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10th February 2020
Subverting stereotypes
Title of film: Kemba - Nobody I Can Trust
Director: Tomson Tee
Production Company: Ghost Robot
New York-based filmmaker Tomson Tee is committed to telling stories that challenge the truths of the world, no matter how difficult they may be to accept. Thanks to a chance incident on the metro, which encouraged him to pursue his interest in moving image, Tee was forced to reflect on his own upbringing and thought patterns. He is now happy to get curious about his own hang-ups and bias to ensure that his work remains relatable, real and most importantly, cuts through.

Your film for Kemba’s track Nobody I Can Trust was hugely popular amongst the 1.4 Awards judges; what inspired the concept and why do you think it’s striking such a chord with viewers?

I wanted to highlight the significant role that micro-aggressions play in enforcing systemic oppression in the film. Though the majority of the film focuses on the repetition of scenes in which different black men get arrested on the same sidewalk every day, in my opinion, the core idea lies in the intermediate scenes in the diner.

That’s where the self-perpetuating downward spiral is most felt and most subtle. Balancing shifty looks from white people; purses being pulled away at the sight of a black man; and people on the streets jeering at black men being arrested – I wanted to show how the perpetuation of racist stereotypes feeds into racial profiling. This only exacerbates unjust arrests and continues to fuel ignorant racist perceptions of black people. It becomes a sick, twisted feedback loop.

Dr. Martin Luther King once spoke about the important distinction between a negative and positive peace in his piece, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Negative peace refers to the absence of tension, while positive peace suggests the presence of justice. Within the US and to a considerable extent, globally, we are still living within negative peace in terms of racism, but also in terms of almost every major issue we face today. I hope this video is a thoughtful addition to this conversation.

 

Kemba also stars in the promo as the lead character and he’s brilliant; what was it like directing him and how much say did he have in the film’s direction?

Kemba and I first met two years ago, and had tried to get some projects off the ground over the course of that time.​ ​Through this, we built some creative rapport​ which made this collaboration very comfortable.

All credit for his performance goes to him. As a non-actor, he really has a gift for wearing his heart on his sleeve, even on camera. I just made a very conscious effort to listen as much as I speak which I’ve found draws out the best performance from actors – when they hopefully feel respected and nurtured and are thus able to be vulnerable on-screen.

Kemba was very generous in giving me autonomy over the concept and the film’s direction maybe because he recognised that our politics were very much aligned. He had his notes, of course, but even so there was a lot of freedom within our collaboration – which I am very grateful for.

 

The escalation in the film is gradual and subtle despite the promo being under five minutes long. What did you have to prioritise and focus on to pull this off so smoothly?

It was a tricky balance; the gradual and deliberate pace was key to the presentation of the negative feedback loop of racism.

I honed in on a series of micro-aggressions that we could stage that were succinct and impactful at just six seconds long. They had to be commonplace enough so that the audience could infer their meaning completely without any dialogue, which unfortunately, wasn’t a hard list to put together.

I was also conscious that without dialogue, we would need extremely concise blocking and framing to emphasise these micro-aggressions. And the performances had to be spot-on.

This was very much an ensemble piece; we had so many characters – some of whom appeared in the video for a mere six seconds – but their addition helped to carry the core emotional beats in the narrative. Huge shoutout to my regular tribe; they absolutely killed it!

The film’s gradual descent into madness was maximised by showing the moderate ends of the spectrum that contribute to the negative feedback loop. Kemba’s white co-workers for instance – who are clearly chummy with him but sit idly by when their friends are faced with increasingly racist behaviour from the townspeople.

It felt important to me to really try and emphasize that if you stand idly by, you are still complicit: if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

 

Obviously, the promo touches on quite sensitive issues such as racism, violence and societal discrimination. Were you ever concerned with presenting these issues on-screen and if so, how did you overcome this?

My partner and I had a conversation a while back, about how quick people are to attack a public opinion for being ignorant or problematic. My partner pointed out that maybe all that means is that we now need to actually put thought into whatever we are saying, before we loudly broadcast it. And isn’t that better than the alternative of perpetuating ignorance?

It was extremely intimidating tackling this video. But my approach was to make a conscious effort to speak to people who are smarter than me and to keep an eye on my ego, as I incorporated their creative and political critiques into the project.

I’m definitely not perfect. But I believe what matters is to have made every effort to stay as informed and educated as possible.

 

The film flashes some text on screen throughout to – seemingly subconsciously – aid the story’s narrative. Where did these come from and what do you think this adds?

That was actually Kemba’s idea, which I think was inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s “God is Gangsta” video. Beyond the actual messaging, the idea of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it message appearing at the start is a perfect primer on a craft-level, because it implies the need to pay close attention.

The film opens on a utopian suburban neighbourhood, that mirrors the American Dream.​ But even within the first few seconds, if you look closer, you can see something much more sinister bubbling beneath this picture-perfect surface — blink and you’ll miss it.

 

You grew up in Asia, LA, San Fran and now are based in New York. What has travel taught you and how has it impacted on your creative outlook, if at all?

