Shamira Raphaëla is a half-Aruban, half-Dutch television director living in Amsterdam. From the outside, her world seems structured and ordered. She spends her days traveling the world and telling stories from behind her camera lens. However Raphaëla’s 60-year old father, Pempy, and older brother, Andy, live almost parallel lives. Pempy has been addicted to heroine and crack for more than thirty years, and is constantly in and out of jail. Andy has seemingly followed in his footsteps. One would assume that Raphaëla’s story would be one of destruction and pain. And yet, her debut film “Deal With It” about her father and brother, shows something radically different. It is a film about strength, acceptance, and unconditional love.
Raphaëla screened “Deal With It” at this year’s Aruba International Film Festival. She even took time out of her hectic schedule to show me around the island. We stopped at a snack hut for a traditional Aruban breakfast of pastechis; a pastry similar to a empanada or a turnover that’s filled with meat and cheese. From there, saw a group of donkeys, stopped to see the Balashi Gold Mill Ruins, and we ended our morning by hitting up the sunning Baby Beach in San Nicolas for a swim.
We chatted about “Deal With It”, destructive cycles, and telling our stories.
Aramide Tinubu: To start off, I just wanted to commend you on your film. I’ve never seen a film dealing with theses same themes that has had the amount of warmth and love throughout the story. It was wonderful.
Shamira Raphaela: Oh thank you. It was so important to me for people to see the love. I wanted people to see the good, and not just be focused on the bad.
AT: Oh, yes that’s incredibly important. So, what inspired you to become a filmmaker? Was there a particular moment in your childhood that sparked your interest in storytelling?
SR: I guess I was always drawn to injustice, so I always wanted to like change the world. So I was like, I can either become a doctor, or I can become a storyteller and the storyteller is what I ended up going with. I’ve always been interested in people and in their perspectives. I think it’s important to tell stories to each other, because it is the only way we can better ourselves.
AT: Yes, I think that so often what ails many disenfranchised and minorities communities across the globe is the fact we don’t talk about things, and we don’t tell our stories. It becomes a cycle, and we continue these same patterns over and over again.
SR: Right, and we all have the same story, that’s the strange thing about it. Now that I’ve screened “Deal With it” all over the world, it’s like oh my God, this is the same situation that someone in Havana, Cuba is dealing with.
AT: That’s why film and mediums like it are so important, because you can touch so many people.
SR: Yes. (Laughing) But sometimes I think that if I was a doctor, I could have saved so many more people.
AT: (Laughing) Yes, but you would probably still be in school.
SR: And in debt.
AT: (Laughing) Well to move on to you father Pempy, one of the main things that stood out to me in the film, was the Tupac poster your father has hanging on his wall. What did his admiration of Tupac symbolize for you?
SR: Tupac, is his hero. He’s got Che Guevara, Scarface, and Bob Marley of course, these are all men who were rebels and anarchist against the system, and my dad identities with them because he is also against the system. He just wants to live his life unbothered and never surrender. So for him, these are really like his role models. I chose to put them in the film because it gives the audience context to see where he’s coming from. But at the same, time Tupac is critical of my dad sometimes. I got that shot of Tupac looking over at my dad like, “What are you doing?” (Laughing)
AT: (Laughing) Yes, your dad is so hilarious and charismatic. What is the most important thing that he has ever said to you?
SR: Wow, I guess it was in one of the last scenes of the film, the one about my relationship. I never had a real honest conversation about that, and it happened in front of the camera. I didn’t even want to put it in the film because I was like oh my God, this is the most beautiful thing that my dad has ever said to me. This is so precious to me and I don’t want to share them with the world. He told me that I was born out of pure love, and that he just wants all of my hopes and dreams to become reality and that he didn’t want me to choose a man like him. He’s so proud of me.
AT: Yes, he truly is, speaking about not wanting things to get too personal for you, during the Q&A after the film screening you mentioned that you had no desire to appear in the documentary at all. Why did you feel that way, and why did you ultimately decide to been seen in the film?
SR; I thought it would be kind of distracting because I was like this film isn’t about me. I wanted to give [my brother and my father] a voice. I already have a voice; I already exist in this society. I didn’t think me being in the film would be appropriate. However, as the director, I did understand that our dynamics are really interesting. Ultimately, the people who were giving me the funding were like, you can either be in the film and get the money, or we aren’t going to it. But, I tried to minimize my presence, I didn’t do a voiceover, and I didn’t do interviews. You don’t really get to know about my emotions, although you do feel them. I don’t push them on the audience. I didn’t realize at first that if I wanted my dad and brother to be vulnerable, it would only be fair for me to do so as well.
