Interviews

Interview with Jamaican actor and film director Shelley Thunder

Written by Xavier Murphy

This week we interview Shelley Thunder a Jamaican actor and film director living in Norway. She  made her first short film, Brother Man, in 2011.  She is currently working on her second project “A Jamaican Love Story”. Here is our conversation with Shelley Thunder. 

How many years having you been living in Norway? How do you like it?
It’s going to be 11 yrs in September this year so it’s been a long time. I might even say too long since I never intended to stay here for so many years. It just kind of happened. One thing led to another and boom, 11 years went by in a flash.
 
Anyway as for how I like it? Well, you know for many immigrants this country is really great. And I’m not going to lie to you and say its a horrible place to be because it isn’t. I don’t like the winter and the snow and the cold, but it’s a very beautiful, well regulated and organized country with excellent social welfare that takes care of everyone. Norway has been crowned the world’s best country to live in 3 years in a row since 2009. So the vast majority of people who live here are quite comfortable. Having said that, it has never felt like home for me, it’s just a place I’m passing through. It’s difficult to feel completely at home in a country where you’re constantly being tested and challenged because of the colour of your skin, and because of that I don’t think Norway, on a whole, is a place where black Type A personalities can thrive. That is not to say there isn’t any successful black people here, because there is, but if you’re ambitious, proud to be black and don’t want to constantly apologise for who you are, it can be a tough place to navigate especially if you’ve migrated from a developing country. People automatically question your competency and your abilities because they’ve been conditioned to think that everything and everyone coming from developing countries, so called Third World countries, is sub-par. There’s a lot of prejudices that people often don’t realize that they have and if you’re not strong of mind and will, it can really get to you. 

What are the most common thing people say when they learn that you are Jamaican?

It depends on the person and where they’re from. The thing most Europeans mention when they find out I’m Jamaican is Bob Marley and the perceived level of violence in Jamaica. I’m not going to lie to people about our crime problem, but I do my best to sell Brand Jamaica as much as I can by focusing on the more positive sides of our culture that the western media never highlights. Yes we have a slew of social problems in Jamaica, but that doesn’t define who we are as a people. In third place, now that he has exploded onto the world scene, is mentions of Usain Bolt followed by people asking me if I can run. Lol When Africans find out I’m Jamaican, they’re very impressed. They’re some of our biggest fans. They try to “act” Jamaican by imitating our accent, our patois and our mannerisms. They really look up to Jamaica and Jamaicans, which is nice. It always amazes me when I come across people wanting to be like Jamaicans. I went to a dance hall party in the Netherlands recently and I was shocked, but really impressed by these white dutch guys mashing up the sound just like they do back a yard and shouting at the girls to wine dem body. In Patois. It was mad, but also made me proud to be Jamaican because we may be likkle but we tallawah. lol It goes to show just how far the influence of our little nation stretches, and we have a responsibility to be good role models not just for our own Jamaican people, but also for our friends around the world too. 

 
You have a unique story on how you got into film making. Can you share that story with us?
I knew I wanted to be an actress from a very young age and was very active in my high school drama club. I wanted to pursue an acting career, but my mom wouldn’t hear of it. When I moved to Europe I had a bit more independence and freedom to do what I wanted so I enrolled into an acting programme in NYC. After the course I went back to Norway hoping to find work in student productions, maybe even a commercial or two, but I soon discovered that there was literally NO opportunity whatsoever for a black people in Norway. Not even as an extra or background artist. It was mad. Since that time I’ve see a few dark faces popping up on my TV screen once in a blue moon, but I’ve yet to see one on film. I registered with several casting agencies and got called in only once. And they called me in for a dancing gig instead of for acting. The dance was a traditional Kenyan dance. When I told the casting director that I’m not Kenyan, or African, and that I’m an actor not a dancer, she said she thought every black person could dance. After that incident I got frustrated with all the stereotypes and prejudices and decided to start my own production company. Then I realized that I didn’t know a thing about film making so I enrolled into film school and now I make films as well as act in them. Only time will tell if I’m best at one or the other or both. J
Do you look back at the change of career with any regrets?
Not at all. Film making, acting they’re both tough professions be in, but very fulfilling for me. I did my bachelor and master’s degrees in marketing and I tried the 9-5. It made me suicidal – especially when you live in a place where you have to deal with a lot of prejudice on top of it. One day I got up and decided it was time to start fighting for my dream. That was 2 yrs ago and I still have a long way to go, but I’m satisfied with my progress so far. I prefer to have tried and failed rather than spend my life wondering what if. I already spent my life up to now being scared (scared of how I’m going to pay my bills, how I’m going to take care of my family if I quit my steady job for a profession with so much uncertainty, scared of being a failure), but I was done being afraid. I went for it, and in the 2 yrs since I started my company I’ve learned a lot. Film making is not an easy business and Norway isn’t an easy country to do film making in, but we’re thriving. The clients we have are very pleased with the work we do and we have several projects in development, the main one being our first feature film, A Jamaican Love Story.  

