Adura Onashile is an award-winning Glasgow-based artist working across film and theater. She has directed two stage productions, “HeLa” and “Expensive Shit,” for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, winning a Fringe First Prize and the Edinburgh Guide Award for Best Scottish Contribution to Drama in 2013 and 2016, among other accolades. Both shows toured nationally and internationally and were supported by the British Council. She directed “Ghosts” for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2021 and in 2022 acted the role of Medea in the National Theatre of Scotland and Edinburgh International Festival’s acclaimed 2022 production. In 2020, Onashile wrote and directed her screen debut, “Expensive Shit” (adapted from her stage play), a BAFTA Scotland nominated short film produced by barry crerar, which premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in 2020 and won both the Audience and Critics Awards at the Glasgow Short Film Festival. She was chosen in 2021 as a Screen International “Star of Tomorrow.”
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Tara Karajica talks to Adura Onashile about her debut feature, “Girl,” that has just premiered in the World Dramatic Competition of the festival, women in film and what she is up to next.
What made you want to become a filmmaker?
Adura Onashile: I’m always fascinated to put myself in situations where I am taking risks with my art. And, I’ve been a theater practitioner, a dancer, an actor, and then a writer-director in theater. And, each moment of my career, I’ve taken a step out of the cliff and taken a risk and done things I haven’t done before. And, I think that’s the way I approach my art. So, when it looked possible that film was going to be a part of that trajectory, I grabbed it with both hands. So, it’s not like I had a burning desire to be a filmmaker. I love films, but I never saw myself as a filmmaker. It always had this magic and mystery to me. And so, having the opportunity to be a part of that felt like something I couldn’t say no to.
How did Girl come about?
A.O.: I think Girl has been in my mind one way or another for a very long time. I’m an only child of a single mother and there were often moments where our relationship had blurred lines between being sisters, being friends. And, I was fascinated by that. I was very close to my mother growing up and it’s only when I started coming of age into my early twenties that I realized that maybe there were boundaries that we didn’t have and that maybe my closeness to her meant that I couldn’t be so close to other people. So, I was very interested in that. And then, we moved around a lot when I was a kid. That was really formative. I was eleven and we lived in a high-rise in Bermondsey, and it was for a very short period of time, but the Council eventually moved us because it was a National Front estate – we weren’t safe there. So, we had to basically stay in the house. And, I was always fascinated because my mother created this really beautiful environment for me because I couldn’t go outside to play. And so, I’ve always been interested in this connection and how all this trauma and great beauty can sit next to each other. I realized that I’ve never really seen that in art. Often, when we deal with trauma, it is gritty, it is hard, it is painful. But what I was fascinated by is how people like my mother created beauty when the situation seemed impossible. But then, obviously, in the film, because it’s a fiction, I had to push what happens in terms of plot in order to explore those themes.
The film is about this undescribable bond between mother and daughter, but they are at a crossroads. And, eventually, Grace realizes that she has to loosen her grip on Ama so they can both truly live.
A.O.: I think there are so many themes for me in there. So, I’m just going to try and concentrate on why that feels important to me. I think as a mother of a girl myself, I can already see the ways that my sense of protection of her is probably more heightened because of the danger that women and girls can face in the world. I haven’t had Grace’s trauma. But, for Grace, it’s even more acute because she has suffered this big trauma around the birth of Ama and how Ama was conceived. Well, that’s the backstory, anyway. So, her desire to protect Ama from not only what she sees as a hostile world, but also to stop anything like that from happening to Ama is more extreme because Grace hasn’t dealt with her own trauma and you’re absolutely right; it is about her realizing that she has to free Ama in order to free herself and she has to face her trauma and she has to make a sacrifice in a way in order for both of them to not just survive, but thrive.
Grace is paralyzed with fear and overwhelmed and she’s almost like a girl herself. She hasn’t been able to grow up because of what happened to her. How you see her?
A.O.: I did some research and explored what happens to women when they suffer a trauma. And, obviously, Grace was in no position to deal with her trauma at the time because she got pregnant and she had a baby that she had to look after. She suppressed that trauma in order to be able to effectively look after her child and I wonder about what that costs her. And, what that costs her is that she has to shut down some elements of herself. And, that is the quietness and the reserve we see in Grace. I wanted to explore Grace as a character with arrested development. She stopped growing in a sense when the trauma happened to her and lived her life through the care of her child. I see a lot of women like this who are reserved and quiet in the world, who try not to take up too much space, who try not to be noticed and I think that that lack of expression of who they could be often has elements of trauma tied into it or is a result of trauma. So, I was interested in exploring that with Grace.
