Filtering the universal experiences of female teenagerhood through the dynamics of Trinidad’s Carnival and attendant soca music scene would give the film its cultural specificity. Meanwhile, Cozier’s own knowledge of that world, as well as the testimonies of other young women she interviewed, would seek to make it authentic. Following a proof-of-concept short version of the film that led to a Trinidad government grant, She Paradise went into production. And the challenges inherent in shooting a film in the Caribbean formed an indelible quality of the film.
“It takes an open mind,” Cozier admits of filming in her native country. “You cannot make—I mean, you could try, but I don’t think someone can make a film in a space like Trinidad thinking that they’re going to keep industry standards or be professional or do everything by the book. It’s not going to work. You have to have an open mind and almost approach it as though there is no script.”
Yet it’s precisely the inability to shoot a film according to “industry standards”—which only raises the questions of whose industry and whose standards—that provided Cozier with the opportunity to be creative (and no less professional). This makes for an “imperfect cinema” of the kind extolled by late Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa. Cozier’s understanding of this, and the willingness to see virtues where others might see limitations, is central to her work ethic and the aesthetic of She Paradise.
“You have to adapt constantly,” she says, and goes on to provide an example that could serve as an object lesson in fiction filmmaking in the Caribbean. “I remember we had some extras for a beach scene that did not show up. And it was the knowledge of: OK, I am making a film in this circumstance, and these extras didn’t show up who are crucial to the scene. So, what’s in front of me? OK, we have a beach, we have the girls; how can I rewrite the script to keep the story going? And I rewrote the script on the spot. It takes this trust in the unpredictability of the process to make it happen.”
Working primarily with nonprofessionals, people playing fictionalized versions of their actual selves, was also a key feature of Cozier’s filmmaking ethos. “I don’t think it would have done the film any justice to cast people who aren’t in that dance world. And it was also more meaningful because all the women in the film are already so close to the story, to the characters they’re playing. It felt more fulfilling knowing that everyone really cared about the story and felt connected to the world, to the characters,” she explains.
This didn’t mean preparation for shooting wasn’t important. “We did do a lot of work,” she says. “We spent weeks rehearsing the roles together. And with the lead, Odessa Nestor, leading up to shooting, she would come over by me a lot, and we would look at movies together. I remember showing her Girlhood”—Céline Sciamma’s acclaimed 2014 portrait of French banlieue life through the eyes of young Black women—“and some Andrea Arnold films as well. I think it was important for her to see the type of film I saw in my mind.”
Cozier’s casting strategy and her method of working with actors led to an unforeseen blurring of reality and fiction. “Because we were working with nonactors and people who are so close to their characters, there was this interesting dynamic that started to happen, where the girls themselves formed similar bonds and connections in the same way as in the film,” she says. “The dynamic on-screen was the real dynamic of the girls while we were filming. And I found that interesting: when you’re working with nonactors, reality and fiction intertwine. And so you have these situations off-screen and on-screen that all feel blended.”
The result is both an exuberant and unashamed celebration of distaff power and sexuality, as well as a subtle examination of how women—in particular subaltern women, for whom agency is fraught in specific ways—attempt to negotiate the limitations of those things when a countervailing hegemonic male power is introduced. And while responses to the film so far have mainly been appreciative of its attempts to do this, other readings have revealed that a possible disconnect exists between various racial-cultural realities, a point Cozier is not shy of noting.
“I remember reading the Hollywood Reporter review of the film, and it was so obvious that it was written from a white woman’s point of view. She says these women may not be as free as they think because they’re still trapped in the male gaze,” she notes. “But my desire to make the film came from a feminist point of view, of wanting to explore certain themes—sexuality, respectability politics, slut shaming, and so on—and the idea of a female object, especially one in the performance space, who’s able to wield greater agency by turning herself into a subject and manipulating the male gaze to her power. And even though there are a lot of predatory men, there’s a lot of toxic masculinity in that space, Sparkle’s still able to navigate that space and extract what she wants out of it, whether that is money or the ability to perform and wield agency and power and still keep going. This is a Caribbean Black woman’s experience, and it won’t necessarily fit a white feminist experience.”
The film’s bracing resolution has also divided spectators. Yet, and without wanting to spoil the ending, it’s something Cozier is more sanguine about than one might imagine she’d be, given what happens: “I like the idea of leaving the ending open to discussion. A lot of people see the end of the film as the end of the sisterhood. But I don’t necessarily think it communicates a message about the sisterhood being bad for Sparkle. I remember being in groups where there were falling-outs over a lot of things, like money. These things happen. In my mind, the next day, they’ll talk it out. They’ll work together next week. And they’ll have more respect for Sparkle.”