This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the U.S., yet freedom remains elusive for far too many. The UN Trafficking Protocol defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, or fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that worldwide, there are between 12 million and 27 million trafficking victims. Human trafficking is always looked at as an “over there” issue. But the United States is a hotbed for this heinous crime.
Shaky statistics put the number of individuals human trafficked into the United States between 14,500 and 17,500. California alone harbors three of the FBI’s 13 highest child sex trafficking areas in the nation: San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Award-winning director Evita Castine teamed up with celebrated writer Thebi Banks to bring awareness to this clandestine crime. In their short film Only Light, a rebellious teenager stuck in mundane suburbia makes a chilling discovery when she uncovers a young Congolese girl trapped in the basement of a California home by a human trafficking ring.
EBONY: How did you come to work on Only Light?
Evita Castine: At USC, they don’t want you to direct your own work, because they want you to learn how to do interpretation. To be a Black female and to make their directors list, it just doesn’t happen. So when I saw there was another Black female with a script as a writing finalist, I read that first. I felt consciously or subconsciously like we would connect on some level.
EBONY: How does Only Light resonate with you personally?
EC: I think that seeing how young girls can navigate this world is important. I remember being a young Black female and trying to navigate. Girls have a lot more sexual bombardment, and I get curious as to what that would look like and what that’s about. Sexuality is part of human nature. But there’s so much shame attached to it in our culture. Many times women are used like weapons of war. And I was curious to see how that works and what the consciousness might be of a young African girl.
EBONY: “Only light” refers to a biblical reference and a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, about how “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” How were you able to interpret that idea visually?
EC: I looked at lots of Caravaggio paintings and played with how light could be used metaphorically in the piece.
EBONY: You also visually referenced the artist Mikalene Thomas. How does her work play into this piece?
EC: I’m a huge fan of her work. I was introduced to Mikalene Thomas at the Santa Monica Museum, and she was so honest and nice. I had never seen art like hers before, an exploration of Black women’s sexuality and identity in that way, I just love her. I look to artists for inspiration.
EBONY: Tell me about mythology and magical realism in your work.
EC: Myths are myths because they are stories that are so true that they resonate in the human subconscious. There are 12 archetypes in mythology, and whenever I’m reading a work or a person, I try to find them. I’m a big fan of Khalil Joseph, and he always talks about what does something feel like. Like, what does blackness feel like, not what it looks like. And I try to translate the emotional quality of a scene visually. So I look for symbols to represent those emotions.
The underwater scene represented the theory of water carrying emotions, going through the womb and returning back home to Africa to the Congo. It was a beautiful moment. And when the water gets cloudy, it was about the darkness that was happening inside of her.
EBONY: From Martin Scorsese to Debbi Allen to Spike Lee, much of their early life trials and lessons play into their early work. Who are you in this sense?
EC: I grew up outside of Chicago and upstate New York. I think being one of the few Black people influenced my work a lot. Because you are fighting to be seen, fighting to be noticed. Then you realize that none of that matters. I realize a lot of the work I have to do is founded on being seen.
EBONY: From Only Light to your more recent Bart and Cleo, there’s a strong theme of emotional commitment in your work. Is it safe to say you are a romantic?
EC: I think how to love somebody is a question I always have. Like, what is love? I know my dad loves me because he fed me and clothed me. But any institution can do that, so how do you know? I think it’s a question that hit me hard in a very deep way because I find it to be so complicated. I think all people come from some form of dysfunction. And we learn how to love each other regardless or out of that dysfunction.
And I wonder: what is compromise, what the line, what is the compromise?
EBONY: As a director, you’ve said that the story isn’t plot or beats, but it’s about how you feel. How do you know how you feel in the moment?
EC: I ask myself a lot how I feel right now and what’s happening right now. People only do things that work for them. So when something is happening, I like to step outside and ponder what’s really happening right now. When I work with actors and I’m plotting beats, I think a lot about what’s happening. What’s not being said? What’s the emotional driving point of this moment? I think about “why” a lot.
EBONY: Director Bill Duke said, “[Evita Castine] is one of my favorite students. She is extremely talented. She works hard. I think she is going to be a great director, producer, writer, actress. She is getting better every single day.”
EC: I had a class with Bill Duke about a year and a half before I decided to attend film school. It was an actor’s boot camp. It was half about the business and half acting. We studied Shakespeare, Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson. All summer I was steeped in the business and interpreting deep pieces of work.
Bill is a person who inspired me a lot, because I want to be the kind of director who only needs to ask you one question that pierces through the work to communicate with the actor and it guides you through the work. I wanted to be able to do that. And it’s like, “what do I need to do to be like you?”
Everything he said was geared toward the fact that we were Black and what we needed to do to survive in this industry. He was one of the reasons why I went to film school, because he said, “if you are an actress and all you do is act, then I feel sorry for you.” I didn’t like that. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. So I decided to take control. I wanted to earn the right to sit in that director’s chair.
Suede has spent a decade between the America, South Africa and Tanzania creating content for print, TV, radio and digital media. His interests include photography, pop culture, social media and travel. Follow him on Twitter @iamsuede.