Interview with Filmmaker Léwuga Benson (TIME TO LEAVE)

TIME TO LEAVE played to rave reviews at the April 2020 NEW YORK FEEDBACK Film Festival. The film was awarded BEST SOUND & MUSIC.

Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you to make this film?

I was motivated by my own personal experiences of being black in a country that is hostile, suspicious, and judgemental of me because of my skin color. I was also motivated by the many interactions that I have had with law enforcement; the way they tended to, first, harass me or jump to conclusions without bothering to asking questions or get to know my side of the story. Growing up I was never a bad kid. I went to school, did as I was told, and for the most part, stayed out of trouble. My Dad being a former police officer also had a lot to do with me being a good kid and staying out of trouble. However, and whenever I would interact with law enforcement, it was always apparent, through their body language, their tone of voice, etc, that I was different from the other kids. That I wasn’t entitled to the same rights and privileges as my white friends. This all solidified quite vividly when, one day, still just 16-years-old, I decided to go to the bank in my suburban neighborhood and inquire about opening a bank account for the first time. Although I was a teenager and was clearly not a threat to anyone; I was still treated as if I was one by the bank staff. When I was eventually escorted out of the bank for asking ‘too many questions’ the message was not only that I didn’t belong in their place of business but that, as a person of color, any other establishment was also off-limits. It is precisely these traumatizing experiences, these feelings of difference, and of being Other that inspired the creation of this film. The intention was to create a film that, in its personal and historical testimony, unpacked the complexities of place, acceptance, and identity.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you
to make this short?

It took me some time to work on/finish this film. Once I had the idea for the film (i.e., a personal documentary essay film about race, place, and identity, etc) and a rough-cut, I ran it through some trusting people, like my close friends, family, and professors (University at Buffalo). Upon their insight and constructive feedback, I went back and made adjustments to the film. For example, I added a voiceover, got rid of the text, and focused instead on having stronger visuals. This back-and-forth of me receiving feedback and then making more adjustments to the film continued for quite some time, approximately 4 months. Rather than the typical process of pre-production, production, and post-production, I would jump from one part of the process to the next until it all just became difficult to tell which stage in the process I was in anymore. One of my professors eventually joked that I would keep making changes until the film looked nothing like what I originally had in mind. I agreed. Eventually, I held a closed-screening of the film as a way to finalize what I had been working on for the past 5 months. But guess what happened? After getting more feedback I went back again and made more adjustments. Looking back, it’s actually super hilarious. But during the process and the early stages of the film it was a bit stressful because the film just kept changing and evolving. However, I’m grateful for all the feedback because it pushed me to make a stronger film that, in my opinion, is more accurate, expansive and powerful than any other film I’ve ever made.

3. How would you describe your short film in two words!?

Contemplative and necessary.

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

The biggest obstacle I faced when making this film was deciding if the film should have a narrative or strictly be experimental. I struggled over the two because, as a writer and an avid reader, I love stories and allegories; but as an experimental filmmaker, I also love abstract and Avant-garde like films. Eventually, I decided the film needed both. And agreed, however, that both the narrative and the experimental aspect of the film needed to balance – not compete – with each other.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking
about your film in the feedback video?

It felt like I had butterflies in my stomach. I was overwhelmed with glee and happiness that they were assessing and thinking critically about my film. I felt humbled by their analysis and appreciation of the work I had made. I was also struck by how spot on their assumptions about the film was. They demonstrated a level of filmic sophistication that was not only impressive but fun to watch.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. How did you come up with the idea for this short film?

I came up with the film by watching a ton of videos online of black people being escorted out of a place of business. Some of the videos I watched were ones from the past, like during the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement. Other videos were more contemporary: like one such, and now famous, video of two black men being escorted out of Starbucks back in 2018. These videos reminded me of my own experiences; encounters with law enforcement; and the way, in general, an employee would follow and question me whenever I frequented their place of business. In preparation of the film, I remember thinking that I needed to create something that not only illuminated that sense of alienation that I and so many others like me had felt their entire life but also questioned, destabilized, and, hopefully, reconfigured our perception of blackness.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

“The Pursuit of Happyness” starring Will Smith and his then 8-year old son, Jaden Smith. I absolutely love this film, and have seen it at least 30 times! What gets me all the time is the superb acting by Will Smith and the intimate, powerful, and heartfelt relationship between him and his son. Their chemistry was so amazing. The one scene where Will Smith and his son Jaden are in an empty subway and Jaden, having been beaten down by his family’s circumstance: i.e., his mom left them for New York City, his Dad wasn’t selling his machine, bone density scanners, etc., refuses to play make-belief; to believe that they were surrounded by actual dinosaurs and that the floor was molten lava, always bring tears to my eyes. It’s just so sad that circumstance and poverty can do that to a child: rob him or her of their imagination.

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are you feelings
of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

From a filmmaker’s perspective, I think Filmfreeway is a helpful and supportive platform for both filmmakers and festival administrators.

9. What song have you listened to the most times in your life?

“Hunger” by Florence + The Machine

10. What is next for you? A new film?

By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival

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