Having known Darnell Lamont Walker for the past almost five years, his request to meet at the well-hidden teahouse run by Korean nuns in Los Angeles wasn’t odd. Neither was his, “let’s wait until a rainy day to do this,” text message. I questioned nothing. I probably stood outside the gate of the teahouse for 15 minutes before Darnell arrived, wearing his signature Virginia sweatshirt, backwards cap, and smile he gives at all reunions, no matter if hours or years have passed. We found a corner table by a broken window, “so we can hear the rain,” he said. “It makes me happy, and since we’re about to get into some heavy shit, it’s best we do a little self care at the same time.” I ordered two hot water, honey, and lemon concoctions and for 20 minutes, we talked about all the beautiful things that have happened in our lives since we last connected over two years ago in Johannesburg.
We sipped and laughed and found the irony in his recent acceptance into the Sesame Street family. Darnell, currently living between Los Angeles, CA and Johannesburg, is an amazing father, according to his 14-year-old son and from what I gather from the thousands of photos he’s taken to chronicle that part of his life, and he’s an exceptional writer, but there was never a time I thought I’d hear he was writing children’s television. I’m shocked, but excited to see what his creative and forward mind will take the children. I congratulate him with a high five over our empty teacups and cock my head to say in as few movements at possible, “I think we should get into this film.”
Set Yourself on Fire, Darnell’s third film, is hard to watch, but necessary. Using his art, he built a platform and invited survivors or rape and sexual assault to speak openly about their struggles after the trauma and how they moved forward. Alise, the courageous survivor who opens the film, says “Thanks to Darnell Lamont Walker and Tonja Renée Stidhum for making this important film possible. Also, thank you for giving me a space to share my story with someone who may need it and allowing me to turn my negative experiences into a teaching and loving moment. I feel braver than I ever knew I could be.” Completed in December 2018 and with its world premiere at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, this film has already screened in six countries. With the help of many crowdfunding donors, the outstanding Composer, Lordell Rush II and incredible Editor, Joey Blackburn, Set Yourself on Fire is easily one of the most important films I’ve ever seen.
JANELLE GRAY: These films always come with the assumption that the topic hits very close to home for the filmmaker. If it’s not too invasive, what led you to this project?
DARNELL LAMONT WALKER: What’s crazy is I wasn’t very aware of how close to home this topic was until I was in the middle of editing, watching these stories on a loop. What brought me here was my last film, Outside the House. We were dealing with mental health and mental illness and Black folks, and over and over we found so many mental illness journeys began at sexual assault. It was a family member or a boyfriend or a stranger. We were telling that story because we weren’t talking about mental health in my house or any of the houses I visited. And when making it, I said, “I have to talk about sexual assault next because no one else is. We are going to have this conversation!” I called up one of my favorite humans, Tonja Renée Stidhum, and asked if she’d come on as Executive Producer. The work began.
JG: And undoubtedly, each of your films have started the talks. How do you do that?
DLW: I make people uncomfortable. I piss people off. That’s how you get them to talk. When they’re comfortable, they’ll watch, but they’re silent. When you pull that rug up and reveal to them all the shit they swept under it, they talk.
JG: Are you ever afraid that they won’t respond appropriately?
DLW: Never. I welcome the yelling and the fists and the shutting down. When that happens, I know I can talk back and get them to a place where a great conversation can happen. I know they are open to being freed by the truth in those moments.
JG: The truth will set you free.
DLW: After it pisses you off. And I’m here to free the people through my work, or at least try.
JG: You’re a man who made a film about rape and sexual assault. What is the significance of that? Is it important to know that at all?
DLW: I honestly didn’t think it was going to be a thing, but quickly found it was. I have countless DM’s, emails, text messages, and such where women are saying, “to know a man made this really gives me hope.” It’s made me look at myself and ask if it’s messed up that I never even considered that? Does that play into some kind of privilege I have? Now that I’m thinking about it, no woman ever asked why I made this movie. The ones who’ve responded to it said, “thank you.”
JG: Have men responded?
DLW: Aside from the men in the film, the first message I get from men is, “Why did you make this? Were you raped?”
We order another round of the concoction from the nun and take a moment to breathe. The rain was loud, the air was still, and there was a peace in our corner. The drinks arrive and we continue.
JG: Mishelle Rodriguez, a therapist in Detroit, said, “Darnell Lamont Walker has the gift of getting people to share their hardest stories without hesitation.” Tell me, how do you do that? How hard was it to find people to share their stories?