Is it difficult for black female filmmakers in Europe to find work?
100% definitely, without a shadow of a doubt. And it’s not just for black female filmmakers (I know of only two of us in the entire country, me and a Gambian-Norwegian). It’s difficult for black people on a whole in every way. And no that’s not an exaggeration. A lot can be said about race relations in North America, but compared to Europe the Americans & the Canadians seem to be way ahead, and I realize that some people might read this and shake their heads, but its true. Some things I’ve seen happen here in Europe would probably have caused a riot in the United States, like the recent modern day Apartheid that took place at a Norwegian high school because ethnic Norwegian, who were in the minority at the school, threatened to transfer to a “white” school. So in an effort to keep the school from going all black, brown and yellow faces the principal came up with the bright idea to segregate the students so the ethnic Norwegians can feel comfortable. Just after that incident, a theatre group in Germany allowed a white German actor to perform in Black face even though there’s no shortage of qualified Black German actors to choose from. You hear about occurrences like these all across Europe all the time. 

 
In Norway, the controversial apartheid decision was overturned after a few days, but it goes to show you that many Europeans aren’t as tolerant as they think they are, at least not when it comes to race. It’s not necessarily that people are racists, mind you, but rather its due to a lack of racial sensitivity training. America, Canada and the UK have been dealing with multiculturalism a lot longer whilst the Europeans are still finding their sea legs. I’ve been passed over for jobs and many other opportunities under dubious circumstances. Circumstances that force you to bring race in the equation even when its the last thing you want to do. So yes I’d say it’s quite difficult, but for black people no matter where you go you’re going to face some form of prejudice as a result of your colour. It’s a sad truth, but what can you do? Every country and region has its challenges. Even in Jamaica we still have a residue of colour bias. Until I’ve accomplished certain goals I’ve set for myself I’m here so I’ve become very good at calling people on their prejudices because my life gets easier when I’m on a level playing field with everyone else. Furthermore, you can’t expect to effect change if you remain silent. 
 
Tell us about your first film “Brother Man”? What inspired it?
Brother Man is about a bi-racial 15 yr old boy trying to fit into a society that doesn’t quite know what to do with someone like him. He wasn’t born in Norway, but has a white Norwegian mother and a black American father so who is he and where does he belong in his new homeland? When he tries to find the answers to these questions by seeking out friendships with white as well as black teenagers from his block, he’s rejected by both groups because for the ethnic Norwegians he’s neither Norwegian nor white so he’s one of the “others”. And for the “others” who themselves are trying to find their place in a white society, the last person they want to be friends with is another black person because too many black people together will scar off ethnic Norwegians. It’s certainly not the easiest place to make friends, the protagonist realizes.
 
This is the first film I directed, but the 4th short film I wrote and produced. What inspired it was my own transition into Norwegian society and my observation of how young black Norwegians interact with their environment. When I first arrived here I tried to make friends with both white Norwegians and black Norwegians. It didn’t work out. The white Norwegians rejected me because I wasn’t white or Norwegian, and the black Norwegians rejected me because well, I am black. Now I realize that that’s perhaps just my perception, but nevertheless that was the impression I got. I felt very confused and lost until I grew a pair, stopped feeling sorry for myself and focused my attention those that accepted and welcomed me, other foreigners trying to find their way just like me and a handful of Norwegians.

In what countries has the film premiered?
This is a short film so it hasn’t premiered anywhere. As far as I know short films don’t usually have premieres, at least not here in Norway. I’ve submitted the film to a few local film festivals, where my main hope is for it demystify the notion of black people in Norwegian films. I want ethnic Norwegians to see a film that shows that we’re human beings just like them, often with the same problems. Like I said before we’re not going to change people’s perception of us by holding our corna n kibba’ing our months.

