"Sweet, Sweet Country" is a short film written and directed by Dehanza Rogers, starring Danielle Deadwyler and Gbenga Akinnagbe. The film aired as part of the 2014 edition of "Fine Cut," KCET's 17th annual festival of student films.
Here, Dehanza discloses how a family argument inspired her short.
Dehanza Rogers' Bio:
Dehanza Rogers is a Panamanian-American filmmaker, of both narratives and documentaries, born and raised in Georgia. Dehanza completed her B.A. in anthropology with an interest in refugee youth culture, youth media, and folklore. She is currently an MFA directing and MFA cinematography candidate at UCLA's School of Theater, Film, and Television and a receipt of the Graduate Opportunity Fellowship. Her films explore the African diaspora, as well as self-defined and transnational identities, with a keen interest in exploring the liminal state of statehood and nationality.
Her most recent work, "Sweet, Sweet Country," has screened at over 40 international film festivals, including the Pan African Film Festival, Newport Beach Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival, Mill Valley Film Festival, and the Little Rock Film Festival. The film also received the grand prize student film award from the Directors Guild of America, an honorable mention at the LACMA Young Director's Night and the audience award at the Atlanta Film Festival.
Dehanza was recently awarded the Lynn Weston fellowship in film, Stanley Kramer fellowship in film directing, and the Mickey Dude fellowship in theater, film, and television for the depiction of ethnic diversity in American life. She is also a recipient of the Four Sisters Scholarship in screenwriting, directing, and animation. She is developing the feature length version of "Sweet, Sweet Country." She lives and works in Los Angeles.
Q&A with Dehanza Rogers:
Describe how the idea for this film originated.
"Sweet, Sweet Country" is a personal film. It's a story of a woman coming to a new country and finding her choices limited. The story was born from a family argument that occurred while having dinner at a chain restaurant. My grandmother and her sisters, their aunties (my great aunties), my mother, her sister and me (when I was just out of high school) were celebrating Mother's Day. There were eight women -- four generations of Caribbean women to be exact -- with a whole bunch of family drama brewing on the surface.
Needless to say, a skeleton or two fell out of a closet that day. The one that stayed with me for years involved someone letting Mr. John have "sex on credit." Later that evening, I asked my grandmother about it and with no judgement attached, she said, "We're women. We do what must to support our families." That's truth. "Sweet, Sweet Country" was fleshed out with a friend's personal history. She shared with me her experience walking from Northern Ethiopia to Kenya as a child. Who walks from country to country?
Listening to her experiences helped me truly understand what it meant to be a refugee. People are born, live, and die in refugee camps. She grew up in the camps. That story stuck with me. I went on to complete an undergraduate degree in anthropology while focusing on refugee youth culture. Her experiences and my own are the lenses through which "Sweet, Sweet Country" is told. Going home to Georgia and working with old and new friends on such a personal story was amazing. I had a full heart.
How/When did you decide you wanted to be a filmmaker?
I've wanted to a be a filmmaker since I was a kid. Art wasn't really a viable option growing up with my grandparents. I was instructed to be practical and think about employment after graduation, rather than art. By the time I got to college I was a computer science major with the thought that I'd graduate, find a job in corporate America, and be alright. As I got closer and closer to finishing up my undergraduate degree, I admitted that it wasn't want I wanted so I moved to Los Angeles with the goal of attending film school.
What influences have inspired your work?
The usual things like photography, paintings, other filmmakers, but in the last few years, it's been the women I've had the privilege to meet. In writing "Sweet, Sweet Country," I spent a lot of time interviewing refugee women in various communities. There was a moment when I panicked and started this massive rewrite of the film because I felt I wasn't doing justice to the realities of their lives or their struggles. The process of taking large social issues and figuring out how to craft a narrative while still holding true to the realities of the experiences was challenging. Looking at filmmakers like Ken Loach, Gonzalez Iñárritu, Steve McQueen, Andrea Arnold, just to name a few, really helped me figure out how it's possible to stay true to the issues and still craft a compelling narrative.
Name you top three favorite films.
The three films I come back to often are Gonzalez Iñárritu's "Biutiful," Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust," and Ken Loach's "Kes."
Iñárritu is masterful at taking large social issues and incorporating them into a narrative -- they truly become the narrative. "Biutifull" is a love story about a father and his two children, but it's firmly rooted in larger social themes of systematic oppression, poverty, immigration, people living on the margins -- all that and magical realism. It's such a hauntingly beautiful and painful film to experience. It definitely played a large part in the development of "Sweet, Sweet Country."
"Daughters of the Dust" was the first film I saw that was directed by a black woman. Dash has been a filmmaking hero of mine for many years. The first time I saw "Daughters," I was overwhelmed by the fact that the characters looked like me and my family, sounded like us and ate the same foods we ate. It felt like coming home. Arthur Jafa's beautiful photography also stuck with me over the years.
"Kes" by Ken Loach is such a beautifully depressing and hopeful film at the same time. Loach does something amazing with the oppression the protagonist Billy experiences at home and in the school system, and tricks us into believing in hope. It's a horrible trick and when you realize you've been duped, you're devastated not only for Billy, but for yourself for believing. Chris Menges' photography is spot on. My DP, Ragland Williamson, and I spent a lot of time watching and talking about "Kes": the lens choices, the camera movement, the environment as a character. I revisit it at least once a year to remind myself the possibilities of filmmaking.
What is next for you?
I've written the feature version of "Sweet, Sweet Country." Now that school is over I'm giving it my full attention and trying to find funding for the film. Of course, I'm fleshing out other stories as well, but "Sweet, Sweet Country" is my big focus right now. I've lived with the story so long and would love to go back to Atlanta and shoot the feature version of it.
Click here to watch the film.