Interview: Yoni Brook, Co-Director of Bronx Princess
About a month ago, I did a review of Bronx Princess; a short film about a young Ghanaian living in the U.S. I was really impressed with the film and most of the people I shared it with were too. But I was also curious. Really curious about who the actors were, who the producers were, how come they made such a great and genuine short film, and especially, how the non-Ghanaian producers were able to capture elements of Ghanaian culture that a lot of “Ghanaian films” fail to communicate. So, I contacted one of the producers, Yoni Brook, and we had a little chat about all that. Here are all the interesting details. Enjoy!
Circumspect: Who are Yoni Brook and Musa Syeed?
Yoni Brook: Musa Syeed and I are co-directors that met at NYU’s film school in 2004. We made a film together that was on PBS in 2008 called “A Son’s Sacrifice” about a father and son working together at an old-school slaughterhouse in Queen’s New York. That had nothing to do with Africans; it had to do with first generation immigrants living in NY and was a father and son story. After we’d finished that film we had our eyes open for a mother and daughter story that would complement that story.
C: How did the concept of Bronx Princess come about?
YB: Coincidentally, we were in the Bronx in 2007 working on a short film; totally unrelated. It was about a mural and the mural was being drawn across the street from Auntie Yaa’s store. We were in that neighborhood for about a week filming, and whenever we needed to charge our batteries or go to the bathroom, Auntie Yaa would welcome us into her store to do that. And we were really grateful. She has an amazing personality; everybody on the block loved her and was drawn to her. After a week we just thought she was funny and warm and genuine, and we came back a couple times to hang out with her. And we thought to ourselves, oh it would be fun to make a film about this woman. We didn’t know what the movie would be; we just thought it would be captivating. We had no plans to make a movie about her. It was just sort of a fantasy thing.
One day, when we were in her store, her daughter walked in after school, and we could see immediately that there was a mother-daughter conflict; that Rocky was working the store, and she really didn’t want to be there, she would rather be out with her friends, or studying for school and doing other things. The first time we met Rocky, she basically told us, “Hey, my life is a movie. Within the next three months I’m going to go from graduating high school to becoming the first woman in our family to go to college on a scholarship, and in between all of that, I’m actually going to go visit my dad in Ghana who’s a chief. And I haven’t seen him in Ghana since he became a chief.” So we were really blown away, and we could see that that was giving us the recipe to make a great movie. So we basically dropped everything that we were doing and decided that we would make a movie about her during these next four months. The next thing we knew, we were buying plane tickets to Ghana. It was sort of like living in the moment, and realizing that she had a great story. There are a million great stories in NY, everybody has a great story. Sometimes things are happening at that moment that you can’t pass it up. It’s too awesome.
C: Did you use actual Ghanaian actors? Is the screenplay based on a true story?
YB: We shot over 100 hours of footage in making the movie. We spent a lot of time with them to get the family to just sort of forget about us. So I would say that the Rocky in the movie is very close to the real life Rocky. But the biggest difference is that with Rocky in the movie you don’t see all the aspects of her life, that make her Rocky (in real life). It’s just impossible to show all the dimensions of a person in 38 minutes. I’d say her personality is really similar, but she’s a really smart, nuanced, complicated person as most people are. So I don’t like to claim that the movie is who she is.
C: That’s interesting. I’d thought you’d gotten actual professional actors to play the roles. So is it more of Reality TV, since you used the actual people?
YB: I think it’s a really interesting question. Our movie is classified as a documentary, and there’s a difference between reality TV – which is really popular now – and documentaries, both of which are shown on PBS. A documentary like the kind that we made is not scripted in any way. We asked the family to let us follow them around, and we tried to influence the situation as little as possible. We tried not to tell them where to stand, we tried not to say much at all actually. Of course we talk to them, at other times we shared our feelings, had fun with them, but while we were filming and recording we tried to disappear. Everything they said, or everything that happened in the movie, actually happened in real life. None of it was sort of staged or coached by us in any direct way.
C: Out of curiosity, prior to that, did Rocky think she would be doing a movie or a film?
YB: I think the reason that Rocky and her mother are so compelling in the movie, is that they’re just such open people to begin with. At the same time, Rocky is not interested in acting professionally at all, but she was in her school play like a lot of teenage girls. She has a performative aspect to her. I don’t think she ever thought about acting, and I don’t think she wants to actually be an actor now. She didn’t view Bronx Princess as an acting job, but sort of like a time capsule of her life. I should add, the family wasn’t paid to be in the film. It was basically like journalism where we followed them around.
C: On your end what were the budget constraints, who were your sponsors?
YB: The film was sponsored by ITVS, which is a tax-payer supported organization that supports independent documentaries and films in order for them to be broadcast on PBS. When we met the family and heard their story, we basically said, hey, this is a story that is not on TV. People don’t know about this kind of thing. When you think about immigrants in America, and then think about royalty, it’s a lot more complicated and interesting. So this is a really unique story. That’s kind of how we pitched it to ITVS, and then it was broadcast. We also got some additional funding from POV which is the point of view documentary series on PBS. That’s where the money came from and what we did to fundraise so we could pay for our plane ticket, food, cameras, editing time – those are the kind of things that you have to take into account.
