Kelly Daniela Norris on the unexpected paths of grief and love
"Write what you know," says the old adage. Austin-based filmmaker Kelly Daniela Norris took that to heart more sincerely than most. Her debut feature, Sombras de Azul, follows a young girl on her trip to Cuba to memorialize her deceased brother, but it's not pure narrative; Norris began writing the film in part as a tribute to her own brother around the fourth anniversary of his death. We caught up with Norris, currently in Ghana shooting her next project, to discuss this Cuban travelogue filled with grief, beauty, and unexpected romance.
Austin Chronicle: Maribel had a very special relationship with her brother, hence her trip, and I understand you wrote the film as a tribute to your late brother. Will you tell me about the process of pouring such deeply personal material into a project intended for large audiences? How much of this story is autobiographical?
Kelly Daniela Norris: Though the plot outline is fiction, Maribel's grief – her brother, her thoughts – is my own. And this might sound strange considering film is so often a tool for public engagement, but I didn't give myself the time/space to think that far in advance; of how it would feel sharing something so personal with audiences. I believe it was my way of preemptively ensuring that I wouldn't chicken out or shy away from using the medium to dive into self-exploration.
AC: This is one of the first American films shot in Cuba since the 1962 embargo. Did your brother, like Carlos in the film, want to travel there too? Or were there other reasons for shooting there?
KDN: It's true that my brother did always want to travel to Cuba. He was a musician and poet with a rebellious spirit, so there was something very alluring about Cuba and its artistic community and history. I can even recall night owl phone conversations of ours when it would come up as a destination we might travel to together. But I don't want to give the false impression that it was a singular obsession. He was a world wanderer, in general, and loved many places. The decision to film in Cuba was born out of the decision to make a film about personal grief. To me, one of the more painful aftereffects of loss is the reminders of what might have been, the unshared experiences that remind us of a life cut short. At the time, to write a film about traveling to Cuba without him, and then to go there and film it, seemed the most honest way of pushing myself into deeper reflections and, with hope, pushing myself out of them.
AC: In the film, the narrator acknowledges the country's oppression and lack of excess, but the story and the footage celebrates the Cuban people and their culture. Was this born of your time filming there, and did the Spanish language itself influence the film?
KDN: There's a postcard I purchased at the Tate Modern of Picasso's The Weeping Woman that I still keep with me. I fell in love with it, and it has been a continual reference point. In the painting, the woman is broken into pieces and crying hysterically, yet the colors are festive, with her depicted in uplifting yellows, blues, and greens. It's a confused state of mind – to feel oppressed but to be spirited, to feel melancholic but to celebrate. It's the same parallel that I witness with personal loss as well: to mourn versus to rejoice. Maybe it's a Cuban tendency or maybe it's not unique to Cuba at all, but I heard a Cuban say to me on more than one occasion, "Look at how I suffer!" and then smile.
As for the Spanish language, the script was written in English and then later translated by a friend of mine. Aside from the logistical reasons for telling this story in Spanish, it was also a way of distancing me from my words. I am not a fluent speaker, so, to an extent, I am able to feel removed.
AC: I believe there was only one song performed in English: Sibylle Baier's "Tonight." The music flows so well throughout the film, and as a fellow Austinite, you know I have to ask about the soundtrack. Any stories about any of the tracks?
KDN: Some of the music was selected for nostalgic reasons, such as Pink Floyd's "Fearless" and "Asturias," which remind me of Greg. Other songs, like Sibylle Baier's "Tonight," Françoise Hardy's "Fleur de Lune," and Miriam Makeba's "Zulu Song" were simply there with me during the writing process. I listened to them, and got to the point where I couldn't imagine the story without those musical interludes to guide the emotional arc. In fact, all but one song was written into the original script.
AC: How did you choose the cast?
KDN: The actress who plays Maribel, Seedne Bujaidar, is my cousin. Interestingly, or maybe not so interestingly, our mothers are identical twins. She's an incredibly expressive and charismatic person, and I mentally cast her into the role as I was writing it. Even years earlier, I would tell her that one day I would write her into a film, and she would say, "Yeah, sure! Just let me know!" She was pretty shocked when I finally did come around with the script, and was nervous about the commitment, but she also couldn't refuse family. Charlotta Mohlin, who plays Alissa, was the only other character cast beforehand. ... Most of the other casting was based on leads through our Cuban crew or managed on the fly, casting a cab driver as a cab driver, a book vendor as a book vendor, a santera as a santera.
AC: I heard you're shooting in Ghana. Can you tell us about your upcoming project?
KDN: The film is called Nakom, named after a remote village in Ghana's Upper East ... where my creative collaborator, Travis Pittman, lived while serving in the Peace Corps. The story follows a young medical student who must return to his home village after finding out his father was killed in an accident. It's a story of contrasts, between the traditional village life of subsistence farming and the more bustling, West-obsessed metropolises that are attracting younger generations. We're currently at the halfway point of the production, and we couldn't be more thrilled with how things are going. That is, we're somehow making a feature film where there's no electricity, that's in an unwritten language (Kusaal), and that's grounded by an exceptional crew and local talent who never complain of having to shit in the bush.
Sombras de Azul screens Thursday, Oct. 24, 7:10pm, at the Rollins Theatre, and again Monday, Oct. 28, 7pm, at the IMAX Theatre.