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ATL Preview: Narrative Competition, Q & A with MS Damned

April 13, 2009

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Mississippi Damned, one of the narrative competition features at Atlanta, looks extremely promising. The synopsis states it is the dramatically epic tale and heart-wrenching ensemble family drama of three poor black kids struggling to grow up in poor, rural Mississippi.  Spanning fom 1986 to 1998, Mississippi Damned follows several generations of a large African American family who fight to break a cycle of abuse, addiction and violence, escape their circumstances, and confront what has plagued their family for generations, or succumb to the same crippling fate – forever damned in Mississippi.

Through it all, one of the kids, a shining and precocious young girl named Kari (based on director Tina Mabry’s extraordinary childhood struggles) shines as she struggles to break free of her destructive world, yet maintain her ties to her extended family and honor and embrace her heritage and strong family bonds.  An honest and subtle  story of survival, struggle, and redemption in a bleak, powerful world of realism and family drama.

Shot in North Carolina, and based on Mabry’s life and childhood struggles in Mississippi, Mississippi Damned is her feature film debut. Mabry answered a few questions before the Atlanta screening, the answers are below:

11Actress Kylee Russell, as young Kari, in a scene from MISSISSIPPI DAMNED; a feature film by Tina Mabry premiering at the 2009 Slamdance Film Festival. (Photo Courtesy/Morgan’s Mark)

OFF: In 10 words, describe your movie and why someone should see it.

TM: An epic tale of struggle and sacrifice, beautifully told, uncompromisingly real.

OFF: You were born in Tupelo and Mississippi Damned is a very personal story to you. Tell me a little more about your experiences in Mississippi. How long did you live there before moving?

TM: Like the characters explored in Mississippi Damned, I came from a family that had been haunted by the lack of possibilities offered in a still somewhat impoverished state. I grew up in Tupelo and I received my undergraduate degrees from the University of Mississippi, so I didn’t stray far from home for the majority of my life.  When I decided to leave Mississippi in 2001, I naively felt that if I could just get outside of the Mississippi border then my life would drastically change.  However, I quickly came to realize that I was not trying to escape the actual state, but rather I was trying to escape the damaging cycles that continued to loom over my family.

Even though I might have be thousands of miles away, the mindset that was a result of these destructive cycles was as close to me as they ever were. This began a serious introspection on how does one truly escape not a place, but a mindset and lifestyle.  I wrote Mississippi Damned to explore these issues, to look at the challenges that face individuals trying to break free of dysfunction to define a new way of being.

How does someone trapped in a room with no windows even know that a larger world exists?  How do issues of race, gender, and class effect one’s ability to see solutions when none are apparent?  I forced myself to deal with the entire picture, not shying away from the grim realities of poverty, homophobia, and various addictions.

What began as a journey that I thought was limited in scope, quickly became a journey that revealed universal themes of familial bonds, survival, and true courage.  In the end, writing this script and working on this film as it became a tangible reality, allowed me to face my own demons, locate my own voice, and realize that the struggles that we go through not only have the power to make us stronger, but also reveal what can unite us.

OFF: This is your first feature. Biggest lesson learned in getting the film made?

TM: With this film being my first feature, I learned what seems like a lifetime of lessons.  We are in a world that prefers things to happen quickly and I have definitely fallen victim to it.  Which is why one of the biggest lessons I learned making this film was learning to have patience.  It takes a long time to get an independent film made and at times it can feel as if everything that can go wrong in fact does, which can be very frustrating.

However, I found that once I kept my focus on how much I loved filmmaking and on what we wanted to achieve with this film (instead of questioning why things were not coming together as fast as we hoped) I found a certain amount of peace and faith.  It allowed me to see the bigger picture and helped me not to feel disheartened or to have a fear of failure.  We realized that the only way we could fail is if we did not try.

OFF: Do you have a day job/a non-filmmaking occupation that helps your filmmaking efforts? Tell us what you do when not making films.

TM: When I got out of film school I had no job, a lot of debt, and no one was knocking on my door to pay me to write or direct, so I took whatever work I could find while still writing on the side.  I did whatever I had to in order to pay my rent.  I worked in a group home for boys, was a production assistant for a while, and I even took an entry-level corporate job at Sony Pictures Television.  None of these jobs made me happy because I didn’t feel like I was really creating anything, but they served their purpose.  I made a commitment to myself to let these positions stay jobs and not to make them into a career; my true career was being a filmmaker.

I would work on my screenplays and continue to hone my craft because I didn’t want to become distracted by jobs I temporarily took in order to survive.  This is why I’m extremely grateful that along with Morgan Stiff and Lee Stiff, that we were able to start an independent production company and editing facility.  I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to be a full-time filmmaker.   However if I have to take a non-film job in the future I will proudly do so because I now know that I will still continue to be a filmmaker.  Plus, every job I’ve ever had constantly gives me material to use when I write.

OFF: You were recently selected as Best American Indie Film at the Philly Film Fest. What’s your dream plan for the film after the fest circuit?

TM: After the film finishes its run on the festival circuit, we hope to secure traditional distribution, which would include a theatrical release. However, if we can’t go this route we intend to get this film to audiences because we believe in the message and the universality of the film.  It’s a film about struggle, about building a road when you have no idea where to begin.  These are things everyone can relate to.

With this film we want to rally the disenfranchised and unite those of disparate backgrounds, goals and aspirations.  Through this film we aim to use cinema as a means to give marginalized people a voice and to shed light on issues often overlooked because they may seem too hard to tackle. We therefore will get this film in front of audiences in a theatrical setting, whether it is a traditional or non-traditional route. The performances are too impactful, the filmmaking too strong, and the story to important to settle for less.

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Mississippi Damned plays in the narrative competition. Expect reviews of Blood River, Idiots & Angels, Lightbulb and That Evening Sun, and possibly more during the fest. For now, visit the Atlanta Film Fest for more info on the films.

NARRATIVE COMPETITION
Blood River
Buster
Greek Pete
I Am The Bluebird
Idiots & Angels
Lightbulb
Mississippi Damned
Rain
That Evening Sun
The Death of Alice Blue

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