C: How did it pan out when you got to Ghana? Where there people on location that you were working with?
YB: All the time that we were making the movie, it was basically two people; myself holding a camera, and Musa holding a boom pole to record the sound. We didn’t need a lot of people to make the movie, and I think that having fewer people gave us a more intimate feel to the film because there weren’t 500 people around that would distract the family from being who they are. So when we got to Ghana, we just did the same thing. A friend of ours named Godwin, who lives in Ghana, helped us navigate our affairs. So he was sort of a co-producer in Ghana, who helped with everything else, including following the chief. We actually lived in the palace, which was a tricky situation because there are a lot of rules involved with living in a palace. We had never been there before till we got there and had to start filming. So we had to learn quickly what the rules were, how to talk to the chief and convince him that it was okay to wear the wireless microphone. All these little things I had never thought of before became kind of important.
C: Were there any particular challenges that you faced?
YB: I would say the biggest challenge was living in the palace with the chief. It wasn’t a very free place, so it was hard to live with that and also film them at the same time. That was a challenge. We had to really learn pretty first about the culture; like the way you speak to the chief. We were of course very respectful, but sometimes I would do things by accident like cross my legs while I was speaking to him, and that was really offensive and I had no idea. I made a lot of stupid mistakes. But by the end of this, the chief and us got along very well. You know, it’s a learning curve to any new culture and we had never been to West Africa before so that was tricky.
C: Since you had many hours of filming, how did you choose what to capture and which ones to portray in Bronx Princess?
YB: Because we shot over 100 hours of film and only used 38 minutes for the actual film, there were 100 different movies that could have been made out of this material. The principle we used to edit the footage – the editing took longer than the shooting – was to try and tell the story from Rocky’s perspective; what it’s like to be a teenager who’s going to school. Also, to take into account the journey that her parents were going through. Rocky was really focused on “hey I wanna get out of here, I wanna be independent.” But her father, the chief really wanted to teach her the lessons about the traditions of Ghana; of being a member of their community. So while we were editing, we tried to balance all those different ideas.
C: Tell us more about the bigger picture – your outreach campaign. What were your reasons for showcasing Rocky’s particular story and what responses did you anticipate?
YB: The reason we put together this outreach campaign is that a lot of people go through similar experiences as Rocky, whether or not they have a royal family, a lot of people – whether they’re teenagers or growing up – learn what it means to live away from home and want independence. In Rocky’s situation she was the first woman in her family to go to college and that’s a situation a lot of people are in. We wanted to use the film as a way of starting discussions, giving people tools for achieving access to college. With partnerships with different organizations, we’re putting the film into classrooms, community centers, online viewing etc. We have short films where Rocky gives advice about how to succeed in college, what you get there etc. Even though we only knew this part of her life, we didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Now that we’ve finished the film, it’s not just entertainment; it’s a tool that can help people with the lifestyle.
C: How were you able to capture the “genuineness” of Ghanaian culture portrayed in Bronx Princess – given the fact that neither you nor Musa are Ghanaian or even African?
YB: I kind of asked myself that question. I’m not an expert on Ghana; I’d been to Africa, but I hadn’t been to Ghana before. Why should Musa and I – two men who are not women, not African – why should we tell this story and how do we make it resonant and real?
There are two parts to that. One part is that both of our parents are immigrants. We know what it’s like to have parents who are from another country, and to go back there and experience that from the perspective of a kid born in America; similar to what Rocky’s journey is about. Musa’s parents are from Kashmir, my father is from Israel – so we kind of knew what it was like to go back. On the question of why the movie feels accurate and real, I think we really tried to listen and observe, and see what was important to the family we were shooting. We definitely played a role in shaping the story since we were filming it, but we tried to be listeners as opposed to imposing a Hollywood ending, or overly dramatic soap-opera style. We just wanted it to reflect what their lives are, and we hoped that would be interesting.
It’s a really tricky question anytime you have people of one culture trying to tell the story of people from another culture. How much are you projecting your own story? How much are you listening? We were both very cautious -both during filming and editing- with issues of identification. Rocky was really adamant about presenting Africa as a multi-dimensional place, and that was really important to her.
C: Do you have any tips or advice for young aspiring film makers?
YB: The most important thing that people can do is talk to other people around them. We started Bronx Princess because we could walk to their house. We didn’t set out to do something exotic or tell a story on another continent. We started with stories that were nearby; stories that people really connect to. We didn’t tell a story we thought would bring us the most success or money, we did something that we thought was genuine and that we appreciated. If producers don’t see film as a big-buck thing – at least in our world of documentaries it isn’t – but instead look for stories that are genuine and real and don’t necessarily fit the kind of pre-conceived Hollywood stereotype, they’ll actually make films that people will connect to.
C: What are your hopes for future projects?
YB: Documentaries take a long time to make. Bronx Princess took like two years. But I hope to tell more stories like Bronx Princess; I’d love to make another film in Ghana. More important than working in any one country is telling stories like Rocky’s that sort of change people’s ideas about what it means to be an American. That’s really important to me.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.