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DEVOTION - The Story

Alice, a bi-racial eleven-year-old girl, has recently lost her mother in a car accident due to her father's drunk driving. As father and daughter begin a new life, Alice is haunted by nightmares and memories of her mother's death, and the new woman in her father's life. Alice's identification with her mother who was white, and reluctant forgiveness of her father, who is black, forms the heart of this bi-racial coming of age story.

DEVOTION marks the feature debut of writer/director Dawn Wilkinson and introduces Jasmine Richards in a remarkable performance as Alice.

80 Minutes/Digital Betacam/4:3 Letterbox/Dolby Digital/Canada/2005

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DEVOTION - Festival Screenings

Caribbean Tales Film Festival, Toronto

The Meow Film Series,Toronto

The Twin Cities Black Film Festival, Minneapolis MN
The 24 Hour Film Festival, DCTV New York

The African Diaspora Film Festival, New York
The BFM International Film Festival, London UK
The Knoxville African American Film Festival, The Knoxville Museum of Art Tennessee
The Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival, Martha's Vineyard
Atlanta Pan African Film Festival, Atlanta
San Francisco Urban Kidz Film Festival, San Francisco
Vues D'Afrique, Montreal
Reel World Film Festival, Toronto
Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival, Los Angeles

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Making "DEVOTION" Q&A with Writer/Director Dawn Wilkinson

Why did you title the film Devotion?

On the one hand I wanted to look at the theme of Devotion as both a positive and a negative. A positive, in terms of how spiritual devotion or love can bring peace and happiness and security. This is why Alice is on a spiritual journey of sorts, to understand the death of her mother and what her life means in light of this. At the same time, as a negative in terms of how a religious belief can divide people, or even as an addiction like Grant's alcoholism. Social divisions are a big part of what a bi-racial child has to deal with and accept.

Is the film autobiographical?

I have experienced every emotion Alice goes through but the events of the story are fiction. I relate to living in a small, predominantly white town as a child. We moved from Montreal to Acton when I was still a baby and then we moved to Brampton when I was a little girl. At the time, Brampton was not the diverse suburb that it is today. I experienced racism as a kind of shock and I think part of the shock was that my mother and aunt were both white and I loved them and they loved me. The alcoholism is also something my family experienced. I wasn't interested in showing Alice's father drunk I was more interested in showing how his behavior affected her, even after he quit drinking. My mother and I are very close so I approached the script from the point of view of "what if?" If I had lost my Mum at that age I don't know where I'd be right now.

What is your personal philosophy behind the making of this film?

I am interested in how our social and cultural identity is formed during childhood. In Devotion, I wanted to explore how Alice's bi-racial cultural identity is formed within the context of the tragic loss of her mother. This way, the inter-racial family in itself is not unique. It is like any family. The impulse of society is always to take a side: "race matters" or "race is unimportant we are equals." In my film, as in my life, both are true. Ultimately I am interested in healing. Alice is a daughter who can forgive her father and accept herself at only eleven years old. In this way she is not only a role model for young girls she is a role model for grown women as well.

Why tell the story from Alice's point of view?

From the time I was Alice's age, I never felt represented. I found a few characters I related to, like Lisa Bonet's character on the Cosby Show, but I really didn't see a girl going through what I was going through. And I didn't see young women, let alone young women of colour, being treated like the hero of stories often enough. Thankfully, that has started to change.

Did you write the screenplay with a genre in mind?

Devotion is a personal film. After making Thankful (1999), the video narrative I directed at the Canadian Film Centre, I realized that I like directing the dynamics among a family. Everyone's family is a bit crazy-it's a universal experience. In Devotion there is also an element of melodrama with Caroline's death. I saw Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life when I was about five years old and it was almost like watching a horror movie. I couldn't sleep after watching that film. Melodrama works for stories about families separated by race. At the same time, I didn't want Devotion to be too heavy handed. Alice's behavior is funny at times in a truthful way.

Where did you come up with the name Alice Hope?

The name Alice was inspired by Alice in Wonderland. When you are a bi-racial child, you learn very quickly about the racial divisions in society and you accept them, as best you can. But it never seems quite right. Leaving my parent's home and going out into the world was almost like entering a strange land where everyone's point of view was strange and twisted on this topic of race. I had some fun with that in the Halloween sequence in the film. I was drawn to the last name Hope for literal reasons. In a way, Alice has given up hope. She is afraid to hope that her father has quit drinking for real. At the same time, the characters give us hope because they overcome some very dark emotional territory. Grant in particular. In a way, he gives the audience a reason to hope that redemption is possible. At least, his daughter begins to forgive him.

Why does Alice forgive Grant?

Forgiveness is a theme that I've always been drawn to. I think its part of how we heal. But its hard to do and so I wanted to show a young character on this journey. In the beginning, Alice is very angry with her father. She doesn't articulate why because she can't. She's mourning the loss of her mother and her anger is unspeakable. She knows the accident was an accident. But she also lives with an alcoholic. In order to forgive him, she needs to see him change. When he stops drinking, and starts seeing Kate, that's not enough of a change because he is still in a kind of denial over the accident. When he finally comes forward, and takes responsibility, when he steps up and acts like a man....that's when Alice can begin to forgive him.

Why did you organize the time period of the film around seasons so much? What time of year did you shoot?

I shot the film in the spring, from March to the end of May. Anyone familiar with the climate in Toronto knows, anything is possible when it comes to the weather at that time of year. We were lucky in the sense that I shot the snow exteriors right at the top, and it was a fairly cold spring so we had no trouble selling it as Fall. But it really had to do with the imagination and talent of my production designer Diana Abbatangelo. The reality is that children think about time in terms of holidays. I wanted to be true to that. I remember that as a kid.

