Interview: Maya Cozier Has Found "She Paradise" 🌴
The Trinidadian director makes her feature directorial debut with a daring and stylish film set in her homeland.
Despite the fact that Trinidadians are everywhere, it was still a welcome surprise to find that a born-and-bred Trinidadian director had a film running in AFI Fest back in 2020. Maya Cozier — whose work I was passingly familiar with through her short film submissions to the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival — was making the rounds with her feature debut, and I couldn’t have been more proud.
Now, in limited release, She Paradise is a vibrant and unflinching contemporary look at black girlhood in Trinidad through the lens of dance and soca music that's been lauded in the New York Times, the LA Times, and The Hollywood Reporter.
I sat down with the filmmaker last month over Zoom to chat with her about her energetic new film, making movies outside the larger industry, and how her experiences influenced the story’s eventual direction.
Cate Young: Hi Maya, thanks for chatting with me. Just to start things off, how are you doing?
Maya Cozier: I'm good. I'm really excited to talk to you. I saw that you’re a Trini so that’s great. I’m shocked we never crossed paths.
CY: I know, Trinidad is too small. There has to be a connection! Well, let’s dive in. You’ve directed a couple of shorts already, and She Paradise is your first feature. What drew you to this specific story?
MC: I was part of an all-girl dance group called Blackout growing up, and we performed on a show that I guess was a Caribbean imitation of America’s Best Dance Crew. So we were on television every week coming up with new dance routines for challenges and finding our own costumes. It was such a formative part of my coming-of-age arc. And I think a lot of the observations and experiences from that was something that I wanted to tap into. But a huge impetus behind making this film was just wanting to return home and to tell a story set in the Caribbean that felt contemporary to me, but also felt like it was from a woman's point of view, or felt close to my experiences of being a teenager in Trinidad.
CY: Right, because part of what's so compelling about the story is that it really is a story about women. I was able to dig up the original short, and I noticed that the male characters that are present in the feature, essentially aren't in the short at all. Can you talk to me a little bit about what your experiences are as a woman in Trinidad, and what about those experiences was specific enough that you wanted to bring them to the fore?
MC: I mean, I think, being on the other side of the lens for so much of my life. I used to model Carnival costumes. And I remember being on sets with photographers — and at the time, when you’re 16 you think you’re a grown woman so nothing they said to me bothered me — but now that I'm looking back at it, I'm like, wow! I was underage and those are the things that a grown photographer told me. When you’re in front of the camera, you're not really thinking about how you're being perceived or looked at. You're just kind of in the moment as a performer. And I think it felt like a liberating space, but simultaneously, looking back at it, I do have memories of how that space could have been toxic or even exploitative of a young woman's aspirations.
CY: I think you did a really good job of demonstrating that tension. And one of the things that really stood out to me was how nakedly predatory Skinny (Kern Mollineau) is in the film, and how much of what Diamond's (Kimberly Crichton) role is, is trying to kind of mitigate the necessity of working with him, while also trying to protect the women who are in her stead. Talk to me a little bit more about those dynamics.
MC: Yeah. Melina [Brown] and I, when we were writing this film, it was important for us to present fully rounded and complex characters. And so I wouldn't say that these characters don't all possess some flaw. You know, there's that moment where Diamond victim blames Sparkle (Onessa Nestor). But I think it was just important for us to capture the nuances of all of this sisterhood and how it could be complex. There's something about Diamond’s tough love nature to Sparkle that's just so real and honest. But also at the same time, even though it's tough, you do see that Diamond could be sympathetic and understand that she has a role to play in showing Sparkle the ropes. So I think there was just something kind of exciting for us to explore, and to not shy away from the aspects of it that could be uncomfortable.
CY: When Skinny rapes Sparkle near the end of the film, the other women in the group are not particularly sympathetic. And in fact, they tell her that they were also all victimized. Why did you decide to include sexual assault as a sort of base-level for the film?
MC: It came from Melina and I wanting to explore the complexity of the entertainment space. When I returned home, there was a long process of me talking to dancers who had been working professionally for years in music videos and actively dancing every Carnival season. For us, presenting [the assault] felt like a raw, honest depiction of what Sparkle’s entrance into this world could feel like. But I don't think we set out to tell a moral tale. Our intention wasn’t didactic in any way. But it did feel like based on the conversations we had, that aspect of [the industry] needed to be included in telling the story.
