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Interview: Director Stephanie Malson and Producer Malaika Paquiot Discuss their Jamaican ‘Getaway’

For many Black people living in America, the issues underpinning the Black Lives Matter movement are a source of constant anxiety. But for some like June (Melissa Kay Anderson) – the lead character in Stephanie Malson’s Getaway – the struggle is of little concern. When the horrors hit close to home, however, she is forced to look towards her native Jamaica to protect her young son Leighton (Ian Smalls Jr.). As this topical short film premiered at the 2023 Pan African Film Festival, Awards Radar talked with Malson and writer/producer Malaika Paquiot to learn about the motivations behind telling this story and its poignant impact.

Shane Slater: As we see in the film, the main character June is apathetic towards the Black Lives Matter movement. What was the motivation for you to explore this topic and this perspective?

Malaika Paquiot: As someone who grew up in Jamaica and has family who’s Jamaican, it’s something that I have had firsthand experience with. So either with people who are generally newer immigrants to the US, I think just because of lack of exposure, they are maybe not really understanding what the ins and outs are, or really having a deep understanding of the systemic problems in the US. And sometimes they differentiate themselves from other people of African descent here. I’ve seen people have that sense of apathy from Jamaica, but also from other immigrant communities.

So I have friends who are Asian, who are my same generation who will talk about prior generations, or those who are just coming, who have a similar attitude of apathy – I’m just going to keep my head down, do my work, get my work done, do what I need to do for me and my family, and not really consider what else is going on. And I thought that would be interesting, as I thought about June and her arc.

Stephanie Malson: That is definitely part of what attracted me to the story. As a Black American, I’m always curious about how other cultures see our experience here. And in all honesty, I’m not probably the first person that’s out there protesting. But I think that we all in some way have concerns. We all in some way have frustrations with what’s happening to Black people in America. And so, that thread, particularly I thought was really nuanced and something I haven’t seen before in short films or in films in general.

I think that Malika obviously has maybe not intentionally, posed a question to the audience. And I’m curious, as a creative, as to how people feel about that kind of duality. What do you do? Do you keep your head down? And what’s the value of that? And how is there a way for us to be unified? I think those are questions that the film asks. And that’s really, I think, for me, what interests me.

SS: There’s always a lot of discussion around the ethics of exploring Black trauma in film.What were your guiding principles for how to approach this topic with sensitivity?

MP: That’s a really good question. It’s something that I thought deeply about when toward the end, there’s a revelation that is pretty traumatic. And I really wanted to sort of humanize the person involved. And as I think about the trauma that people experience, I want to make sure that I am reflecting that in a sensitive way. Rather than just showing the traumatic act, really focusing on the results of that trauma, or how that trauma manifests itself. So it doesn’t become just a plot point, or it doesn’t just become something for shock value, but really take the time to look at how that can impact a person when they have experienced something that is traumatic

SM: I agree, that is a really great question. It’s actually something, maybe not directly in the way that you pose it, that I’ve been thinking about as it relates to actors primarily and how we put them in the position to portray these roles. And oftentimes they are experiencing or embodying what we’re creating. And so I do have questions around the ethics of it. For me, I do proceed with caution. Black trauma or diasporic trauma is not something that I feel like I have to play in as a creative. But I do think that there is a need to offer an honest and nuanced reflection of the times. I do think that that’s something that we should be careful about.

The trauma for me that I wanted to, at least touch on, is the trauma that Ian (the lead character Leighton) experiences. While that is subtle, in my opinion, throughout the story, I think it’s obvious that this kid is carrying something that he doesn’t want to share, or expose his mom to. And I think that is worth exploring, you know? How do children deal with having to go through these drills? What impact does that have on their psyche, their perception of the world, their perception of safety. And I really loved how Ian portrayed that character. And, again, we’re putting him as an actor in the position to take on a tough subject. But I think that the way that it was written, it was written with care.

I will say, that’s why it’s a blessing that we have a Black woman writer and a Black woman director. I’m not saying that any other gender or race can’t do that well. But I do think that we are particularly mindful of how we show up in the world and how we communicate what we’re experiencing. And we are even more, I think, sensitive to the impact that this trauma has. These ongoing generational traumas have on us and on our community. And so, we may be portraying some version of that, but we are adding subtlety, nuance, and hopefully, some some depth to it.

MP: The thing that I would add too, as I was thinking about writing this and thinking what people need in the moment, it was during COVID. We had all of the protests happening and the civil unrest happening in in the US. And for me, the ending was also important. How we were going to end it, people might argue whether or not it’s a good solution. But we did have an option there. And so for me, it was important not to just end it on something very traumatic and sad, but some kind of hope.

SS: As you said, you worked with a young child actor. Was he already conscious of these issues and what was the experience like working with him?

