Movies focusing on strange and transgender characters are still few. And when members of these marginalized communities manage to reach the screen, their stories can be filled with a dark and gloomy tone.
But Nigerian film director and multimedia artist Gbenga Komolafe is breaking free from these stifling conventions in his short film Indeed Rising Voices, “100% USDA Certified Organic Home-Made Tofu.”
The film tells the bizarre story of Nikki, a slightly boorish transgender woman living in Los Angeles who desperately needs money for breast augmentation surgery. With no money coming from an unreliable sugar dad, she swallows her pride, rolls up her designer sleeves and takes a job at her estranged mother’s run-down restaurant in the Korean Quarter.
“We wanted to tell a story about trans people that you don’t see often, one that really deviates from the tragedy and harsh realities of the world,” said Comolafe, who identifies as strange but not transgender. “From our point of view, we see this rudeness a little too often. We don’t have to go to the movies to remind us of that. ”
While Comolafe saturates the film with a lot of comedy and carefree notes like the sparkling xylophone of the score, his plot focuses on an extremely sensitive topic: Nikki’s struggle to gain approval and support from his mother. This is a parent-child relationship with which many LGBQT individuals can identify.
“Just wanting our parents to accept and support us as we are is something that the writer and I talked about a lot,” says Comolafe. “It’s a fantasy for weird kids to have that kind of intimate relationship.”
It is no coincidence that the film’s themes resonate with the sponsor of Rising Voices, the online employment portal Indeed.
Indeed’s mission is to help people find work. We understand how important work is in someone’s life, “said LaFon Davis, Indeed’s senior vice president of environment, social affairs and governance. Tofu is a beautiful story that incorporates the importance of social acceptance and family difficulties, emphasizing trans voices while emphasizing the importance of work. There is a real commitment to a fair, psychologically safe environment where everyone belongs. ”
Focusing on BIPOC directors such as Comolafe and providing them with financial and educational support, Rising Voices breaks down structural barriers and gives artists from underrepresented communities much-needed growth opportunities in the industry – as well as a chance for underserved audiences to is finally displayed on the screen.
“Many of these structural problems lead to a lack of identity for many people,” Comolafe said. “These structures keep us in boxes and ways of life. My goal is to help people get rid of them. ”
Komolafe says Rising Voices has given him “endless opportunities”, one of which is the opportunity to learn how to deal with the myriad challenges that come with managing a well-funded professional production with full staff.
“Being on set where you can pay people, not just working with friends who are really trying to do it, changes so much of the momentum,” Comolafe said. “You need a lifeguard if you want to be in the pool. You need a man from the fire department if you want to get a crazy shot with a crane. You don’t actually learn this in class or online video. You just have to be there to do it. ”
The $ 100,000 budget provided by Rising Voices allowed Komolafe to rent a house to serve as Vicki’s chat room by the pool that opens the film. It also serves as a home that she shares with her mother, providing a contrast between her superb aspirations and her earthly origins. But two weeks before the cameras were released, the place failed when the owners decided they didn’t want such a large crew in their house. Fortunately, he managed to secure a suitable house in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles four days before the start of production.
As frustrating as last-minute location switching was, it was nothing compared to the shock Comolafe experienced when he lost his director of photography to a pandemic on the eve of the first day of filming. Although DP did not test positive for the coronavirus itself, she was in contact with someone who had it, and COVID-19 protocols dictate that she could not be on the set. Fortunately, until the next morning, Comolafe and his executive producers found a replacement DP, and production was postponed by just five hours.
Comolafe finds that while he is used to serving as a shoulder to cry on for friends, providing emotional support and creative guidance for a crew of more than 40 is a next-level challenge.
“I was very aware that I could not actively despair, because then everyone else would,” says Comolafe. “You have to have the answers; you are the problem solver. ”
In the end, Comolafe found out that Nikki was more than just a fictional character that he worked hard to bring to the screen – she was a personal role model.
“She knows what she wants and she will get it and she is not ashamed or afraid of anyone,” says Comolafe. “And I think that’s the type of queer character I’m trying to write, and I’m also trying to embody.”