TBB Talks To … Film Director Corine Dhondee

Corine Dhondee is an award-winning screenwriter and director

Her work has won many admirers for consistently capturing an expansive range of lived experiences within the Black community and beyond.

In this insightful conversation, Corine opens up to The British Blacklist about navigating tight budgets with her projects, interweaving elements of her personal life into her work and her recently re-released project The Queen’s Suite.

Please introduce yourself …

I was born in L’île Maurice. We lived in the town Beau Bassin – Rose Hill until my parents left for London, a place they believed welcomed everyone into her sweaty armpits. Instead, the shadow of racism lingered over us and sometimes exploded in violent street attacks. Survival was a daily driving force. It was dependent on the surrounding network and a touch of imagination.

Growing up I was guided and influenced by Mauritian Creole culture, Caribbean, Irish and English working class cultures. The creative force of the imagination, story, dance, poetry and painting were tools of survival. The element of story was seeded by my mother she was an exquisite storyteller, teacher, dancer and singer. From her, I understand the joy of storytelling. I am a first-generation filmmaker. Mo zanfan mo mama. In 2022 I am working as Director’s Assistant to the esteemed Director Mr Julian Farino on the Netflix film, Our Man From Jersey, starring Halle Berry and Mark Wahlberg.

Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.

En motion.

Your film The Queen’s Suite was a very ambitious introduction to the world of filmmaking, given the scope of interviews and also the 30-minute runtime. What made you choose such a big project to start with?

I met a filmmaker who was interested in my Master’s dissertation topic, The Creation of the Enemy Identity by Systems of Power. He offered me a job as a researcher on a feature documentary in Israel and Palestine. Before leaving the UK, I made contact with a few Israeli and Palestinian academics and politicians. When I arrived my contacts proved to be invaluable. Leaving I was detained and held for three hours in a cell with three soldiers. My crime? Interviewing Palestinians. The soldiers told me I had met with terrorists. According to them, I was a terrorist by association. I think of all those I met orphaned children, families, academics, politicians, workers, musicians, young Israeli soldiers, and Israeli activists, and wonder how they are viewed by those in power. The gaze of power reduces others, distils them into an identifiable formula, featureless and no longer human. Consequently making spaces for individuals to tell their stories is a revolutionary act. In Israel and Palestine, I experienced first-hand how an independent feature documentary could be made by two people. There, I saw the power of film and how it can be used both positively and negatively. It gave me the tools to know how to make a documentary film.

The Queen and Duke Ellington

The story of the Queen and Duke Ellington’s meeting isn’t common knowledge to all and your film has done an amazing service to the culture by bringing it to the attention of more people. Do you approach filmmaking with this sense of responsibility?

In the book Kieslowski about Kiewslowski, the filmmaker presents documentary films as being a record of what doesn’t exist. The record allows the collective conscience to deal with the unknown. For the documentary films I have made, the individuals are central. It was important to get to know the individual through the preparation and filming process, this took time but during this process, something important was captured. In The Queen’s Suite, there is a moment when Peter shows a different side of himself. According to the audience, it was a ‘coming of age‘ moment. Only time and getting to know the individual allowed that wonderful moment to be captured.

In every documentary film, there are boundaries. I wouldn’t wish to film anything that would be negative to any individual. My intention is always to have the best outcome for the individuals. This is my small counter-narrative contribution to Black cinematic stories. All my films from the first one, are about individuals who want to be heard, who are finding their voice, who want justice and who seek change. I think one must have integrity, respect for the story and the ability to walk in an individual’s shoes when making a documentary film.

Before studying at the London Film School, you graduated from the London School of Economics with an MSc in Gender Studies. Did you always have the intention of becoming a filmmaker or did you experience a sudden/ gradual realisation?

At University I had no intention to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t something tangible to me. I had no idea about careers in the industry. When I graduated with a first-class BA honours degree with distinction in Gender and Politics I was told I could start a career in social work. Instead, I interned at Operation Black Vote and wrote six chapters of their citizenship booklet. The chapters were about child rights, stop and search and Stephen Lawrence.