AT: Speaking of vulnerability, as a person who is productive in society and has a fairly public job, were you hesitant at all about having your friends and colleagues seeing such personal information about you and your family?
SR: I guess I’m a pretty confident persona because of the way I grew up. I’ve seen quite a few things in my life so, what are people going to say that can affect me? (Laughing). In a way, I don’t really care what people think, but of course there was that little voice inside telling me, “You’re never going to get a job again.” But you would be surprised about the reactions I’ve received. I think that’s part of our problem as people; we don’t dare to talk because we think people will judge. But when you do talk, you find out that people are way kinder and understanding then you could have ever imagined.
AT: That’s so true, and you also get this hand extended to you because people are going through those same things.
SR: Yes, you’d be surprised at how many people have just thrown their life stories at me because I’m talking. Even colleagues or people who are closer to me, whom I’d never imagined were going through something. So actually, some people who were initially more distant to me are closer.
AT: I know that you struggled a great deal to get funding for the film, and a lot of film festivals actually turned you away. However, you pressed through for over three years and the final project is extraordinary. How did it all come together for you in the end?
SR: I guess I just kept on pushing and pushing until the people were just like just give her the money. I wasn’t afraid to keep fighting. It’s easy to get discouraged when people keep telling you no, it’s not a good idea. But, my Dad was a huge part in continuing on.. There were many times when I called him crying about getting the funding and he was like, “F*ck em! They don’t know anything, you’re going to make this film, and it’s going to be great.” I guess people cannot even image that he would be my main motivator, but he definitely was.
AT: It’s because he lives his life on his own terms, and in some ways we can all take something from that.
SR: Yes, people always want to change other people who don’t live the way that they live but I think that’s the wrong approach.
AT: I agree. From what I saw, I think you have a much healthier relationship with your dad and your brother because you aren’t always telling them what they should and should not be doing. It would be a strain on all of you, and it brews a toxic environment.
SR: Yes, but it is difficult sometimes. For example, when my brother gets out of prison, he’s just like; I’m going to go to Burger King and get the Whooper. For him, that’s the highest level of happiness. If it were me, happiness would be like going to the spa. At first I was always a bit sad about that, but afterwards I realized that it’s all relative right? If that’s happiness for him, then what can I say about that?
AT: As a viewer one of the hardest things about watching “Deal With It”, was seeing your brother Andy interact with his infant son. Are you afraid for your nephew, especially as Black male born into a cycle of addiction and criminalization?
SR: Well my brother is definitely a victim of our father’s lifestyle. Let me be clear, we all have our own responsibilities, however as a Caribbean man living in Europe with your father not being a functioning member in society, it was always difficult for my brother. And now with all of the discrimination in Holland, we have the same thing going on that’s happening in America, it’s like everything is stirring. Things are going to get even more difficult. So for my nephew, I have great concerns. He doesn’t start with a clean slate; he starts like ten points behind. The understanding isn’t even there. People have come up to me and said oh, I’ve never thought of your brother or father of being victims of the system or of their upbringings. I’m like OF COURSE! You aren’t born a criminal, but if you grow up in that situation then that’s all you see. In the last scene when Andy goes to the job placement office, so many white people come up to me and say, that’s so great he’s going to get a job. On the other hand, people of color always tell me how sad that is for them to watch, because they can see that he’s never going to fit into that white world. He knows he’s not accepted in the world. That’s why I’m concerned about my little nephew. When you know you aren’t accepted into a world, why the hell would you follow the rules of a society that doesn’t even see you as a part of it? I always think of Maya Angelou saying, “When you know better, you do better.” That was the first line in my script.
AT: This was a stunning debut film, what is next for you?
SR: For me getting my foot in the door in the documentary world was telling a story that only I could tell, and that was what this film was. Hopefully, this opens the door for me to tell other people’s stories as well. Stories are coming to me, and I have plans but the funding again is difficult. My sister-in-law, my brother’s girlfriend said to me, ok now you’re going to tell my story right. I am working on that, and I’ve shot a lot. It’s about her and her two daughters and they are quite dark skinned living in and experiencing discrimination in. Holland. As their lives fall apart around them, the girls loose themselves in video games. They’re absorbed in a world that doesn’t even exist for them.
AT: That sounds incredible, I can’t want to see it. Thank you so much for sharing this story with the world. It’s astonishing, truly.
SR: Thank you so much.
You can watch the trailer for “Deal With It” below.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami