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Interview: Aimiende Negbenebor Sela and Constance Nicole Frierson for COLOR OF AUTUMN

Updated: Feb 4

Chicago tale

Last month saw the premiere of “Color of Autumn” at the Academy Qualifying Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. Directed by award-winning director Aimiende Negbenebor Sela, the film is adapted from a short story by Chicago writer and social justice arts practitioner Constance Nicole Frierson. A powerful and evocative narrative, it takes viewers back to 1966 Chicago, telling the poignant story of a sheltered Black eight-year-old girl growing up on the Southside who is blindsided when she encounters cruel and casual racism on the playground for the first time. The film sparks important conversations about racism, loss of innocence, Black masculinity, peer pressure and hate speech and resonates with audiences of all ages. The creative team behind the film have also engaged with education leaders to pursue parallel curriculum initiatives that prompted the following conversation with Aimiende and Constance to not only discuss cinematic and cultural influences but also specifically her experiences working across different sectors…


Without sounding naïve, would I be right in saying that this film’s focus — although obviously dealing with such an important issue as racism — is primarily about ‘humanism’; that its message should be about how we all should (in an ideal world) live and work together?

Constance Nicole Frierson: Absolutely! We all have stories. This is just one, but what I love about this film is our intention to offer multi-layered elements, relatable on a humanistic level.


Aimiende Negbenebor Sela: I don’t think you sound naïve at all — your assumption is correct. I am a humanist, and my work tends to interrogate the human condition, but with empathy. In this piece, we are showing an ugly side of society, of humanity, and essentially saying “This isn’t the way to be,” “This is hurtful,” and "Bullying is ugly.” In an ideal world, we would respect each other’s differences and understand that there is enough room for all of us to exist and to do so harmoniously. But as you accurately put it… “in an ideal world”; sadly, something this world isn’t. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it, though. I believe we should.

The film, despite what is highlighted, is incredibly optimistic and hopeful. Charlie Peacock’s music also reflects this. I would hope this is what most people take away from it, but what else are you wanting audiences to go home with?


ANS: Yes, it is hopeful and I’m so glad you were able to pick up on that. I want the audience to leave this film with a sense of purpose. I want each person to feel inspired to be a little bit more conscientious, a little kinder, to feel themselves cringe a bit in the presence of bullying or discrimination, and to feel empowered to safely do and/or say something when they encounter an injustice or form of ‘othering’.


CNF: I also want the audience to heed our call to action! It will take many of us to turn the tides of division in our society. We will open hearts and minds to empathy and compassion rather than judging because someone seems different.


Such an important message in these times… but I love how much this film is about children. Was the film produced to specifically enter into the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival or was it selected?


ANS: Thank you. The film was selected for the festival, which was such an honour for us.


I’m interested to hear how much more you have learned about people, Constance, while working across so many sectors such as Higher Education and healthcare and your role as a social justice arts practitioner.


CNF: I love that you asked that question. It is because of my lived experiences that seem to show the same patterns. To wrap it up into a few words, people want and need to be heard. To have the most positive and productive impact, I had to learn to be an active listener. We are so busy wrapped up in our circumstances and daily demands, that it is difficult to have the patience to hear what’s being said. I have been on the other end of that more than once. Fortunately, I didn’t give up. Sadly, in many cases, it’s hard to feel safe and cared for while asking for help.  


Do you feel that all these roles you have had feed your writing? I’m thinking from an observational POV, much like how you observe yourself (and reflect) in the short film.


CNF: My childhood was not easy. I’m not sure what would have happened to me had I not had my grandmother in the early years. She kept me grounded. I spent a lot of time escaping between the pages of books… even Encyclopedias! I had an active imagination which made storytelling easy and fun. The various roles and lived experiences simply feed into my storytelling landscape.


How much has your cross-cultural upbringing impacted on your work, Aimiende?


ANS: In so many ways… I certainly have an interesting worldview and I credit my upbringing for that; for the fact that I see and interact with humanity the way I do. I believe we all live the same lives, just coloured differently and I strive to show a multifaceted world in my work as a result. I want people to see themselves in me and for me to see myself in them because we are that similar even as we are unique. These two things are not mutually exclusive. If I love myself, and I see myself in you, it stands to reason that I can and most likely will love myself in you. So, it shouldn’t be a far cry then to imagine that just by seeing myself in you, I can love you even if you look and/or live nothing like me.


