Winner of Best British Surf Film at the 2018 London Surf / Film Festival, Surf Girls Jamaica follows Imani Wilmot as she uses surfing as a means of transforming the tough lives of women in Jamaica. We caught up with Joya and Lucy, the women behind the film, to discuss working in the industry and how the project came about.
In Conversation | The Right To Roam
What/how did you get into filmmaking?
We both came at filmmaking from different avenues, Lucy moved away from home to study media as a BTEC in Birmingham, while Joya was at sixth form school in Dorset studying and shooting analogue documentary photography. A few years later after pursuing these different paths, we met on a BA Film Practice Course at university the London College Of Communication (UAL) in South London, we would both arrive to the lecture room looking a little more rugged and wind swept than everyone else. We kinda spotted each other but it wasn't until our last year that we collaborated, which led us to make Away With The Land in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. We spent most of our last year of uni following a crofter up the mountains in Scotland, anything to escape the dark underground lecture room back in London. Something that we have had in common from the start, and is how we approach every film on a very human, personal level is that we have both always seen film as a tool, we believe in the power of film as a strong impact medium. We use this power to bring light to underrepresented stories, inspiring new energy to global issues and breeding empathy, because culture change leads to other change.
You have had a lot of success with your recent film Surf Girls Jamaica – how did this particular project come about? How did you meet Imani and how did she become the focus of this film?
The seed of the project was planted while at the 2017 national championships in Colombia. It was amazing to see the diversity of the athletes and how inclusive the whole event was. Everybody was so supportive and involved, from local children to adaptive surfers to the best ranked athletes in the country. We realised that surf communities in these regions had been ignored by mainstream surf media and how important it is to tell these underrepresented stories, because of the negative cycle and lack of access this can create to a sport.
Back in the UK, we researched for weeks but there really was very little coverage on Afro-Caribbean surfers. There are whole groups of women who cannot see a role model or place for themselves within the global surf industry. We eventually found out about Imani from an article that was a few years old and, inspired by her ambitions, we reached out to her. She is a filmmaker too, and so this whole process has been a collaboration with her.
Surfing has incredible healing powers and Imani was using this to bring the women around her together to overcome whatever struggles they were going through. She really is an incredible role model, but her story had never been given any light. It has the potential to inspire people all over the world on so many different levels and that’s why we felt it so vital that her story is told.
In the film, it mentioned the difficulty’s women in Jamaica typically face on a daily basis… how did that come across during the filmmaking process?
It is undoubtedly a patriarchal society, sexual assault and abuse is a very real, daily experience for women there. Despite the hostile experiences they go through, the woman we were surrounded by came back with even more strength. We were lucky to be working with a crew of Jamaican women, Mel (fixer), Apple (Sound and Drone) and Imani herself, who are boss women and knew how to deal with any problematic situations and kept us out of trouble!
The space that Imani has created is unique, in that there are not very many other support systems for women to escape from these challenges and therefore overcome them. Being a part of the surf girls family and using the ocean as this escape, together, brought us closer to to them. Building those relationships was really important to the narrative of the film.
As two women creatives, how have you found the film industry? Has there been anyone who has particularly inspired you?
The film industry is so vast, with so many micro pockets within it, it is developing so fast and is a hugely competitive industry to want to be in. So we try to just stay focused on our projects and what is important for us to say, keeping it real, rather than getting lost in what is essentially zeitgeist and going to sell at that moment in time. We are highly aware of the misrepresentation of our voices as woman when portrayed in media but also as female filmmakers trying to find work. Being a freelance creative might be the greatest and the stupidest thing we ever choose to do! We know it's all a balance and you've got to keep many doors open, making sure to have perspective on your situation . However we try not to get too hung up on it, by surrounding ourselves with strong positive people we can make anything happen.
Our inspiration comes from all sorts of people and places, all over the world, from the women closest to us, to communities defying cultural stereotypes and filmmakers who tell stories fearlessly. We’re also always looking to the ultimate mother herself- mother nature, which is undoubtedly the most grounding of all and is the only thing sometimes that when she slaps you in the face, you find perspective!
What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt so far?
That’s always a difficult question to reflect on for us, because we are so stubborn, always with our heads down to get stuff done, moving forward without time to appreciate how we got to where we are in the moment. Through all that, we’re always so open and curious to the wisdom that’s out there, what we’ve heard at talks, or in a book, that has nothing to do with filmmaking but something completely random that we can apply to filmmaking. The work ethic versus positive mental health / space and mindfulness balance is very real when you're freelancing, you’ve got to be super aware of when you're overdoing it.
Something we have to remind ourselves of is that there is no one language, especially with film. The medium is limitless and the more expression you put into creating your own unique film language, the more of a gift you will be giving to your audience.
That’s something we learnt from many filmmakers but in particular from Jamaican/Iranian/New Yorker, Khallik Allah, a documentary filmmaker who is shaking up the boundaries between art and documentary, breaking down the barriers of how we take in non linear narratives on hard core topics.
We have learnt a lot from collaborating with other creatives who respect us as much as we do them. Although we are a self sufficient team, it’s been so inspiring to work with individuals who have specialised in certain post production areas, these fresh perspectives to your work can be so important to the finished product. Noemie Duciemtiere, our soul sister, sound designer and score creator, is a super talented musician in film and the music industry as a whole. Noemie sung parts of the Surf Girls Jamaica score, which plays as Imani surfs to the shore and dives back through the sets. Her incredible voice echoes through this scene, this synergy of two incredible people that we have somehow brought together is amazing!
A more obvious point, but it actually really means something to us now, is to not get too hung up on kit. In comparison to other filmmakers, we use a small simple set up, (SONY A7S & Vintage Nikon Primes) but this means that connecting to people, capturing them in their natural environments and telling stories more intimately is a lot more possible. Nothing should stop you from going out and telling the story you want to tell, the process of making something from nothing is what really brings creativity.
If you're a filmmaker, recognise early the power of your medium that is film and see how you want to use it to make positive momentum and change! Because it is a powerful tool when used right!
What has changed since you released Surf Girls Jamaica, and how have you seen surf representation shift?
It has been amazing to see the Surf Girls Jamaica community continue to grow, with Imani’s work making consistent waves in nurturing Jamaica’s next generation of female surfers. Just recently at the beginning of this year, Zoe Annais - Bain, a surfer from the SGJ community, won 2022 Athlete of the Year at the prestigious National Awards ceremony on the island. Imani continues to use surfing as a tool to strengthen the sisterhood around the Kingston area and provide holistic healing experiences for women to connect to the ocean, inviting new women into the community every week. Since making the film, Imani has also travelled the world spreading her powerful message - highlights include her 2019 Ted X talk titled ’There is Space on my Wave. Join Me!’, sharing lessons she had learnt from surfing and why access & inclusivity in the sport is so vital.
As for the global Surf community, it’s been beautiful to watch so many more female role models find space to keep the conversation around representation in the Surf industry evolving. There are so many women of colour who are incredibly inspiring surfers and finally their voices and stories are being listened to. Collaboratives such as Textured Waves and Black Girls Surf continue to highlight and support inclusive female surf communities and show that this is an unstoppable movement, one that makes the Surf world a much richer place to be for all of us. Through such actions, the surf industry is challenged everyday to question and disestablish the racist stereotypes that have plagued it for so long and a more true representation of the beautifully diverse and multi faceted global community that surfing is continues to emerge . We still have a long way to go and as surfing individuals we need to continue to hold ourselves accountable, asking ourselves, what role can we play in helping the Surf/ Ocean Sports world become a more accessible and inclusive place?