy that I had been tensing my muscles for nearly two hours. It was genius. I hope to have her influence as I prepare to shoot A Night to Remember.
DBW: How can film lovers engage to support you on your filmmaking journey?
JB: This movie is get-it-done budgeted. No frills. Our Kickstarter campaign ends January 9, 2017, and we need to raise $55.5k to meet our goal and have the bare minimum needed to start production. We need backers and sharers! Donations to the Kickstarter are gold, but sharing the Kickstarter campaign is platinum. The way this movie will get funded is by me reaching beyond my circle, and then those people reaching beyond their circle, and so on and so forth. It will take a lot of disconnected people, coming together to connect around this film and this issue, to get the movie made. So, please contribute, go to our website, like us on Facebook, and tweet @ANTRfilm with your support, or even your stories of sexual consent issues.
Women have so much to offer, and so much to say, and any barrier that exists to women expressing themselves, in any industry, but especially in art and media, is a barrier that limits the potential of our entire society.
DBW: I have greatly appreciated your active engagement in the #DirectedbyWomen initiative. In fact you conducted the very first #DirectedbyWomen Conversation when you interviewed Deborah Goodwin about her film The Pastor. I know this is a natural extension of the work you’ve been doing in support of women in film. Could you share something about your approach to helping women flourish in the film world?
JB: I am many things, but first and foremost, I’m a woman. It informs so much of how I move through the world, and how the world views me. Sometimes, that can feel like a cross to bear, but mostly, being a woman is an amazing gift and a great way to experience this iteration of my soul’s life on this planet. Women have so much to offer, and so much to say, and any barrier that exists to women expressing themselves, in any industry, but especially in art and media, is a barrier that limits the potential of our entire society.
I’ve always been a champion of celebrating the female perspective, in front of, and behind the camera. In grad school at Columbia University, a colleague and I got a group of female students together and kinda lobbied the Film Department to address gender parity in our potential careers. We created the group, Columbia Women in Film, and though it was slow going to start (God bless our helpful instructors like, Richard Pena and Eric Mendelsohn), that completely student-run group still exists to this day, and has really flourished. I know at some point, the Film Department was giving fellowship money to student officers of the group. The students that started it didn’t benefit from that money, but we have so much pride in that we set a foundation that benefitted others. I also teach screenwriting, and at my last teaching institution I was one of two faculty advisors for a women in film group the students created. Those ladies were amazing, and driven, and so talented. I loved watching their ideas come to fruition and how empowered they were working together. As a teacher, I make sure my students are watching and reading films about women and by women. You’d be surprised how many top-100 lists don’t have a single female filmmaker on them. I’d talk to other teachers and be shocked at how they didn’t even realize their syllabi exclusively taught the work of white, male writers and directors. We have to be intentional about gender parity. We’re making up for a lot of lost time. I consider that part of my job as an educator. Through FemmeMaker Productions, I aim to keep encouraging, supporting, and showcasing women’s contribution to our industry.
That’s why I love #DirectedbyWomen. It’s an initiative that stays away from the negativity of the statistics, but rather focuses on celebrating us. Women directors deserve to be celebrated!
DBW: The #DirectedbyWomen initiative invites the world to fall madly in love with films #DirectedbyWomen. Could you share a few films by women directors that you wish more film lovers would discover, experience and delight in?
JB: The Piano, and Jane Campion changed my life. Even to this day, with Top of the Lake, she continues to be a huge influence on me as a fan and an artist. Sugar Cane Alley by Euzhan Palcy was another film that blew me away as a Black woman director. Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Karyn Kusama, and now filmmakers like Dee Rees and Tina Mabry – there are so many talented women making movies right now. I’ve been a member of Film Fatales, Women in Film, and a Cinefemme is a newer organization, started by Michelle Kantor, but they are a really powerful group of talented, visionary women – women who really like empowering other women.
I’m totally here for that. I just want to see even more women be trusted and funded, so we can get more great stories and style out there.
DBW: Wishing you amazing success bringing this powerful story into the world. Thank you for sharing your authentic vision and voice with the world.
Find out more about and contribute to Jessiline Berry’s A Night to Remember Kickstarter today.