In 2020, director Kelly Fyffe-Marshall won the Toronto International Film Festival’s Shawn Mendes Foundation Changemaker Award and took home both the Canadian Screen Award for Best Live Action Short Drama and the Toronto Film Critics’ Jay Scott Prize, awarded to emerging artist, a year later for her powerful and thought-provoking short film Black Bodies. A two-part work, along with the equally sensational Marathon, the film spawned out of her own traumatic encounter with the police when her and her friend’s made headlines after being racially profiled while leaving a California Airbnb.
Despite the accolades Black Bodies received, the work went unnoticed by many in Canadian media until it was co-signed by American director Ava DuVernay. Judging by her stunning feature debut When Morning Comes, which premieres at TIFF on September 12 and will also be available for at home viewing as part of the festival’s digital titles, no one should be overlooking her immense talent moving forward.
When Morning Comes tells the story of soon-to be 10-year-old Jamal whose comfortable life in Jamaica is disrupted when he learns that his mother plans to send him to Canada to live with his grandmother. “The story is based off some of my immigration story coming from England to Canada” states Fyffe-Marshall. Born in England, to parents of Jamaican and Bajan heritage, she immigrated to Canada close to the age of the film’s protagonist. Her experiences gave her insight into the sense of confusion children feel when trying to make sense of why such a change is occurring.
The uncertainty that comes with no longer being able to grasp that which one once knew, while being propelled towards the unknown, is key to navigating Fyffe-Marshall’s poetic film. Unlike most immigrant tales, which start with the individual’s arrival in a new land, Fyffe-Marshall’s film focuses on the place of departure. “It was important for me to show the snapshot of what happened before” the director remarks “we don’t think about the decisions it takes to lead up to immigration.”
The way immigrants and refugees are presented in the media, and our own biases, often lead some to view them in a negative light, rather than to take the time to learn what they went through. Understanding the difficult choices people often must make before arriving in Canada was critical in crafting the complexities of characters like Jamal’s mother Janeesha (referred to as Neesha by friends), who must make the toughest decision of all in the film.
Reflecting on a pivotal moment between mother and son in the film, Fyffe-Marshall noted that “I really thought about what my mother had been through and the things I needed to hear from her [at that age].” While she may have been too young to understand all of her family’s choices, her loving memories of her time in Jamaica as a kid were never in doubt.
One of the things she knew from an early age was that if she ever made a film about Jamaica, it would not be the stereotypical flicks with atrocious fake accents that we normally see. Fyffe-Marshall views the film as “a way for me to show everybody this authentic slice of Jamaica…the Jamaica I knew growing up.” The island depicted in the film is one of love and community, the violent realities birthed out of colonialism and poverty are touched on, but kept off screen.
In reflecting on this approach, she points out that it was important for her as “a Black female, and a Jamaican artist, to not always give into those things where we think we need to see the gun violence.” By avoiding drinking from the well of sensationalism, When Morning Comes provides Fyffe-Marshall with a chance to get nourishment from a different creative stream. Known for making socially impactful films that deal with difficult subject matter, her feature debut presented the opportunity to tell a story that families could watch together. “After Black Bodies, I was in a space where I wanted to move away from talking about the trauma…there is a lot of joy in my everyday” states Fyffe-Marshall.
This sense of joy radiates from the screen is partly due to the tender performance from lead actor Djamari Roberts. Fyffe-Marshall expressed praise for the young actor’s talents and work ethic. “I was very lucky with Djarmari because he is a star. He read the script two weeks before [shooting] and memorized it” gushes the director. What makes Roberts’ work in the film so stunning is that he conveys the required innocence of a newcomer but carries the emotional weight of the role like a seasoned professional.
Aside from the lead performance, the gorgeous visuals from cinematographer Jordan Oram also play a key role in the film. His keen visual eye truly makes the lush island a pivotal character in the story. Oram is one of a core team of long-time collaborators, which includes producers Tamar Bird, Iva Golubovic, and Sasha Leigh Henry, the three formed the female-led production company Sunflower Studios with Fyffe-Marshall, that has been instrumental in helping the director tell diverse stories on screen.
In discussing how working with these collaborators for close to a decade continues to bear such rich fruit, she notes that “the beautiful thing is that we are all growing together at the same time. It does feel like a family.” The sense of trust and respect they have for each other has allowed Fyffe-Marshall to devote even more time to her craft as a director rather than attempting to juggle numerous roles on set. These bonds have also been impactful off the screen as well.
A long-time activist and advocate for change, Fyffe-Marshall, alongside Bird, Golubovic and Leigh Henry, started the Make Ripples foundation which is a non-profit organization designed to address inequality through education and knowledge sharing. They have already produced unique video conversations with key figures in the creative, beauty, and business industries, available for free on their website, and have plans for future campaigns and videos that get people thinking about diversity in a different and positive light. Though still in its infancy, Make Ripples’ approach to fostering individual change regardless of one’s status is what makes it so appealing.
“Whether you are in your family circle or your friends circle, all of those spaces that you occupy should be better because of you” she states. Embodying this mindset to everything she does, including ensuring every set she works on features a diverse crew, Fyffe-Marshall continues to show with each project why she is such a vital voice in cinema and the world at large.
Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s When Morning Comes premieres at TIFF 2022 on Monday Sept, 12 and will be available online as part of TIFF’s Festival at Home.