Can you explain the strange combination of spirituality and politics in your film?

The death of Alice's mother almost overshadows the racism as the story unfolds. I have always thought there is a connection between race and spirituality. Not in an essentialist, we are all black and therefore we share a spirit, though that idea is often comforting. It came together for me when I read Patricia Williams. I was doing my degree in Women's Studies and African Studies at the University of Toronto. In one of her essays, she talked about racism as a form of spirit murder and it really spoke to me and my mixed race experience. I'm black. I can't be white. I can't identify myself as white. If I do, I'm buying into racism. But my mother is white. I have to accept that part of her is in me. As I learn to accept and love myself as a black woman, I have to separate myself from her "whiteness". I can't identify with a part of who I am. For me, that is a form of spirit murder. On a personal note, my mother is a spiritual person. She took me to yoga classes as a child and she teaches yoga now. She was our yoga consultant on the film. I'm sure that has a huge impact as well. Saraswati, the actor who plays Alice's mother, is one of her good friends.

How does Alice deal with losing her beloved white mother, to seeing her father dating a young black woman?

It's weird to show a black girl who has trouble with her black father for dating a black woman. Any woman would have been a problem for Alice. But in a way, Alice does feel abandoned. At Halloween, they dress up in an Afrocentric style and Alice dons a blond wig. She's having a crisis on almost every level. I think we've seen the black girl who holds up the ideal of white beauty before. It's what I loved about Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. But I think its new to show a black girl who wears a blond wig to be closer to, and more like, her mother....it complicates things, it complicates identity and simple divisions of black and white.

Why is she able to form a bond and relate with Kate's character?

There is an element to this story that you have seen before...the daughter who resents her father's new girlfriend. But Kate is not a bad person. She's just a bit messed up. The turning point comes when Alice comes home from the fight with Vicky. She really needs someone on her side and Kate wants to be that person. Kate doesn't judge her. Some people read the script and said they would never become friends the way they do. But I knew Kate would have to reach out to her. Also, Alice relates to the problems that Kate is having with her own mother.

Why did you choose this particular story to be your first feature film?

It's more like this story chose me. As a teenager I wrote about a childhood memory I had about my dad throwing out my doll. The story stayed with me. Why did l love this white doll? Why did he hate it? I tried to work that scene into every script I wrote. Finally, when the story for Devotion came to me, I knew this would be the place to start. To write and direct a story about childhood. I saw Truffaut's 400 Blows and I wanted to make a film about a child's point of view, that does not speak down to children, or make light of children's problems, from the point of view of feelings that I remember. I admire filmmakers who tell personal stories with a political message.

Who are some of the filmmakers you admire?

Julie Dash and Spike Lee both had a huge impact on me when I was a teenager: the beauty of Daughters of the Dust and the epic tragedy of Do The Right Thing were overwhelming. But it was watching El Mariachi that I was inspired by the possibility of making a film with my own two hands. And then after making Instant Dread (98) my first short comedy, I had the opportunity to work as the apprentice to Norman Jewison on The Hurricane. Norman Jewison taught me what directing is really all about. I saw how he visualized a scene and spoke to actors. I was inspired to follow my dreams. Here was the guy who directed In The Heat of the Night, and A Soldier's Story, opening his trailer to me letting me peek over his shoulder to watch his monitor! And after directing Girls Who Say Yes (00) I got to work as Ernest Dickerson's assistant on Our America. I admired his work on Do The Right Thing and Malcom X but I also loved Juice. I admire filmmakers who put black characters on screen and break stereotypes in new and truthful ways. I'm into the American Independent film scene and the Canadian experimental filmmaking. I fell in love with Cassavetes' film Shadows during my stint at the city college of New York's MFA Program where I studied with Ayoka Chenzira. Filmmaker Phil Hoffman was my first mentor. He taught me to love image making and to approach filmmaking personally. I made my first film Dandelions at his film retreat in 1995.

What was it like to shoot and live in the same location?

I knew we would be shooting on a digital format and with a black cast you have to be aware of the backgrounds. We only had a studio for two days so I chose to shoot the house interiors where I live because I knew I could do whatever was necessary to the walls. We shot the exteriors in another location. In pre-production we did tests. My complexion is similar to Jasmine's so we painted backgrounds in pastel shades and Lux my DOP shot me against the various paint colours. The walls were dark and drab in real life compared to how they appear in the film. I wanted Alice's home to be warm and pastel, in spite of the dark period she is going through in her life. I was obsessed with Alice's pink room. A friend of mine dropped by the set and was amused by how much it looked like my bedroom when I was eleven. Now I like to live with white walls so living in those dark colours for months was torture. But not as bad as sleeping beside craft services. At least we didn't starve!

What is it that you want audiences to take away with them after they have watched Devotion?

All I want to do is ask the audience questions. I think the best films ask questions rather than give answers. I hope to create dialogue. There is a tendency to think that a film about a bi-racial family is going to be all about race. But when it comes to love and loss, race and cultural difference are not the most important things. At the same time, as a black kid with a mixed race identity, race is not something you can ever escape when dealing with the world. Even if it is not an issue for you, the world makes it an issue. I have a friend who would talk about bi-racial kids going through this process. First the stage where you want to be white, then the stage where you want to be black, and finally the stage where you accept who you are. It will be my life's work telling that story. This film is just my first stab at it.

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