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Adura Onashile Talks Sundance 2023’s Girl

6 min read
Girl (2023)

There is perhaps nothing stronger — and nothing more telling — than the relationship between mother and child. In 's debut feature , mother-daughter duo Grace and Ama have established a deep bond that's protected them from outsiders, but as they start anew in Glasgow, things begin to change. FILMHOUNDS sat down with the director and writer to find out if shelter can truly be found from a painful past.

 

GIRL is getting its debut at of all places. How are you feeling?

I don't have the words. We found out in December — they call you directly — and no word of a lie, I just screamed down the phone for about a minute. It's always loomed large in my mind. Even before I  had the opportunity to become a filmmaker or call myself a filmmaker, there was always a tag. When a film had a Sundance premiere tag, you knew that there was something about it that was different. It would take you on a particular journey that was certainly not mainstream. So it's a real honour, but honestly, I have no idea what it's gonna be like. I have no idea what the response to the film is gonna be like once we're on the ground, in terms of audiences and reviews. I don't know that stuff. It's nerve-wracking as well as very exciting.

 

This is your debut feature — was this the story you always had in mind for it?

Yes, I think so. I didn't start my filmmaking journey until six years ago. I've been obsessed with film since I was a child. I think I was pretty much brought up on TV and film — or TV and film brought me up. That's the better way to put it. There were hours and hours of watching television because I was an only child and my mother worked nights. We were a single-parent family. But I just never, ever imagined myself making that work. I didn't know anybody that worked in the industry.

When my producers came to see my play, they said to me “We think you can write for film. You should write for film.” This story was the first thing that came into my mind, which is so interesting. I think it's an idea I've been thinking about in terms of theatre or exploring aspects of it through theatre. Maybe not in terms of a play, but sort of movement or physical therapy. I just thought it's such a rich relationship, and it's so under-explored in film, as far as I'm concerned.

 

Speaking of rich relationships, the mother-daughter connection feels so personal. I was really astounded by how you were able to capture such intense physical intimacy. How do you approach casting, and scenes that say very little but tell us so much?

For me, what was super important was that I had a rehearsal process with just Déborah (who plays Grace) and the Le'Shantey (Ama). I wanted them to get to know each other and to feel comfortable with each other, and that was over a three-week process, which is quite extensive where film is concerned. There was a connection that I didn't have to manufacture on set because they'd already built it up through rehearsals. Le'Shantey is obviously less experienced as an actor than Déborah, but what she was very good at is reading the room and changing her chemistry depending on what she was getting. So you'd have this 11-year-old energy bossing about getting her makeup done, and then as soon as you said “Action,” she would look at Déborah and you would just see her fall into her energy, and it was so beautiful to watch. I think she's a very exciting performer that can be harnessed and developed, she has a sensual sensitivity that is really beautiful.

Déborah is amazing to me, I think she understood the character straightaway and understood how pregnant silence can be. The way you hold yourself and the way you are in the world says so much about you without you having to say anything — she understood that straightaway.

 

Girl (2023)
Sundance Film Festival

 

Exploring themes like education, and child welfare — do you need to do an extensive amount of research, or is it a case of feeling the moment, and going off of personal experience?

It was a bit of both. I spoke to a few social workers, and something that was really interesting to find out is that when women (in particular) show signs of having gone through traumatic experiences, they're not invited to talk about them. And I remember speaking to a social worker and going “How do you know that?” There's so much bureaucracy around the right to stay in the country. And she said, “Well, there are very bad signs that you can pick up on.” A lot of them are to do with the withdrawal from engagement, or withdrawal from the world and that desire to erase yourself in public. So those things were really sort of fascinating and important to me to get in there. But I also didn't want Grace to feel like a victim. Where her kid is concerned, she has this fire. But where the world is concerned, she's at a loss and vulnerable, and holding those two things was important. I'm an only child and my mum was being a sister and a best friend. There were many brilliant things that gave me in terms of confidence and independence. But there were some things that didn't give me, like understanding boundaries. I think those were things that I knew were almost instinctive to me and would come through in the characters that I wrote.

 

I'm really interested to see how GIRL plays out with an American audience because I think a lot of Americans — with either London or Scotland in particular — have an extremely romanticised, Harry Potter-esque view of what these places are like.Obviously, we know Glasgow to very multifaceted. Was there a particular way that you wanted to use location?

Ama's world for me is out of the window. It boasts the possibility of adventure outside of herself, but also seeing the world and being in the world in a completely different way. So I knew Glasgow had to hold all of that possibility for Ama, and so for me, what she sees outside of her balcony makes the interiors of people's houses feel like spaces. The city felt like I needed to see it through her eyes. I needed to see it in terms of its curiosity and its terms of its sense of adventure and intrigue. The space that's most prominent in the film is their flat. It was important for that to be grounded, but the sense of colour created a sense of a sanctuary in their space. I worked very closely with my production designer to get that feeling without going into magic realism.

 

After Sundance comes GIRL opening Glasgow Film Festival, which will be such a special night. What else does this year hold for this film?

I really, really hope that we get some sort of cinema release. It would be great if that happened. If I'm really honest, I'm a bit ignorant to the machinations of distribution and what it means. My mum's coming to the premiere in Glasgow, but I'd love all her friends around and in those local community groups to see the film. I'd love to share it with nearest and dearest. So yeah, that's what I hope for, but we shall see.

 

Girl premiered at this year's , as part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition.