mini MUFF Profile: Adri Almeida and Carolyn Wu
“As a woman of colour, I need to be a feminist because it is as necessary to my survival as air and water are.”
HAPPY HOLIDAYS FRIENDS! We’ve got a special treat for you with this month’s screening of one of the most perfect Christmas movies ever, Little Women! That’s not the only present we have in store for you though (we’re just super generous like that). Our mini MUFF selection In My Mother’s Closet is a very timely piece of filmmaking in terms of the climate that we currently live in, particularly as we enter the holidays, which, for many queer identifying individuals can be a struggle — balancing staying true to yourself while trying to manage family expectations. In My Mother’s Closet is musical short film that explores the intersections of being brown, trans, and a woman. Through song and the support of her best friend, Adri reconciles the struggle of wanting to belt out her truth while not wanting to risk her relationship with her family.
In My Mother’s Closet, directed by Adri Almeida and Carolyn Wu, premiered at the Toronto Inside Out Film Festival in May 2017 and was incubated through Inside Out’s long-running New Visions program. It also played at the 2017 Cinemuskoka Festival, 2017 Reel Pride Winnipeg, and the 2017 San Francisco Transgender Film Festival.
Adri Alemida is a powerful, vulnerable, fierce brown woman committed to using her brown girl magic and artistic superpowers to disrupt the status quo and tell stories and sing songs that move mountains. Adri has produced work for stage and screen; she co-wrote and performed in the multimedia theatre show “Almeida (the Glorious) that was developed through the AMY Project and premiered in the 2017 SummerWorks Festival. Adri was most recently selected by Reelworld Film Festival as one of 20 emerging diverse Canadian content creators. She is currently developing her next project, a musical web-series, through Ryerson University’s Transmedia Zone.
Carolyn Wu is a queer Chinese-Canadian writer/director, film workshop facilitator, and community organizer. Before making films, she led CBC Television’s show “Q” through a total re-branding as Senior Producer. She was recently selected to be part of Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival’s 2017 First Feature Program — a development launch pad for short filmmakers’ first feature film. Between creating original queer content and collaborating with companies like TIFF and Planned Parenthood, she enjoys debating about the best ramen in Toronto.
Tell us briefly about your film IN MY MOTHERS CLOSET Where did the idea come from?
Adri Alemida: In My Mother’s Closet is a story about a young trans woman and the Catholic mother she loves. It’s about the double lives we sometimes have to lead in order to be and live our truth but also maintain relationships with the people we love the most. It’s about brown femme friendship and brown woman power. And it’s about the creative and beautiful ways we choose express ourselves to the world in order to get by and thrive — in the case of the main character, her power comes from music and song. The idea came from my life and my story navigating my multiple lives and my relationship with my mother.
Can you talk briefly about the songs used in the film — how you picked them/where you found them, etc.
AA: I wrote and composed all music in the film with some support from two other amazing queer women musicians (brooke lydbrooke and Oksana Hohol). There are two main musical themes in the film — “Don’t You Misgender Me” and “Not your little boy / In My Mother’s Closet”. Otherwise, the melodies came to me in the shower, and the lyrics came to me in a Second Cup cafe on College Street.
Can you speak to the creative decision to use the music as the primary way for the main character to express herself?
AA: I was inspired by musical stories like the movie musical Chicago and the TV musical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and how in each of these, characters used staged musical numbers to express emotions, intentions, feelings and thoughts they can’t or won’t share with the people in their lives. The songs in my film were inspired thematically by things and truths I’ve wanted and want to share people (family, friends and strangers) but didn’t necessarily have the boldness to tell them in the moment. The main character is based on me, and in my life, a lot of my power comes from music and the songs I sing — music is a space where the main character (and I) find resilience, truth beauty and it’s easiest for her to speak through her music and to be her bold unapologetic self when she’s on a stage.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with filmmaking.