How was it received?
From critics, you mean? Well, again it’s a short film and unless a short film has gotten a certain amount of regional attention critics don’t usually pay it too much attention. Recently a Norwegian short film got nominated for an Oscar and it was big news, but most shorts don’t get reviewed unless something like this happens. From the screenings we’ve had most people were just glad to see something different. Many Black Norwegians and immigrants have come up to me and said they were glad to see themselves represented and hope the trend will continue. I said as long as I’m around it will.

What is the one thing you remember an audience member saying to you after seeing the film?
Same as above. Just people telling us they’re glad to see a film that focuses on the issues affecting the minority community. Our motto at my production company is “We put colour in everything” and we really do. We find that many minorities here, and not just blacks, but also white Eastern Europeans who face similar prejudices loved that about the film.

Did it win any awards?
No awards and really we don’t expect any. This was my first film as a director and I’ll be the first one to say that it isn’t award worthy. Directing is a very much an expression of one’s self as an artist and I’m still trying to find my voice, my style. Nevertheless, I’m proud of the effort. I started out wanting to act in films, but here I am directing them. Never saw that coming. The experience has thought me so much about myself, the craft, and the only way to go from here is up.
 

Tell us about your latest project “A Jamaican Love Story” and the role the Christopher ‘ Dudus’ Coke incident played in the development of this project?
A Jamaican Love Story is as the title says, a Jamaican love story. It is set against the backdrop of the Dudus Coke incident, and is about a young middle class Jamaican couple going through a crisis, both as a couple and individually.

I’ve been wanting to make a film about regular Jamaicans, and not necessarily those living in garrisons, for a long time. Most films that have come out of Jamaica so far focus heavily on the country’s notorious gangster culture, and while these were all valid films and I certainly enjoyed them, I grew tired of seeing the same stories over and over. The Jamaican society is rich with stories to tell about all classes of people, in my opinion. I’m fascinated by relationships, especially Jamaican relationships, and how men and women often don’t understand each other because of how poorly they communicate with each other, but by force of nature are forced to live with each other anyway. 
 
I was also inspired by the gangster culture that is depicted in most Jamaican films. They seem to sympathize and glorify the bad man, by focusing more on his struggle and as I watch I’d sit there and wonder “how come we never see the anguish and pain these very men unleash on regular law abiding Jamaicans?”  Jamaicans whose lives are touched by the plague of violence that haunt our country, whether its having to look over your shoulder every second you’re standing at the ATM at night, whether its checking your mirrors constantly to see if you’re being followed, whether it’s when war breaks out in a garrison community and innocent people trying to make a living to feed their children have to calculate the risk of venturing out to go to work or staying in to spare life? Simply put, I wanted to tell their stories. So the film is commentary on the violence from the perspective of this couple.
 
How is funding of the project going? (we will include link at the end of the interview with information on funding).

I can’t go into specifics, due to confidentially reasons, but what I can say is that the financing for the movie is heading in the right direction. This is, nevertheless, one of the more challenging aspects of film making, finding the budget to make the kind of film you want to make. Those that I have approached with the idea so far have been very positive and we’re optimistic that everything will fall into place when the time is right. This is a film I think Jamaicans will appreciate because it explores themes that are very important to us all as human beings, wanting to be loved and appreciated and wanting to be recognized for our efforts. 

There are quite a few people using the internet to get funding for their film project. Do you think you would go that route?
We’ll see about that. It’s definitely something we’ll look into if and when the time is right, but to make the type of film we have in mind I don’t know if crowd funding would be sufficient to realize our vision. Maybe later on in the process when we’ve shot the film and head into post production or somewhere there. I don’t really know yet. We’ll consider where in the process of getting the film made would crowd funding be the appropriate course, but in terms of using it as a source for our entire budget, I don’t see that happening. Furthermore, when it comes to film making everyone automatically thinks crowd funding is a good way to go, but it’s not for everyone. I’ve never used crowd funding to finance a project before, but I know producers who have and it has proven to be very tricky. In the vast majority of cases you have to have a core group of friends, followers and fans for it to work. This was confirmed 2 days ago at a SoMe seminar I attended. They said that of all your supporters on major SoMe channels (that most people use to ask people to fund their projects), 90% are completely inactive, 9% are active every now and again and only 1%  are active all the time. So even when you have a huge following it is likely only 1% of that group will actually take out their wallets and purses and pledge money to your project. That’s too much uncertainty for us to hinge our film on. 

