The Making of Sugar

BY SHARON LEACH

Saturday, December 03, 2016

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Dream a little dream…

As a writer, it’s fair to say that I traffic in telling stories. The world is of infinite interest to me because at any given moment there are hundreds of dramas unfolding all around. The way my brain is wired, I like to home in on these dramas, interpret them and recycle and reinvent them for use in stories that I will tell in the future. This requires, first and foremost, the ability to understand human nature, which comes from not only years of living but also a natural curiosity about people and really strong observational skills.


My friend and mentor, the late Trinidadian scholar Wayne Brown, was crucial in helping me hone those skills. He believed, as did I, that my writing reflected a truly visual component that would accommodate film format. He encouraged me, before he passed, to consider turning some of my stories into films. My spirit bore witness and ever since, I began looking out for opportunities to do so. Who could I get to develop screenplays for me? I kept racking my brain.


The answer came, as it so often does, in an unexpected form.


In March 2015, that little human dynamo of the Calabash International Literary Festival, Justine Henzell, invited me to an advanced screenwriters’ workshop the organisation would be hosting in May for writers and film-makers. The organisers, she explained, were committed to the development of Jamaica’s film industry and had arranged to fly in international screenwriter and studio executive Laurie Parker to conduct it. Would I participate?


At first, I had what I now think of a Hattie McDaniel moment, you know. Total freak-out mode, full-blown panic attack. Who me? I don’t know nothing ‘bout birthing no scripts!


But Then it hit me. This was the answer I’d been looking for. Instead of someone else writing screenplays, this was the perfect opportunity to control my own narratives. Screenwriting was simply another platform from which to do what I love most in this world: telling stories.




Best. Decision. Ever.


The workshop was extremely intensive and extended for another weekend for selected participants for one-on-one time with Laurie at the Henzell home Itopia in Runaway Bay. There, Laurie, whose impressive résumé includes working with the likes of Gus Van Sant, Tim Burton and Jane Campion, patiently took me through exercises that would help me adapt a screenplay for my short story
Sugar, about a young maid at a North Coast hotel who dreams of a better life for herself and her family.


By the end of those two weekends, I’d had a master class in story structure for film. But it didn’t end there. Laurie completely believed that the film
Sugar would be made and continued to work with me by Skype every morning after she returned home to Washington. Soon, I had an outline, a treatment and the tentative beginnings of a film script.




Fast-forward to a year later.


Laurie and I have bonded and are now good friends. She’s venturing into novel writing and running ideas by me; I’m writing
Sugar and another short film, so I’m running ideas by her.


Then one day, I get an e-mail from Justine. Again. Almost a year to the day she’d emailed about the workshop. This time, it’s to tell me about a competition the Jamaica Film and Television Association (JAFTA) in association with JAMPRO, called the JAFTA Propella film project. This pilot initiative is an open call for five Jamaican screenwriters to submit treatments for short films for a chance to get a grant of J$500,000 to complete the films and have them screened at the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival (TTFF) in September.


Do I dare? I ask Laurie, who is fired up and brimming with good old yes-we-can American optimism.


So, I do. Not expecting anything to come of it. I am, after all, a fledgling filmmaker. I turn to the full treatment for
Sugar, from which I extract a section that can work as a standalone short, and build on it. I can write the script, but I’d need a director, which, I’m adamant, must also be a woman. But, I caution myself, no need to stress about that: it won’t get to that.



What the actual hell???




Imagine the supreme shock when I’m contacted by JAFTA Propella, advising that my film has been selected as one of five to represent Jamaica at TTFF.


After the initial excitement, reality set in, of course. Sh*t, as they say, gets real with the sickening understanding that I have, maybe, six weeks to get a film written and ready for production. I ask Laurie to be a producer, and she happily says yes. Next, we tackle the St Lucian director, Michelle Serieux, whose gorgeous film
Missed, I’d seen in the New Caribbean Cinema collective anthology production Ring Di Alarm. Michelle’s directorial eye is what I know I absolutely need for this project, and wouldn’t you know, she’s not only available but eager to come on board.


Laurie invites me to her home on Lopez Island in Washington, and I spend the month of June hammering out a script. After copious, copious, rewrites — Michelle and Laurie, my patient collaborators who prod me to the point of tearful frustration until the script is where they deemed it to be at its polished best — we are ready to roll.



…And action!



Movie-goers have absolutely no idea the amount of work that goes into making a film, even a short one. The stress level is unimaginable. Interference must be run with cast and crew, locations need to be locked down, wardrobe mistresses procured, and the list goes frighteningly on. Fortunately, as I get to find out, there are people who actually sign up for these challenges. Thank God, Team Sugar gets the best in the person of Sarah Manley, whose immediate commitment is phenomenal. Talk about the little engine that could. She works wonders with the budget, and where there’s a shortfall, she goes into her own pocket. In no time, everything’s in place.





It Takes a Village



Very soon the weekend shoot arrives. Of course, a shoot wouldn’t be a shoot without a few glitches, and the original two-day shoot blooms into three days. But no matter. The film finally gets done!
Sugar has been brought to life and the experience has been simply incredible!





Post-script



I am immensely grateful to JAFTA in partnership with CHASE and JAMPRO, under the supervision of the new film commissioner Renee Robinson, for the opportunity they afforded me, not only by way of the grant, but also by technical support. They provided script-to-screen workshops, boot camps and international script consultation with the indefatigable director and NYU Film School instructor Alrick Brown for all five film-makers, whose works were simply stunning. I am also unbelievably grateful to Michelle Serieux, who, when she shared her vision of filming Sugar in a long, continuous shot, I knew would be a co-collaborator and creative partner for a long time.


We did it, and now Sugar is out in the universe, making the rounds at film festivals. It’s now been shown at TTFF and the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, with scheduled stops for Jo’burg, Pretoria and Belize in the new year. My thanks to the vibesiest cast and crew for helping to make my dream come true!


MICHELLE SERIEUX, DIRECTOR


"We are living in very serious times. As a woman from the Caribbean, identifying as Afro- Caribbean, it is important for me to articulate my perspective and world view. Sugar was for me an opportunity to do that, as the film’s story represents a broader narrative and tells a larger story that speaks to our history as a previously colonised space, our history as enslaved people and our currently-beingwritten history as participants in a new type of servitude masquerading as a tourism industry. Sugar is a layered postcolonial narrative that forces the audience to really consider the ways in which black working class women in our plantation society have had to weave and bob and sacrifice and compromise in order to survive. Sugar is a document of a specific time in the growth of our civilisation.


The film comes at a time when it is critical that we as Caribbean citizens represent our realities authentically, at a time when we can finally, as a mass of people recognise the totality of the injustices committed against our ancestors and against us, crimes whose effects persist today in policies that stifle our economies, that allow a former coloniser to take liberties on our collective dignity by offering to build us a new jail as opposed to formally and officially acknowledging the crimes against our humanity during the African holocaust. Sugar was for me, a shout-out to the resilience of our people, to us always finding a way not just to survive but to thrive, all this in the face of unrelenting pressure.


Sugar is a shout-out to the black women who are the pillars of our society, it is a shout-out to the working class who toil and labour incessantly, the ones whose hard work and sacrifices push us forward. Sugar is an affirmation of our collective sacrifice and exploitation as Caribbean people by societies that continue to extract and demand and impose. But in the end, the film is ultimately an articulation of the hope that after we’ve lain with lions, we emerge stronger, wiser, better and more prepared to take the next step in charting our own destiny. When Sharon Leach asked me to direct this film, I said yes because all of these themes lay within her text and it was an honour and privilege to be able to interpret and communicate this in a visual work."


    

     


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