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A still from She Paradise by Maya Cozier shows a Black person laying down and raising a finger to their lips while looking left, wearing a yellow-neon bikini top.

Issue 003 Fall 2021 Interviews

“As though there is no script”: an interview with Maya Cozier

by Jonathan Ali

She Paradise (2020). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Maya Cozier.

“Caribbean cinema remains forever in obscurity,” declared Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé, with more than a touch of provocation, in her 1992 essay “Cinema, Literature, and Freedom.” In spite of achievements like Cuba’s state-run filmmaking system, and lauded titles such as Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) and Euzhan Palcy’s Sugar Cane Alley (1983), this daunting seeming reality cannot be undone. Instead, these examples serve as outliers, emphasizing the myriad challenges of creating a robust regional cinema.

But forty years later, cinematic images from the Caribbean proliferate as never before, as do the ways and means for these images to be seen, from film festivals to online platforms (and, since mid-2020, film festivals as online platforms). Unfortunately, while often competently fulfilling the role of representation, much of this work is more or less negligible as cinematic art. The strides in technology that help democratize film production and exhibition notwithstanding, many of the material and immaterial challenges that have traditionally inhibited Caribbean cinema remain.

She Paradise (2020), from Trinidad and Tobago, is a notable example of what a thoughtful and accessible Caribbean cinema can look like. The first fiction feature by twenty-eight-year-old writer and director Maya Cozier, it’s the story of Sparkle, a shy young Black woman, and her attempts at self-realization. Set within a contemporary working-class, urban milieu, the film uses the glittering Carnival subculture of soca music dancing to intelligently explore issues related to feminine solidarity and survival within an exploitative society. In the film, women like Sparkle form a demimonde, constantly negotiating their power and agency in relation to patriarchal norms.       

Made on a low budget on location with nonprofessional performers, She Paradise embraces the challenges of its production context—of the Trinidadian socioeconomic reality—to beneficial effect. The film is a success within, and arguably due partly to, its modest scope, with its focused gaze on recognizable characters that feel rooted in a lived-in setting. This has led to other achievements: having been selected for a Tribeca Film Festival world premiere in 2020, She Paradise has gone on to screen at AFI Fest and other notable festivals.

Cozier is now in her second year as an MFA film studies candidate at Columbia University, and her filmmaking reflects her Caribbean experience. The daughter of artist parents, she had a less-than-typical childhood, one that circumvented Trinidadian middle-class obsessions of respectability and conformity. This was certainly so when it came to cinema, which for most meant (and still means) one thing: US cinema. 

“There was a DVD store in Trinidad,” she says to me in a Zoom from New York. “I remember visiting the store pretty often, and they had a ‘foreign’ section. We were calling European films and films from non-American places ‘foreign.’” She laughs at the memory. “From that section, I remember my parents bringing home films by [Pedro] Almodóvar and seeing Volver [(2006)]. I also remember seeing scenes from Persona [(Ingmar Bergman, 1996)] and hearing my dad talk about it, but I don’t really remember that coming from outside, or the society at large.”

A Black person dances in ecstasy against a backdrop of a setting sun and a palm tree.
She Paradise (2020). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Maya Cozier.

“Outside” were the multiplexes, which had replaced the cinema palaces of an earlier age. But despite the proliferation of screens, there was no diversification of what was projected onto them. It was still virtually all Hollywood, merely more of it. “There wasn’t any independent cinema being shown,” she continues. The arrival of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival in 2006 represented a disruption of the prevailing culture. “That was the first time when it felt like things were diversifying. Trinidadians started to go to see their own films, and Caribbean films, and international films. That was a pivotal moment, but the festival happened only once a year.” 

The quasi-bohemian nature of Cozier’s upbringing and the porous characteristic of Trinidad’s complex class system meant that she was exposed to the island’s working-class culture from an early age, in school and elsewhere. This included dance classes, which she began taking at the age of three. Her teacher, Heather Gordon (“one of the few Black women to attend Julliard”), taught various dance styles, from ballet and tap to limbo and hip hop. 

The result was a mix of students: girls from different classes and races, which could be reflected in the style of dance being taught. “It represented different parts of the Trinidad society depending on what style you were doing. When we did ballet classes, it was all white girls,” Cozier says. It was through these classes that she began soca dancing, performing on television and for Carnival shows. She made particular friendships with her fellow dancers, and the world she experienced as a performer would go on to form the inspiration for She Paradise.   

After winning a government scholarship, Cozier went to the School of Visual Arts in New York. Even then, however, she wasn’t settled on becoming a filmmaker, having enrolled as a general arts student. She took a documentary class and made a short portrait of her best friend—a dancer she would go on to fictionalize in She Paradise—and then switched to studying film. Crucially, she began watching films as she never had before. 

“I started looking at a lot of films for the first time,” she explains. “There was this film history course where the professor showed films by white men for the whole semester, but this other course was the first time I saw films by Mira Nair and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)]. That film stayed with me for a long time afterward.” Yet even with these valuable cinematic experiences, as well as her graduation film—a short Trinidadian road movie called Short Drop, inspired by the films of Abbas Kiarostami—in the can, a future in filmmaking was no more apparent to her than before. 

“I didn’t know what to do. Short Drop hadn’t got into any festivals yet, and I really was unsure what step I would take. Was it realistic to try to become a director?” she remembers wondering. “And then I went to BAM cinema in Brooklyn, and I looked at Moonlight [(2016)].” Barry Jenkins’s visionary second feature, at that point yet to become the most unlikely best picture winner in Oscar history, worked its magic on her. 

