The early days of the pandemic converging with the necessary rise of the Black Lives Matter movement may feel like a distant memory, but, given the current state of the world, we haven’t evolved much since that point in history. Following the murder of George Floyd, amid the ensuing BLM protests, creative multi-hyphenates and roommates Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah and Araya Mengesha found a way to marry their art with their voices.
Thus came Defund, a political dark comedy short film that Khadijah and Araya not only created and directed but also starred in as the characters Sister and Brother. In Defund, they portray millennial twins trapped in their apartment while trying to maintain sanity at the height of the 2020 pandemic. As they watch the BLM movement unfold, Brother keeps a cool head while Sister is ready to burn it down.
Frustrated with sitting on the sidelines, the duo heads out into the night, discovering that activism on the streets differs significantly from what they’ve seen on their phones.
Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with Khadijah and Araya about what inspired them to create Defund, working as first-time directors, what audiences can expect and more.
This interview is condensed for length and clarity.
Melody McCune: We at GGA love a good origin story. What are your origin stories?
Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah: I am an actor, first and foremost. I trained in a theater program and was lucky enough to land an agent right away, but I went through the typical experiences of an actor. It wasn’t until 2019 that I felt I needed to start doing my own work. So, I shot my first short film. I was eager to keep making films until the pandemic hit. I feel blessed to have developed a career in Toronto’s indie theater scene. I’m currently at the Stratford Theater Festival.
MM: That’s awesome; congratulations!
KRA: Thank you. I feel like I’ve reached incredible heights as a theater artist in Canada. It makes me happy to know I can work in theater and film because there’s this weird thing in our industry where people feel like they have to choose one or the other. I’ve never been satisfied with that limitation. I love both. Any form of expression that lets me express my full self is something that excites me.
Araya Mengesha: I started acting when I was 10. My older cousin, Weyni Mengesha, was acting before me. We grew up as siblings, our two dads and us. When she got to university, she decided she didn’t want to act anymore. At the time she decided that, an agent approached her about representation. She said, “I don’t want to act, but see this kid.” I jumped in with my Jim Carrey from The Mask monologue.
I quickly started working, doing TV and commercials. When I was 12, I got cast as the first young Simba in The Lion King when it came to Canada. I was part of the original cast of that show. I was doing it five nights a week and got the bug. It helps when thousands of people applaud and laugh at you.
MM: It’s a good motivator.
AM: It sure is. I hosted a TV show for several years called Mystery Hunters on YTV in Canada. I went to the Stratford Theater Festival, and I was fortunate enough to have a lead role there and continued along in the theater space for a while. I’ve been very lucky to continue to work ever since coming into 2020. I’d just come off of one of my busiest acting years in a while. I was on several TV shows. I was in a film called Nobody with Bob Odenkirk.
Of course, the pandemic hit, and everything screeched to a halt. Khadijah and I were experiencing this together in this space. After George Floyd, Khadijah was approached by J Stevens, our cinematographer, editor and co-producer on Defund. We started a journey toward making this short.
MM: Let’s talk about Defund. Can you tell me what it’s about and what inspired you both to create it?
AM: I had shot this micro short that explored similar themes and the life of the pandemic. Then, when J approached Khadijah, basically reaching out to say, “Hey, you’re someone whose voice I respect as an artist and person. So, if you have anything you want to shoot at this time, let me know. I have the equipment and skillset.” Khadijah turned to me and asked if I wanted to do something.
We put our heads together, and the brainstorming led to us reflecting on what our experience was day to day in those uncertain times. These exposures of old conversations were coming to light in a new way. It seemed like there was real momentum happening around shifting things in this time where everybody was paused. Everybody could witness what was going on without the distraction or clutter of our day-to-day lives, which would usually cause us to filter out some of these experiences.
KRA: Defund is about a brother and sister watching the Black Lives Matter movement unfold during the summer of 2020 while in isolation. There are a lot of feelings of helplessness I was experiencing as a creator, as someone who cares about what’s happening in the world. The film is an opportunity for us to express ourselves through these characters, who grow frustrated with the limitations of their capabilities.
They decide to take action in the one way that makes sense to them, which leads to [putting up] posters and a call to defund the police. One night, they make it out into the world and are confronted with the fact that this fight, or this call to action, to defund the police is not new. It is an intergenerational struggle that has had many people carrying that call to arms for quite some time.
MM: Describe your short using three words.
KRA: Political, quirky and curious.
AM: Challenging, funny and re-watchable.
MM: Besides writing the script, Defund also serves as your directorial debuts. What was that process like for you?
AM: It was the first time we had directed anything professionally. We do self-tapes with each other all the time. So, we’ve had the opportunity to watch each other’s work in many different ways and then to be directing for each other as the outside eye when we’re auditioning.
Our relationship, in general, is so close that we have a shorthand and understand who these people will be onscreen, especially since they’re close to who we are in real life. We were transposing our lives onto the screen. It makes it easier when you’re directing when writing for each other.
KRA: It was great to have my directorial debut be with that film. To co-direct with Araya, because we’ve been roommates for five, almost six years now, we do a lot of self-tapes together as actors at home. We are familiar with directing one another, which is a great benefit. As a first-time director, I was lucky.
We both were quite lucky to have the assistance of J Stevens. It’s partly thanks to them that this film has even come to be. In addition to Araya and I directing one another, we got as much advice as possible and guidance from J during the process, which was great.
MM: Can you elaborate on your experiences regarding the BLM movement when you made this short and how those experiences might have shifted or evolved since then?
