Tribeca 2021 Directors: Meet Giselle Bailey and Nneka Onuorah – “The Legend of the Underground”

Giselle Bailey is a producer working across TV and commercial production. Her career started in contemporary art where she worked on public performance pieces aimed to disrupt reality. She went on to produce documentary series aimed to expose cultural realities, VFX aimed to imitate reality, and commercials aimed to bend reality. She most recently has worked on Viceland’s leading roster of content, including two time Emmy nominated “Gaycation,” “Noisey,” “States of Undress,” and “Slutever.” Her passion is for creating and uplifting narratives that empower underserved communities — especially that of Black, African, and Caribbean women.

Nneka Onuorah is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, television producer, and activist of Nigerian-American descent. She is known for her film “The Same Difference,” a documentary about internalized homophobia within the black lesbian community. The film was nominated for a GLAAD award in the category of Best Documentary. Her credits include field producer on the Netflix original docuseries “First and Last,” about inmates’ intake and release from the prison system, and “My House,” a documentary-series about the black queer vogue scene for Viceland. Most recently she worked alongside director Dee Rees and Oscar winning producer Cassian Elwes on “The Last Thing He Wanted.”

“The Legend of the Underground” is screening at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 9-20.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

GB: It’s a story about human revolution – people fighting to be free of social and internalized stigma create a cultural revolution that not only frees themselves but their society.

NO: This film is about choosing to find freedom within yourself. Underneath each of us is a hidden uninhibited happiness where we all fluidly express the multi-faceted beauty that mirrors all different spirits of the world. This film depicts that through gender-fluid Nigerian boys who, despite oppressive laws, choose to be who they are with their chosen family and friends.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

GB: My family is Jamaican, and I grew up moving around a lot before immigrating to the U.S. I felt really alienated, and because I didn’t have people around me who understood my experience, I expressed my feelings through art, writing, and how I dressed. I’ve always wanted to find a community that felt like home. I think making docs is my attempt to find that — trying to find like-minded people who have experienced rejection but celebrate themselves and each other and build their own culture and community. The people in this film are that for me.

NO: I am a Nigerian-American woman and I am very fluid in my gender expression. Until I went to pride one year and saw a Nigerian flag next to a rainbow flag, I didn’t know that multi-faceted types of gender expression existed in Nigeria. I found home in some people that I’d met that were a part of this underground community. I was able to merge two sides of myself — Nigerian and genderfluid. I felt a responsibility to use the space and voice I have to tell a story to let people know that there are more like you who exist. It’s important to be able to see yourself represented to know you are not alone.

Also, I wanted to make a film with Giselle. Our creative connection felt like destiny and I wanted us to create something that’s on mission with why we were brought together as a collective.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

GB: I hope people feel rather than think. I hope they feel moved and connected with people they might not have realized they have something in common with, especially us Black people and queer people living all over the continent of Africa and the African diaspora. I hope they feel empowered to be more free and expressive in their authenticity. I hope they feel moved to act to support the fight for freedom of expression and human rights across the globe.

NO: I want to demystify and debunk the myth around people who are “othered” being “bad.” I also want people to feel more free in themselves. This film should inspire the hidden light to shine bright.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

GB: Making this film was one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my life. It changed us as people. We had so much fear. Fear for the people in the film and how they would be perceived, fear for everyone’s safety, and fear for how the audience would perceive the film. We had to stop those fears from overpowering us and instead focus on hope and our intention in order to complete the film. Ultimately, it was the people in the film that inspired us to do this because that is exactly what they do in their own lives to create and live authentically.

It was also a very challenging process because we wanted to create something completely unique. It was very hard to get people on board with our vision and standing firm in that was a real test for us.

NO: Whew! There were two challenges in making the film. Giselle and I had a vision that was beyond what people were used to seeing in a documentary. We wanted to be able to bring premium quality vérité to life while also creating a style of a narrative film. Everyone didn’t understand the vision initially, and I think it took a while to find the perfect team to execute the extraordinary vision we had. Once we found our editor, Rabab Haj Yahya, and our GFX artist Gabriel and our additional editor Alex, we found common creative minds that were able to see beyond what they had always seen.

