Interview with Filmmakers Jana Godshall &  Trian Longsmith (THE BURKES)

THE BURKES was the winner of BEST DIRECTION at the September 2021 FEMALE Director’s Film Festival.

1. What motivated you to make this film?

TRIAN: I was motivated to make this film by my own experiences as a black mother to a bi racial child who many people think is white. Strangers are often surprised I am my daughters mother because we are not the same color. Our shared experience with color and how race is perceived in America was the starting point in wanting to tell this story.

With Trump winning the presidency, and a rise in national awareness around race I felt there was something missing in how society qualifies racism. It’s often defined as big events such as using the “N word”, or police brutality. But for me and many other black people it’s the adding up of so many seemingly small events in our every day lives that create stress within the black experience. That is the weight we carry, unfairly. I wanted to show that. To show how two people could experience the same events so very differently simply based on their race. Racism isn’t just obvious discrimination or wrongs. It’s a look, it’s the holding in of emotion in a work setting because you want to keep your job. It’s the threat of a MAGA hat and what it represents. It’s the conversations we have to have around the dinner table with our kids because we are black and our experience requires warning.

JANA: For me, it was simple. I wanted to speak to white audience from a white perspective. I know that oftentimes white audiences can approach a film about race with annomosity or doubt or even frustration. When it comes to racism, white audiences don’t always have that, “I’m willing to listen, show me how to be better” attitude because sometimes they feel (waaaaaaay deep down that) racism is refelction on themselves. Obviously, I’m not speaking about everyone. I know I can get myself in trouble here, but because I think there are certain white audiences that don’t really want to hear about how they can grow and improve (regarding racial relations), you have to reframe the narrative – so let’s do that. How about we tell the same story from two different perspectives. Let’s tell a story you can’t run from.

I can recall times in my childhood where I understood my life was different because of my skin color. And I can remember times as a child where it bothered me, but it wasn’t until later in life when I started witnessing the denial of white privielege from the white community. I saw a lot of white people angered by the idea that they were supposed to feel guilty and responsible, and the point is to really acknowledge it. Acknowledge racism and be willing to put an end to it. You don’t have to be responsible for something you didn’t do, but you can’t ignore it. You have to acknowledge it is there.

But instead of listening to their black neighbors or the black voices in their communities, they put up a divide. Some white communities became extremely defensive. When someone acts defensively, the last thing that will work is getting angry or shoving facts in their face. Have you ever tried telling an angry person to “calm down?” It doesn’t work. I think people often act defensively because they feel something that is uncomfortable. IN that moment, it’s as if they cannot handle being wrong. So, instead of getting mad, let’s talk about that. Let’s just show examples. We took that approach to the story, and everything starts off really specific and subtle, and yes, it ends a big way, but that’s the progression of the microaggressions…. in other words.

For me, it was so important to highlight microagressions from the white perspective. The black community knows them all to well. The white? Do they? Do we? Let’s talk about it. For my role, I want this to be a conversation starter for the white community.

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

TRIAN: I had an idea to make a film like this for about 8 months or so before Jana approached me about working on something together. After that it was close to a year before we finished writing it and even longer to have a final edit. Many Thanks to my co writer and the producer of the film Jana. She really kept the fire going on moving this project forward.

JANA: Trian is someone I have always enjoyed collaborating with. Beyond that, she is someone I have just enjoyed the company of. She’s witty and quick. She listens really well, which I think is the testament to her keen sensibilties as a filmmaker. We have collaborated a couple of times with comedies and sketches, and we had more in us.

When I was in Louisiana (my home state), I wanted to do a film really speaking on social injustices. I knew one had to be on race, and I knew I wanted to work with Trian. When we were both living in Los Angeles, Trian was going out for an audition. She was auditioning for a “black story” written by a white person. I remember she said to me, “I’m tired of our stories being told by white people.” I remember this conversation so perfectly because I was shocked. I was shocked that it took me until that moment to see, to realize, to understand what she was talking about. She was so right. How did I never consider this before? This was the PERFECT EXAMPLE of my white privillege. I – who was always “aware” – I didn’t really ever get clued in on this until Trian told me. Right then, I thought – my god how frustrating that must be for this white person who swoops in with the “white savior” attitude to tell YOUR story. And in these stories, how often does a white man / white women save the day? I never forgot this conversation, and when I wanted to do something on race, it was a no brainer that the first person I wanted to call was Trian.

