Director Dehanza Rogers’s latest short film, “Sweet, Sweet Country” is the winner of the Audience Award at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival. The film stars Danielle Deadwyler as the 20-year old refugee Ndizeye, whose struggles to care for herself and the family she left behind in Kenya become even more pressing when they literally show up at her doorstep. The story takes place in Clarkston, Georgia, a real life obscure southern town that became known for the influx of refugees from around the world who were settled there and the soccer team, the Fugees, that emerged from the children of these communities. Gbenga Akinnabge (The Wire, Nurse Jackie) also stars. Rogers’s film emerged from dozens of interviews she conducted in Clarkston, as well as from her family’s experiences as immigrants from Panama. Below’s a short Q&A we had with Rogers.
How did you develop your choice of music for the film?
Rogers: I have been obsessed with music from West Africa and North Africa for years. I have this folder of music with songs that I’ve collected over the years. In my head for this film, I had Blitz the Ambassador very early on in writing. It’s this mixture of wonderful things! It’s highlife and it’s hip-hop. While we were in Clarkston, I met all these women and girls. They all knew five different languages because they’re around so many different people from around everywhere. The refugee situation is huge and its people from all over. So, I started thinking, how does the music relate to this? All the music is more or less from West Africa except for Ian Kamau from Toronto, by way of Trinidad. I thought, West African music but it’s an East African story. Yet it still fits.
Culture in the camps clash and kind of feed off each other. You know Swahili but you know Somali and you know Arabic. There’s this mixture of all these things so I thought, what does it matter if it’s West African? What matters is the tone of it. I more or less had the same music from beginning to end. The moment I started writing, I began thinking, where does the music go to the last edit. We sent the artists the link to the story and told them we wanted to use their music. Everybody said yes. They bought the idea, they liked how we were treating their music. It was just really supportive. I got to talk to Blitz the Ambassador!
Did any of the artists bring up their own personal experiences with immigration?
I didn’t really have a chance to ask any of them about it, but I do follow Ian Kamau’s website. He’s a hip-hop social conscious artist. He is so honest. Brother is so honest that you listen to his music and you kind of get emotional. I’m like, am I really crying right now? He talks about these very personal moments of love and loss. He is very poignant about being someone trying to support himself off of his art. Not have another job that pays his rent. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. At some point, all this is supposed to pay off where I have a job and can actually pay my rent and direct movies.
Did you already know about Clarkston specifically before writing? Was this a place that always interested you?
I knew a little about Clarkston. What I find interesting is that a lot of people in Atlanta don’t know about Clarkston. It’s maybe 20 miles outside the city in the east. I knew about Clarkston and had already moved to LA when there was this huge thing in the news about a soccer team called the Fugees. The New York Times did a piece on these kids and there was a book written. One of my friends sent me the article and said that this was an idea if I wanted to come home and do a documentary. I started doing research and one of my friends bought a house in Clarkston. When I went home to visit, I went around the city and even more of my friends, some Muslim, would talk about the halal market in Clarkston. I thought why is there a halal market in Clarkston? I would think there would be one in Atlanta proper but in Clarkston?
Driving around, you definitely see women from different places and men from different places. There’s a halal café and pizza shop where the men sit out and chit chat. There’s a texture to it that you feel when you walk through the community. Most of research did happen when I was back in LA but when I decided to shoot in Clarkston, I drove across the country four times in an eight month period. I met up with a friend who runs an afterschool program and he connected me with families in different apartment complexes and they let me into their homes and told me their stories. They were mostly women. At one point, I started panicking because I thought, is this story doing justice to what I want to do? Is that enough? Should I change things? I called my professor and we had a heartfelt conversation and I realized that this is just a slice of a larger idea. It’s just one story in a huge varied story about the refugee experience.
Was the story that you ended up with a story that was typical of those you spoke with or was it one that stood out to you?
It’s a mixture of different women that I’ve met over the years as well as a family story. My family is Panamanian but we’re West Indian because we came to work on the canal with the first wave of the French, Jamaican, Haitian, Grenadian. This is a family of West Indian women. Most of the men are dead. They don’t live very long. We would have Mother’s Day in Columbus, Georgia, where I grew up with my grandparents. It was me, my mother, my mother’s sister, my grandmother and her sisters. Four generations of West Indian women. Something is going to happen. Someone is going to say something. Someone is going to get upset. So some stuff kind of came out of the closet. I think I had just started college and I was confused. I asked my grandmother about it and she was not judgmental at all. Things were hard at the canal and the only option was to work for the United States’ government. What do you do?
The length of time that the lead character has been in the US is unknown. Was there a particular reason you did not reveal that?
It’s a short film and one of the things that [UCLA] pushed at us was that in a short, you cannot do a whole narrative. You have to do a moment. I don’t believe that. I get frustrated with the shorts that are an ambiguous moment that happens. The script was a lot longer, so I cut it down. The first cut was 30 minutes, I cut that down. I didn’t want the audience to think about that too much though. It becomes obvious in the film that the lead has been in the US for a while. And she’s trying to take care of her family and herself as best she can.
How did you cast Gbenga Akinnabe (who played Chris Partlow in The Wire) in the film?
I know right?! I had a producer who had a mutual friend. She sent the script to that friend who sent it to his manager. We got an email back saying that he read it, but that was it. What the hell does that mean? So I tweeted him, I heard you read the script. He replied that he really liked it and that was it. Once, again, what does that mean? I appreciate it, but is that a yes? He and I started chatting back and forth on Twitter and then direct-messaging each other. When he came to LA, I had lunch with him and one of his friends. In the conversation, he asked me, why should I do your movie? And I thought, you already said yes. We’re kind of the same goofy person so it kind of just worked out. We had to push shooting in March to August, so he gave us an entire week and came to Atlanta.
It was the first time I had worked with a professional actor. Let me tell you, I’m in love with “The Wire.” As in, obsessed with “The Wire.” It was awesome to work with him because he’s such a good actor. You get the sense that he’s a good actor from his role in “The Wire.” When I wrote the script, Chris Partlow was the character that I had in mind. There’s this one moment in that show where you see him with his family. You see him with this women and two kids. They allude to some sort of sexual abuse with him as a child. I thought about it: what about a character where you never see the other side to his life? You know there’s another life, and the audience is aware. But what you see is what you see. Before we started, I picked him up from the airport and we read the script together. Then my lead came and they rehearsed together. And then we spent three hours watching videos and clowning. And that’s when I knew … He was the one who introduced me to “ain’t nobody got time for that!” You would think that he would try to take over. But I’m the director and he would ask me, is that what you wanted, and I had no problems giving suggestions. He brought ideas to the table as well. That’s the role of the director: ninety percent of it is casting the right person. It was the first time as an artist where the thing in my head translated well. It made me really happy.