Afterwards, I studied Gender Masters at LSE. When I graduated I wanted to work as part of the UN and effect change via policy and did so as a Lead Researcher. It ended my desire to work in this area. I had worked on a documentary film and had started to make shorts. Taking this interest further I travelled to Prague where I made a short film called The Secret Church Under Communism as part of the Prague summer school. Upon my return to London, the short was pitched to a broadcaster by Christo Hird from Dartmouth Films. Although the broadcaster liked the film it was turned down. Christo Hird asked me what else I was working on and I told him about The Queen’s Suite. He advised me on how to write the treatment and gave me a camera and sound equipment to film with. Afterwards, I went to film school and when I left began working on major feature films such as Star Wars, Marvel and Netflix productions whilst also making my own projects.

In the past, you’ve spoken about the financial constraints that you had to navigate whilst filming The Queen’s Suite. The story of the Queen and Duke Ellington’s meeting is so incredible, why do you think that projects like this struggle to receive funding and industry backing?

There is a particular model in the UK film industry which many have spoken about before. In a nutshell. Black stories about Black joy, culture and success are not part of the current industry business model. The model is geared towards stories about Black pain, sorrow and being black in opposition to whiteness. The model adheres to a narrow line of story and perception of humanity.

In 2015 veteran filmmaker Ava DuVernay discussed the Hollywood model as part of a podcast with KCRW and said “the question then becomes do I not make the film, am I going to wait for someone’s permission to make the film because it doesn’t fit within a model.” Ava DuVernay understood the industry in a way many new filmmakers do not.

I was new and really green. I worked long hours with no income from the project. One thing is making an independent film, which is a struggle, another is to get distribution for a film that isn’t commissioned, which is another struggle. As a new filmmaker, I needed better representation and someone in my corner but I really didn’t have anyone.

I’ve heard you talk about listening to the legendary Jazz musician Miles Davis whilst editing The Queen’s Suite. What role does music play in your creative process?

Bradford Young & Corinne Dhondee

Music can caress you and lull you into a sense of incredible joy and it can move you to tears. It is a moving landscape which can open a crack into the corners of the imagination of ideas, the physical body, and the mind. Music calls to each element and arouses. If you become still and listen quietly you will hear the song of the world. Music is around us at all times, whispering to us, caressing us. It is a creative source.

The Queen’s Suite was initially released in 2011 and was re-released on Vimeo in line with the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations this year. Do you plan to re-release any of your previous projects in the coming years?

In 2017 I met the cinematographer Bradford Young at BSC Expo in London. Bradford Young is known for When They See Us, Arrival, Selma, Mother of George, and Pariah to name a few films. I was able to secure an interview with him, we had three hours to shoot it: The short Bradford Young: Cinema Is The Weapon (2019) is the outcome. In the film, Bradford talks about the lineage of Black filmmakers who have inspired him. The film had a successful international two-year festival run screening at predominantly Black film festivals in the USA. In 2019 it won the Women In Film Award from the Earls Court Film Festival. I am currently considering options from American outlets regarding distribution.

When can we expect to see your new project The Messenger of Joy and Sorrow released?

This film, like The Queen’s Suite, doesn’t have funding attached. Independent films made with little funds take time. What drives this unpaid, un-commissioned work that may never see the light of day? In the case of The Queen’s Suite, I could visualise the full story, It was a beautiful story one which, I thought, could be a fantastic educational tool. The Messenger of Joy and Sorrow is more complicated because it began as a way to cope with the death of friends from Covid. The film is about a videographer who helped families grieve during the first lockdown. I wanted to show how during such great sorrow we found ways to assist each other. I’m hoping to have it completed by 2023.

Apart from your mother (who you aforementioned), who else influenced you to become a storyteller?

University introduced me to the writers Bell Hooks, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Professor Patricia Hill Collins, Professor Stuart Hall, Franz Fanon, and Professor Paul Gilroy. To give a list of all the writers I read, loved and drew inspiration from during those years is impossible but their words opened a door for me which inadvertently led to film.

Getting To Know You…

  • A book you have to have in your collection? Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon
  • A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
  • A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Old Boy (2003) Director Park Chan-Wook, Cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung.
  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Sad – Death – Mad -The retreat of democracy in the UK and a total lack of accountability on the part of politicians and corporations. Glad -I have witnessed the extraordinary and the ordinary as a community and as an individual. I am blessed.

You Can watch The Queen’s Suite on vimeo. For more information on Corine Dhondee visit Corine Dhondee

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