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

TRIAN: Racial honesty.

JANA: What Trian said.

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

TRIAN: For me balancing being a mom to an 18 month old while working on this project. I made kind of a crazy choice to have my daughter and mom with us in Lafayette Louisiana. Not on location but in town. I was faced with that very hard decision of trying to make both mothering and working “work”. And sometimes as mothers you make choices with your heart and not your head.

JANA: For me, logistics and assholes. We didn’t have a real budget. Pretty much everything was donated and / or borrowed. There was truly an outpouring of support and love, but we were also met with racism. I will say that we had some amazing places like Acadian Suprette, Chicken Salad Chick, Dominos Pizza and Hub City Diner who donated food to us based on our subject matter. I said, “Hey, we are trying to tackle racism in today’s climate and….” And boom! They just supplied us with food, which was really gracious. On that same note, we had places flat out reject us because of our subject matter. One of the reasons we took so long to edit was the fact that our first editor dropped out because of our subject matter. The editing was becoming too uncomfortable for him. He wasn’t sure he was comfortable when we wanted to highlight police brutalitly & police injustice.

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

TRIAN: Excitement! People get it. they get what we are trying to say with this film. It’s provoking the kind of thoughts we intended for the film to create. I feel so proud of Jana and myself. I feel encouraged to make more art like this film.

JANA: I completely agree with Trian. I am always so nervous for feedback. I’m worried I F’ed up something… but this was so nice to see people were really touched. Look, it’s not perfect. There are some sound issues that maybe if we had enough money we could have prevented or fixed in editing, but I was so moved that people put that aside and just focused on the story. I was happy that it spoke to them. I am very proud of Trian for uprooting her life and coming to Louisiana to make this. She is so talented, and her role in this project speaks volumes to her dedication not only as a filmmaker but as a person who wants to make change.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. When did you realize that you wanted to make films?

TRIAN: Back in 2000 I saw the movie Requiem for a Dream. I learned so much about emotion and the human condition from that film. I knew I wanted to be apart of it. I wanted to make films that make people feel something.

JANA: Hmmm… I feel like for me it’s more a combination of storytelling and films. I always wanted to tell stories. When I was fifteen/sixteen years old, I used to stuff my short stories in Ernest Gaines’ mailbox (author of Lesson Before Dying and Autorbiogrphy of Miss Jane Pittman). He taught at the University, and my mom used to drive me to his office buidling and I would wait and waith for him. I never met him, but every week, I put a new letter in his mailbox. He finally, after two months, called my house, and asked to speak to me. After our conversation, I knew I would continue to write stories. I think for me it later just evolved to visual storytelling …without it being an exact film moment that impacted me.

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

TRIAN: Currently, scripted series are grabbing my attention. I think I’ve watched Love Craft Country about 10 times.

JANA: I love so many movies and series. I’ve rewatched everything I’ve liked. Sometimes I like to watch things again because I’m curious how it effects me the second time. I remember I rewatched some of the arguing/fighting scenes in SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE over and over again. They are so uncomfortable because they are authentic and authentic because they are sp uncomfotable.

More recently, I think a series that just stopped me in my tracks and clawed at my heart was FLOWERS. I thought the writing was dynamite, and I just love Olvia Coleman.

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

JANA – FilmFreeway is very user friendly and clear. I don’t love how all the festivals end up. Some end up not being very user friendly or follow through.

9. What is your favorite meal?

TRIAN: Tacos

JANA: ummmm…. Amatriciana when I’m in Italy. Crawfish etoufee when I’m in Louisiana. But everyday requires an amazing cup of coffee. And certain days require wine 🙂

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

TRIAN: Yes! Working on some things 🙂 And hopefully more to come with Jana!

JANA: I’m currently in Rome, Italy, and guess what?! Racism exisits here too. So I wanted to develop an anthology series set in Rome that depicts these contemporary issues such as racism, classism, bigotry, sexism, and otherness.

I know Trian and I will work together again. We just need to sit down / zoom down and understand what route we want to take. What story we want to tell. Once we get can get the conversation going, we are a force.

I also know we both want to work with some of our cast and crew from the Burkes again. Chasity Rogers who plays Teddy Burke is the kind of actress that you just hope to find a part for.

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