What are your cinematic influences?


ANS: Where do I begin? I think I have a vast array of influences when it comes to art, music and cinema. They all influence my style of storytelling along with my lived experience and just daily observations. I love the work of filmmakers like Mira Nair, Guillermo Del Toro, David Lynch, Agnès Varda, Samira Makhmalbaf, Luca Guadagnino, Ousmane Sembène, the list goes on… I also draw inspiration from art, photography, music, and of course, from the written word, be that poetry and prose… anything that helps spark my imagination.


How has Chicago life shaped you as an individual, Constance? And are there specific Chicago stories that have influenced you growing up, whether literature, film, or photography?


CNF: Chicago is a resilient city and I’ve seen it change a great deal. I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Chicago Fire. However, I am a walking breathing witness to many Chicago stories. My upcoming novel, The House on Union Street is inspired by my family’s journey from the South to the North during the great migration of the 1940s. The novel will also include stories about my life, which is where the short film "Color of Autumn" emerged. Places I love to take photos of are the Chicago Lakefront and green areas when autumn comes.

The film has this beautiful balance of Gordon Parks-inspired photography with a slight hint of the last of the Golden Age... the ‘white fabrication’ and veneer that makes the inevitable racism stand out all the more. What were your initial discussions around how to direct Constance’s story and the use of visuals, framing and colour?

Amiendie (middle) with actors Zealyne Marchelle as adult Dottie and Ramiyah DeGray as young Dottie.

ANS: That’s phenomenal that you mentioned Gordon Parks. I love his work and it was certainly an influence. Maybe a little bit of Carrie Mae Weems as well. My approach to telling Constance’s story, once the script was locked, was centred around doing the story justice. I wanted to paint a picture and encourage the audience to sit with it. I created a detailed lookbook/pitch deck that covered every aspect of the production from the colour pallet, the wardrobe of the time (the sixties), the music (I wanted music from the sixties), the production design, the homes/locations, and the visuals, including the types and style of shots.


The idea here was that adult Dottie was travelling down memory lane and taking us on the journey with her. I knew I wanted both adult and young Dottie to be present in each scene — one living the experience and the other recalling the lived experience — and that we needed to make sure it was clear that the former was in her present-day witnessing what was happening in her past.


We also talked lenses, my DP even going as far as to source some vintage lenses that we used for the 1960s scenes. I knew I wanted certain moments to feel nostalgic and flowy, so we employed the use of a Steadicam; for instance, during the daddy-daughter dance scene. I wanted the feel of looking through Polaroid photos or an old album of photos, so I knew we’d need to frame for that, so I had that in mind while designing my shots.


How collaborative was the experience?


CNF: Interestingly, we started with conversations over the script. Because it was based on my life as an eight-year-old, I was concerned that everyone was younger than me. Then something amazing happened, Aimi asked if she could read the original short story. Then I knew that I could trust her, and I loved the wonderful stamp she added to this beautiful trip back in time.


Were there any visual ideas or was Constance happy with you placing your own stamp on the project?


ANS: Essentially, I laid out visually how I saw the story playing out and we worked to create that with the help of the entire team. My shot lists tend to be extremely detailed (force of habit) and they include sample images to show what I’m visualizing. These usually ranged from film stills I sourced to photographs, paintings, sketches, animated drawings… you name it.


With the film’s pacing and flow, we worked with our editor to get that just right and she nailed it. In terms of the film’s colour during post-production, I coloured a handful of stills that we used as posts on social media and shared those with our colourist to give him an idea of what I was thinking… and he delivered that. I wanted the images to look like old photographs with all the changes that these photos experience over time. Lastly, the music and sound design: we were lucky to have Charlie Peacock’s music available to us and our sound designer (as they say) understood the assignment. [laughs] In short, our initial discussions cumulated in a fabulous team effort that I believe did this film — Constance’s story — justice.

Learn more about the film over at the official site, including behind the scenes, bios and more on the curriculum initiatives.


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