“I remember right after that screening, feeling that I had to tell my stories, that I had to try,” Cozier says, obvious emotion in her voice. “There was this pacing to it, and this very tender, patient sensibility in the way that he filmed these Black characters,” she describes. “For the first time, I felt: These are people like myself. I come from Trinidad, I can see people like us on screen, but the sensibility here feels like one that I can connect to as well. And that just got my brain turning. There’s something here that I can go after.”

And go she did. Scripting She Paradise with cowriter Melina Brown, Cozier had a clear idea of what she wanted to do with her first feature film. She tells me: “I had this idea of the characters I wanted to explore, and I definitely feel that while I had seen some films being made in the Caribbean in recent years, there was this gap. I felt I hadn’t really seen films about women from a woman’s point of view. There was this absence. The experience of growing up as a young woman, partying, what happens between friends, the sisterhood—all of that was my experience growing up, and I felt like I hadn’t seen anything on-screen yet that explored that point of view.”

A Black person looks intently at someone off screen, they wear a gold necklace and their hair in braids, along with a yellow-neon bikini top.
She Paradise (2020). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Maya Cozier.

Filtering the universal experiences of female teenagerhood through the dynamics of Trinidad’s Carnival and attendant soca music scene would give the film its cultural specificity. Meanwhile, Cozier’s own knowledge of that world, as well as the testimonies of other young women she interviewed, would seek to make it authentic. Following a proof-of-concept short version of the film that led to a Trinidad government grant, She Paradise went into production. And the challenges inherent in shooting a film in the Caribbean formed an indelible quality of the film. 

“It takes an open mind,” Cozier admits of filming in her native country. “You cannot make—I mean, you could try, but I don’t think someone can make a film in a space like Trinidad thinking that they’re going to keep industry standards or be professional or do everything by the book. It’s not going to work. You have to have an open mind and almost approach it as though there is no script.”

Yet it’s precisely the inability to shoot a film according to “industry standards”—which only raises the questions of whose industry and whose standards—that provided Cozier with the opportunity to be creative (and no less professional). This makes for an “imperfect cinema” of the kind extolled by late Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa. Cozier’s understanding of this, and the willingness to see virtues where others might see limitations, is central to her work ethic and the aesthetic of She Paradise. 

“You have to adapt constantly,” she says, and goes on to provide an example that could serve as an object lesson in fiction filmmaking in the Caribbean. “I remember we had some extras for a beach scene that did not show up. And it was the knowledge of: OK, I am making a film in this circumstance, and these extras didn’t show up who are crucial to the scene. So, what’s in front of me? OK, we have a beach, we have the girls; how can I rewrite the script to keep the story going? And I rewrote the script on the spot. It takes this trust in the unpredictability of the process to make it happen.” 

Working primarily with nonprofessionals, people playing fictionalized versions of their actual selves, was also a key feature of Cozier’s filmmaking ethos. “I don’t think it would have done the film any justice to cast people who aren’t in that dance world. And it was also more meaningful because all the women in the film are already so close to the story, to the characters they’re playing. It felt more fulfilling knowing that everyone really cared about the story and felt connected to the world, to the characters,” she explains. 

This didn’t mean preparation for shooting wasn’t important. “We did do a lot of work,” she says. “We spent weeks rehearsing the roles together. And with the lead, Odessa Nestor, leading up to shooting, she would come over by me a lot, and we would look at movies together. I remember showing her Girlhood”—Céline Sciamma’s acclaimed 2014 portrait of French banlieue life through the eyes of young Black women—“and some Andrea Arnold films as well. I think it was important for her to see the type of film I saw in my mind.”

Cozier’s casting strategy and her method of working with actors led to an unforeseen blurring of reality and fiction. “Because we were working with nonactors and people who are so close to their characters, there was this interesting dynamic that started to happen, where the girls themselves formed similar bonds and connections in the same way as in the film,” she says. “The dynamic on-screen was the real dynamic of the girls while we were filming. And I found that interesting: when you’re working with nonactors, reality and fiction intertwine. And so you have these situations off-screen and on-screen that all feel blended.” 

The result is both an exuberant and unashamed celebration of distaff power and sexuality, as well as a subtle examination of how women—in particular subaltern women, for whom agency is fraught in specific ways—attempt to negotiate the limitations of those things when a countervailing hegemonic male power is introduced. And while responses to the film so far have mainly been appreciative of its attempts to do this, other readings have revealed that a possible disconnect exists between various racial-cultural realities, a point Cozier is not shy of noting.    

“I remember reading the Hollywood Reporter review of the film, and it was so obvious that it was written from a white woman’s point of view. She says these women may not be as free as they think because they’re still trapped in the male gaze,” she notes. “But my desire to make the film came from a feminist point of view, of wanting to explore certain themes—sexuality, respectability politics, slut shaming, and so on—and the idea of a female object, especially one in the performance space, who’s able to wield greater agency by turning herself into a subject and manipulating the male gaze to her power. And even though there are a lot of predatory men, there’s a lot of toxic masculinity in that space, Sparkle’s still able to navigate that space and extract what she wants out of it, whether that is money or the ability to perform and wield agency and power and still keep going. This is a Caribbean Black woman’s experience, and it won’t necessarily fit a white feminist experience.”

The film’s bracing resolution has also divided spectators. Yet, and without wanting to spoil the ending, it’s something Cozier is more sanguine about than one might imagine she’d be, given what happens: “I like the idea of leaving the ending open to discussion. A lot of people see the end of the film as the end of the sisterhood. But I don’t necessarily think it communicates a message about the sisterhood being bad for Sparkle. I remember being in groups where there were falling-outs over a lot of things, like money. These things happen. In my mind, the next day, they’ll talk it out. They’ll work together next week. And they’ll have more respect for Sparkle.”