Can you talk about the casting process and working with Déborah Lukumuena?
A.O.: We had been seeing actresses in the UK and my absolutely brilliant casting director, Isabella Odoffin, said to me at one point: “Well, you know, Grace is an immigrant character, so we could look for her in the African diaspora. We could also look at actors, not just in the African diaspora in Europe, but we could look at actors in Africa as well.” So, she opened up the pool of who we saw. I remember the first time I saw Déborah’s tape, and honestly, I can’t really describe it because it felt like she was Grace. It felt visceral in just how everything is quiet. There was so much going on under the surface and in a film with not many words and for a character who doesn’t speak very much, that’s gold dust. You absolutely need that because she’s a closed off character. So, you have to work with an actor that it feels like you can get something out of and that continued when I met her in person. Her understanding of Grace just elevated the character I had written and I felt very blessed and lucky to have that.
How did you find Le’Shantey Bonsu?
A.O.: Initially, we looked through child actors that had been working and and they didn’t quite have the innocence I wanted, so we started looking in schools, through Isabella [Odoffin] again, across the country, and we saw a lot of tapes of a lot of kids. And again, the thing that interested me about Le’Shantey – and she had never really acted before – was the way her silence communicated itself. There was a kind of vulnerability and a beauty to her. And, I thought that was really important because even though Grace is traumatized, I think she’s a really good mom and I think that she has created a world that allows Ama to become curious about the world outside their flat, even though that’s not what she wants. She’s brought her kid up to love magic and beauty that it’s inevitable that, as Ama starts growing up, she will explore the world. So, for me, Le’Shantey held that; she was just so striking to look at and she had a sort of vulnerability to her. Initially, it was also quite difficult because she’d never done anything like this before and she was a bit nervous, but I liked that nervousness. It kind of spoke to the character as well.
You simultaneously explore trauma and beauty, and they co-exist together even though they’re completely opposite themes in life. Can you comment on that and elaborate on how you managed to to explore them together?
A.O.: My experience of trauma is that it can sit next to great beauty. It feels contradictory, but actually many people live their lives that way because they have to and I really thought this was very important. So, for me, it came about with the world that Grace creates for Ama in their flat. Everything is slightly magical. It’s not magical realism, but it was important to me that we use color for the poetry as an expression of their relationship. So, their world is not poppy, but it’s quite soulful and colorful, so working with my production designer, we really leaned into finding that depth and capturing the poetry that I wanted. And then, with the cinematographer, Tasha Back – I really am obsessed with close-ups and I know that this isn’t necessarily how most films are made, but I really loved just this meditation on these two people. The camera can become quite technical in terms of expressing trauma and I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted the camera to just force us to look at them, force us to see them, force us to see Grace’s journey and how Grace starts to change and how Ama starts to change as well. So, it was a combination of those things, of wanting to really spend a lot of time on the characters, becoming intimate with them, and also this idea of the poetry and the color of the world that they lived in.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past few years. What is your take on it?
A.O.: I still don’t think there is enough representation of women in film. Absolutely! Certainly not black women in the role that I’m in – as a writer-director of features. I think there is more work to be done. But I also think that the work of women in film is also about the nature of the industry and the nature of the systems under which films are made. I feel like maybe we are not as person-centered as we should be in the process of filmmaking, that perhaps we do not spend enough time thinking about the process as opposed to the final film. These are all things that I think there could be a much more holistic approach to film – that women and caregivers have responsibilities outside of work, all those sorts of things that the industry hasn’t quite caught up with and I think it’s absolutely important that we catch up with those things because I think in all stories, in women’s stories, there’s just so much to explore, and there’s a lot of space for it. But I’m here! I’ve made a feature and that’s something to be celebrated! So, there is change happening, but I think there’s still a bit to do.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
A.O.: I love Andrea Arnold! And, Fish Tank was a film I really loved. Lynn Ramsay! I love what she does with film. I think every film she makes develops the genre and always asks more questions about what we’re capable of doing with story and film.
What are your next projects?
A.O.: Who knows? Honestly, it’s so hard to make a film. I have an idea that I want to explore that’s about finding your queer identity, sensuality and sexuality later in life, mixed with a road movie. That’s the next thing I want to make. It’s definitely a lot more ambitious and a lot more expansive than Girl in terms of its scope and its breadth. That’s what I’m excited to start thinking about, but I’ve got nothing in place to actually start writing it or making it. Also, I’d love to work in TV. I’d love to work on other people’s projects. I love collaboration. This a difficult industry. Just because you make a feature doesn’t mean you get to make another one; it’s hard! So, fingers crossed!
Photo credits: Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.
This interview was conducted remotely at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.