Nobody shoots New York like Andrew Dosunmu. Though born in Lagos, Nigeria, the photographer-turned-filmmaker has become, over the course of his last three features, one of the city’s most idiosyncratic and essential chroniclers — peering into corners rarely seen, through a visual style that brings both mystery and beauty to his subjects. In Restless City (2011), a Senegalese immigrant with dreams of becoming a musician fell in love with a sex worker and infuriated his smuggler-pimp boss — but the film was shot with a dreamy grandeur that elevated the broad-strokes story to the level of myth. In the domestic drama Mother of George (2013), the eye-poppingly colorful clothes and decor of Brooklyn’s Yoruba community conveyed a sense of both community and, gradually, otherworldly entrapment. Dosunmu’s latest, Where Is Kyra?, doesn’t necessarily have the surface vibrancy of Mother of George, but it’s just as visually sophisticated — a stylized, nightmarish portrait of poverty and aging in New York, with a career-best performance from Michelle Pfeiffer. (Read my review here.) I recently spoke to Dosunmu about his work, his approach to image and sound, and where he finds his inspirations.
You worked as a photographer for many years before becoming a filmmaker, and all your movies are visually striking; they depict New York in ways I’ve never seen before. When you’re planning the look of a film, is it an intuitive thing for you, or do you sit down and try to figure out how you will do things differently?
To be honest with you, it’s very intuitive. Yes, I am a photographer, and I have my camera with me all the time. I live in the city, and I’m always photographing the city. And New York is such a fascinating city. It’s a city that attracts and welcomes so many characters, but it can also be very cold and unwelcoming sometimes. The city is very vibrant and energetic, but it can quickly spit you out if you’re weak and not vibrant. And I really wanted to see different parts of New York being documented rather than what we’re used to. In movies, it’s always the obvious locations. But in Mother of George, it was a part of Brooklyn we don’t see, and in Where Is Kyra?, it’s different parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
When did you first move to New York?
Year-wise, I never get this right. It was 25 or 27 years ago. My siblings are Americans, and they were here. As a teenager, I moved between the states and Nigeria. When I moved to New York, it was really about photography. You know, you look at a magazine — like Details, or Interview — as a teenager, and you’re like, “New York is the place where everything happens. I want to go there!” [Laughs] “Everything cool is in New York. The rappers are in New York. Let me go to New York. I want to make music videos and take images, and that’s where they’re at.” Really that simple.
Where Is Kyra? feels like one of the more honest films I’ve seen about growing older in New York.
For me, the idea hinges on the diminishing of human value. That is visible in American society. Sadly, women of a certain age become dispensable, when they no longer fit into this category of being desirable or whatever it is, you know. The elderly become invisible to us in a city like New York. If you are somewhere else, you know, life intermingles, but in New York, the elderly become invisible — we don’t interact with them. We don’t want to stand behind them in a queue in the bank. We kind of walk around them on the subway. And this invisibility is something that I really wanted to touch on.
I’m startled by the use of darkness in this film. At moments it feels like the screen is about to go pitch-black — as if Kyra is about to be wiped off the face of the earth.
Shadows and dark corners kind of heighten despair, and we wanted that mood. But Brad [Young, the cinematographer] and I also wanted to create [a sense of] the walls closing in, and any sunshine in her life fleeing. The fact that she tries to stay in all the time, because she knows what she’s going to see when she gets outside. She’s unemployable. Everywhere she goes, or every job she applies for, she doesn’t seem to get it. I really wanted to use the camera and all the elements of filmmaking to heighten all this desperation.
You also use sound in interesting ways, in all your films. You often build a contrast between what we’re hearing and what we’re seeing.
I like this idea of frequencies. If you’re walking or driving through New York, it almost feels like you’re changing radio stations. One minute it’s the siren of an ambulance; the next minute it’s music coming out of a store, or the subway running, or children coming from school, or someone screaming at someone else. It’s just a melange of sounds that I find interesting. Your ear is so in tune because it’s a city on the move. Whether you’re hearing a car crash or other loud sounds, you hear it before you visually connect to it, and I really wanted to do that with my films as well.