AA: I’ve always been in love with telling stories to anyone who would listen to me. I have consumed more television and film than I care to admit (weighted heavily toward musicals, romantic/cynical comedies and reality TV). When I was a child I wanted to be a “Director” and “Actor” (really I just wanted to be a glamorous movie star) but I never thought it was something I could seriously consider as a life path until about a year ago, when I learned about Inside Out Film Festival’s New Visions program; New Visions is a short filmmaking mentorship and video project for aspiring/nascent queer and trans filmmakers aged 18–24 and 55+. A friend of mine and the badass producer on our film Dinaly Tran had made an amazing doc short through the New Visions the year before and so I learned about it from them. I applied for the program and was selected as one of four teams to incubate my short film project through the program and have it screen at the 2017 festival. It screened at the festival, and now I’ve caught the filmmaking bug and haven’t looked back since.
Carolyn Wu: I started out dreaming of being a TV showrunner. During high school, I’d obsess over sitcoms and teen dramas. I somewhat reluctantly confess that I’d stay up until 2am watching a steady lineup of Will & Grace, Friends, and Frasier repeats (after watching all the primetime dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and Gilmore Girls ofc) in my sheltered, naive teen years. I took TV Broadcasting & Media Theory and learned all the technical basics. Then, after a couple amazing and challenging years on the TV team at CBC’s Q, I realized what I really want to be is a storyteller first and foremost.
Can you tell us about some/all of the other amazing women who worked on this film?
AA: So many! All of them. This film was made by and starred majority women and non-binary folk and majority people of colour and they are all brilliant. From my badass Co-Director/Cinematographer/Editor Carolyn and Producer Dinaly who elevated the story to a level I couldn’t have imagined possible, to my three amazing co-stars (all amazing brown women) — Mita who played Maria my mother, Nikki who played my best friend, and Anjali who played Becky the Waitress — who conveyed such authentic emotion, flavour and dimension in their performances — to a behind the scenes crew of brilliant non-binary folks and women! Basically this film and the experience of creating it reaffirmed for me how brilliant women of colour and non binary people of colour are — and how we are basically taking over?
CW: Other than the brilliance that is our lead star, writer, composer and co-director, Adri, an important part of this team is our producer Dinaly Tran who identifies as non-binary. They are incredibly organized, observant and thoughtful, and we couldn’t have made this film without them. I try to work with 2SLGBTQ and/or BIPOC crew exclusively on my own productions. Over half of our cast and crew are awesome queer women/NB folks who were so professional, easy to work with and generous with their time.
Tell us about why you are a feminist and why it’s important to your filmmaking.
AA:I think it’s important to call out that my feminist is intersectional, queer, and of colour. I’m not about white feminism because it’s dangerous and it’s everywhere and it’s toxic and I’m tired of it. The reality is that misogyny and racism are alive and thriving and they coded into the fabric of Canadian society and our powerful systems and institutions. As a woman of colour, I need to be a feminist because it is as necessary to my survival as air and water are. I can’t exist without it! It’s important to my filmmaking because it’s time for us to reclaim space and create space and disrupt space that we as women and non binary folks of colour are entitled to — I think making art that is fearless and political and telling our raw unapologetic stories through filmmaking is a magical way of doing that and I intend to do just that.
CW: I’m an intersectional feminist because I’m a decent human being. So much of what goes on in filmmaking can be dangerous, unsafe, and intimidating for all of us non-cis, straight, white men, and it can be even worse for those of us who are not cis, straight, white women, depending on who you’re around and what you’re doing. Filmmaking to me is about way more than making any given film. It’s about trying to create a community that feels safe for absolutely everyone I know and work with, and is inclusive to all queer and trans Black, Indigenous, people of colour (QTBIPOC). This basically just looks like checking in with fellow QTBIPOC filmmakers, offering reminders to take care of themselves, lending my gear out no questions asked, or holding screening/hangout events where our stories and our work are the priority. It’s about trying to help QTBIPOCs, especially youth, feel like we have every damn right to create this type of art, just as much as the cis, straight, white established folks who have held all the power in this industry as long as it’s existed.
