28 Feb Q&A with Director Rachel Razor and Writer & Performer Dr. Nia Nunn of Deep Breath
Art has a unique power to channel emotion, provoke thought and inspire action. Our 2021 Free Speech Film Festival Official Selection finalist, Deep Breath embraces this like no other. With its combination of poetry, music, sounds, dance and text graphics, as well as its focus on Black consciousness and anti-racist activism, the 8-minute epic invites viewers to listen and participate in reflection.
American INSIGHT had the opportunity to speak with the film’s director Rachel Razor, as well as its author, performer and dancer, Dr. Nia Nunn. The following Q&A details more about their process as artists and their goals for the future:
Free Speech Film Festival: Tell us about yourself. What drew you to filmmaking and artistry?
Rachel Razor: My earliest films were music videos. I was in a band for many years and expressing the messages of our songs was my first visual creative outlet. Many of the skills I use today such as stop-motion animation, and design and directorial skills I developed through those music videos.
Dr. Nia Nunn: Rooted in a Black consciousness curriculum, my work centers an anti-racist and abolitionist framework that honors a Black femme oral and visual tradition. It is a curriculum of feeling, thinking, and doing. Incorporating movement, storytelling, and a commitment to healing, the primary methods include a historical base that honors our ancestors and the vibrant innovations our youth will bring to the future. I’m all about engaging readers/listeners/viewers/participants in deep critical reflection. An intergenerational approach to naturally intersecting art and anti-racist activism, my art-purpose is to serve, teach, and engage people in joy and a greater sense of power within.
FSFF: Your film blends poetry, dance, music, and graphics. What drew you to pair poetry with music/movement in this way?
RR: The project came together very organically. Mickie Quinn (Producer) and I reconnected virtually during the uprising and decided we wanted to create a piece of art together that could bring folks together safely and perhaps add some energy to support the shift that we felt was happening in our country due to the Black Lives Matter movement.
We had the energy before we had the message.
As the idea developed, we knew we wanted to do something with dance. Mickie is an MC and an event producer in Ithaca, NY, and has a great community of dancers, artists, and performers there, and I am an avid dancer. You could say dance is a spiritual practice for me.
The project began to gel when Mickie sent me a link to a YouTube video of a woman from her community of Ithaca, performing a poem called Deep Breath online for a community art event. It was 8 minutes long, passionately delivered, moving, inclusive, awareness-raising, and deeply authentic and had just been written. The woman’s name was Dr. Nia Nunn, and Mickie knew her. “Did I like the piece? Should we reach out to her to ask if she wants to be involved in the project? Shall we add her message to our activation, and perhaps it could help amplify
her powerful words?” YES!
We were honored to receive her enthusiastic consent.
The project really came to life around Dr. Nia’s words. The music was composed for the poem by the talented Jon Keefner, and the graphics, designed by Terrence Moline of AAGD, and Sean Comber were added for emphasis and to shake the viewer’s attention intermittently to reset.
NN: My poetry emphasizes movement… often snaps, stamps, & heavy breathing. I, too, am a dancer. Movement that speaks is a critical part of my liberation as an artist and Black woman. I took the space to feel and flow with my own words. It was even more freeing to watch others create movement and tell the story of my words.
FSFF: For art-as-activism pieces like this one, what would you consider to be essential aspects in communicating your message and story?
RR: For one, we wanted to be sure to be inclusive and use our art project as a chance to bring White folks, Black folks, Latinx folks, gay and straight folks together united behind the banner of Dr. Nia’s message. We wanted to show that it was possible to address a problem as big as industrialized racism, simply and powerfully. Straight to the lens, and for any uncomfortable energetic stuff that came up along the way, the ring of light hovering in a field of stars seemed like a great place to dance it out.
We also believed it important to model the message inside the piece, so we were sure to make the production a space of learning, making my “direction” a position of listening.
FSFF: What kind of change do you hope your film will bring about and inspire?
RR: Our world, and specifically, our country and the White-centrist, Capitalist Patriarchy that it was founded on is set up to create stress and strife between genders, classes, and races in order to support and maintain the structures that keep greedy people in power.
From redlining, to food deserts, to the school-to-prison pipeline, to police killings of innocent black and brown people, there are LAWS in place that protect injustice in this country. If we don’t all work TOGETHER to fix it, we will have only one-sided solutions, if we have any at all. We must come together if real change is to be made. Being an ally, or a “comrade on the front lines” (Dr. Nia Nunn, Deep Breath) means putting your neck out there and speaking up and speaking out when you see an opportunity to help support and raise awareness, even if it means making yourself vulnerable.