Travel has helped me to extract the sense of privilege and entitlement I was accustomed to in Singapore. It was the wake-up call I really needed and, for that, I’m eternally grateful.

As a cis male Chinese person, I was part of the most privileged demographic growing up and it took moving to the US – where I was stripped of some of that privilege – for me to grasp what privilege even was. It showed me, through reflecting on my time in Singapore, how effortless and easy it is to surround yourself with other privileged people, even unintentionally so. That can be a dangerous bubble to live in especially combined with the firm belief that you are a morally upstanding person.

Many people tend to believe they are a paragon of virtue; that they’re not a part of the problem because they’re not committing hate crimes; that they have black friends, which makes them exempt to racist behaviour.

I realised, after some reflection on how I used to speak and think, how easily this mindset allows you to absolve yourself of doing any real legwork into understanding what those who are disenfranchised are going through. And how easy it then becomes, through this complacent ignorance, to lean into the negative peace space because it works for you, and to settle into the bigoted mentality that sustains it.

To blindly believe that if only people from marginalized groups would stop complaining and work as hard as you, they too could prosper. Or to not be so sensitive about the occasional racist joke, since you don’t personally mind racist jokes at your expense.

It horrifies me how much these thoughts – thoughts that I too used to have – still very much make up the majority. That’s why Nobody I Can Trust was so important to me.

 

How long have you been a director and what inspired you to get into filmmaking?

I’ve been directing for about four years now. Growing up in Singapore, it was hammered into me that a career in the arts was a waste of time. So, even though I had always been moved by film, I resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably have to get a finance-related job.

During my first summer after moving to the States, a random stranger and I struck up a conversation on a train platform about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told the older woman about my conditioned attitude towards art, explaining that even though pursuing an artistic vocation in the US seemed more possible, I was probably too far behind in my learning to become a filmmaker.

She matter-of-factly told me that: “If there’s 100 people who want to do something you want to do, 50 of them are going to tell themselves they aren’t good enough, and that removes them from the pool right off the bat. Why would you want to be one of those 50 people?”

It wasn’t a particularly earth-shattering moment but upon returning to my room, I couldn’t fall asleep that night. My mind raced thinking about her words and I thought ‘I’d rather be completely broke and PA-ing on movies that mean something to people, than slave away at some company selling people shit they don’t need.’

Next day I enrolled in a film workshop for teens in San Francisco and I’ve been at it ever since.

I never got to thank my mysterious stranger for completely changing my life. ​I’m not sure if I even got her name. All I remember is that she was from Oakland, half Japanese and was going to nursing school at the time.

 

Are you represented by a production company? If not, what are you looking for in terms of representation?

I’m not currently represented. Mostly I’m hoping to land at a place with progressive values that is up for making left-field content that pushes the envelope… Some of my ideas get pretty weird.

 

What are you currently working on and what do you hope to gain from your career?

I’m really interested in how we treat each other and how that deviates from how we tell ourselves to treat each other including what we teach our kids.

Are we really OK living in a world of excess comfort while entire populations of people are exploited, marginalised or flat out suffering?

I want to continue raising meaningful questions in my work about our pursuit of equality (or lack thereof) and create pieces that are engaging and accessible.

I’m currently finishing up a short about how the 1% don’t feel rich, exploring this concept through the eyes of a wealthy woman whose head is going to explode in the next three days.

Interview by Olivia Atkins

Credits

Kemba, Nobody I Can Trust

Written & Directed by: Tomson Tee
Production Company: Ghost Robot

Exec. Producers: Mark De Pace & Zachary Mortensen
Producers: Nadine Lübbeling, Sarah Nadeau
Prod. Co-ordinator: Skyler Tapley, Jake Eisner

Director of Photography: Cory Fraiman-Lott
Wardrobe Stylist: Marc Anthony George
1st AD: Carlos Zozaya
Hair & Makeup: Jade Stanton
Steadicam: Jordan Tetewsky
Art Director: Jay LaForest
Gaffer: Laura Hilliard
Key Grip: Owen Lazur
1st AC: Brian Hall
Wardrobe Asst: Cristina Tederick
Sound Mixer: Kellen Quigley
PAs: Chris Johnson, Barbara Barton

Sound Designer: Keller McDivitt
Colorist: Mary Perrino

Special Thanks: Alex Noble, Ashleigh Choo

 

Hippo Campus, Doubt

Director & Editor: Tomson Tee
Production Company: Ghost Robot
Exec. Producers: Mark De Pace & Zachary Mortensen
Producers: Oliver Finley & Nadine Lübbeling
Head of Production: Kacie Barton
Prod. Supervisor: Jake Eisner
Director of Photography: Cory Fraiman-Lott
Production Design: Annie Chernecky
Post Producer: Ingrid Jacobsen
Mask Fabricator: Sam Hill
Colorist: Mary Perrino
Deer: Sarah J Coffey
Stunt Coordinator: R Roberto Lopez
Stunt Driver: Earl Weathers
Soundstage: Brooklyn Fire Proof
Commissioner: Steve Gottlieb