There's a good chance you haven't seen the best short film made in the last decade. Naima Ramos-Chapman's And Nothing Happened didn't get much fanfare, didn't pick up a slew of awards, didn't secure her a trillion dollars to make a horror film or Marvel movie. Instead, it quietly devastated everyone who saw it and set her on a course to continue to be one of the most daring young directors alive. And Nothing Happened details a woman living with an unendingly complex array of emotions following a sexual assault. She tries to leave her home, to relate to her family, to get motivated to be herself again, to love her own body, to sexually excite herself, to just think and be, but her victimhood keeps intruding. It's a powerful few minutes, and it left me speechless after I saw it at the 2016 BlackStar Film Festival. Naturally, I'd be headed to see where this lighting bolt struck next.
Ramos-Chapman is raising money to finish her newest short, the breathtakingly rich and arresting Piu Piu. A spiritual sequel to And Nothing Happened, you can find it on the front page of Kickstarter's website as I write this. [Ed. note: It has since been fully funded] She's involved in the newest sensation on TV, Random Acts of Flyness, created by her longtime associate Terence Nance. She's directed segments for the show that work as companion pieces to her own work. Her compositions, color palette, and sound design are some of the sharpest any modern director wields, and the things she unearths in her viewers are important steps in piecing our identities together in the reflection of art and our trauma. Her work is like a trip to a faith healer, there must be confession and pain before a powerful catharsis. It's shockingly modern and primal at once. I spoke with Ramos-Chapman about the ideas her work reckons with and her thoughts on creating it.
There's a lot to say about Piu Piu, it's remarkable for a dozen reasons, but I think as a film in conversation with assault it works most aggressively. I was drugged in a bar not long ago, and watching the movie gave me flashbacks to the resulting trip, the percussive and disorienting edit and sound design, the feeling of doubting your own perception of a situation. When you're building this, what are you pulling from and what are you attempting to exorcise?
I haven't made films for that long, but everything I make stems from something autobiographical. It's a little of that that then transforms based on conversations I have with other people, in this case specifically women. Piu Piu was based on a situation where this guy was following me around the city for what felt like two hours. Stalked in broad daylight going to my acting studio. There were a lot of tactics I had to use, you know, I had to think: Am I being weird and crazy? Is this normal? I've had guys follow me home at night, and I've had to turn around and confront people. I've had a guy in the lobby of my building turn around when I said, "You're not gonna follow me into the elevator." He actually said, "Come on, sis. Really?" This is a normalized experience for the women in my family, we have a whole routine, I called my mom, she came down with a hammer. So this wasn't the first time I was followed or harassed on the street. So I have to talk to him to make him feel like he's not an attacker, and I have to psychologically manipulate him so I'm not seen as prey. I've seen people publicly masturbate. You're exposed to more people in the city, so you're exposed to more terrible scenes.
But this was specifically this guy in broad daylight, and I have to go through this whole routine of: What am I gonna do? What made me most angry about this particular stalking experience was that he wouldn't give up. That was a level of entitlement I'd never seen before. I've seen people give up. This was weird. It was very affirmed, there was no question this person was following me, it was unrelenting, and he had no shame about it. It was in Times Square, it was super-busy, no one could see I needed help, I didn't even think to ask for it, because you do feel very alone and isolated in New York when you're dealing with violence. The film was about my feeling very strongly about killing this person. I thought about it more, thought about the anxiety and stressors of being a black woman considering different escape routes. I've had a lot of conversations about [how], if you're in a situation and you're not close to the door, you're thinking of 10 ways out. If you're in a space with a guy, doesn't matter what he looks like, you're always on edge and on alert. I wanted to capture that.
I wanted to also represent this idea of being triggered in a more gestural fashion. It comes from this thing called bhuto, a Japanese art form that was in response to the bombing of Hiroshima. It's about the drama or the art of the grotesque. It's ugly and about not being human. How do you reconcile the beautiful idea of life with the destruction humans wreak on the earth? And then there's also excavating the body so you can let the environment in and move you. The dancers in the film are a representation of her psyche, of the adrenaline we feel in tense situations. It's doesn't always manifest in violence, though psychically women are being threatened all the damn time. But I wanted this not to be a typical reaction to violence, that was the most important thing. There's an image of a woman running away from her boyfriend in the beginning, which could be a loving thing or it could feel dangerous. How you can be a survivor and still want to inflict violence as a way to resist it and why is that the immoral choice. Why are women and black people and the historically oppressed expected to turn the other cheek? I'm just asking those questions.
The checklist you're talking about it is very real. Every woman I know has cell phone trackers, they tell their friends about the people they were last with, where they were going. When I explained the ending of the movie to women I know, I could see in their eyes that the violence here was complicated and empowering. What it would feel like to have power that could help you live without recourse to the checklist.