SM: It was a great experience. I’ve said publicly that it was more challenging for me, because this is my first-ish directing opportunity. And it’s a first for a lot of things. First bicoastal production, international. And also, first time working with a child actor. Everyone says don’t do that, but I think for me, Ian made this process easy because he was very much prepared, very much ready to go when we were shooting. He wasn’t all over the place, he wasn’t a kid that we had to manage. And also, when it came time for him to perform, he did just that, you know? In all honesty, there wasn’t too much direction that I had to give him. Even if I needed to have him do something a little bit in a different way, he was very quick, very responsive. So he kind of made it easy.

I think in terms of challenges, I will just say, the big takeaway for me from that particular experience was a lesson that I learned, probably on the last day of shooting. And essentially, what I learned as a director is that it is my job to protect my actors at all costs. Because he has a lot of screen time. And because he’s a human being. It was just my job to make sure that he always felt safe, always felt like he was the lead. And that there was no disruption in that area. But you know, you learn on the job in some instances. And I think that was something that I will never forget.

SS: I’m curious about the logistics of filming in two countries for a short film, which I presume had a small budget.

MP: We essentially we did one week in Wilmington, North Carolina, which is a coastal city in North Carolina. And that was chosen because we knew we wanted to do the Jamaican interiors in the US as well. And we were able to find spaces that could look like Jamaica, just in terms of tile floors, that kind of thing. Then I think we had maybe a week break and then went to Jamaica. Logistically, well, as the producer, it’s a small team. I got very adept at booking travel. [Laughs]. I had to book the travel myself, for everybody.

And then we got to Jamaica, and we were shooting during COVID. And so that caused some challenges. We had to quarantine for 48 hours before we could even shoot or do anything like that. Which meant that’s money, right? You’re having to house and feed people for two days, and you’re not even doing anything.

I think some of the other things that came to light were the differences. It was a lot hotter in Jamaica. We had really good weather the first days when we were quarantining in Ocho Rios. The sun was shining, it was very beautiful. And then the day of the shoot, it started raining. In the beginning, it was just raining, raining, and then all day it was start and stop. So that was very challenging as well.

So, there were definitely some challenges logistically. We didn’t do any sort of guerilla filming. We had the permits, we had all of that. That adds cost and takes some time, but we worked with a really good production company in Jamaica called Mint Creative, headed by our cinematographer Randy Richards. So we did that. And then we worked with a production company in North Carolina as well. And so they helped with a lot of the logistics in North Carolina.

SM: For me, being a first time thing, that helped me not have to worry about a lot of things. The logistics and all of those details just felt very seamless. And I think they allowed me to kind of focus on my part of the process. Also, us, both the actors, and the cinematographer, we did lodging together in both places. And I think that definitely helped form a bond between, the crew, as well as the actors. And I think that based off of the feedback that I’ve heard so far from folks that have seen the film, I think that’s translating as well in the performances.

So that week that we were together, we were together! And then the weekend in Jamaica, or the four or five days we were in Jamaica, we were together the whole time. And I think that definitely was just a great addition to the process.

SS: This story kind of reverses the usual narrative of the North America being the more desirable, idyllic place. How did this notion of portraying Jamaica as the safe haven inform your filmmaking and storytelling?

SM: That was my favorite part of this story, actually. Maybe that’s like a quiet belief that I have, in terms of just what role America plays in the broader world. This is all my opinion, but for me, America has never been central in my mind. Although I’m born and raised here, I do think that it’s a beautiful thing for people to have alternatives. And I really think it’s important for us to disrupt the narrative that the United States is the land of milk and honey, or whatever people assume it is. In part, because there are other places that exist, and they have just as much power. Just as much cultural currency that they bring to the world. And I feel like that’s all we get. Like America’s God, and everyone else is underneath, right?

So that’s not something that I’m interested in, in terms of storytelling. And it’s not something that I will be interested in wanting to uplift in any kind of way. So for me, I thought it was spot on. I’ve always wanted that kind of real home, if that makes sense. I always imagine growing up thinking about my place as a Black American in the world. Where’s my real home?

So the fact that June has this alternative, and for her the alternative is just as as beautiful, just as valuable, just as rich. In her mind, just as safe, if not more safe to a certain degree. Why not, right? And I do think it’s important to tell Jamaican stories. I don’t want to see the same things I’ve seen before. I want nuance, I want to really understand Jamaican culture in the same way that I know my own culture. In the same intimate way.

SS: This is such a quintessential diaspora film, so the Pan African Film Festival seems like a perfect place for the premiere. What the premiere likes and how was the response?

SM: The premiere was really beautiful. We screened on Sunday, which technically was Super Bowl Sunday. So we were concerned that it wasn’t going to be a decent turnout. But we had a good turnout of people. And folks asked really great questions during the Q&A. Afterwards, a couple of folks came up to me to talk about the programming, as it was all Jamaican films that screened with our film. And that was awesome. I wasn’t expecting that to be honest with you.

So that was a beautiful thing. They were saying that they loved seeing between the three films that were screening, the difference in or the variety in landscape, variety in class. And I thought that was really poignant. You get to see the rural side of Jamaica, you get to see this middle class side of Jamaica. And also story-wise, it was very nuanced as well. So the premiere was really good. Overall, I think getting into PAFF was the perfect place for us to screen our film.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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