By Barry Jenkins
Upon returning to their countryside cabin one day, Kaya, his wife Helen, and their daughter Naomi are confronted by two suited men: representatives of the San Francisco Remigration Program. The men explain that San Francisco is now occupied entirely by the wealthy class. But stoplights still burn out and trains occasionally jump their rails. Blue-collar labor isn’t obsolete, but it’s scarce. The city has created a program to “remigrate” long-gone working class families from their inland homes back to the city that once pushed them out. Kaya, Helen, and Naomi return to San Francisco and join a handful of other potential remigrants for a tour of what can be expected in their new lives. But can they learn to trust their old home once again?
Remigration began as a response to the FUTURESTATES mission statement "to take the current state of affairs in the United States and extrapolate them into stories of the nation in the not-so-distant future." When thinking about the future, it's instinctual to think of stories driven by technology possible only in the realm of the imagination. However, when looking back at my own life and the changes that have occurred in these 30 years, it's the societal changes that stick out the most.
The first draft of this script was very different than the film we ended up making (to put it succinctly, that draft was titled Outmigration). I knew that I wanted to explore the effects of extreme outmigration, to depict a version of the future where gentrification and its companion effect of displacement go unchecked. The idea was to explore those issues by channeling the narrative through the experience of one family, to put a face to what's usually relegated to the talking points of intellectuals and cultural theorists. It was only after seeing a short documentary on Detroit that the question I wanted to explore became clear to me: imagine living in 1950s Detroit and somehow being ferried a half century into the future. The cell-phones and internet would be impressive, for sure. But the urban decay of a city once known as "the Paris of the West" would resonate so much more.
Such drastic change is a very real possibility in a place like San Francisco where the cost of living is forcing working-class people to vacate the city they call home everyday. In a future where this phenomenon continues at its current rate, I thought it very possible that such people would simply abandon city life altogether, pushing deeper and deeper into the exurbs of our states, disengaging from the city consciousness to live an isolated life where the stress of affording to house oneself doesn't exist. Taking that a step further, I asked two questions: In a future where I believe human beings want what's best for one another, what would a city do to correct this? And working back from that prompt: If given the choice, would a family once pushed out of said city choose to return?
Drama dogmatically hinges on good and evil, on the tension and conflict arising between them. Whenever I offered Remigration to a friend for feedback, the question I received most was "Who's the bad guy?" In making a film set in the future, the "bad guy" is the story unfolding in our cities today, the very real displacement of working-class people in cities around our nation. There's no reason our local governments can't do something to address this. Remigration is the story of one that has.
—Barry Jenkins, Writer/Director
We're halfway through our shoot when Paola Mendoza relays a story to me. One of the crewmembers has asked her, "Paola, do you run your sets like Barry?" This puts a smile on my face. We've been fortunate to have this short funded by ITVS's FUTURESTATES program, but rather than take those funds and spread them amongst a large crew on a film of D.I.Y. scope, we've taken our same crew-light approach and attempted a film spanning hundreds of miles, multiple locations, and myriad landscapes.
In this setup, I'm part director, part producer, part AD and part script supervisor. I make a point of knowing every crew member's name and addressing them like family. Those I don't know, I create. To wit: Johnny Gill (Best Boy Grip), El Debarge (Key Grip), Chico Debarge (First A.C.), Roberta Flack (Art Director), Rick James (Best Boy Electric), Bobby Brown (Flex Grip), etc. Thus, on a set featuring players who've just completed a run of Fences on Broadway, played Bond villains, directed award-winning films of their own, and — never to be out-shined — are entering the first grade ... I'm constantly calling the names of R&B figures from my childhood. The best noise on set is laughter, particularly amongst the crew. That's genuine energy.
Noise. There's so much noise on a film set. The noise of work, mostly, but also the noise of location moves and setups, of chatter. On a set this small, with a crew light (and nimble) enough to fit in five vehicles, the noise is rarely mundane. I love working this way, everyone invested, everyone moving with the very plausible feeling that a mistake here or a failure there and the whole thing could come crashing down. Responsibility. The responsibility to get things done and the feeling of accomplishment that inevitably flows from it. On a small set, these feelings accrue tenfold.
On our first day of shooting, we drive three hours north of San Francisco to shoot in remote locations just off the California coast. While myself and the actors sleep in a hotel, the rest of the crew camps in the cabins we'll shoot as our actors' home — a place with no running water, no central heating, nor functional electricity. They all rise without complaint and shoot six pages across three locations in a place as remote as any I've filmed in. And when we make our day and I get the feeling to shoot a scene 500 yards away on an ocean cliff in the last sliver of daylight, no one grunts in dissent. Everyone pitches in to capture this moment not found in the script, pulled from the ether and heaped on top of a beast of a day.
This is how we get this film done. I don't know that there's any other way.
—Barry Jenkins, Writer/Director
Barry Jenkins is an award-winning writer and director based in San Francisco. His feature film debut, Medicine for Melancholy, was released in theaters by IFC Films and hailed as one of the best films of 2009 by A.O. Scott of The New York Times. Filmmaker also named Jenkins one of their “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” Other projects include the shorts Tall Enough and A Young Couple.
Justin Barber is a director, producer, and CG artist/designer based in Los Angeles. He produced the award-winning feature Medicine for Melancholy, for which he received an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
Russell Hornsby — Kaya
Russell Hornsby was seen on Broadway in Intimate Apparel opposite Viola Davis. He made his Off-Broadway debut playing Young Blood in August Wilson’s Jitney. Other New York City credits include To Kill a Mockingbird, Joe Louis Blues, and Six Degrees of Separation. Hornsby has been a series regular on the TV shows In Treatment, Lincoln Heights, and Gideon’s Crossing. In film, he’s played lead roles in Stuck, Forgiven, Big Fat Liar, and Keep the Faith, a TV movie for Showtime. He was seen in Jim Sheridan’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and on Broadway in August Wilson’s Fences.
Paola Mendoza — Helen
Paola Mendoza was named one of Filmmaker’s “25 Fresh Faces to Watch For” 2009. She is in production on a feature-length documentary called La Toma, which was partially funded by the Nelson Mandela Foundation. She made her narrative directorial debut with entre nos, which had its world premiere at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival where it was awarded Honorable Mention. Mendoza also directed the feature-length documentary Autumn’s Eyes and the short documentary Still Standing, and produced the feature documentary Without the King. As an actress, she has starred in films including entre nos, Sangre De Mi Sangre, and On the Outs.
Rick Yune is an actor, screenwriter, producer, and martial artist. The former stock trader's training at the Actors Studio and early work in modeling and television led to his first feature role in Snow Falling on Cedars. He is also known for his roles in The Fast and the Furious and Die Another Day. His early love of tae kwon do also found the future actor qualifying for the Olympics at the age of 19. While pursuing a career in business at Philadelphia's Wharton School, he was discovered by an agent while on his way to a job interview, which led to his becoming the first Asian model to work for Versace and Polo Sports.