CY: Switching gears a bit, I was also surprised and pleased to discover that there was a lesbian character in this film. Trinidad is still fairly conservative at an institutional level when it comes to sexuality, so how did you decide to include Mica (Chelsey Rampersad) in the story, and how much of her sexuality to make explicit?
MC: Well, a lot of the characters are loosely inspired by the group that I was in. And one of my close friends from the group is openly queer and everyone knew it. Queerness was such a natural part of the world. And even though in the Caribbean it’s considered so taboo, it was something that was just present. Going back to wanting to explore a contemporary Caribbean space, I felt it was important to really acknowledge what my circles and my environment felt like in its reality and to not impose any fantasies. And to make sure that it stayed true to what I knew and that I wasn't trying to think of what people expect to see from the Caribbean or what they expect to see from Trinidad.
CY: I also want to talk a little bit about the costuming. The characters all have a very distinctive style, and Sparkle eventually joins in on that as the film progresses. How did you come up with what their presentation would be and what you wanted to convey with it?
MC: I know people talk about how Sparkle starts off having no makeup, kind of dressed down, and then she eventually gets all this materialistic growth. But I think beyond the surface elements of it and the materialist transformation of her, it was important to really show how these women impart a sense of confidence and energy towards her. So even in the short [film], there's that scene where she gets caught in the dressing room. And on the surface, it's like she gives her shoes and a top and that’s it. But it’s really that all those intimate gestures are Mica's way of giving her some of her confidence and that's what all those gestures are loaded with.
So, the surface level style of it could be fun, and [...] there’s that decorative culture of Carnival that is so inherent to who we are and I wanted to acknowledge that, but also add greater meaning to it. Coming up with the looks was one of the most fun parts of creating the visual world of the film. The girls had a lot of input too, so it felt like a collaboration between wardrobe, the actors, myself, and then just kind of keeping that [decorative] tradition alive.
CY: I noticed in the credits too that there are a lot of other artisans in the local film space that were working both above and below the line on She Paradise. What was the process of creating this film in Trinidad? What kind of community and infrastructure were you able to tap into?
MC: Yeah, I mean the filmmaking community in Trinidad is really small. A lot of us throughout the year make our money from shooting commercials. So it's a very small tight-knit community. You probably have one DP on the island, maybe two. Just enough to create maybe a skeleton crew. I think I could count on both hands, how many people we had on set. But I think there was something about how small and intimate it was that allowed for a lot of exciting improvisation. And I think people generally embraced us and even gave us things to support, especially when we went to different locations.
I shot this film because I won a micro-budget grant for Carifesta in 2018. And when I got it I remember thinking maybe it’s best to just use the grant to just shoot and then hope for the best with getting the film edited. So that's what we did. And then I had the process of figuring out how to get this film finished. Luckily the short was already out there, so I was able to use the short to find a producer in New York who then kind of created this engine to get it finished. But shooting in Trinidad was… people talk about filmmakers in the “underdeveloped world” finding ways to define their cinematic style and finding ways to make films outside of an industry model. And so that's really what it felt like. I think we just have this open approach to just getting the thing done, and we really rely on the community to make things happen. It really did feel just like a family of people who were just really passionate and excited to start defining our own voices, and improvising and using whatever resources we had available.
CY: Well, we have to wrap, so I have one last quick question: What’s next for Maya Cozier?
MC: I’m working on mostly writing right now. I’m co-developing a pitch deck on Calypso Rose's life with [Melina Brown]. It's a limited miniseries, and it starts with her childhood in Tobago and chronicles all the way up to when she wins Calypso King for the second time, which means that they have to rename it to the gender-neutral title of Calypso Monarch. But as you know, she's a queer Caribbean feminist icon, so just learning new stories about her being backstage, and going head to head with Sparrow for the same women. Her story is so rich and she's such a trailblazer in so many ways. So, we've been digging into the archives of her life and material with her managers. She's having some problems with her knee right now, so we haven't been able to talk to her directly yet. But that's been really exciting to work on.
She Paradise is available now on VOD.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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