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Interview: Andrew Rossi on Bronx Gothic and Okwui Okpokwasili

Rossi discusses how he brought Okpokwasili’s vision of radical empathy to the screen.

Peter Goldberg



Interview: Andrew Rossi on Bronx Gothic and Okwui Okpokwasili
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Andrew Rossi has spent his career weaving in and out of America’s most venerated institutions. He’s documented the cornerstones of public life around the country, giving special insight into the time bomb that’s the soaring cost of higher education in 2014’s Ivory Tower. His work also has a special affection for the frenetic energy sustaining (and challenging) New York City and its cultural life, be it the Metropolitan Museum of Art or The New York Times, whose inner workings he’s captured with an insider’s intimacy.

Rossi’s latest testament to the city’s culture, Bronx Gothic, follows the final tour of performer Okwui Okpokwasili’s eponymously named one-woman show, bringing the documentary’s audience into a reflection not just on the artist and her process, but the nature of spectatorship itself. Okpokwasili rapturously received semi-autobiographical production, first performed in 2014, is a visceral exploration of the youth, sexuality, and the sense of black womanhood of a second-generation immigrant in America.

On a rainy July morning, I joined Rossi at Film Forum’s offices to discuss how he brought Okpokwasili’s vision of radical empathy to the screen.

How did Okwui Okpokwasili’s work first come to your attention?

Well, I read about “Bronx Gothic” being performed at the St. Marks Theater in 2014 and immediately it grabbed my attention because I knew Okwui. She’s actually one of my dear friends.

Did you grow up together?

We actually went to college together. We’re friends and I directed her in a piece of theater, so I immediately wanted to see this piece, which profoundly affected me. I felt that this was a work that really should be captured on film, along with her process and how she wrote it. When I found out in 2016 that she was gonna do her final tour of the piece, I thought, “Well, this is the moment.” There was finally an urgency to make it. It was then or never.

I’m now curious about your theater background since you mentioned working with Okwui on a theater performance in college.

Nothing extensive, but I did direct the first act of Waiting for Godot.

That’s an accomplishment!

[laughs] It was. It’s a piece that I love, and I love Samuel Beckett. Okwui played Vladimir in the piece and, you know, it was interesting because it was staged around scaffolds. We had the audience on scaffolds in a rectangle. And then, she and her fellow actor were sort of in this pit and we had a tree.

“Bronx Gothic” strikes me as having a sort of spare Beckett-like quality to it, so it’s illuminating to hear that you, like her, came from that background.

Well, Okwui was really a force in college. She did a lot of theater. She was somebody who was incredibly compassionate and sort of empathetic with many different types of people. And, you know, you’d walk down the street with her or across the green it would be impossible to get from point A to point B [laughs] because everybody would want to come and engage with her.

She comes off as a very intense magnetic personality in the film. Obviously “Bronx Gothic” is performance, and you added to the performance all this background information, or these off-screen or outside-the-performance discussions with Okwui. How do you see the relation between these sorts of personal moments and the depiction of the performance itself?

The film is structured as a dual narrative, so we have a chronological unfolding of the performance piece “Bronx Gothic,” and then, at certain key moments, we have interventions into that, which depict Okwui engaging with audiences primarily but also in conversation to the camera or to the viewer of the film in a way that hopefully brings out her personal journey, which is in tension with the journey of the two girls that she’s bringing to life in the performance piece. And the idea is that, at a certain moment her character as the creator of “Bronx Gothic” sort of takes over the narrative of the film. So in the beginning we see her collapsing in her dressing room after her final performance saying that she’s losing control of the narrative. But then, by about two thirds of the way through the film, in the moment where she’s showing the performance to her mother, this sort of intergenerational channel is opened into the piece and she sort of assumes control in the verité story of the film just as the character she plays in the performance also is fracturing and realizing she’s haunted by the two girls.

I found the scene with the parents to be so moving and intense. Can you talk about that intensity—catching her swinging from a very emotionally low moment to an emotionally high one?

Thank you, that was really a pivotal scene. Okwui had never shown her performance work to her parents and she was afraid of their reaction. So we drove out to their home in New Jersey and we had a three-hour conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Okpokwasili, and then, as you see in the film, I suggested to them if they would like to see some parts of “The Quake” [the opening act of the performance “Bronx Gothic”] and at that moment Okwui came into the room to sort of be there in case they got upset. That’s a moment where we kinda reveal my presence, which I wanted to do to sort of implicate me as the director of the film, as a white man, but also to set the stage for Okwui to then sort of become the person asking the questions or engaging directly with the subject. We kind of break the fourth wall there.

It’s fascinating.

You see the boom mic, and so I think she started off really nervous. There’s a giddy energy while her parents are watching “The Quake” that’s absorbing. Okwui’s traveling all around the country, and during all these talkbacks people keep challenging why she’s made the film. For example, in the beginning the sort of subject is durational performance. You know, someone says that they wanted to, like, shoot themselves because they were watching “The Quake” for so long [laughs] and then when she’s in Milwaukee there’s a student at the school who talks about the Black Lives Matter movement and Okwui has to respond to her particular pain, her husband challenges whether depictions of African Americans in film dwell on the negative too much, and then her mother says that she doesn’t think that “Bronx Gothic” would work back in their home in Nigeria. So, every step of the way Okwui has to defend and justify her practice, her mission, her artistic vision.