At the same time, what happens when you are so caught up in your own world — like in Kyra, where she’s not even in connection with the city? The sound of the city is the only thing that she reacts to, not the people, because she’s so in her own world. The traffic or the humming of the car — that’s what wakes her up. Like when you’re so delirious and walking down the street and you get to the crossing and suddenly a taxi loudly awakens you to reality. With Kyra, that’s what I tried to do. When she becomes that character [Kyra dresses up as her own deceased mother, in an attempt to keep getting her pension checks], all you hear is the sound of her walking stick — because that’s what she’s so focused on, trying to not be seen.
I thought it was a real stroke of genius to cast Michelle Pfeiffer. What does she bring to a part like this?
I’ve always found Michelle to be both a great beauty and a dynamic, versatile actor. But at the same time I thought she was often cast as “a beauty,” and I wanted to do something that really brings what she’s capable of doing as an actress. I wanted the audience to be able to connect to this person.
Michelle is such a household name that we go into the theater trying to see Michelle Pfeiffer, but all of a sudden Michelle Pfeiffer becomes this person, becomes Kyra, and it resonates with the audience. Because it’s somebody we’ve seen so many times in so many films, and the audience just gets caught up in it, looking for Michelle Pfeiffer, and in that process they begin to go on the journey with that character.
Did you have to convince her to do it?
Not much, actually. I was very lucky because she saw Mother of George and she really liked it, and she really wanted to be on board. It was easy to convince her to do it. But obviously, it’s such a low budget, and she’s never done an independent film of this small scale. And it’s a union film, shot in New York in eighteen days. We can’t go past certain hours. There’s none of those overtime, long into-the-night shoots, you know. And I think that itself created the kind of film we were able to make, because we knew we didn’t have her for that long, we knew we didn’t have that many days, so we had to be very creative. How do we get everything across in such a small amount of time?
She fits into your aesthetic in a way, too. There are moments when you actually give us something that feels like portraiture, where the actor or the character will just look straight at the camera. You’ll hold on their stillness, but it doesn’t feel posed or artificial or anything like that; it feels like a moment that’s just been extended. You did that in Restless City, and Mother of George, but when you did it in Where Is Kyra?, suddenly I thought, “Oh my god, it’s Michelle Pfeiffer!” Like this familiar figure had suddenly entered your world.
Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to make a film with well-known actors that had to come into my world. Because some directors get bigger actors and all of a sudden the films all end up being kind of the same. This sense of portraiture — I’m very, very influenced by photography obviously. When you look at a Walker Evans painting, or a Dorothea Lange, or August Sanders, you know all about the persons that they are photographing. You look at the WPA photographers during the Depression era, and there’s a picture of this woman with her kids, and you look into this woman’s eyes, and there’s so much that gets revealed. Just like great paintings — you see a great portrait and you want to know that person. So, often my films start with portraits. Whether it is Adenike in Mother of George, or Djibril in Restless City…often I see a picture and I’m like, “Well, what’s the story of that person before that picture and after that picture?” It’s the genesis of what I do. You begin to look into the eyes of these characters and imagine what their life is, the kind of shirts or dress they’re wearing, the way their hands are posed.… It tells so much, how that person wants to be seen.
Your films have a strong sense of offscreen space as well. Sometimes you’ll fragment the image — you’ll focus on a pair of hands or shoot somebody off to the side, so we can’t see them. When working with small budgets and not much time, a lot of people might just shoot everything straight on and hope for the best in the editing room. But I imagine it takes some conviction to say, “OK, we’re gonna shoot this scene but we won’t see the actor’s face,” or “We won’t see what you’re doing — just your foot, or your hand.”
