One of our favourite short films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Flood, was written and directed by Joseph Amenta. The film which had its world premiere at TIFF, follows a young protagonist Lucas (Sanjay Pavone) as he navigates caring for his younger sister and grandmother, with making ends meet as he discovers his burgeoning sexuality. It was informed by Premier Doug Ford’s antiquated and harmful revisions to the sex education curriculum in Ontario, Canada in 2018. According the filmmaker Flood “explores familial obligation and responsibility juxtaposed with the unconventional lifestyle queer people often experience.”
Following the Flood premiere, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Joseph Amenta about their film, the importance of representation, the queer scene in Toronto and his favourite LGBTQ films.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What’s your 2019 TIFF experience been like on the Filmmaker Lab programme?
Joseph Amenta: “It was essentially four very full days of ten Canadian and ten international filmmakers working on their first or second features, and it was interesting to listen to the process and to the stories being told internationally at that level, that was probably the best part. And then we had some guiding hands from some governors Patricia Rozema was one. We watched some films, we had some private sessions with the directors and the filmmakers, it was nice. I think that the film by Sarah Gavron Rocks was very much up my alley, she uses non-actors, she takes a long time to develop story with her performers, there’s a level of authenticity that I really appreciated, a level of freedom and celebration of the marginalised characters that I really respect and gravitate towards, while also honouring the obstacles that they face. It was probably my favourite film of the festival.”
When did your interest in filmmaking first come about and how did that manifest itself, were you shooting on things on iPhone…?
“Well, I started before the iPhone! I started writing very poor scripts and shooting on old DV cameras, VHS cameras when I was twelve or thirteen, I would save up every penny to purchase a little camera. The problem was the transcoding of that footage on to a computer, which was much more challenging at that time. So it ended up being credits on Windows Moviemaker and then some raw footage on an HD cam, but I’ve always been interested in storytelling, capturing image, developing story. I would say my strongest in was the through the act of writing. I’m not a writer who writes very often to be honest, but I catalogue small moments in life that I witness and then I develop story through those moments. I’m inspired by the lives that I see, and primarily now that’s in the queer spaces.
And how do you tend to catalogue; notebooks or post-its?
“You know what, I actually don’t record anything because if the idea is strong enough it sticks and if it continues to resurface then I know it’s something that’s made it through the filter and something that I need to develop further.”
How about with Flood, what was the inspiration for the film?
“Well, this film was fairly different from my past work. I typically don’t use actors, I don’t cast conventionally, I usually take quite a bit of time developing the story with them. This was through the Canadian Film Center so it was during a five month lab there and they wanted to fund a film and I’m not going to say no to that! So they asked us to develop a story and I enjoy the juxtaposition between the beauty of a small moment, the agency of a character that’s marginalised while also displaying that reality. I think sex work in particular is something that is not openly discussed, I think it’s often villainized and I think it’s something that a lot of queer people experience in different avenues and I wanted to express the nuance of that moment for the lead character. I think people will read the film differently. On one had you have a young man who’s trying to supply for his family and maintain a bubble for his younger sister as she’s kind of crossing the cusp of adulthood and then on the other hand you see a young boy who’s probably invisible to society in many ways, has not experienced any sort of sexual interaction, is not educated about his sexual agency or health and this is how he learns, as many of us I think queer people do learn in unconventional and sometimes unhealthy ways.”
In terms of the structure, was it important with the sex work aspect that you kept that towards the end so we got to know your lead character initially without knowing that he was involved in sex work?
“Absolutely. I think I wanted to show that although there is a dynamic between the older and younger siblings, they’re both still children, they’re both still finding their way. I wanted to show a male character who is not fearful or apprehensive about expressing femininity. He adorns glitter and face paint and has chipped nail polish because it makes his sister happy and it makes him feel powerful. I wanted to use their invisibility as a source of power. I wanted you to see them nomadic and moving through spaces and those spaces influence how they behave. The reason why you see the cost of that freedom near the end of the film is because I like to celebrate the characters. I think it’s important to maintain the reality of the situation and not gloss over those things, but I’m really interested in showing characters who are living life, enjoying it, laughing, loving and doing what they can to survive.”
What about the look of the film, the cinematography and the way we follow your lead character quite closely. It starts with a closeup on him and then as he moves down to the basement we are right there with him aren’t we. It’s quite intimate. Could you talk a bit a bout that.