Who are your favourite women working in the film industry?
CW: It should go without saying that Ava DuVernay is one of the most important figures right now in filmmaking. She isn’t just a prolific director — she also pays it forward with her actions. I also look up to Dee Rees a ton and would be honoured if my first feature was half as brilliant as Pariah.
AA: Going to follow Carolyn’s cue and go with Ava DuVerney too! A few others that come to mind for me: Issa Rae, Mindy Kaling, Rachel Bloom, Laverne Cox, Jen Richards, Angelica Ross, Viola Davis, Gina Rodriguez, Melina Matsoukas, Octavia Spencer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel and cecile emeke! And so many more!
What’s the best advice about filmmaking you’ve ever received?
CW: Filmmaking can be an absolute brutal lifestyle to keep up. I am always thinking about advice given by Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Gilbert who, in sum, advise to prioritize survival. I could have dozens of other articles written about me like this one, be interviewed by the biggest media companies in North America, and still not make anything close to a livable income solely off writing and directing. In Gilbert’s words, “The reason I always maintained other streams of income was because I never wanted to burden my creativity with the task of providing for me in the material world.” It’s tough because of the intense work culture we have, especially here in Toronto, to pursue an art form like film in the little free time we all have. So to me, there is absolutely no shame in taking any job you can that facilitates creativity in your free time.
If a movie about your life was created, who would star and what genre would it be?
AA: If a movie about my life were made, I would cast myself as the current age me because no one can do me better than me and then Mindy Kaling would play the slightly older (mid-thirties) version of me. And not just because we’re both brown women! I think she’d just do a really great job playing my personality and me and Kelly Kapoor are practically the same person so it’s basically meant to be? The genre would definitely be dark romantic comedy. Jane the Virgin meets Election.
What male pop-culture icon or movie/TV character are you dreaming would get a gender swap?
AA: Harry Potter. But honestly forget gender-swapping Harry Potter — let’s just replace him with Hermione Granger as the main character, make her a woman of colour, and my world would be perfect. I would also gender-swap Jeff Probst the host of Survivor (Survivor is a guilty pleasure of mine, don’t judge) with an unapologetic and funny woman of colour. I can just see it: she’d spend half her time chirping all of the douchey white men that often populate the show and provide critical, sharp and witty commentary on all the racism and misogyny that often happens on the show.
CW: Every male character in Jane the Virgin.
What is your current go-to jam/karaoke song? Why?
A: “Killing Me Softly!” Lauryn Hill is the world and the song fits comfortable in my voice.
CW: “Confessions Part II” by Usher. This song is so special. If you don’t get why, I’m not sure I can explain it to you.
If you were suddenly reincarnated as ice cream, what flavor would you be?
AA: Triple chocolate because that’s what I am: dark chocolatey nasty woman brownness.
CW: I think you’ve confused me with someone who is not lactose intolerant.
What are you working on now/next?
CW: I’ve been planning a sports romantic drama feature about a CBC (Canadian-born Chinese) teenager who captains her women’s hockey team while dating a teammate. It will deal with mother-daughter relationships in immigrant families and masculinity in lesbian culture (currently looking for a producer — HMU!). I’ve also got a short starring Bessie Cheng and Sofia Rodriguez in post right now. It’s a sort of “will they/won’t they” situation between two queer friends. And hopefully will be hosting more queer/trans BIPOC screening events in the new year!
Recommend one #MUFFApproved** film for our blog readers!
AA: I watch way more TV/web-series than I do film so instead I’ll suggest an under-appreciated web-series I watched about a year ago that I fell in love with. Ackee and Saltfish by director/writer cecile emeke. 6 short under 10-minute episodes, and you can watch it for free on YouTube.
CW: Other than Pariah by Dee Rees, definitely Wadjda by Haifaa al-Mansour, the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia.