When Tchaiko Omawale began work on the script for “Solace” just over five years ago, she was conscious of not including any slang or references to social media that might tie it to the times.
“I wanted to make a film that even if you watch it five years from now, you would still get something out of it emotionally,” recalls Omawale, who wasn’t wrong about how long it would take “Solace” to reach the screen, but still managed to make a film that feels as if it’ll be meeting its moment for a long time to come, given how immediate it comes across.
Although you aren’t necessarily meant to know it, it’s fitting that you’re first introduced to Omawale onscreen bundled up in plastic wrap as if it were a cocoon, one that she brings you inside with the story of Sole (Hope Olaide Wilson), a 17-year-old on the verge of losing a long-ailing father. The loss will weigh on Sole, but not as much as the precarious situation it thrusts her into, just one year away from making her own decisions, presumably at Columbia where she’s already hatched plans with a professor to travel to Sierra Leone to start her on a track for an ultimate goal of working at the U.N. However, for now, she is shipped off to Los Angeles to spend the summer with her religious grandparents (Glynn Turman and Lynn Whitfield) with whom she has little in common. A vegan in a meat-eating household, Sole’s anxieties are heightened by a crippling eating disorder and her creativity is stifled until the need to make a video for a scholarship application leads her out of the house to meet Jasmine and Guedado (Chelsea Tavares and Luke Rampersad), a dancer and guitarist respectively, who expose her to an entirely different way of thinking.
“Solace” doesn’t so much articulate this perspective as submerge one in Sole’s consciousness, as the plastic wrap that entombs Omawale gradually unravels as her heroine’s horizons broaden, letting loose during wild nights of dancing and opening herself up to the radical experimentation that Jasmine and Guedado push her towards, starting to not think twice about such things as stripping down both mentally and physically for a psychedelic mushroom ceremony (see picture above). In bringing down Sole’s walls, Omawale also removes any distance the audience has from her, drawing on lively and expressive camerawork from “Jinn” cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole and inventive use of sound to amplify what’s actually getting through, and by the end of Omawale’s directorial debut, there’s no doubt of the strong impression that’s been made on either those on screen or off.
Shortly after the film’s premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where “Solace” picked up a special mention for Best Ensemble Cast, Omawale and Wilson spoke about pushing the envelope behind the scenes to make Sole’s transformation feel authentic, finding the right cinematic language to express it and the experience of showing the film to their own parents.
How did this come about?
Tchaiko Omawale: I actually wrote the feature first in my twenties before I realized I had an eating disorder and the central theme was mostly about cutting. I hit rock bottom and then when I started rewriting, I wanted to pull the eating disorder in, but I decided I can’t [immediately] make a feature because I’ve never made one, so let me do a short first. So there was always a feature script first, but out of necessity, I made the short film [with] Hope.
Hope Olaide Wilson: Tchaiko stalked me on Facebook. [laughs] No, she [actually] had a casting director, but her cousin was a friend of mine, so we met up and had coffee and we just really clicked. I was really excited about what she wanted to do because up until that point, most of the opportunities I had for characters were very stock or very cliche, so be able to play somebody with nuance and complexity was really exciting for me.
What went into building this character of Sole?
Tchaiko Omawale: We did lots of rehearsal.
Hope Olaide Wilson: Yeah, and we both have very similar experiences, growing up all over the world. We’re both very passionate about politics and activism and we both had just complicated identities because of our third culture background, not necessarily being the norm – but I think we were on different spectrums of not being the norm. [laughs] I was a little grandma introvert and Tchaiko’s the wild fairy, but we still had a lot in common. We were able to bring all of those elements together to make this beautiful character.
And you allow the audience to step into Sole’s shoes – what was it like creating that loose, immersive experience both with the sound and picture?
Tchaiko Omawale: That was always my intention, where we would both use editing techniques, acting techniques, the way we shot the film, and also sound and the score and the needle drop music to really represent identity, but also eating disorder. My sound designer Nathan, who also did this awesome film “Searching,” experimented a lot and when we were going through the film, I just talked about the various stages of having an eating disorder – how sometimes it’s your friend, sometimes it feels claustrophobic and you’re underwater, drowning, so literally [the sound team] went and collected sounds, and if you’re good at hearing things, we have sounds of the digestive track and sounds of water – all these layers of sounds that we used.
Then the way the DP Bruce Francis Cole, who’s a genius, and I constructed the way we were going to shoot, we kept thinking about a punk aesthetic, just like get in there and do it, so the camera’s shaky and all of that, trying to find inspiration from not having money and make that a part of the creative aesthetic. Sometimes when I was color timing, I was putting lots of different visual texture over the film and all of that was intentional.
Were you creating a certain environment to get a certain feeling?
Hope Olaide Wilson: It was a fucking crazy ass set. [laughs] It was so crazy.
Tchaiko Omawale: I am not going to say how much money the film cost to make, but we did not have a lot of money, so when I was watching the dailies I could hear myself being the AD as well as the director. [laughs] It was pretty intense, but before we got to set, I spoke to the actors – like Lynn [Whitfield] and Glynn [Turman] about what this meant to me and how i saw their characters. They asked me a lot of questions. For the younger actors, Hope, Luke, Chelsea and Sid did rehearsals and I took them to Bronson Canyon where I go hiking. We’d play games and did theater things and improv, so we had the script and we would shoot with the script, but then I’d tell them improv if you want to. It was intentionally fluid.