Our Human family needs every heart, voice, camera and skilled pair of hands that are not afraid to get dirty to help create a safe world for all.
FSFF: The poem is epic and powerful – when it was written, did you know you wanted to perform it in this way?
RR: I’ll have Dr. Nia speak to that, as it is her poem. For me as a filmmaker, when I saw her debut the poem on YouTube, her straight-to-camera delivery was so powerful, I knew that with some good lighting and a camera upgrade, I’d be able to capture her passion and help add some value to her message. The choice to have her both perform the poem, and also dance in the dance sequences tapped into her passion for dance and movement and helped illustrate her strong message, to “breathe” through her challenges and frustrations facing injustice, intolerance, and ignorance in the world, as a Black woman, an educator, a mother, and a community activist.
NN: Deep Breath is a three-part poem that I wrote and performed originally at a virtual literary event in June 2020. Shortly after, I was invited (by Mickie) to do this production of my work and dance to it under lights and stars (with Rachel). The concept and inspiration came the morning before the literary event. I scribbled everything that was on my heart and mind… reflecting on the pandemic realities, the racial crisis awakenings, and my self-care practices. After analyzing the messy page of thoughts and feelings and deep reflections, I was able to write this three-part poem.
The Deep Breath Poem centers a curriculum of Black liberation and self-determination. Specifically, and unapologetically honoring a Black femme tradition, the samples demonstrate intersecting art through oral, visual, and dance activism. Engaging folx in the depth of Black consciousness and deep critical reflection, my work demands radical vulnerability in both an intense and graceful manner. Movement with a purpose, this work is healing. Viewers will think more deeply about who they are, how they were made, and develop a strong desire to create transformation in their communities… and personal lives.
FSFF: What would you say to a person who disagrees with the anti-racist message in your film?
RR: First I would take a deep breath. And then I would wonder what there is to disagree with? I believe I’m more likely to hear someone be “triggered” or otherwise defensive about the message in the poem. But as books like White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, and My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem so clearly illustrate, we have been programmed to see People of Color as “less-than”, as not quite human. We get these messages both from our government, where some states still protect the rights of White killers over Black victims, and media outlets who sensationalize Black crime in order to spread fear. It is our nervous systems and our lizard brain’s fight or flight responses that create such “disagreements”. Addressing exactly these points with patience and a little extra oxygen, is what I believe Dr. Nunn’s poem does perfectly.
NN: Where does that come from? Who are you? How were you made? … a person that disagrees with such a message needs an authentic self-study.
FSFF: What advice would you give to your past self and to the younger generation about finding the freedom to create and speak?
RR: Be BOLD. Be courageous. Make mistakes and risk saying the wrong thing. Speaking truth to power requires vulnerability, and learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
FSFF: Any next projects you are currently working on? / What do you see or hope for in your future?
RR: I am currently in production of a children’s television show I’ve been developing, educating children (and inner children) on how to learn, grow, and become empowered to change themselves and the world. I hope that this project will offer tools and share the resources that we have gathered from our education and experience to pass down to our younger generations and therefore accelerate the evolution of our species to be more empathic, compassionate, kind, and responsible so we can pull out of this cultural nosedive.
NN: I am continuing to write poetry, essays, in addition to research. For many years, I have been leading and creating for a performing arts company for youth in my community and with nearly 10 years of video, photos, and audio, I am hopeful that my team and I can finalize a movie and perhaps a docuseries of video lessons, a children’s book, and teacher curriculum guide.
FSFF: Finally, a question we always like to ask: how important is it that everyone has the power of free speech?
RR: I believe having the power of free speech is deeper than merely the “right to speak freely”. We have the power- how do we use it wisely? Why do we not take it sometimes? Perhaps from the fear of losing safety, fear of stepping outside of our comfort zone. Fear that it might be WORSE if we make a stink or cause a conflict?
Free speech works best when it comes from a place of active listening and if we leverage the power of our voice through voting in elections, demonstration and protest we might just be able to help change things for the better.
Director: Rachel Razor
Writer: Dr. Nia Nunn
Cast: Dr. Nia Nunn, Daraisi Marte, Deja Ciaschi, Regina DeMauro, Erin Griffeth, Kevin Olmstead, Mickie Quinn
Producers: Mickie Quinn, Dr. Nia Nunn and Alex Yakacki
Year of Production: 2021
Photos courtesy of Rachel Razor and Dr. Nia Nunn.
By Kristi Szczesny, American INSIGHT Content Strategist