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Monday 23 October 2017

Maya Cozier’s slice of life

Maya Cozier has always been inspired by video and moving images. But the Film graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA) admits that a career making movie magic was not always in her mind’s eye.

A student of Fine Arts at CAPE level, she experimented with painting and photography in her formative years. In 2009, she danced with Blackout, the winning dance troupe on TT’s #1 Dance Crew. It wasn’t until enrolling at SVA in 2012 did she begin to delve into the world of film.

“Film school was a very inspiring place for me,” she says of her tenure at SVA, noting that she was among artists from varying disciplines and took a range of classes in photography and painting, despite Film being her major. “It was a very free space and the curriculum was designed in such a way that I had a lot of room to experiment and figure out who I was as an artist.”

At SVA many of her classmates were fascinated by her nationality, which she attributes to a natural curiosity about films, coming from a country with a new and burgeoning film scene. She says in her four years of enrollment, the material she consumed throughout her courses included film genres from Bollywood to Samurai – “but I was not shown a single film from [our] region.”

She believes times are progressing though, with films such as last year’s hit Moonlight creating space for screen time with diverse actors, stories, and social commentary that are relatable to people who look and live like us. And as a filmmaker herself, she is not hesitating to take up the mantle to bring such representative and poignant stories to the screen.

This year, her short film, Short Drop will make its local debut at the trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff), running September 19-26. Produced as her thesis film for her final year at SVA, Short Drop was written at a time when Maya felt exceptionally homesick.

“I wrote the script during a summer when I was not able to make it back home,” she shares, adding that during the same period she discovered various international films that shone because of the naturalism of the performances, which further inspired her. “I wrote Short Drop with the intent of depicting Trinidadians I knew and missed in a way that was real, natural, and honest.

The film follows a lonely man who is mistaken for a taxi driver on the bustling streets of Port-of-Spain. Reluctantly, he agrees to transport his “un-passenger” only to find his vehicle host to a variety of characters.

“Most of the film takes place in a car and follows various conversations an isolated man has with his passengers,” she elaborates. “My aim was to tell a simple story that evoked the spirit of people here in TT.”

The film won a pre-production grant at SVA. The creative process was also helped along by Maya’s academic mentor, Academy Award winner Chris Newman, whose special interest in the film was intensified given he is the parent of two adopted Trinidadian daughters. After a tech shoot in New York with her cinematographer, Maya and some students from SVA flew to Trinidad to begin production.

“I had a team of troopers working with me to get this film made. Things went wrong everyday but they kept pushing and everyone was just thrilled to be in the Caribbean making a movie,” she says of the hiccups expected on any film shoot, including tricky weather conditions and the use of multiple car batteries to light the car’s interior that would sometimes die before all required takes were captured.

She describes the film’s production as one of the greatest learning experiences she’s had as a filmmaker thus far.

She also praises the film’s star, Albert Laveau, and upcoming actors Jeanine Lee Kim and Kyle Richardson for their performances that required them to reach outside of their comfort zones. “Many of the actors had a theatre background or no acting experience so it was great when they were able to relax, be themselves, and forget that they were being filmed.

“It tells a simple story about human connection with characters that are familiar and relatable. Short Drop feels like a slice of life and I hope that people enjoy it.”

While the film is yet to make its TT debut, it has shown at international film festivals including the Martinique International Film Festival, Cascadia International Film Festival, Action on Film Festival, and Carifesta.

“Many people have been touched by this film since it started the festival circuit,” Maya says of the public’s reception and connection to her work. Even before such recognition from festival-goers, Short Drop won the New York Women in Film Award at SVA. Maya recalls at the award ceremony, Alexis Alexanian, president of New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) – an organisation essential in representing women, finding them opportunities, awarding their efforts, and the archiving and preservation of films – spoke of the necessity for the inclusion and recognition of women in film.

“I remember sitting in the audience agreeing with what she said… and then, the next moment, she announced the organisation had chosen to award my film,” says Maya of the moment that caught her completely off guard. “It was an absolute honour.”

According to Maya, statistics show that female directors make up a mere seven percent of the Hollywood film industry, which often leads to a lack of honest and heartfelt representations of women onscreen. “There’s a certain amount of empathy and humanisation that goes into creating these fictional characters,” she says of movies made and directed by women, as opposed to the stereotypically over-sexualised or muted roles many female characters play onscreen.

Historically, the roles of women in film – whether behind-the-scenes or in front of the camera – has been reduced and even completely erased. As Maya explains, “Many women-directed films have gone unrecognised over the years because of problematic power structures within the industry.” She says open conversations surrounding this imbalanced gender dynamic is what is needed so girls and women are not discouraged from entering the industry in the future.

“It was obvious at school that this industry is a boy’s club. However, if the work is good, it speaks for itself and I only hope young women can continue to exceed expectations and challenge the norm.”

Maya is one of these women: capturing moving images that translate stories that are contemporary and tender in a societal context that rings true for our country and region. “I want Trinidadians to see themselves onscreen and appreciate many of the things that we tend to overlook,” is what she hopes the work she creates will evoke.

Short Drop is not her first film and it won’t be her last. Her next movie will be titled She Paradise, a coming of age story about a Trinidadian teenage girl named Sparkle who seeks an escape from her lived reality through dance. Production is set to begin in 2018.

She says there are countless stories left untold about TT and our experiences, and this notion excites her to create. “My work is about what I’ve observed and experienced firsthand,” she says of the stories she tells and the importance of their earnestness.

“I’m happy that young women are showing their work at this year’s festival. The work is good and we to need to make sure it gets out there so more people can see it.

“My only hope is that people stop and think when they’re looking at a film I’ve made and leave the theatre having really felt something.”

For a list of screening times for Short Drop ahead of the ttff 2017, visit www.ttfilmfestival.com

Photography by Jeff Mayers

Stills from the short film, Short Drop, by Maya Cozier


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