Hope Olaide Wilson: We improvised a lot.
Tchaiko Omawale: Like the mushroom ceremony, I can imagine you guys would have no clue as to how I was going to cut that.
Hope Olaide Wilson: Yeah, we had no clue, but the mushroom ceremony seemed like a lot of fun. If you saw how we filmed that, that was crazy. There was actual water in the living room being poured on us and I was like, “What is going on?”
Tchaiko Omawale: And then we projected waterfalls [behind the actors]!
Hope Olaide Wilson: I could tell that was going to be cool, but it’s going to look crazy [on the day] and I [knew that] was going to another place visually. That was exciting to me. But overall, it was still a surprise [to see the final film] because you’ve internalized an experience and it’s never going to be what you expect. And I feel like what Tchaiko has done is she has not just made a film, she’s made a piece of art. it’s something I could see as being in a gallery.
Tchaiko Omawale: I would love to put the meta-pieces as an installation. That would be cool.
Hope Olaide Wilson: Yeah, it’s really not traditional and I think that’s what wakes you up and makes you pay attention.
Tchaiko, when you say meta-pieces, you must be referring to the scenes of chrysalis that are weaved throughout the film to show personal transformation. How did you come up with that?
Tchaiko Omawale: That came about after [shooting]. I was at a residency last year at the School of Making Thinking, which blends philosophy with art and text and literature. We were out in nature in North Carolina and I was just surrounded by artists and one in particular, Naima Ramos Chapman, a filmmaker I love so much who [was part of] HBO’s “Random Acts of Flyness,” said [to me], “Do you feel like being honest in your film?” And I’m like, “No, there’s so much more I have to say.” And for me [those scenes of] the black body being revealed and vulnerable and exposed was incredibly important to me, so that’s when I decided you know what? I’m going to put myself forward and insert myself into this.
How did Me’Shell N’degeocello come onboard to do the music?
Tchaiko Omawale: I heard she’s one of our living geniuses. [laughs] There’s a lot of magic and serendipity that happened with this film and I was obsessed with Me’Shell since I was a teenager. She was one of the first people that made me feel really comfortable in my artistic identity because being black, I thought I had to make films that were explicitly political or about a certain thing and I liked fairies and fantasy. When I met her in my twenties through friends, [I told her what I wanted to do as an artist] and she would look at me and I felt seen and heard. Because it was Me’Shell, it was like, “It’s okay. I’m alright.” So it took a lot of nerve, but after three weeks of being nervous, I just e-mailed her [about doing the score] and we just worked it out. She was such a gift. She was incredibly busy when she did this, but she and her team were just amazing. [In general] I have been grateful for the journey to find my tribe. Along the way, people came in, and it was like relationships along your lifespan. People come in and out of your life for a certain reason and for a lesson and everybody was very integral to getting me to this point.
What was it like getting to the premiere?
Tchaiko Omawale: Woo, Lord. Getting to the finish line, you can talk to my partner. He has had to shore me up because it’s been exhausting. I was fundraising until the very end and there’s still more fundraising I have to do, but that was incredibly stressful and to still be working on sound and dealing with other festivals. But my parents flew in [for the premiere] and after the film, my dad [said], “I’m very proud of you.” He was wearing this African boubou and I just sunk my head into his robe and started bawling. This morning, people were sending me messages and it’s this feeling of just, “This has been my life for four years and my God, I’ve worked so hard.”
Hope Olaide Wilson: I keep saying, it just feels strange.
Tchaiko Omawale: Yeah, and Hope never saw it [before the premiere].
Hope Olaide Wilson: My mom was there and I grew up in a very religious environment, so I was very nervous. I was like Sole in some ways because I was very principled and I’ve always been the kid where if there is an elephant in the room, I’m going to acknowledge it. And you don’t do that [in my family], but I couldn’t help it. I was my own worst enemy in that sense because I would always say things that made for, at times, a very difficult relationship with my mom. So it was fascinating to actually hear from my sister, who was watching my mom watch it, [that] I think a lot of things clicked for her and in some ways, it was reliving my adolescence and maybe not qualifying things so much as “Oh, something’s wrong with you. You’re possessed.” [laughs] But [thinking instead] I’m a young person just trying to figure who I am, coming very earnestly from wanting to live a meaningful life. [I also experienced] seeing her intentions reflected on screen, meaning well and wanting to help me, but also just the miscommunication and why that’s so hard, so I think it was cathartic. Aside from that, I met Tchaiko in 2010 and it’s been an eight-year journey [where] I’ve changed during those years.
Tchaiko Omawale: So have I.
Hope Olaide Wilson: And it’s definitely the most intense collaboration I’ve ever had in my life, but I’ve taken a lot from it.
Tchaiko Omawale: She’s my sister.
Hope Olaide Wilson: Yeah, [Tchaiko’s] family to me and like what she said about how Me’Shell Ndegeocello helped her feel comfortable in her artistic identity, I think she’s been a big part of that for me and for that I’m grateful. There are some lessons where you think I’d rather not have to learn this lesson because it’s hard, but it makes up so much of who you are that you can’t help but appreciate the journey.
“Solace” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at the New Orleans Film Festival on October 20th at 3:30 at the NOFF Main Theater at CAC and October 23rd at the Advocate at 11 a.m.