Lydia Darly on Writing her Own Life Narrative: The Story of a Black Woman in the Film Industry

Originally from Guadeloupe, Lydia Darly was born and raised in France where she made her first steps into the film industry as an actress, and began exploring the different angles of performing arts in avant-gardiste Parisian theaters before setting off on a journey of artistic and self-discovery. This brought Lydia to Rome, where the mirage of a big break let her down yet propelled her to New York City, the place where she found her true voice, and built a community of like-minded supportive individuals. Today, Lydia is the Co-Founder of NOVA Frontier Film Festival and Lab, Co-Director and Co-Producer at The Womanity Project a multi-media platform on gender, identity and equality, a frequent guest speaker and programmer at film festivals in support of emerging indie filmmakers and women in film. She has also written and produced many shorts such as The Way You Love and Hope among other narratives investigating the beauty of humanity. This Sunday May 13th, Lydia Darly is performing Mothers, a monologue she crafted on an immigrant's inner reflection on the interconnectedness between her adoptive home, her motherland and motherhood.

Lydia, who I have met thanks to Aurélie Harp the Founder at Womanity Project, had come to face her identity through the discrimination within the film industry, her unbreakable strength disclose a beautiful and generous heart, but most of all, her presence revealed the untold story of an unwavering soul who wrote her own life narrative despite the uncertainties.

OPENLETR: What has been your experience as an actress and filmmaker? Please walk us through the beginnings.

Lydia: I’ve always loved acting, since I was a young girl growing in the projects of Paris. Watching the small screen was my escape. I did some theater at school, but my first love and impression of the craft came when I auditioned with Mathieu Kassovitz for his film Café au Lait (Métisse). I didn’t get the role, but it was a defining moment of what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Life happened, I went to work, lived abroad, and had to put acting on the side for a long time.

I found acting again when I moved to Rome, Italy, and worked as an extra on a few tv series. I got my first big role with American Director Renny Harlin when he cast me in Exorcist: The Beginning for the scenes shot in Rome.

After this role, I really thought it would have opened doors for me to get bigger roles, but it wasn’t the case. I was always asked to play a prostitute, a maid, etc. So I realized that staying in Italy wouldn’t have given me the opportunities to make a career. And I moved to New York to study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film institute to pursue my dreams. I went on many auditions, but was mostly rejected because of my accent and had to face the same stereotypes. I was beginning to lose hope until I met acting coach and Director Jordan Bayne. I worked as her personal assistant for a year as she was getting ready to shoot her Award winning Film The Sea Is All I know. With her, I understood the power of writing and the power of creating your own stories. From there on, there was no going back. With the encouragement of The Lab-NY, which I was a part of, step by step I started working on a monologue, then a scene, and finally a script called The Way You Love, a short narrative that I directed as well. It features Tony Award Nominee Karine Plantadit and Actress-Singer Adeline Michele. In the process of making my film, I understood the power of storytelling and taking control of my own narrative. This for me became more powerful than acting.

 
 

OPENLETR: Have you ever felt discriminated based on your gender, race, or age? Please tell us about being a woman in the film industry.

Lydia: Yes, I definitely feel that the film industry is filled with discrimination, especially if you’re a black woman. You see it in the scripts and typecast, not to mention the lack of access to other voices and stories. That’s why writing your narrative is more powerful rather than waiting for someone else to write the right part for you. I think there is definitely a need in the industry for more writers, producers, and directors, specifically women of color.

OPENLETR: How is the film industry in the US compared to France in general, and what about inclusion - have you noticed any major difference?

Lydia: I think the American film industry had made big steps in opening the doors to women filmmakers in the past 2 years; although, there is still a lot of work to be done. The access is still limited to a certain group, the gates aren’t wide opened and easily accessible. I’m not sure what the situation of the industry in France is like, since I haven’t lived there in a while. But by watching French films and tv shows, I see that the process has been even slower.

OPENLETR: What are your thoughts on the changes occurring in Hollywood, specifically with the inclusion rider? Is the indie film industry affected at all?

Lydia: I love watching what's happening right now in Hollywood. It's inspiring. It’s time to dismantle the Hollywood system. That system that was in place and still is, is all about exclusion not inclusion. I hope what's happening right now would create change and rewrite the old narrative, because from where I’m sitting it still seems like we have a long way to go. The indie industry has always been fighting for inclusion, and it will keep fighting no matter what. Personally, I would love to see a new system in place that would also includes mentorship and guidance for people of different ethnicities and for women.

OPENLETR: You are the Co-founder of Nova Frontier Film Festival and Lab, what are you aiming to achieve?

Lydia: Exactly that! We are not the typical Film Festival and Lab. My partner Billy Gerard Frank and I want to show films from filmmakers and countries that are not necessarily highlighted. We want to challenge the status quo!

Filmmaking has the power to educate, to open and change people minds. With what is happening in the world today, we want to create a film festival that is offering a multi-platform to showcase works that depict the universal humanity and real-life stories happening in communities, which most Westerners learn about only through soundbites and headlines in the media that frame them in negative stereotypes. Our focus is not so much to impart answers, but to raise questions, to implicate the youth as global leaders, as they are at the forefront of our mission. We aim to thoroughly interrogate global issues of the 21st century, which merely make us more cognizant of the beauty of our human interconnectedness.

