TIFF 2022 Interview: Karimah Zakia Issa on Channeling the Inner Fears of “Scaring Women at Night”

It is a frightful walk home for Ella (Kavita Musty) in “Scaring Women at Night,” her eyes searching around as she senses there is someone following her. She needn’t have fear as director Karimah Zakia Issa pulls back to reveal Ash (Izaiah Dockery), whose faint voice in the background may lead Ella to think she’s being pursued, but in fact is in conversation with someone else as he worries all eyes are on him as a trans man unsure of what threats might be out lurking for him. The misunderstanding gives way to an epiphany in the dramatic short, premiering this week at the Toronto Film Festival where the ability to see the danger that both sides do as Ash struggles to introduce himself to the world makes an arresting introduction for Issa, who finds that Ella’s wayward path home can ultimately lead somewhere peaceful.

Issa took a circuitous route herself to filmmaking, having studied marketing for some time before tagging along with her sister on a few sets and becoming enchanted with the process, finding confidence in her eye as she began making videos for YouTube. In “Scaring Women at Night,” she brings a keen vision to the uncertainty her characters feel as the camera will be guided by the energy around them to snap into focus and the threat they feel is embedded into sharp cuts and the intensity of streetlights and the shadows they cast. Shortly before the film makes its debut in Toronto, the filmmaker spoke about how the project came together and the collaborators that helped her gain such perspective, as crafting a story out of someone’s inner monologue.

How did this come about?

“Scaring Women at Night” was originally a short story written by my childhood best friend Ace Clamber, who writes short stories about his experiences as a trans man and shares them with me. I just absolutely loves the way he writes and growing up, we always had some nonsense plan of doing stuff together, whether it was a T-shirt company or whatever, so he sent me a few short stories and this was actually an experience he had told me about. Initially, we were going to do a trio of stories in one package and it was like, actually this one holds a lot of weight and needs its own space, so we decided to focus on this one.

How did you bring Izaiah into the mix?

Izaiah was cast through Jesse Griffiths Casting Agency, and Jesse was amazing. He brought forward some really fantastic trans talent in Southern Ontario around Toronto and we had some really, really fantastic people audition, but there was just something quite instantly about Izaiah’s audition that just Ace and I and the whole team just had a really great sense of him being able to bring this character to life. He’s just been a beautiful person to work with and for us, it was quite important that the performer felt connected with the material, especially for me, not being of the trans experience.

Ace’s voice is at the forefront, but we also wanted someone’s else’s perspective to flesh out who this character was, so we really encouraged Izaiah to bring with him any kind of feelings and thoughts that were from his personal experience. A lot of it resonated with him I think because he aligned with how Ace saw the world.

What I noticed about this and your earlier short “Lanes” is how the images very much sync up with what’s being said and yet it’s almost a monologue, so are you inspired by the words or collecting images for this?

In terms of what comes first, it just depends on what the project is. I’m always ideating and thinking in images. Music is often a trigger for that for me and for instance, I wrote “Lanes” and then “Scaring Women at Night” came as a short story and then from there, we just figured out the best way to communicate so much of an experience that is unfamiliar to many people, so it felt that it required a bit more fleshing out. Well, it appears to be unfamiliar – I think people would assume they don’t connect initially with a character that is trans if they are not of that experience, so deciding to do a voiceover and a monologue style came out of that need [where] we want him to be on his own, but how do we convey this when it’s not an actual conversation?

Did you know this route or did it take some location scouting to find the trail for this?

It definitely took some location scouting. I was happy for it to feel like Toronto, but there was a certain aesthetic I was still looking for and found it hard to find. I didn’t want it to feel stark or obviously too spooky and we ended up finding quite a beautiful street to be on and yet ultimately it doesn’t make you feel any safer if you’re of a certain experience.

Was it ambient light on the street?

Ashley Iris Gill is our DP and her gaffer Keaton [TF Evan] work together a ton and they’re a fantastic duo and fantastic people – I really enjoyed working with them and they really concocted a predominantly natural light shoot with a little jazzy rig that kind of moved that was super agile and could move around with us. I don’t even know the true secrets of that rig, so I can’t expose it, but it worked. [laughs] Rarely were we set up in one spot and not on the move, so they came up with something that was great and super agile.

You do some brilliant stuff with the camera language where a tilt suggests a whole host of feelings and there are still images in the beginning that convey the violence that the lead is experiencing without actually being violent. Was it tricky to come by?

I was leaning into what was arising naturally for me. I knew i wanted these little blips of fear off of the top, just because I feel that’s how fear can present itself. It’s more of a flash. It’s not always this fully thought out thing. It’s just a collection of things you’ve seen in movies or just a feeling that the brain creates on its own. I like things to feel cathartic and that you’re in emotion and it’s like you’re swept up in it or tilting with it. There are certain things that can really make you feel like uneasy and that moment where this shadowy figure who Ella feels is following her, I wanted that introduction to be everything we thought it might be in terms of being uncomfortable. Initially, that wasn’t what we were going to do, but logistically we had to stay on that street and I’m glad it was something as simple as a camera tilt that sold it.

How long was the shoot?

We shot it in one night and a few hours on one night and a few hours on the next night to round out some pieces. It would’ve been a lot more comfortable if we were initially able to have taken place over two nights, but we had to work within just the budget that we had and we had an amazing, amazing, amazing crew.

What’s it like to be premiering at TIFF?

This is the first time I’m doing the festival circuit and a lot of this stuff at this level, so it’s really exciting and it’s exciting for the people I’m working with as well. I just want to enjoy it and use the momentum and the energy you get from this kind of experience to keep building on it.

“Scaring Women at Night” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival in Short Cuts Programme 6 on September 13th at 6:10 pm at the Scotiabank 7, September 16th at 5:30 pm at the Scotiabank 13 and September 17th at the Scotiabank 8.