32: Tchaiko Omawale
Tchaiko Omawale graduated from Columbia University with an African American Studies degree. She interned for Spike Lee, Mira Nair, and assisted directors George C. Wolfe and Tom Vaughan. Tchaiko produced the short film His/Herstory with Franklin Leonard. She went on to direct several short form projects including documentary America’s Shadows - HIV Risk in Black and Latino Youth and several music videos. She was awarded the Gaea Foundation Sea Change Residency for artists working for social change. She made the feature film Solace, which is a 2016 Tribeca All Access grantee, a 2016 IFP Narrative Lab participant, and a 2016 Creative Visions Creative Activist Program grantee. In between her independent projects she produces and production manages commercials.
Amél Adrian is a director and photographer living in Los Angeles.
This interview was conducted over Skype by Sophia Richards on April 5, 2017. Amél Adrian photographed Tchaiko in her Los Angeles home.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
TCHAIKO: By the time I was sixteen I had lived in seven different countries, so I kind of categorize phases of my life according to where I was living. Girlhood spans so many different chapters. Where do I start?
SOPHIA: Instead of that, we can phrase that question as, “Talk to me about your relationship to femaleness in your young life.”
TCHAIKO: Until around age eight, when I was a kid in Jamaica, Mozambique, and Thailand, I was very typically girly in that I was obsessed with fashion. It was the time of Linda Evangelista and all those supermodels. If you showed me a design, I would know who the designer was. But it wasn’t just fashion, I just liked pretty things. In middle school, all my friends were allowed to wear lipstick but I wasn’t allowed to, so I would dream of the day when I could wear makeup. But of course when I finally could, I had a complete turnaround and was totally uninterested. I felt very imprisoned by ideals of what I should look like as a girl.
When I was in boarding school in England at twelve years old, I had this sense of independence and freedom, and was much less dependent on boys liking me. I remember pining after boys for years and years, but when I was in boarding school, my attention was much more focused on my friends. I went to Sierra Leone after that, and that’s when I completely closed up. Boys never saw me as being pretty, but when I moved to West Africa, boys had crushes on me and I would get teased a lot. There was this one name they would call me, “Calftina,” because I have big calves.
TCHAIKO: They would call me Calftina and I hated it, and I didn’t know that I had an eating disorder at the time, or body image issues, really. Some of the guys that had had crushes on me would spread rumors that I had lost my virginity, and Sierra Leone was very culturally conservative at the time. There was a lot of emotional stress, but when I found female friends, everything was better.
I lived in Thailand before England and Sierra Leone, and being a black girl there was incredibly hard, even though I have great memories of it. I had to deal with friends saying crazy shit to me. I had to deal with teachers doubting my intelligence. That teacher in fourth grade that wouldn’t tell me how I could improve my grade because I think he didn’t think I could do any better. Or my Russian teacher, years later, being racist to me in my math class. All of that is a part of my insecurity, which increased as I got older and moved to the U.S. I started to think of myself as socially awkward. When I got to college, I was definitely in my eating disorder [period] and still didn’t know.
SOPHIA: From what you’ve told me, your eating disorder and body image issues appear to be intertwined with a kind of sexual awkwardness. Is that true?
TCHAIKO: I didn’t have sex until I was sixteen. I barely remember it because my other friends were having sex and I just wanted to give away my virginity. Overall, I’ve always been very open about sexuality. Even when I didn’t know about it, I’d talk about it, and I’ve always been open about masturbation. But I think there was this disconnect that I still have to a certain extent, where I struggle to see myself as a sexual being. I literally did not know that I had an eating disorder until I turned thirty. In hindsight, I can say that when I was in New York, I would stay up all night and binge. But at the time, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know the name for it. And I can tell you that I didn’t feel like I was attractive, but I would still I would go on spring break in Cancun and like hump a dude—
TCHAIKO: Or have a dude hump me! I’ve always had friends who appear really sexually confident, but I never saw myself that way. There’s just a disconnect, and I do think it has a lot to do with eating disorders. When you’re not connected to your body, you can separate everything.
