SONTENISH Myers’ short film Cross My Heart demonstrates why she is considered one of the most exciting emerging filmmakers of the moment. Poignant and impactful, the film follows two teenage girls who are burdened with a dark family secret.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Sontenish about Cross My Heart, the culture of silence amongst women, Spike Lee’s influence and much more.
Q: I imagine you had to be very careful with the casting of this film to make sure you had two young girls prepared to take on such serious subject matter. Was that the case?
A: I had to be extremely transparent with the parents of the lead actresses to let them know what the scenes would entail. I’m grateful that they trusted me with their daughters. I was really intentional about creating a safe space for the the lead actresses so they would be comfortable with the material as well as with each other.
That’s easier to do when all the department heads are women of color. There was a shared understanding of how to approach the scenes on set. Zamarin Wahdat (cinematographer), Elizabeth Charles (producer), Alethea Forgie (UPM) and Raven Jackson (sound mixer) were such meaningful collaborators and helped set the tone creatively. But I must give credit to the men on set who worked so beautifully as well.
It helped that both Jordan-Amanda Hall and Jhada Ann Walker were at least 18, so they had a maturity about them but still had access to the innocence of 15/16 year olds.
Q: Jordan-Amanda and Jhada do wonderfully. How did you help them navigate the subject during filming?
A: Jordan-Amanda and Jhada are such uniquely strong actors. Jordan-Amanda slays nonverbal acting – which was so important to this film, so we worked a lot on what her character is thinking scene by scene. Discussing and developing the thoughts her character is having in the moment.
Jhada is what I would describe as an instinctual actor. A lot of directing her is knowing when to stay out of her way and giving her room to make her own choices. I grew from working with each of them.
Q: I admire the way Cross My Heart addresses the complexities surrounding the culture of silence amongst women. What led you to this subject and what did you want to bring to it as a storyteller?
A: Thank you. When I wrote Cross My Heart, I myself was filled to the brim with secrets. And as Tarana Burke so effectively put it: “You’re either a survivor or you know one.”
I was wrestling with the question, “What do you do when someone you love hurts someone you love?” Determining the right thing to do can be maddening. How do you protect someone and honor their experience while also wanting to advocate and fight for them? I injected those questions and that internal conflict into the film.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to add to the collection of portrayals of Black Women. Subconsciously I think I wanted to portray us wrestling with something, capturing us in silence, as well as loving one another. I think a lot of people are conditioned to expect us to be loud, funny, and super active in cinema. While I 100% enjoy content that reflects that, I also want to contribute to subtle ways that we exist and behave.
Q: ‘A man can’t help himself’ is one of the lines that lands very heavily in this film. Did you want to highlight male weakness as well as the ways men have historically tried to justify or shrug off their perversions?
A: Absolutely. I’ve seen men express deep shame for their actions and trivialize those actions in the same breath. As a filmmaker, that is fascinating to me. That you can genuinely express such contradictory emotions. That both can exist within you. Or can they? John Chambers really stepped up in exploring the character of Uncle Melvin with me, and was so open to unpacking him and discussing those dark places. I’m grateful that he took it so seriously.
Q: Why did you decide to have the US and Jamaica interaction in the story?
A: I’m Jamaican-American. My mom is from Maryland, USA and my dad is from Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica. So I have a foot in both worlds and cultures. My dad sent me to Jamaica every summer to stay with my Aunt Donna and my cousins. I’m grateful for that. We actually shot the film in her and my Uncle Norman’s house in Kingston. So part of me grew up and “came of age” in Jamaica. I wanted this film to be a sensory experience, and I was accessing a lot of my memories when writing Cross My Heart. And a lot of those memories were with my cousins in Jamaica, so it only made sense to shoot it there.
Q: I saw you posted a few months back about Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and we are now excited for the film’s release in the UK. As a filmmaker of colour, what does Spike and his work mean to you?
A: Wow, where do I begin? I’ve had the privilege of being his student at NYU Grad Film. I’ve witnessed firsthand what a passionate and hard-working filmmaker he is. I mean, we already knew that, but passionate is a word that fails to describe him. And he is never not working. He’ll walk into class and be like “iight y’all, we ’bout to watch this documentary I just shot.” And me and my classmates would joke like, “uh, when?! Aren’t you shooting BlacKkKlansman right now?!” (laughs).
One of the things I admire about Spike is his versatility. I aspire to be a versatile director. This man made Do The Right Thing, 4 Little Girls, Miracle at St. Anna, AND 25th Hour. Like, what?! He’s paved the way for so many of us. BlackKkKlansman is an exciting collaboration of minds, and I’m so excited for it to hit the UK! There are scenes that gave me chills to watch. It’s bold, fearless, and plays with tone wonderfully.
Q: You mention Spike’s versatility and each of the three short films I have seen from you have been distinctly different. What do you want to do with your voice as a filmmaker in the coming years?
A: Versatility and truth are my creative goals in the years to come. I am inspired day-in and day out by women and people of color and the way we survive; both ordinarily and triumphantly. I want to dedicate myself and my work to unpacking that in every pathway I can find.
Q: Can you tell us one or two contemporary creatives who inspire you and your work?
A: If by contemporary, you mean “fresh”, I would say Random Acts of Flyness by Terrance Nance on HBO is so stimulating and inspiring. It is an expression and exploration that is so exciting, and is introducing me to non-traditional approaches to storytelling. He world premiered the series at BlackStar Film Festival (one of my favorite festivals) and we were all on fire watching episodes 1 and 2. So many talented filmmakers have worked on it, including Nuotama (Frances) Bodomo and Darius Clark Monroe who also went to NYU. So I’m just super proud and excited to witness this expansion of creativity.
Q: What is next for you? Is there a feature on the horizon?
A: I am currently developing a feature film called Stampede, which is a period and sci-fi film. I’m in pre-production for a short film that will serve as its proof of concept. I’m thrilled for this new creative ceiling to reach toward.