Vashti Anderson is an American filmmaker and published author based in Brooklyn. She has been working in film and TV production in NYC since the late ’90s and, since earning her MFA in Film at NYU, has written and directed several narrative films. Her first feature, Moko Jumbie, was filmed in rural Trinidad and premiered at Los Angeles Film Festival. It screened in competition at Bentonville, Urbanworld, Edinburgh International Film Festival and others and is now available on Indiepix and Amazon Prime Video. Vashti currently spends her time writing stories, developing her second feature and making sure her kids don’t kill each other.
Among the many relationships filmmakers develop, the director-actor one is a special scent. The first time I heard Vanna Girod’s voice, she was screaming into the phone over the bacchanal of the Trinidadian Carnival. “Hello?! What??” I was offering her an audition for my debut feature, Moko Jumbie; we met a few days later. My D.P., Shlomo Godder, walked away saying, “Her eyes sparkle.” He could see it, and I could see it. She entered the first rehearsal with an empty soda bottle on top of her head, covered by her thick, black hair tied at the top. She looked like she was being stretched headfirst into the time-space continuum. Those who didn’t know her interpreted her silliness as “wild” or flighty. I thought, in a way, that her silliness was there to save her. Earlier this year, in the weeks after her tragic death, I felt that she visited me ever so briefly, and in the lightest of ways tipped her head to the side and smiled.
Who can capture anyone? Vanna was a person of many contradictions, a quality which inherently leads to misconceptions. But I know about our director-actor experience and all that followed. Actors do an incredibly generous thing – taking their bodies, voices, physiology, tears, insecurities and emotions – and just handing them to you. They see what is hidden inside of you, in what you write, and manifest it, disemboweling your innermost thoughts and feelings. It’s a painful process, a special skill and vulnerability, and I love them for that.
One day during production, I was overheating, first-trimester pregnant and shooting in the blazing sun for a standard 12 hours a day. Vanna told me to sit down, and with her long, silver nail polish-tipped fingers, massaged a cooling gel over my scalp. We developed a specific type of trust. When I asked her to reach within herself and cry for real, with the camera rolling and everyone staring at her, she did. It wasn’t always easy, but filmmaking never is.
We shot Moko Jumbie in Cedros, South Trinidad, in a remote area amongst the ruins of once-prosperous coconut plantations. Although Trinidad is a small island in the Caribbean, each region has different people, characteristics, language use and overall vibe. This was a fishing village. Having a strong economic history in oil extraction, Trinidad did not develop a tourist industry like other islands. There were no hotels anywhere near our location, but authenticity is important. Dino Maharaj, a brilliant actor I had worked with before who played Vanna’s character’s uncle, had a childhood home there. It had been taken over by wasps and tropical brush, but his family had built a more modern home directly across the street. The script called for an old house across from a new house. How could this be? Dino’s family generously granted access to us, and it served as our temporary home and our set, holding and catering, hair, makeup, wardrobe.
We all did many roles, and one of mine was makeup. I drew Siouxsie Sioux eyeliner and applied black blusher on Vanna’s face. In almost every scene, she wore a silver necklace that came from my Indian ancestors – it traveled with them, indentured servants under British colonialism, across the Kalapani. It evaded the thieves who raided my grandparents’ house; they got the thick, gold bangles that were hidden above doorframes and inside kitchen pots, but not the silver necklace. She wore the only thing that was left. I wear it. It’s not comfy. It jingles. It caught her hair so many times, I had to repair it with pliers halfway through the shoot. But she wore it because she knew what it meant to me.
Moko Jumbie had its world premiere at Los Angeles Film Festival, and I met a celebrated producer at the festival’s filmmaker retreat. I told her about the house, thinking she would be impressed, or at least charmed, by our scrappiness and what I perceived to be good fortune, but she just looked at me, rolled her eyes and bellowed out a groan. We would all like to be well-funded, but I don’t need a five-star resort to make art. Vanna was like me. She could roll with it.
Vanna’s grandmother, who seemed to be her favorite person in the world, welcomed Shlomo and me into her home during preproduction, fed us triangle bakes and choka, and then gave me the you-better-not-fuck-with-my-granddaughter talk. That was love, and that was trust. Vanna walked the red carpet with me during the film’s European premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival. We sampled peaty Scotch and roamed the streets. That was the last time I saw her in person.
In addition to making films, I’m a professor, and on January 26, I was in the middle of hosting a presentation to my class by an intimacy coordinator when my phone blew up. From all sectors of my life, and even from strangers, people were shouting that Vanna was dead, drowned off the coast of Tobago.
The last voice memo: “Vashti, I hope you’re well. I found um, I found a … a bunch of behind-the-scenes pictures from when we were on set on my old phone, on a Blackberry, so I’m gonna send it to you. It’s hilarious, oh my God! It’s so funny. We had so much fun on that set.”
The last text: “You should be so proud – I’m so proud of our creation.”
I take comfort in these lasts.
Stories live forever. Creativity lives forever. What we made together lives, enters strangers’ homes and minds, with multitudes of interpretations, emotions, ideas – without either of us being there.
Featured image shows Vashti Anderson and Vanna Girod at the Edinburgh International Film Festival; all images courtesy Vashti Anderson.