“I like my films to feel intimate and connected, I think it’s very easy to see characters like this from a bit of a distance through a looking glass or a fish bowl, and I wanted to stay close to the charters and allow for the audience to feel any visceral sensation or fantasy or celebration that they are experiencing. When they reach the roundabout in the playground he expresses interest in giving his sister a moment of freedom and she expresses apprehension because again she’s on the cusp of being a young woman realising that she might look stupid and when they are in that moment of suspension and euphoria and enjoyment and laughter, everything is moving slowly and we move close to their faces and close to their bodies and we create the visceral sensation that the characters are feeling for the audience, through music and through sound. My soundtrack is often what the characters are hearing in their head, so it’s more for the characters than it is for the audience. I love colour. Vibrancy. The characters are wearing red throughout the film and they are often moving through very cool tone environments to kind of show them as outcasts or different from the spaces that they inhabit.”
So then when we get the rainbow fairy lights later on outside the LGBTQ venue, is that because it’s more of a safe space for the characters, to signal that for the audience?
“It’s more of an inclusive space, absolutely. They visually are more integrated into those spaces, but yet still don’t belong in there. He has to leave that colourful space in order to do what he does near the end of the film and the tones there are fairly muted.”
It’s brilliant casting, tell me a bit about why you cast who you did and what they were like to work with.
“The casting was more of a traditional process so it was a learning process for myself we saw quite a few people and it was important for me in the casting room to utilise unconventional techniques to see if they were comfortable improvising or moving freely outside of the blocking format. I found these two actors, who I felt spoke the same language in terms of chemistry and even physically had a resemblance and unity that I needed. It was very important for me to dismantle any form of polish that they may have as performers because I’m actually fascinated with the lack of that polish in my previous films. So I wanted actors who were able to throw away words very quickly if they weren’t working and to scramble the words that I had written on the page and to feel free to get grimy and dirty when they needed to and I think they succeeded for the most part.”
What about casting Tynomi Banks?
“I make a point to include local talent who I know and love in this city. Tynomi Banks is a performer here, I’ve worked with her on a past film. I think it’s essential when telling queer stories to include people who are integrated in that world and are so immensely talented and have so much to offer that the process of working with them is about demystifying the camera and allowing them to shine in whatever avenue they’re in. I think that by bringing the elevator back down for those who don’t have access to the up button is extremely important and utilising the fucking brilliant talent that we don’t get to see and I’m glad that she was able to be a part of it honestly.”
Her screen time isn’t much but she’s able to bring a lot to it.
“In that moment you get to see an interaction between two queer people who probably don’t interact very often, probably don’t know each other very well, but because there’s that camaraderie, especially two POC queer people, there’s a moment of camaraderie and reliance and almost a guardianship that she’s willing to offer. I mean she doesn’t end up doing that great of a job, she’s probably half way up to heaven with that joint that she’s smoking, but there’s a beauty in the fact that there’s no questions asked, you see someone that’s in trouble and you do what you can to help. So it was important for me to include that scene, to see him in an element where he is seen, he is present and he does have a sense of community even just for a moment.”
And in terms of establishing the relationship between the actors playing the brother and sister, was there anything that you did as a director to help make them feel comfortable with each other?
“I would often allow them to interact separately from myself. I think it was important for them in rehearsal when I was doing other things – or on set when I was distracted with a million other things that you’re distracted with on set – that they were constantly together. Over the course of the shoot there’s a love that was created and they are still extremely close, they tag each other in posts and in images and there was a bond that was created through physical sensation. I feel like in western culture specifically we’re scared of touch, we don’t connect physically and in order for that relationship in a short amount of time to feel natural there was a constant connection physically. It’s very important for characters who are familiar with one another in my films to be completely uninhibited when it comes to touch, because that’s connection and if they don’t have that you have nothing.”
It’s a touching relationship between them. I love all the glitter too!
“The glitter and grit! We had two days to shoot it, a very short amount of time to shoot it because the Canadian Film Center were doing five other productions and because she’s a minor, so we had to give her two hours of tutoring a day and of course breaks every forty five minutes. So I had about five hours a day with her to shoot, so it was challenging, especially with nine locations.”
That’s ambitions when you only have two days to shoot.
“But you need to see that journey, you need to see them moving through spaces and engaging in different aspects of their relationship. One moment they’re laughing and playing rock, paper, scissors and he’s enjoying the process as much as she is, and then one moment they’re walking by the lake and experiencing completely separate emotional experiences. “
I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about the motif of the lake and the metaphor of water in the film, and how it relates to the title Flood as well.