What other projects do you have planned for 2012?
Well, we’re always working with our corporate clients, making videos for them or small infomercials.  We also have several creative projects in various stages of development. In late spring we’re going into production on a short film called Broken and of course there’s a A Jamaican Love Story which I do a bit of work on everyday. I’ve also recently launched the Ackee Walk Film Initiative on my blog www.shelleythunder.com. It’s an online mentorship/coaching programme for up and coming filmmakers in Jamaica (and the rest of the Caribbean). This is how it works: Each week until May 
I blog about the different stages of film making and the different roles and functions you’ll find on a film set. In mid-May, participants start preparing for the Film Challenge where they are expected to use what they’ve learned to make a short film. I’ll act as their financier (US$1000 up for grabs) and they’ll have to convince me of why I should invest my money in their film. The idea is for them to go through all the processes of producing a professional film — from pitching an idea, selling their idea to an investor, writing up budgets to overseeing the shoot and delivering the final product, a film. 
 
I hesitate to call it a training course, because I’m not qualified to be a teacher, but its some very basic instruction on how to produce a film. I see a lot of enthusiasm and talent among up and coming Jamaican filmmakers, but from their work I can see that they don’t understand the fundamentals of making films. They keep making the same mistakes over and over which makes it hard for them to progress from amateur to pro. For eg, many people use copyrighted music in their film without the permission of the copyright holders. This is a huge issue in film making. It can see you get sued or your film being rejected from film festivals for copyright infringement. A very serious offense. But most of the filmmakers I’ve come across don’t seem to realize this. If you just want to make films for fun then all this doesn’t matter, but if you want to make films professionally, the skill levels have to improve and people need to learn the basic rules of the craft. So while I’m no expert I aim to is to give up and comers this basic knowledge and hopefully get some great short films out of it in return. 

 
Describe your fashion style?

My fashion style … what fashion style? haha. I like nice clothes and jewelery but I’m not that into fashion. I’ll wear anything that isn’t too outrageous or flashy. I like clothes that are classically beautiful and feminine, that tease the imagination, rather than reveal too much. And I love shoes that make your feet look sexy. I guess I do have a fashion style after all, but it’s not something I’m passionate amount. You won’t catch me reading fashion magazines or going gaga over the latest collections, for eg. I have all the respect in the world for women with a great fashion sense, but for me I want to be important for more than just looking beautiful. I was born beautiful so I want to accomplish something great on top of that.

What song is on replay on your iPod?
Hmmm, it’s probably easier to say what I don’t have on replay because I have a lot of songs that I love and once I find a song that I love it’s always on replay. What I don’t listen to is songs that promote or encourage violence and or are sexist against women. So guys like Bounty Killa, Vybz Kartel, for example, not a fan, even though I’ll admit that the beat to a couple of Kartel’s songs are quite catchy and will make you want to buss a wine. But as soon as I’m tempted to dance the lyrics of his songs settle in my brain and as a self-respecting woman mi affi stop. I don’t mind people singing about women and or sex, I just think the slackness is too over the top. Let’s leave some things to the imagination like back in the 90s when Beenie Man used to sing that him have nuff gal n gal in bundle and left it at that. That I can tolerate even though I still shake my head. But the heap of … well, your readers probably have heard Kartel’s songs and will hopefully understand what I mean. Violence offend me more than sex, but Kartel is too much for me.
 
What movie is on replay on your DVD?
I recently saw a film called We Need To Talk About Kevin and it was so amazingly shot and well played. If I make a film in Jamaica, this film represents the level of quality I’d like to achieve. When I first saw it, it was just for pure entertainment, but I’ve been watching it over and over again because it has morphed into a masterclass for me as an actress, writer and director.
Any advice for upcoming filmmakers?
Film making takes a lot of time and dedication. If you’re serious about it, it’s not just about grabbing a camera and shooting. It’s about learning as much as you can to improve your skills. Each film you make should be better than the last, that’s how you know you’re getting better and better. With information so readily available on the internet (my blog is a good place to start) you can manage without film school if you can’t afford it so there’s no excuse not to learn. If you’re getting into film making for vanity, fame or fortune, you’re wasting your time. Aside from that I invite up and coming Jamaican film makers to check out the Ackee Walk Film Initiative on my blog, www.shelleythunder.com for more tips and tricks.

About the author

Xavier Murphy