Additionally, the first time I went back to Nigeria as an adult was for this film. I was scared, I didn’t know how the law would impact me, being that I present fluid and I was fearful of sharing the boy’s story. We always wanted to tell it carefully and thoughtfully so it took a lot of time to edit. It was worth every second.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

GB: We invested our own money and time by quitting our jobs and developing the film ourselves. Stephen Bailey, our cinematographer, joined us to shoot a sizzle with some of our friends who were Nigerian living in the U.S. and then ultimately used that to sell the film to HBO who invested in the full film. The thing I learned is really to move forward with self belief: don’t wait for someone else to believe in your vision before you act.

NO: We put our money into a sizzle and shared it with John Legend’s team (Mike Jackson, executive producer). He was so blown away he called HBO, and Sara Rodriguez (senior producer) was coming on board to HBO at that time and she saw something new and exciting in us too. Collectively Sara, (exec producer) Lisa Heller, and (exec producer) Nancy Abraham thought it was a story that should be told and they invested in us after we invested in ourselves.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

GB: I’ve always been inspired by my grandmother and her brother who helped pioneer the Rasta philosophy and the repatriation movement in Ethiopia, which intended to create a home for Black people who were displaced through slavery and looking to establish a self-appointed home. This inspired my belief that we have to actively create the world we want to live in. Documentary filmmaking is a way to do that in my own life. The stories we tell become beliefs that shape who we are and our culture, it can change the world.

NO: I love Q&As! One day I went to see “Pariah” by Dee Rees when I was working at Viacom, and the conversation after the movie was so profound that it impacted me to think beyond the next level of my mind. I thought to myself, if a conversation and a film has the power to impact immediate change like that, then I need to be a part of that ministry. I’ve always been the young kid making her friends do things that I creatively made up in my head a million times, and I wanted it done right and always had a vision every single day of my life. I think I was born directing and life unraveled it to me little by little.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

GB: Worst advice: “Play it safe.” Best: “There is no plan B. Make what you believe in happen.”

NO: Worst advice: “Just try to get a job with good benefits.” Best: “There’s no such thing as can’t.”

W&H: What advice do you have for women or genderfluid directors?

GB: Don’t let how you are perceived, treated, or reacted to deter you from your intention and vision. There is no way to please everyone. Focus on bringing your vision to fruition in the best way you know how, with gratitude for that journey, and worry about nothing else.

NO: The advice I have for directors is to be a servant leader. As the person in charge of the vision, your vision is what everyone is signing onto. You get to bring out the best in people and change their lives and hearts as they participate in making that come to fruition. Exude patience and find what makes your team most happy and what they are the best at doing to help serve the bigger picture. Don’t waver and forget what that vision is just because people don’t understand. Steer the ship. Keep chipping away one thing at a time.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

GB: “Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti,” by experimental artist Maya Deren, is my favorite film. Deren also wrote a book of the same title which I love. [Teiji Ito and Cherel Ito co-directed the film.] I like it because I think any story you earnestly approach with curiosity has a way of chaining you. In this case, Maya went to Haiti to study dance that she ended up learning came from Voodoo. The film became a document of her experience being a witness to the religion and then being so moved by it that she became part of the religion.

NO: Kasi Lemmons’ “Eve’s Bayou.” The film had such rich and deep emotion. It really depicted the spirit of New Orleans well. It had great acting and I think I love when multiple story lines develop seamlessly and don’t end on cliché endings.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

GB: I am a loner, so for me, I have been able to dive even deeper into my imagination. Though this time has been stressful and scary, it’s also been incredibly humbling. The room that has been created to think, process, and be present has been a blessing.

NO: I was creative during the entire pandemic because we were remotely editing this film. It literally gave us something to focus on during that time where most people were idle. It’s been a blessing. I was able to incubate and I grew as a person. I’ve grown so much. I also moved to LA right before, so I got to be in nature during my breaks in editing, and that change of pace from New York was needed.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

GB: I think there is a tendency for BIPOC filmmakers to be hired to make content exclusively about BIPOC issues. While it’s important we tell our own stories, any story we tell will carry our perspective. I am interested in seeing our perspective on a wider range of subjects and for a wider audience.

NO: I think we need to stop telling stories about our past experience and create stories that depict the world we wish we were in. It’s hard for people to see outside of what they know. It’s up to us as visionaries and people in this position to talk about moving forward rather than reminding what’s behind.

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