I have never been able to understand why there is a lack of curiosity with regards to learning more about other countries, especially through Filmmaking. I’m referring to learning about the African Diaspora, the Middle East, and Latin America. It is time to open the frontiers instead of closing them, and that is why we are called Nova Frontier Film Festival. We want to create a new frontier, one that is open. On the other hand, The Lab is actually a place to foster and give access to the youth from undeserved communities, to teach and provide them with the tools to create their own stories, and to empower them to become leaders.

OPENLETR: What is this year festival theme? I do understand that it is currently accepting submissions. What are the criteria?

Lydia: The theme is "Identity, Immigration, and Interculturalism." Nova Frontier is accepting submissions for films that portray stories or characters from the African Diaspora, Middle East, Caribbean, and Latin America. We are interested in short films between 3 and 15 minutes, because we know how difficult and expensive it can be to shoot and produce a short film. We also have a category for short films shot on iPhone. Submissions are already open and until August 5th 2018.

 
 

OPENLETR: This Sunday, May 13th, you are performing Mothers, an inner reflection on the interconnectedness between your adoptive home, your motherland and motherhood. How did the creative urge to write this monologue came about?

Lydia: When the opportunity for Mend happened, I auditioned with Mothers. Debora Balardini, the Creator of Mend and Co-founder of Punto Space loved it. So I decided to develop it a bit more, as I now have a better sense of who I am as a woman, an immigrant, and a daughter. And what better day than Mother’s day to perform a monologue on that thematic? 

I have to add that Mothers is probably the first monologue I wrote that was ‘’legit." I wanted to write a piece on how I felt about my motherland, France. But when I gave it to two actors to read, they both did their version of it very differently, and surprisingly they thought I was talking about my mother. I had never thought about it that way, but I decided to explore it more by writing a full screenplay, which ended being the screenplay for my feature film that I am hoping to bring into development soon.

Regardless, it felt good. I think NOW is the right time for every woman to tell their stories. These stories are relevant for the change we want to create in our society, and now more than even they are carefully being listened to.

OPENLETR: What does New York represent to you, and where does it stand compared to your "motherland"?

Lydia: New York has a big part in my life, it is probably the city where I grew the most creatively and got hurt the most, and the place I learned the most about my humanity and my strength.

OPENLETR: In terms of motherhood, I've always believed that it either makes you, breaks you, or you live with some kind of duality. What place does motherhood have in your life?

Lydia: I'm not a mother myself, but I grew up in a big family, and I had to help raise my nephews.

Presently, I put all all my passion into my art, the foundation, and lab. I’m working with the youth in the same way a mother would nurture her children.

I have a lot of admiration for mothers including my own, as I now realize that it is not easy to raise a family on your own. It does take a village.

Most of my writings if not all of them are based on my strain relationship with my mother. She is my biggest inspiration although we still don’t know how to really speak to one another.

OPENLETR: Looking back at your creative journey and its relation with your personal and inner development, what could you share with the readers who may be starting their own journey?

Lydia: Go for your dreams. I know it’s easy to say, but find a way to express yourself. It was never an easy journey for me, because of the lack of support. But I was lucky to have met people who inspired me, and pushed me to be creative. I tried to ignore my creativity for a long time, and it truly made me miserable. My advice will be to find someone, even one person who inspires you and supports you. Join a group, find your community, and if you can’t, create one. I would have never been able to do all of this by myself. I believe in community and collaboration. I truly believe that we are here to inspire each other, and we all have unlimited power, we just need to find a way to unleash it.

As my mentor Daisaku Ikeda says: "what is defeat in life? It is not merely making a mistake; defeat means giving up on yourself in the midst of difficulty. What is true success in life? True success means winning in the battle with yourself. Those who persist in the pursuit of their dreams, no matter what the hurdles, are winners in life, for that they have won over their weaknesses.’’

In the end, happiness is allowing your heart and mind to choose your truth, and that can be expressed in many forms at different levels. Lydia is the paradigm of a woman who never let defeat interfere with her personal growth, from being typecasted in negative back stereotypical roles to letting travels and encounters shape her mind, and finally finding her voice though writing, producing, and creating a platform to allow others to fulfill their destiny. 

If you are in the New York area, please be sure to stop at Mend, and support the 12 women performing; among them, Debora Balardini Co-Founder at Mend and Punto, Laura Gómez best known for transforming herself into “Blanca Flores,” a cunning and disheveled inmate on the award-winning smash Netflix hit series Orange is the New Black with film and television credits including Exposed, starring Keanu Reeves and Ana de Armas, HBO’s Show Me a Hero, and Law & Order, as well as Cécile Delepière actress, filmmaker and running PETIT KINO, a little ‘cinema’ for families. Her short film Almost There was nominated for Best Short Film at the Indie Film Festival in Los Angeles and for Best Short Film at UK Film Festival in London. Cécile is the co-creator of Diary of an actor, a web series about the art and craft of acting. She has worked on multiple documentaries for French television, and created THE WHO?MEN PROJECT, a series of portraits about love. She is now guest starring in HBO's High Maintenance, along Ben Sinclair and Myriam Shor.