SOPHIA: How do you feel that race and gender impact one’s ability to deal with mental health issues? That includes eating disorders, of course.
TCHAIKO: When I started to feel socially awkward and have anxiety, there was just no word for it, so I didn’t have the ability to reflect [on what I was feeling]. You don’t know what to call it, so you just end up feeling weird, and feeling weird makes you not want to interact.
In twelfth grade, I would hide in the closet and have cutting ideations. I was in so much pain that it just made sense that if I could cut myself, things would feel better. It’s not a literal thing. But my mom discovered me in the closet crying and sent me to therapy. And I don’t remember her words exactly, but it had something to do with, “If we never left Jamaica, this wouldn’t have happened to you.” So there’s this sense that, when you’re black, self-harm is an American thing, or a white people thing. But if it’s not a black people thing, then you can’t get help, you can’t talk about it, or you don’t even know it exists. You’re wallowing around with these painful feelings, but you don’t know where to go with them or who to talk about them with. I was isolating and binging for comfort. You’re just alone. It’s part of the reason why it was so important for me to make the film that I’m making now, because there’s no way for people to know unless they see it.
SOPHIA: Do you want to talk about people talking about your film, or do you want to talk about making your film?
TCHAIKO: It’s frustrating to tell a story about an eating disorder that’s a coming-of-age story and not a PSA. Funding it and getting people to talk about it is hard, because it’s not a sexy topic. If it’s a film about police brutality, white people will be like, “I’m doing something good” [by giving money]. If it’s a film about some historic black event or something specific to do with racism, it’s like “I feel good, let me give you money!” The challenge of making the film that I’m making is that it cannot easily assuage white guilt. That’s been extremely frustrating because I already have to learn how to practice self-confidence just as a person, but when you’re an independent filmmaker, you also have to be your own marketing person, your own promoter, your own producer.
But I’m really really grateful when I meet other black folks with eating disorders. There are people in the public eye who I know have eating disorders, they’re not necessarily out, but have come to me because I’m making this film and they found out about it. So that gives me energy and encouragement. But the real draining part is trying to raise money. I really think, especially in the U.S., if you chase the money, you find what people think is important. Talking about this is emotional for me, and I’m trying not to sound like a crazy person or too angry, because I am grateful that I get to make this film. But I feel crazy for feeling angry. Which is crazy. Because I should be angry, because there’s a lot of shit to be angry about.
Growing up, so much of my life has been (my parents are Caribbean), “Tchaiko, remember you have to do 200% better than your white friends. Tchaiko, remember that you’re the only black person here. You have to make sure you have good manners.” My parents are big with respectability politics because they’re Caribbean and old school. And that’s a lot of fucking pressure. Now I’m thirty nine and feeling all these feelings, but there’s still pressure to be composed and calm and articulate in a way that’s not emotional about how all these things are affecting me, but I’m really just irritated at Hollywood most of the time, because I see so clearly how racism permeates this industry in overt and subtle ways. Who gets to tell our stories, who gets funded, what works is deemed important, how when we see diversity it’s articulated as women and people of color which totally renders invisible women of color, woman automatically assumes white women. I work in commercials, so last night seeing that stupid Pepsi ad…[groans] I’ve never seen anything that bad on my jobs, but every day at work I’m dealing with indignities like that. For example, I’ve only worked for one female commercial director. I've been on set for a promo about Black History Month but there are no black creatives making it, just me as productions support staff and a grip who is black.
SOPHIA: What have your feelings been about black women in film lately? There has been so much acclaimed work by black artists this year, but do you think that that’s indicative of a more permanent change?
TCHAIKO: In terms of being a black female director, I just wish there were more of us getting work. I’ve been obsessed with Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum. It’s about this born-again Christian girl who’s working class and lives in London, and she wants to lose her virginity. And she’s so awkward and so fucked up and so funny, and I just love it and I just want more of that. I get to hear Nigerian accents, Ghanaian accents, I get to see all the parts of my international self that I don’t get to see when I watch black American stuff here. If Yvonne Orji were developing something about first generation Nigerians, that would be something I’d totally eat up —or if someone had a show about Caribbean Americans. I also like Insecure. I love Underground. I appreciate (that's an understatement) what Ava DuVernay is doing logistically, getting people jobs. But I just want more. I want to see black female cinematographers who are breaking molds. I want to be seen.