I'm kind of interested in developing it into a longer form, the idea of being shocked by your own power. And Nothing Happened is all about being in your home dealing with trauma, and this is a thematic sequel, it's about leaving the house and the dangers outside. How the trauma interacts with people you don't know. There's this place of dreaming that needs to happen in order to get out of trauma. It's a very creative space. After my assault, I felt like there was a lot of personality reformation happening. Once you realize the world is not what you thought it was. You have to dream to survive. You create culture, you imagine. And that's the last moment in the film. She's thinking, she's dreaming, and it creates this release. I was thinking too about rape, about how hard it is to convict. I wanted her response to be similar. In the way that men have weaponized their bodies, and can't be traced in the way a bullet can.
I saw echoes of Brian De Palma's The Fury, where a woman who's tangential to a conspiracy that has to do with weaponizing her without her consent and her violent reaction to realizing the depth of her manipulation. But you've obviously updated for this moment where untested rape kits are piled up in police stations and universities have hundreds of un-investigated assaults. Everybody knows how difficult it is to hold someone accountable for this particular crime. And you've foregrounded this mutual understanding perfectly with a tiny moment where a woman hands a sandwich to a deli customer, and he touches her hand inappropriately. Every young woman in this city seems to have a sandwich story.
I'm less interested in criminalized and convictions. We talk about ending rape culture and what they usually mean is sexual assault and rape. And we have to end those, but there's a whole spectrum that gets skirted around because it's not black and white. Power dynamics and privilege, the exchange of money, no means no, body language, how women are supposed to be responsible for communicating clearly in a way that a man understands. There's so much unspoken that men need to understand and be conditioned to get so they can't say, "Oh I didn't see the signs." I get angry, but the way we condition men is that we don't teach emotional intelligence or reading body language or cues. Remember that article by Hugo Schwyzer, a "male feminist," about the "Accidental Rapist"... The more I thought about it, or the Aziz Ansari thing... I've been in situations where you have to pretend this is what you want in order to be able to leave. But there's a lot there that was left out: the age difference mattered, his celebrity mattered. I think the journalist who wrote that article did a bad job explaining it. It's not something he can be convicted for, but that doesn't mean he's not a creep.
We've all been desensitized. I sometimes have to rethink things I've been through: Did I really want that? Did I feel compelled to say yes? My friend said something interesting about Harvey Weinstein: "I'm thinking about all the women who said yes and the pain they're feeling." Coercion is real as hell. We're not that there yet, where we can talk about it, but we should be. We know forcible rape is wrong, we know beating a woman is wrong, but why does it take that level of devastation for us to be alarmed? How do we de-escalate conflict before it becomes violence? The film's also about hierarchical abuse, how it trickles down. Sometimes you emulate the patriarchy to avoid being victimized by it. There are no perfect victims, it's all learned behavior. Shifting the onus onto little girls to protect themselves from predators and being rough with little boys. I've seen parents being rough with their kids and not felt like I can say anything. Society's made it that we're trapped in nuclear families and that's how we get lost and become violent.
Those ideas about the reinforcement of violence show up again in "Nuncaland," the segment in the second episode of Random Acts of Flyness, which you helped create.
It was a very collaborative effort, Damani Pompey did the choreography. Terence [Nance] assigned it to me. He told me to make something Peter Pan-ish. I was hesitant. I hate musicals. We had this layered conversation, all of us—Terence and Nelson Nance, Mariama Diallo, Frances Bedomo, Shaka King, Jamund Washington, Darius Monroe—we were all talking about gender, intimacy between men. We asked: "Patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, this overt communicated violence on women's body, part of the reason that exists is this lack of intimacy between boys because of homophobia." Boys, when they're friends, they love each other and touch each other in ways that are exploratory, but also just because that's part of friendship, and they're told very early that that's not okay, it's not manly, they're cut off emotionally. There's something to being repressed for a really long time that builds this hate. Maybe hate for another gender that's allowed to be expressive emotionally? And what is gender? These binary, dysphoric systems that tell you what a man should be and what a woman should be. They're oppressive and dehumanizing for everyone.
I was thinking about my upbringing, I'm Puerto Rican and black, I grew up in a Caribbean neighborhood, I grew up with Dominicans, was always around the Spanish language. Certain things I noticed, this machismo, how gender roles are calcified. The boys in the family would be catered to, moms be doing their laundry 'til they're way too old. They're given ways to play and never grow up. I even though about relationships I'd had: "You're Peter Panning it." Why don't you wanna grow up? But there's a pro to it. If you're never a man, you're not responsible for what men do. I feel like a lot of men don't want to take responsibility for what men do. Men are very quiet about male behavior now. I want people to reclaim these identities and expand them. You can destroy them if that helps, but what I don't want people to distance themselves from the patriarchy, so you don't feel responsible for it. You being quiet is not the answer. I understand my privilege moving through the world. I'm perceived to be a cisgender woman, which means I have a certain responsibility with the privilege I have. I wanted that message in "Nuncaland." It's okay to claim and redefine what a man is. What I, as a woman, want, is for people to grow up and take responsibility for what's happening, to not just say, "Well, I don't rape so I'm good." It's not enough.