“I think the idea of water is something that’s extremely interesting to me as a filmmaker, but also very closely linked to the characters. You have this young girl who is turning ten years old, she doesn’t understand the nuances of her position in society and the limitations of that. So when they see water, when they see the lake, they are experiencing very different things. She as a young woman is in awe of it, in awe of its beauty, she doesn’t quite understand it; she sees it as a moment of hope, possibility, expansion. She’s probably never left the small space that she’s grown up in, but for him it’s ominous, it’s scary and it’s overwhelming. He is submerged below it and the idea of water having a duality, of giving life but also taking it, becoming overwhelming very quickly is something that this character experiences throughout the film. The juxtaposition between freedom and what that freedom costs is essentially what the film is about.”
I know you have a debut feature film coming up, what sort of stage are you with that?
“In terms of draft I’m on first to second. We’ve done some supplementary work for additional funding which is well on its way, we move into production July 2020. I’m going to be casting exclusively non-actors for the lead roles. We’re doing a lot of community work to ensure that the voices heard in the story are the voices of those that are living these lives. I’m interested in showcasing three adolescent queer boys who have created a brotherhood or a sisterhood through the lens of a new perspective where coming out of the closet is not a priority, there’s a language and a love that’s formed there. I want to show that physical connection, that physical comfort between three young boys that’s very rarely seen on screen. I want to show a freedom of feminine expression, as well as maintaining the obstacles that they face with being visibly queer. And I want to show the transition from the new generation as seeing the colours, the beauty, the sparkles of what queer can be, while also integrating the reality of the dangers that ensues. The film is quite heavy in the second half. One of the queer characters is living with a POC trans sex worker who is surviving herself and who has taken him in as a guardian, so I wanted to showcase these colourful bandits moving through the city like they own the fucking joint, but they don’t own a goddamn thing.”
So you’re based here in Toronto. I only come here once a year for TIFF and spend most of my time watching films or interviewing people. How would you describe the queer community here, the nightlife, what’s it like as a city to be queer in?
“The queer community here is constantly shifting. I think that there are spaces that are breaching the village. There are many different layers to the queer experience here. Of course you have more mainstream queer communities that are going to nightclubs and kind of moving through spaces during the day with fewer obstacles, and then you have the ballroom community that I’m quite active in. That’s a little bit more underground and little bit more black and Latino focused. It’s focused on empowering feminine expression through an art form that originated in Harlem, New York in the 1980s. So there are many different sectors of queer nightlife here, and I think we choose very much so to focus on that top surface and I want to dive completely deep down and see what’s underneath the carpet. “
I didn’t know there was a ballroom scene in Toronto.
“Yes, I serve face! I’m in the House of Magnifique.”
Fabulous! And are you enjoying watching Pose?
“I am, yes. I think Pose is an important show. Not only because of what it’s offering audiences but because it’s giving opportunities to people who are making it. I think that my style is quite different than what’s being offered there and I’m interested in perhaps moving away from the campiness that Pose has and really developing something that is based in naturalism. I think the trajectory of the characters is very fast paced because it’s a television show and I’m interested in the small moments, the quiet moments where we are not expressing the pain on our chests because we don’t feel we can speak on those pains, so that’s where I feel my style lies, but I do enjoy the show.”
And do you have a favourite a favourite LGBTQ+ movie, one that’s really meant a lot to you over the years?
“Paris is Burning is essentially a queer Bible. How irreverent it is, you see these people who are living lives on the fringes of society but they are powerful and they are taking things from that society and they are growing from it. There were issues with the making of that film, but it’s still stands as one of the biggest lenses into that world especially at that time. I really love Tangerine by Sean Baker, because it has that rawness and that grit and there are million imperfections with that film but you forgive it because you’re seeing something completely fucking new. I love the idea of not falling through the cracks and into that victim placement, and living there because we don’t do that. We need to crawl our way out and the queer community is full of love and light and colours that no one else can see, so I want to capture that. I want to juxtapose those two worlds, so that’s why I enjoy Tangerine so much, because you have these characters who should be powerless but they’re not, they’re absolutely not, and they’re still imperfect, to one another even. Aside from that, I saw a film called We The Animals recently, that dealt with queerness as it pertains to a young Latino boy which I found completely fresh.”
Yes it’s beautiful isn’t it.
“Yes, I think that film was absolutely stunning and it’s definitely a relevant in terms of my feature. I’m happy to see some queer content being made now and moving away from subjects that involve a handsome masculine probably straight actor who’s playing a teenage white boy coming out of the closet, you know, and having all of these things being done to him without him making decisions. I’m not interested in showing queerness through that lens, as you can see in my short film Flood. There’s hierarchy within the queer community, people make mistakes, people make bad decisions, sometimes those decisions are a byproduct of societal structures and I really want to show three dimensions of what it means to be queer and all the intersections that it involves, because I think that’s how you display their humanity you know, not just their victiminhood.”