SOPHIA: Someone could say that black women in film are having a great time right now —look at all this stuff you’ve just named— but yet you aren’t getting any money for your movie.
TCHAIKO: It bothers me when people say that. While raising money for Solace, I’ve had people tell me, “You’re black, you’re a woman, and you’re queer? You should be able to get money so easily.” And it would make me feel fucked up when I couldn’t get the money easily. If you look at the way a lot of indie black female filmmakers are living…Whether they have money to pay rent, buy health insurance. Basic ass shit. I know it’s not just me that struggles in that way, but again, follow the money. If you consider women in general, the number of women directing tv has gone down, which is where most of the money is. So I call bullshit. It’s all press stuff. It’s getting better, but it’s not good enough.
SOPHIA: What bureaucratic or logistical issues have you run into directing Solace?
TCHAIKO: My dream was to have a film with black folks in it where it got to be as edgy as a Gaspar Noé film, or what Lena Dunham got to do in Girls, or any sort of artsy European film where people are free and naked and running all over the place and doing their thing. But I had pushback, because I think it’s challenging for young black actors in Hollywood to do nude scenes. And I do think racism is attached to that. I don’t think that black actresses have as much freedom as white actresses to go do a film like The Girlfriend Experience, and not be forever cast as a sex worker. I feel like you can be a white actress and be naked and have graphic sex scenes and you’ll be seen as an ingenue and the next hot thing. Most black actresses are really going to think two, three, four times before doing that. In fact, I can’t think of an indie black film where you have that. But that’s why TV is awesome, because in Issa Rae’s Insecure you see graphic sex. In Chewing Gum on Netflix she hasn’t had sex, but she’s really trying to have sex, and she’s graphic about her humping, talking about having thrush (yeast infections), her period, etc. But in film, we don’t have that freedom, or at least I haven’t seen it yet. The exception is Naima Ramos-Chapman’s film And Nothing Happened. I fell in love with her as an artist because of how bold she was with her body.
I was interested in “real people casting," but the logistics of casting “real people” is also so hard, and I didn’t have any support. I had a small chunk of money, I had somebody helping me with a small window of time, and I had to make the film. So I did the best that I could with the money that I had and the resources that I had. Does that sound depressing? I’m totally grateful that I got to make a film.
SOPHIA: The kind of people who would call you ungrateful for having the “opportunity to make a film” make it sound like you didn’t do it yourself —as though someone gave it to you.
TCHAIKO: I don’t think people want to give money to people who are complaining. So there’s always that fear and that juggling act that I have to do as a black woman, where I always have to think about how I’m coming across. I wish I didn’t have to do that, but it’s definitely something that I think about.
SOPHIA: People will talk about the social and emotional consequences of not being allowed anger as a black person, but I’ve never thought about the financial consequences.
TCHAIKO: I’m a freelancer. So if someone wants to hire me and they Google me and don’t like what I said, they’ll probably hire someone else. It’s just the reality of working in commercials where I’m often the only black person in the room. So I have to watch what I say. But I’m not great with filters. Growing up as a diplomat’s kid and having to behave made me want to do the opposite.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
TCHAIKO: I heard Angela Davis talking about something that blew my mind: not glass ceiling feminism, but abolitionist feminism. The way the world works right now is destructive to the environment. It’s oppressive not only to women, but also to children, men, poor people, indigenous people. With women being the people who give birth, who create life, we have the power to band together and create change. The issue is that we’re not. We have women like Ivanka Trump, who portray themselves as though they support women, but we all know the truth about that. I don’t think she’s that different from a lot of other women who have privilege. What do women need? Women need to look at the women who are the most marginalized, and think about how we can learn from them, how we can create space for them, and center them. I don’t think that's going to happen in my lifetime.
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