Hanif James, Tanya Batson-Savage tackle skin bleaching with short film
With the thrust for greater diversity in film taking hold internationally, one local film-maker is calling for more work to be done locally.
“In 2018, there was a lot of local discussion of Wakanda and Black Panther, and I thought there was a disconnect. Here we are in Jamaica and we are not even helping our own people,” emerging director Hanif James told The Gleaner.
While the foreign endeavours for more diverse film-making is commendable, for James little attention is being paid to local issues. For his film-making debut he sought to rectify that, and later found himself inspired to explore the topic of skin bleaching.
“I was travelling through an airport and there were some skin bleachers and I was saying to myself, you know, we really can’t blame them. Wanting a better life for themselves, wanting to aspire to something, but their skin colour was something that held them back. They couldn’t get a job because they weren’t light enough, or they couldn’t be in certain circles because they weren’t of a particular complexion,” said James.
The issue of skin bleaching has been well-documented. The cosmetic practice driven by the societal pressure to increase one’s attractiveness or acceptance, has dangerous health effects. While not experiencing the impacts of skin bleaching personally, James is very aware of latent colourism.
“I thought about when I was younger and I [heard] don’t marry anybody who was darker than you,” he said.
His first short film, A Shade of Indigo, was born shortly after, aiming to give a voice to those most impacted by colourism and classism.
“I thought about what a young girl [would] think about the situation. The youngest one in a family hearing things like, ‘you’re too dark’, ‘you’re not good enough’, and what that means for your future. So that’s how it started,” said James.
Skin bleaching is a heavy problem to tackle, and for many of the film’s cast, it was a phenomenon they were all too familiar with, but were nevertheless excited at the prospect of exploring.
“With the actresses who are all very black conscious, they are very concerned with bleaching in the society; and the fact is that this was an issue that they definitely wanted to be involved in for the making of the film,”said Tanya Batson-Savage, co founder of Have A Bawl Productions and producer of A Shade of Indigo.
One actress that stood out was the film’s youngest cast member, six-year-old Lauren Robinson. In the film, she’s influenced to lighten her skin and developed strong concerns about the implications of the practice.
“We had a conversation with the mom, who let us know that Lauren was very concerned about the fate of the girl she would be playing. She was uncomfortable with what she thought was tragic, even at six years old,” said Batson-Savage.
“It was a difficult process because we’re working with a young girl, who was incredible by the way in her performance, but there were times where it was difficult,” added James.
The film was shot in two days last October and editing was completed in January of this year.
Speaking with Batson-Savage and James, it’s clear to see why the production of A Shade of Indigo was so rewarding. Their ability to complement each other carries through to the work they create, with James describing Baston-Savage as his biggest supporter, as well as the other co-founder of Have A Bawl Productions Analisa Chapman.
James and Baston-Savage say they are grateful for the Jamaica Film and Television Association (JAFTA), both in the form of workshops to get the production where it needed to be, and in the funding provided by the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, which JAFTA procured. “JAFTA facilitated workshops for us which were excellent. Festival workshops, marketing workshops, they brought us through the entire process, talking to industry professionals, breaking down the script,”said James.
For his next project, he is setting his lens to another issue. “One of the things I’ve been thinking about is masculinity within Jamaica...I haven’t come up with a storyline yet. I’m still working through that.”
For Batson-Savage, she has her sights set on another project, collaborating with director Nile Saulter on the upcoming feature based on Jean D’Costa’s Escape to Last Man Peak.
With James’ first film out the door, he spoke of his end goal on his journey as a film-maker. “I’ve always wanted to be able to tell a story that is meaningful, something that resonates and that says something to people that they can internalise and see the value. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”