Directors Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah & Araya Mengesha Talk DEFUND & The BLM Movement

Actors-turned-directors Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah and Araya Mengesha join us on Close-Up Culture to discuss their highly-acclaimed and thought-provoking short film, DEFUND.

The film, which made its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and was named one of their Canada’s Top Ten film, follows the story of millennial twins as the audience witness their experiences during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Watch DEFUND – DEFUND on Vimeo

What were your experiences during the pandemic and the BLM movement?

Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah: Truthfully I felt a lot of helplessness and dread about the state of the world. Like everyone else, my life had been brought to a halt. Every contract I had lined up for the year had been canceled which made me feel like my artistry had next to no impact in the world. There was even a moment that I considered going to nursing school just so I could feel like I had something to contribute. When the opportunity to make our short film presented itself it felt like a chance to articulate those feelings of helplessness while compounding them with a call to action. I couldn’t do much about COVID, but I did have many thoughts about the fight for racial justice and the calls to defund the police. I like to look at our short film as a vessel for those thoughts.

Araya Mengesha: I was in a similar boat. As actors we’re in a unique position to deal with instability, but this was a whole other level. I had just come off of one of my busiest acting years in a while, so I was really excited to see what 2020 might bring. When that all got put on the back burner, it felt like a gut punch, but then when we were confronted with the magnitude of this global event and then how that magnified all of these ugly truths of how our countries operated, my career problems felt small. I just wanted to know that the people I loved were safe and would stay safe. The call to action from the BLM movement felt like a real demand. Thankfully we were able to make something that hopefully feels like it adds to the conversation using the skills and abilities that we’d been honing before the pandemic hit.

At what point did you have the idea to make DEFUND, and what did you want to explore through the film?

K: The idea to make DEFUND presented itself when my friend, J Stevens offered their resources as an extremely skilled cinematographer to me. This was an act of solidarity at the height of the pandemic and BLM movements that I’ll always be thankful for. I knew I wanted to say something about what I had been reading in the news every day as far as the many incidents of police brutality go, so I turned to my roommate, Araya to ask if he wanted to collaborate. We got to brainstorming about what we wanted to say and how we would say it and DEFUND was born.

The film recently premiered on Vimeo on August 16th. What do you hope audiences take away from DEFUND?

K: From the beginning we knew that we wanted this film to inspire conversation around racial justice and what it means to DEFUND the police, not to articulate any one stance in particular. It’s meant to serve as an example of how nuanced the perspectives of that idea can be. It’s why we wrote and cast ourselves as twins within this story, to drive home the fact that even these two people, as close as they may be, and with almost identical lived experiences can be at odds about the complexities of police reform. In the end, I hope the biggest take away will be from the quote that we include in the credits that reads “no matter what the next step is, let it be forward, let it be action.”

A: Exactly. We want to show that the black community is not a monolith, that these issues don’t just affect one community, and that there is a generational relationship to this conversation around policing. Most importantly, how important it is to unite around our commonality and not allow our differences to create fractured factions that would all benefit from the kinds of transformational changes we seem to want to see take place.

What are your hopes and ambitions for the future?

K: The success that we’ve seen from this film has opened a lot of doors for us. I’m lucky to be expanding my rep team and gaining a ton of support for the many projects that I’ve been ruminating on for a while. I’m currently in my first season at the Stratford Festival playing Grace in Sunny Drake’s Every Little Nookie and understudying Jo and Beth in Jordi Mand’s adaptation of Little Women. In addition to that, I’m in development for two series that I hope to have in production quite soon. I’d be endlessly happy if I could keep double dipping in the creative pool as a performer and a creator for theatre, film and TV.

A: I would love to continue to expand out and wear multiple hats on my future projects, eventually becoming a mechanism for others to tell their stories. I have a feature film project called ‘The Section’ that I’m looking at for my next endeavor. It’s a romantic dramedy based on a short piece I filmed in 2019 at the Canadian Film Centre.

Watch DEFUND – DEFUND on Vimeo

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