TIFF 2022 Interview: Director Kelly Fyffe-Marshall on When Morning Comes

In 2020, director Kelly Fyffe-Marshall won Toronto International Film Festival Shawn Mendes Foundation Changemaker Award and brought home the two Canadian Screen Award for Best Live Action Short Film and Toronto Film Critics’ Jay Scott Awardawarded to an emerging artist, one year later for her powerful and stimulating short film black bodies. A work in two parts, accompanied by the equally sensational Marathonthe film grew out of her own traumatic encounter with the police when she and her friend made headlines after they were racially profiled as they left an Airbnb in California.

Despite the accolades black bodies received, the work went unnoticed in Canadian media until it was co-signed by American director Ava DuVernay. Judging by his stunning debut feature When the morning comeswhich will premiere at TIFF on September 12 and will also be available at home as part of the festival’s digital titles, no one should ignore his immense talent in the future.

When the morning comes tells the story of Jamal, soon to be 10, whose comfortable life in Jamaica is disrupted when he learns that his mother plans to send him to Canada to live with his grandmother. “The story is based on part of my immigration story from England to Canada,” says Fyffe-Marshall. Born in England to parents of Jamaican and Bajan descent, she immigrated to Canada around the age of the film’s protagonist. Her experiences gave her insight into the sense of confusion children feel when trying to figure out why such a change is happening.

The uncertainty that comes with no longer being able to grasp what one once knew, while being propelled into the unknown, is key to navigating Fyffe-Marshall’s poetic film. Unlike most immigrant stories, which begin with the individual’s arrival in a new country, Fyffe-Marshall’s film focuses on the place of departure. “It was important for me to show the snapshot of what happened before,” remarks the director, “we don’t think about the decisions it takes to lead to immigration.”

The way immigrants and refugees are portrayed in the media, and our own biases, often lead some to view them in a negative light, rather than taking the time to learn about their experiences. Understanding the tough choices people often have to make before arriving in Canada was key to crafting the complexities of characters like Jamal’s mother, Janeesha (referred to as Neesha by friends), who must make the toughest decision of all in the film.

Kelly Fyffe-Marshall photographed by Shak

Reflecting on a pivotal moment between mother and son in the film, Fyffe-Marshall noted that “I really thought about what my mother had been through and the things I needed to hear from her. [at that age].” Although she may have been too young to understand all of her family’s choices, her fond memories of her time in Jamaica as a child were never in doubt.

One of the things she knew from a young age was that if she ever made a movie about Jamaica, it wouldn’t be the stereotypical movies with excruciating fake accents that we normally see. Fyffe-Marshall sees the film as “a way for me to show everyone that authentic slice of Jamaica…the Jamaica I knew growing up.” The island portrayed in the film is one of love and community, the violent realities born of colonialism and poverty are addressed, but kept offscreen.

Reflecting on this approach, she points out that it was important for her, “as a black woman and a Jamaican artist, not to always give in to these things where we think we have to see gun violence”. Avoiding drinking from the well of sensationalism, When the morning comes offers Fyffe-Marshall a chance to feed off a different creative flow. Known for her social impact films that deal with tough subjects, her feature debut was an opportunity to tell a story that families could watch together. “After black bodiesI was in a space where I wanted to get away from talking about the trauma… there’s a lot of joy in my day to day,” Fyffe-Marshall says.

This feeling of joy that emanates from the screen is partly due to the tender performance of lead actor Djamari Roberts. Fyffe-Marshall praised the young actor’s talents and work ethic. “I was very lucky with Djarmari because he is a star. He read the script two weeks before [shooting] and I memorized it,” the director raves. What makes Roberts’ work in the film so amazing is that it conveys the innocence required of a newcomer yet carries the emotional weight of the role as a seasoned professional.

Along with the main performance, cinematographer Jordan Oram’s gorgeous visuals also play a key role in the film. His sharp visual eye really makes the lush island a central character in the story. Oram is part of a core team of longtime collaborators, which includes producers Tamar Bird, Iva Golubovic and Sasha Leigh Henry, the three formed the female-led production company Sunflower Studios with Fyffe-Marshall, which has instrumental in helping the director tell various stories on screen.

Explaining how working with these collaborators for almost a decade continues to bear such rich fruit, she notes that “the beautiful thing is that we are all growing together at the same time. It feels like family. The sense of trust and respect they have for each other has allowed Fyffe-Marshall to devote even more time to her craft as a director rather than trying to juggle numerous roles on set. . These links also had an impact off-screen.

Longtime activist and advocate for change, Fyffe-Marshall, alongside Bird, Golubovic and Leigh Henry, launched the make waves foundation which is a non-profit organization designed to fight inequality through education and knowledge sharing. They have already produced unique video conversations with key figures in the creative, beauty and business industries, available for free on their website, and have plans for future campaigns and videos that get people thinking about the diversity in a different and positive light. Although still in its infancy, Make Ripples’ approach to fostering individual change regardless of status is what makes it so appealing.

“Whether you’re in your family circle or your circle of friends, all those spaces you occupy should be better because of you,” she says. Embodying this spirit in everything she does, including ensuring that every set she works on features a diverse crew, Fyffe-Marshall continues to show with every project why she is such a vital voice in film and in the world in general.

Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s When the morning comes premieres at TIFF 2022 on Monday, September 12 and will be available online as part of TIFF’s Festival at Home.




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