KRA: The movement was being amplified during the pandemic. I was inundated with information about what was happening worldwide, like [with] Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. All of those unfortunate incidents were at the forefront of my consciousness. I was undoubtedly affected by it. Araya and I would be in our rooms, six feet away, sending news clippings and things to sign and notifying each other about protests.
Because of the convergence between of BLM movement and the pandemic, there was some hesitation on our part to go out into the world. But when Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death here in Toronto, there was a rally. It’s one of many incidents pointing to the fact that police being called for matters like that doesn’t make sense. There are many other options. We’re starting to explore the various options for responding to situations like this.
This call to action during the pandemic made me recognize how important the work is. It offered me a reverence for activists. People are being thrown in jail for standing up and speaking their minds.
Because of them, these rallies are being organized, and petitions are being sent out. Araya and I went to some marches. I still felt helpless as the world was crumbling around me. As a Black woman, I looked into the world and said, “My people are being murdered.” No ifs, ands or buts about it.
To be a Black person in this world and waking up and watching the news daily takes a toll on you. At the same time, my artistry also felt like it was under attack, though not in the same way. But because of the pandemic, I wasn’t able to work. I’m lucky enough to have made my living as an independent artist throughout my 20s and 30s.
When the opportunity to make this film came along, it felt like the perfect congruence of opportunities. I got to say something about what was happening in the world and flex my muscles as an artist.
MM: You got to use your gifts to make a difference. That’s wonderful.
KRA: I hope we’ve made a difference. I try to remain humble enough not to assume that my little film has drastically changed the world. But I hope that, at the very least, it’s an inspiring conversation.
AM: A lot of that is just being alive and out in the world as a person who holds a Black body and the various experiences I’ve had throughout my life about what was happening in 2020. It’s similar to what’s in the film in many ways. There’s all the stuff going on, and you want to jump in, but there’s also this invisible killer out there.
That’s a tricky thing to negotiate when it’s not just you. I have a parent who’s significantly immunocompromised. That became a challenge when considering what values and priorities needed to be held. I got out there, but I had to miss a few rounds and then jump in and negotiate my proximity to other people, even though all I wanted to do was be with other people during this time.
We didn’t anticipate it would feel like a time capsule piece only two years after shooting. I returned from the festival and watched it on the big screen again for the first time in a while. It feels far away. It feels like five years at best. Not just in the COVID of it all — the hand washing, doorknob disinfecting way — but also in the energy surrounding our conversations, these big, societal-shifting conversations.
There is this rush to play catch up and get the world spinning again in a way that makes these conversations less of a priority. The film feels like a necessary check-in instead of our intention; initially, it contributed to an ongoing discussion. Now, it feels more like a knocking on the door saying, “Hey, we still got the same energy. Are we still about these things we said we were about?” Especially as there are so many large conversations happening simultaneously. That feels like the biggest shift.
MM: Would you say your thoughts and experiences align with your characters in Defund?
KRA: I don’t want to say I’m Sister in Defund. But Araya and I put a lot of ourselves into these characters. My thought process also aligns with Brother to a certain extent. If I had to choose, I would say I am more Sister than Brother because of the desire to watch it all burn. I say, “Tear it all down, and start again.”
MM: That sounds like a good idea, honestly. Just get rid of it all. Let’s start over.
AM: There’s a bit of Brother and Sister in us.
MM: What can audiences expect from Defund?
AM: Audiences can expect to have an entry point into this conversation about our communities. Our communities and the relationship to policing and power from a vantage point that isn’t necessarily centering on the trauma of that conversation. The experience of trying to understand how one feels about those things in real-time as they’re happening.
They’re (Brother and Sister) negotiating what their activism looks like. They’re negotiating what their relationship to their fears looks like. So, they make a choice and learn they have different perspectives on the thing they’re fighting against. It doesn’t stop them from continuing. It’s a funny film, and it’s an entry point into what hopefully will be an ongoing conversation.
KRA: They can expect to have more questions than answers by the film’s end. They can expect to see a nuanced approach to the discussion around defunding the police. They can expect to be taken back in time to two years ago. This film stands as a time capsule piece. It’s almost bizarre to look back on it now.
They (Brother and Sister) have discourse around sanitizing their hands after coming in from outdoors, which is one of those tiny details about the pandemic that none of us will forget. People can be transported in time, to the summer of 2020, in a very authentic way.
MM: What’s on the horizon for you career-wise, and where can folks watch Defund?
KRA: Defund is currently available on the TIFF Digital Pro website until the end of the year. We have a few other projects, but I’m not sure I can say anything about those yet. I’ve been lucky enough to sign with a literary agent after Defund premiered at TIFF.
KRA: Thank you. I have a half-hour dark comedy series in development about a group of millennials who think they signed up for a reality TV show, a cottage core reality TV show. But the cottage they’re staying at was previously owned by slave owners in Southern Ontario. So, they’re going to fight off demons and the spirits of the enslaved and slave owners of Southern Ontario.
I’ve got that in development and a couple of other cool projects. I’m developing myself as a writer, director and actor. I’m at the Stratford Festival until the end of October.
AM: I finished the third draft of my feature film that has been accepted into the Toronto International Film Festival’s Filmmaker Lab, so I’m pursuing that project. TIFF has been so supportive of Defund and us. I’ve got a few other projects I can’t talk about yet that are in the works. I’m excited to roll that stuff out and keep this good energy going. Regarding where people can watch Defund, it is a Vimeo staff pick. You can find it on Vimeo’s site and contribute to the view count that is growing daily.
Thank you so much for chatting with GGA, Khadijah and Araya!
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