The way you included that doesn’t feel as if you’re telling us, “This is how you should feel about it.” It gives us a dialogue between her work and how other people feel about it. Was that your intention?

Absolutely. We did a really long and fantastic interview with Okwui in which she talks about how she wrote the piece, all the different sections, what they mean, her growing up, her political views, the themes of sexuality and racism and violence that are in the piece, and there’s only so much that you can have the author of the piece sitting in the chair of authority didactically giving it to you. So the theater of Okwui trying to explain and justify her work to her audiences seemed a really important mirror to Okwui as a performer on the stage also confronting the gaze of her audience. It was a great way to bring out those themes.

Can you talk about the conscious element of this work? I’m thinking of the moment when she says, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’m not just a brown body subject to your gaze.”

From the beginning, I thought about what new thing a cinematic adaptation could add to “Bronx Gothic.” And the audience’s relationship to Okwui on the stage seemed like a critical avenue to explore on film. In the filmic format, you can compress time and call attention to certain things. So, in the edit, we looked to moments where we could get Okwui’s subjective experience of performing the piece and not have her just be an object. There’s the viewer in the audience of the stage show, but then the viewer of the film. And so, our hope was to [pause] have viewers of the film sort of check themselves by seeing themselves in the viewers of the stage performance. [We wanted to go] through the range of emotions and just create a multi-layered experience.

I love how we get to experience “Bronx Gothic” on film. But can you go into the decision behind, I guess, “chopping up” the performance? There’s a scene where she stomps her foot and the editing has a stopping quality.

Andrew Coffman was the lead editor of the film and he created that scene. Okwui is evoking the mother of one of the girls and we did a super cut of four different performances that we had captured. We mostly leaned toward the side of trying to preserve an original performance, whether it was in Milwaukee, or Philadelphia, or the Bronx, but in certain cases found the need to incorporate a different angle or perspective from a different venue, and so I think in that instance Andrew wanted to have the rhythmic quality of the editing mirror the staccato sensation of Okwui’s.

One of the things that really stands out about the documentary is the use of sound. You can really hear her smacking herself on the hardwood floor, but you can also hear her panting. Even when she’s just interviewing with somebody you can hear these very-present sounds.

So, along with the use of the audience or depiction of the audience’s gaze, another critical decision in the beginning that I really fought for was to be able to put a microphone on Okwui’s body—a wireless lavalier mic which she was ambivalent about, for understandable reasons, because she’s moving around so much and she didn’t want to be conscious of this device in a way that would distract her from performing. But I felt it was critical to have the viewer simultaneously experience her as this object on the stage but also subjectively understand what it takes for her to go through the physical and emotional strain of summoning these two girls, because part of her project is having people revisit their notions of a brown or black body—to have, as she says in the film, “a flood of feeling.”

Well, it’s very effective. So, I guess we sort of danced around this, as you brought it up a little bit, but can you speak more about what it means to you, as a white man, to direct a performance about a black woman’s trauma?

When we first talked about my first directing a documentary about “Bronx Gothic,” we discussed my identity as a white man. I have faith in the creative ability of an artist to work with subjects and to explore material that’s foreign from the artist’s personal background or experience. Okwui’s whole mission, as she describes it, is to create to amplify people’s empathic capacity and to vibrate with the audience, and as she says in the film, she wants us all to vibrate together: black women, black men, Asian women, Asian men, white women, white men, Latino women, Latino men. I took that as an invitation for me as both a viewer of the piece and as an artist to sort of return the empathic vibration and to provide my response. I viewed making the film not as some sort of definitive assessment of the work or conclusory statement, but rather as my effort as a documentary filmmaker to first of all document the existence of this piece and honor it in its form, but then to also get at some deeper themes and meaning. It’s more than certain that another filmmaker, be they African-American or female or of any other background, would certainly make a different type of film, but this is the one that I made.

Was there a back and forth between you and Okwui throughout the film’s making? Given the sensitive nature of your position as the director, what role did she have, besides performing, in the film’s development?

Okwui, who’s a producer on the film, really let me in. That’s the most precious gift a subject or anyone on a film can provide. She helped to coordinate the sort of different avenues of capturing the tour, but she didn’t have editorial control or any kind of creative input beyond answering, you know, whether we could put a microphone on her. “Can we interview your parents?” I mean, in the end, we showed her a cut of the film, and there were a couple of places where she had some great suggestions of ways that we could preserve some of the pieces of the performance that had some interventions.

“Bronx Gothic” is obviously a performance. It has some elements of theater, but it has some elements of dance to it as well. You think of dance movies while watching it, people like Maya Deren, Yvonne Rainer, and I was thinking of Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing on the way here.

Oh my gosh. Yes, that’s one of my favorite credit sequences of all time.

It’s incredible. I just re-watched it on the subway on YouTube. It’s so great. Do you see Bronx Gothic sort of fitting in that lineage of testing the boundaries between performance or dance and film?

I hope so. I certainly looked at different renderings of performance from music, to theater, in documentary formats, Swimming to Cambodia, D.A. Pennebaker’s work, the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars David Bowie documentary, Stop Making Sense, John Cassavetes’s Opening Night, but I think it’s up to the viewer to put it within their own sense.

Do you see any special relation between dance and film, or is it sort of removed from the concerns of this film to you?

No, I think it’s absolutely critical to understand how dance is all about time, and so is film, and to what extent it’s possible to honor and effectively capture movement in space in time that takes place on a stage—and yet, to be able to compress that into a narrative.

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