I really want to make films about the world of the character. What can I tell about a person by going into their bedroom, or going into their living room, and seeing what they have there? The picture on the wall, the books on the table, the sofa, the slippers on the side — that says so much about people. And I try to incorporate that, so when I frame, it’s really about that. I look at each frame as a painting. If one walks into the edit room and there’s a freeze frame on the screen, I want you to get a sense of the world I’m talking about. And you can’t necessarily get that from just shooting the actors.
That must also pose some challenges when you’re dealing with narrative and dialogue. A film like Restless City could be very melodramatic if you wanted it to be. Mother of George also. But your treatment of narrative is understated.
I know the kind of film I want to make. Think about Hal Ashby films from the Seventies or any of those filmmakers. The question becomes, “Why do you make films?” For me, the film actually begins when you step out of the theater. It becomes something that you might not necessarily grasp at that moment, but after you come out of the theater, or days after, thinking about the film. Like in great photography, or great paintings — you go to a museum, you see a great painting, you’re arrested by it, you end up thinking about it, and you want to see it again. The next time you see it you discover something else. You see that there’s a cat under the table or next to the sofa that you never noticed before, or something like that. That intrigues me very much.
Was filmmaking always something you aspired to, or did you come to it gradually?
I came to it gradually. I grew up in West Africa, in Nigeria, where art is always around. You live it, from ceremonies of the deities to everyday living. Your names are based on the world of art. And your life is immersed in visual art. It’s a part of your daily living — you know, the altars in your grandparents’ living room [laughs]. But I didn’t know anybody that was a filmmaker, personally. I liked images and wanted to create this world. It was always about, “What can I do?” That’s why I became a photographer. Photography was almost like a scrapbook for filmmaking for me. I knew I couldn’t make films because film was a collective effort and it takes a team to make films, but I knew if I had my camera I could depict or capture those things I would love to make a film about one day. So, photography became my journal, really — my script, in a way.
You’ve worked with cinematographer Bradford Young on several films, and he’s become a rather recognizable name at this point. But you’re also clearly someone with a strong visual sensibility. What’s your working relationship like with him?
Brad and I have worked more than a decade now together, so we’re kind of in sync. I think he brings the best out of me. It’s great to work with someone where we can reference things and we can talk about it and we can challenge ourselves about it.
We met probably about a decade ago. I was shooting for little magazines, and Brad knew my work. We had mutual friends, people that we were very influenced by, people like Arthur Jafa or Malik Sayeed. I sort of PA’d for Arthur Jafa, and Brad knew him too. You know how things work; it just happens. “Let’s do something together.” He knew my pictures, so he knew what sort of sensibility I had. And he was a student of Haile Gerima at Howard, and I was a big fan of Haile Gerima.… It’s like jazz, I guess. Everybody blows and, you’re kind of like, “I dig what you’re doing. OK, we could do something with that.” [Laughs].
Now, I say that it’s like we’re in a band together, and I’m the bass player, he’s the drummer. We definitely push each other a lot in the sense of trying to do better. “OK, we have done that before, so let’s try something else.” How can we, as filmmakers, be better, get better, challenge ourselves? It can be scary to do what you don’t know. But challenging yourself is where you discover, and that discovery process is what’s so beautiful about being an artist. That’s how we work together.
You’ve mentioned photographers and filmmakers you admire. Who are some of your other influences?
I’m very influenced by literature. But also filmmakers, from Djibril Diop Mambéty, the Senegalese filmmaker, to [Luchino] Visconti. The experimentation of Mambéty to the lushness of Visconti.
The opening of Mother of George felt like something out of Visconti. If Visconti had landed among the Yoruba community in Brooklyn, that’s kind of how he would have shot it, right?
Exactly [laughs]. And Death in Venice when you think about Kyra, you know? But also, experimental photographers like William Klein. I just love what this guy did. Those documentaries like The Little Richard Story or Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther. But definitely photography would be that thing, you know — that single frame that influences everything before and after, I find fascinating. I see a Malick Sidibé picture of kids hanging on the river Niger in their shorts and I think, “Wow, what’s that like before? What would that afternoon be like?” That’s where the curiosity begins for me.
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