In light of the Toronto Reel Asian Festival coming up on November 8 – 13, Schema Magazine brings you a quick profile on Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, directors of the film The Sugar Bowl.
Can you give us a quick synopsis of your featured film for this year’s Reel Asian?
A chorus of characters takes us through the rise and fall of an island in the Philippines and its sugarcane industry. Stunning images paint a portrait of a charming place struggling with its past and trying to move into the future.
How and when did you know you wanted to go into film?
Rich: When I saw Jurassic Park.
Shasha: When I met Rich.
Which aspect of your environment (i.e. where you were born/raised, your home life) had a significant impact on your perspectives -ultimately revealing itself in your work?
Shasha: I’m half Filipino and half Iranian, having grown up in Nigeria. I’m not sure exactly how that mumble jumble manifests itself into my films but the most obvious influencers are my Filipino heritage and having immigrated to Canada on my own. As a result of this background, Filipino stories and immigrant stories are those that have the most resonance with me.
Rich: I come from an extremely supportive family that recognized my artistic side early on and encouraged me to pursue it. Without that I would not have had the freedom to explore filmmaking. My first feature documentary, Happy Joe, explored the struggle most artists go through when they try to make their art a profession.
Why of all the modes of storytelling, did you choose film to portray it? Where there any major challenges in bringing your story or idea to life?
Shasha: I wanted to make a film instead of a TV documentary because film allows freedom and artistic expression. In a way, this project is sort of a rebellion from all the rules I was taught in journalism school. This story in particular is so complex and contentious that if I were to tackle this with a journalistic approach, 20 minutes would be extremely inadequate. My aim for this was to express a feeling, create a mood and strike an emotional chord rather than tell a historical or political story, and that’s why I chose this format.
Rich: The main challenge I ran into was not having been to the island to experience it in the same way that Shasha had. Before the trip, I had to be able to work off her photos and stories to grasp the concept. Being able to see the similarities between the sugar crash in the Philippines and the downfall of some North American industries definitely helped.
What was your driving force, your passion and/or inspiration behind making this film? Does it represent or relate to a certain time in your personal life? If so, how?
Shasha: I was born in Bacolod City (on the island where the film takes place) and I lived there when I was 9 to 13 years old. I have very strong memories of my older brother playing airsoft in an abandoned sugar mill. The smell of decaying molasses, the overgrown train tracks, the personal effects left behind inside the mill – these were all things that stuck with me.
What were your goal(s) in making this film? What kind of message(s) do you want to send to your viewers?
Shasha: With this project I wanted to embody the haunted feeling I felt as a little girl exploring the abandoned mill. I wanted to express the feelings of loss and abandonment that were so commonplace on the island, while also exploring the larger issue of the island’s connection to the outside world. I wanted to present a portrait of a place I hold very dear to me and share it with others.
I hope that viewers can come away with a piqued interest in the Philippines and in the island and a respect and admiration for the people of Negros and what they went through. I hope the audience draws the larger connections to globalization, colonialism and how our demand for a commodity can affect faraway places with real people.
Was the process of filmmaking always smooth-running? If not, what happened and how did you deal with it?
Shasha: We definitely found challenges in working with such a tiny crew. We all had day jobs and had to wear so many hats at once while planning the trip. Nicole our producer was also our PA, camera assistant, production manager and still photographer all in one! We definitely had quite a few last-minute panic-attacks too…
Rich: Media-managing in the field gave me a heart attack every day. Juggling many things at once was difficult combined with all the pressure of having such a limited time to capture everything. Amidst all the madness and last-minute crises, there were definitely a few things that were on our side. For one, the weather was amazing, the sun seemed to be hitting all the right spots from a shooting standpoint. Everyone we talked to was so open, hospitable and friendly.
If there was anything you could do differently on your next film, what would it be?
Rich: Hire a media manager.
Shasha: Get it fully funded so we can pay the crew what they’re worth and not have to go into debt!