Writer-director Dee Rees debut film Pariah was the Opening Night selection at last years Sundance Film Festival. This deeply personal story of a Brooklyn teenage lesbian poet struggling to come out of the closet is partially based on the filmmakers own life experience. Rees, and her luminous star Adeopro Oduye, sat down with PW for a frank discussion about the movie, and its effect on audiences.
PW: Adepero, most of the film seems to take place during close-ups on your face. Its a remarkable performance, but are you comfortable seeing yourself so exposed onscreen?
Adepero Oduye: No! Ive seen it twice and I dont know when Ill be able to see it again! The first time I saw it was opening night at Sundance and thoughtthis is a lot of me, a lot of my face! I hope people arent sick and tired of looking at my face, because I know I was!
Dee Rees: The camera language is intended to heighten the characterization. It starts out very tight and then gets wider and wider. We also shot a lot of profile and silhouette but as the film goes on it becomes more frontal. We wanted to help the audience understand where she is.
PW: Since the film is semi-autobiographical, was there a temptation to just play your director?
AO: No, not at all. Its based on Dees experiences, superimposed onto a teenager. But people did ask us if we were sisters!
DR: I didnt come out until I was 27. I had crushes on women, but I dismissed them. I actually dated a guy through most of college. It wasnt until I was living independently that I fell in love with someone, and then it was undeniable. But when I first went to the lesbian clubs, theres the people in the hats and the baggy jeans and theres the girls in the skirts. Im neither one of those. Where do I fit? I wanted to explore that.
PW: The teens in this film seem so comfortable with their gay peers, and conflict only arises when older people refuse to accept them. Do you think its easier for this generation to come out, at least amongst themselves?
DR: I think it all depends on who you are and where youre from. Im from Nashville Tenn., where its still not totally cool. When I moved to Brooklyn was the first time I ever saw out teenagers on the street, talking about girls. I was like: Oh my God!
AO: I feel that in someplace like New York City, where Im from, it may look easier because there are places you can go. But in terms of the dynamics in their families, I dont think its any easier. You can leave your home and find a place for yourself, but you still cant be yourself at home.
DR: Theres a fragmenting of identity, where you are constantly being asked to leave a part of yourself behind. Youre either leaving your queerness behind or leaving your blackness behind as you move between worlds.
PW: Have you brought the film home to Nashville yet?
DR: Not yet.
PW: Are you looking forward to it?
DR: I guess. Nashvilles like the buckle of the Bible belt, so well see how it goes.
AO: At Sundance we had six screenings, and Id say mostly the audiences were straight and white. But the response was really cool.
DR: People who are not necessarily from the demographic represented in the film are seeing it and loving it. I remember at Sundance a straight white guy came up to us and said: Im not gay. I dont like gay movies. But I like your movie. I think it transcends race and sexuality because its about identity.
AO: The beauty of the film is that its a very specific story, told from the perspective of a young black woman in New York City. But you dont have to be any of those to relate to the film. In the journey from Sundance to now, weve been meeting all kinds of people of all ages who are taking something different from it. People have been very sharing with their experiences and why they relate to the film. Its nice to be a part of something like that.