DLW: Mishelle is amazing for that. I don’t know if that’s a thing I know. Honestly, I have no idea how I do it, but I do thank the universe constantly for the ability to make people trust me and whatever it is I do to make people believe I am a safe space. When it came to making Set Yourself on Fire, I did just as I did with Outside the House. I went to social media. I said, “hey, I’m making a film about rape and sexual assault, and if you’re open to speaking with me, I’m open to listening.” Maybe it’s the listening. We don’t talk enough about how important it is to have someone who actually listens when we talk.
JG: Then I must ask, what was the most important thing you learned while making this film?
DLW: I think that was it. Not enough of us have people who are open to listening to what we’re saying, believe us, then stand with us and support us. In the footage you see in the film and in the footage you will sadly never see, we heard “I just wanted someone to believe me with nothing else surrounding that.” That’s to say, believe them without exception, without questions, without bias. Lives have been saved because someone said those three words, “I believe you.”
JG: Earlier, you said you weren’t aware of how close to the topic you were until you were in the middle of editing. Can we get into that?
DLW: Sure. When I was 21, a friend invited me to her place to drink and be creative and talk. Strictly a friend situation. I drank too much and threw up. She cleaned me up and put me in bed. I was just going to sleep it off. I woke up and we were having sex, her on top of me. I was so confused for a few seconds, and then I passed back out. We woke up the next day and never spoke about it. Until I was making this film, it never bothered me. I have so many male friends with this exact same story. Not the same woman. It was a joke to us for years. Then one day, maybe a year ago, it was no longer funny to me.
JG: I believe you.
DLW: Thank you. It’s a strange place to be in and I’m still figuring my way around it. When I do, I’ll fill you in on more if that’s cool.
JG: I understand. What was it like gathering these stories in the wake of the R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Me Too, and Times Up era?
DLW: In the beginning, Tonja and I got wrapped up in wanting to include absolutely everything that was coming out in the news about these men and about these movements. We went over our notes for weeks, coming up with strategies to do so. What happened was we started losing the heart of the story. The film was becoming sensationalism and that was so far from where we began. We pulled back and found the heart of our story was the survivors. When we talked to the survivors, we left all of those things and those people out of our questions because we needed to allow as much room for the survivors as possible.
JG: What story broke you?
DLW: It’s not in the film, though all the stories in the film required me to step away constantly and pour self-care all over my soul. The story that broke me though — this past weekend, we screened the film in Detroit for the Metro Detroit Association of Black Psychologists. I can’t watch the film anymore, so when we press play, I always step into the hallway or into another room. Halfway through the screening, a father comes looking for me. He starts talking about a poem he wrote on his phone and begins looking for it. His hand starts shaking and he hands me the phone and the poem is pulled up. “My daughter was raped,” is all he got out before the tears poured down his face. He told me the story about his daughter who’s now 7-years-old, and her rapist. I consoled him, and he went to the bathroom to collect himself while I read the poem. I cried. I broke because I hadn’t heard from parents of survivors. I broke because I’m a parent. I broke because I’m an uncle, a godfather, and a friend. I felt bad thinking that maybe I broke because even after all the stories I heard, and even though I was able to empathize and show compassion, I wasn’t able to find me. I found me in this man’s story of his daughter.
JG: You took the finished film back to where it began. What incredible conversations happened in South Africa around this work?
DLW: I was invited to Sonke Gender Justice in Johannesburg one afternoon by Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane to talk about the film with the staff, volunteers, and participants immediately after the screening at the Rapid Lion International Film Festival. As I make my way into communities around the world, I’m finding that so many people think rape, the way they know it happens, only happens to their community. There was true shock that survivors existed outside of South Africa that shared very similar stories to the South African survivors.
JG: What happens from here?
DLW: The work continues. Ending rape around the world will take effort from everyone. Right now, we’re showing up and doing the world. Colleges, community organizations, film festivals. The little money we do have, we’re putting towards building safe spaces, literally. We’ve partnered with an organization in South Africa and in the next few months, we’ll start transforming a space into a place women and children can go when they have no place else. We’re just here doing the work. Oh! And letting everyone know their story is important. Their story will save lives. The journey is long.
JG: I’m sure victory will be certain. Thank you so much for your work.
DLW: Thank you.
For more information on the film and to contact Darnell Lamont Walker, go to Therapemovie.com.