Local filmmaker's short work selected for fests, screening online


DURING FILMING OF the short film “A Mother” in Addison County this past August, Art Director Nina Macintosh and Director of Photography Arlene Mueller work behind the scenes to prepare a shot of protagonist “Agnes,” played by Chérie Celeste Malone, cooking in her kitchen.

IN THIS STILL from the new film “A Mother,” Agnes, played by Chérie Celeste Malone, clutches onto her son Martin.

PART OF THE short was filmed in the Middlebury College pool.

NATASHA NGAIZA, THE writer and director of “A Mother,” discusses a scene with producer Ethan Murphy during filming of the short in Addison County last summer. Both also work at Middlebury College.
Writing is tough. You hit all these roadblocks. You write and you rewrite and you challenge yourself and you cry a little bit and then you wonder, why am I doing this, and then you do it again and just keep going. — Natasha Ngaiza

MIDDLEBURY — A short film shot entirely in Addison County by local filmmaker Natasha Ngaiza has been officially selected to take part in two important film festivals and, because the pandemic has nixed in-person festivals, will be screened online next week.

The film, titled “A Mother,” grapples with what it means to be a Black mother in the United States. Ngaiza teaches film production and African cinema courses at Middlebury College and has worked on several projects pertaining to Black motherhood. 

She says she prefers to draw from personal experience to tell compelling stories. She is a Tanzanian-American mother of three.

As a child, she remembers directing her younger siblings in made-up plays. In high school, she pursued acting until her parents, wary of her being typecast, suggested she be the one controlling the stories she tells.  

In crafting the story of “A Mother,” Ngaiza considered the importance of both the broader issues of representation in media, and the intimate specifics of lived experience. 

“I think that we can really tell more sincere kinds of stories when we’re grabbing from our own experiences,” she told the Independent. “It’s what I teach my students ... teaching actually really helped me in the writing process, because I apply the same concepts that I teach to my students to myself.” 

“A Mother” follows Agnes, a Black woman who struggles to come to terms with her decision to abort her third pregnancy, while reports arise about the vanishing of a young Black girl in her town and the racial significance of this disappearance. 

The film is an official selection of the Lower East Side Film Festival and the Palm Springs International ShortFest, which were set to occur in New York and California, respectively. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, these festivals have transitioned online and will now be accessible to Vermont locals via online screenings next week, amidst nationwide calls to support Black businesses, organizations and creators, in an attempt to combat systemic racism. 

HOW IT BEGAN

The inspiration for “A Mother” derived from an article Ngaiza came across while she was pregnant with her third daughter. The article said Black women are more likely to die in childbirth than any other group, regardless of education or class.

“It was a terrifying thing to read when you’re pregnant,” Ngaiza reflected with a nervous laugh. “It was definitely not fun. But it was something that triggered the beginnings of this story and what it means to be a Black mother in the United States and all the challenges that come with — the fear and stress and anxiety that come with raising Black children. There are all these kinds of invisible — and visible — challenges.”

Around that time, Ngaiza was also surprised to discover more than half of women who have abortions are already mothers, stating that this was not the narrative she usually sees depicted on screen. Instead, we often see seemingly irresponsible teenagers or more extreme cases of survivors of sexual violence. While these cases are important, Ngaiza wanted to emphasize a different story. 

Yet while the motivation for the story remained constant, some things changed over the course of the screenwriting process. Originally, Agnes had been an undocumented immigrant who lost her child. But, from what Ngaiza knew of her own family members’ immigration experiences, the story ultimately didn’t feel true to her own knowledge. 

“Writing is tough,” she said. “You hit all these roadblocks. You write and you rewrite and you challenge yourself and you cry a little bit and then you wonder, why am I doing this, and then you do it again and just keep going.”

The production of “A Mother” contained further obstacles, in particular the sheer expense of filmmaking. The 16-minute film cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce. And the lack of a core film industry in Vermont forced Ngaiza, a Middlebury resident, to fly in many members of the cast and crew, as well as equipment from across the country. The result was that many members of the small crew performed multiple functions on set. 

LOCAL PLACES & FACES

The film was shot over the course of four days last August in various locations around Addison County, including Middlebury College, the Trail Around Middlebury, and two houses in Cornwall and Ripton. While several of the individuals involved came from out of state, many were from right around here. Ethan Murphy, a media specialist in the Middlebury Film Department, produced the film. Executive Producer David Miranda Hardy is an assistant professor in film at the college. 

Other Vermont residents involved included First Assistant Director Daniel Houghton, sound recordist Tim Joy, costume designer Angela Lavalla, and Michael Fisher, a member of the lighting team. Several Middlebury College students also helped on the crew. 

Then, with the arrival of COVID-19, film festivals and screenings had to be adjusted. While some were canceled outright, many transitioned to remote formats, which Ngaiza called “bittersweet, because it would be so great to be there in that awesome theater, seeing your film on that big screen with an audience. It’s really what we look forward to as filmmakers.” 

Nonetheless, Ngaiza commended efforts of film festivals to set up online Q&As and conferences with and between filmmakers. She recognized the virtual nature of these festivals may allow these films to reach a wider audience than if they were only screened in person. 

In addition to the unforeseeable context of COVID-19, the upcoming screening of “A Mother” may also have gained greater resonance because of the current protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and broader issues of systemic racism and police violence.

Reflecting on this development, Ngaiza recalled filming a scene from the film last August, in which protestors chant “Black lives matter.” 

“In that moment,” she remembers, “I was worried that, what if this is too dated? People aren’t really chanting ‘Black lives matter’ much anymore.” Yet, the recent uptick of the movement goes to show, she argues, that “It’s totally relevant still.” 

Ngaiza said she focuses on who gets to be represented in media such as film. 

“I’m always thinking about politics of representation,” she said.

Watch “A Mother” when it screens online as part of the Lower East Side festival next Thursday, June 18, at 6 p.m.

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