A Conversation with Shelby Zoe Coley and Sistren about Talk The Ting, a Documentary on Womanism and Black Friendship

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Talk The Ting, produced by Filmmaker Shelby Zoe Coley, narrates the life of three queer London-based podcasting collective of Black women: Sistren. In an intimate portrait of Babirye Bukilwa, 'DJ' Ayodeji Tiwo, and Michelle Tiwo tackling contemporary cultural, racial, and gender-based issues, Talk the Ting explores the interconnectedness of womanism and Black friendship, and its healing impact on mental health and the pursuit of wellbeing. In a combination of candid interviews, verité, and follow-along footage, Shelby takes us into the depth of the trio's bond with an emphasis on the importance of sisterhood as self-care.

Shelby Zoe Coley is a New York based black queer filmmaker, and a protégé of Sundance veteran Madeleine Olnek (The Foxy Merkins, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) and two-time Tribeca Film Festival producer Abou Farman (Vegas: A True Story, Icaros: A Vision). Her work has been featured in renowned publications such as Afropunk, Slay TV, and Curve Magazine. Shelby’s most recent work, Manley Stanley Takes New York a short film about a British drag king, won the Audience Choice Award for Best Women’s Short at Philadelphia Qflix and nominated for the 2017 Iris Prize. Her short film on lesbian-feminist theatre troupe Split Britches premiered at the Provincetown Film Festival in June 2017. Shelby is a 2017-2018 recipient of the Puffin Foundation Grant for Video/Film. From documenting renowned lesbian performance troupe Split Britches, to producing a web series whose direct cinematic style endearingly earned it the title of "the hipster's Grey Gardens," Shelby works across non-fiction and documentary forms with a heavy use of rhythm, portraiture, and the spoken word to explore intersections between queerness, race, and creative practices.

Fatima: Shelby, what is your relationship with the characters in Talk the Ting?

Shelby: The story of how Talk the Ting came to happen began with the short film and web series Ackee & Saltfish by Cecile Emeke. I remember coming across the trailer for the film and remembering how excited I was that it existed, because there was literally nothing like it — this representation of Black women friendships in this candid way. And seeing Babirye and Michelle, and feeling like ‘wow, not only is this a Black women story, but its dark-skinned Black women! Like they could literally be my sisters!’ It was a revelation. I had no idea what the African diaspora was like in the UK — or anywhere else outside the US — and seeing that just made me feel such a sense of solidarity, seeing that my experience was the same for Black women around the world. It was like one of those things you see, and you feel something inside of you crystallize.

So I kind of did what most black women who came across that film did — I followed them on Twitter, IG, even had the gall to friend them on Facebook. Lol. A couple years later, I see that they—Michelle, babirye and now DJ as well — were out there doing this podcast. I didn’t pick up the podcast right away until summer 2017 came; I was going through a break-up, and it triggered one of the worst depressive episodes I had in my adult life. I found myself taking long walks in the park all alone, except by listening to the podcast, I had the accompaniment of these three amazing queer Black women that were making me lol out in public, had me looking like a crazy person! Needless to say, listening to that podcast, and having my world kind of open up to theories about radical self-love and self-actualizing in the midst of that period of overwhelming isolation; it was a second revelation.

Later that summer, I found out that I got accepted into a festival in the UK, and knew I wanted to stop over in London. I hit up Sistren’s DMs and the rest is history. I just started out being a fan.

Fatima: The central theme is the "celebration of womanism and black friendship." How important is this to you, and how did you come about documenting Sistren's story?

Shelby: When I reached out to Sistren and they said yes, I knew for sure that we would shoot something, but didn’t know exactly what that was. I just knew I essentially wanted to capture their dynamic in video form. Talking over the project with my mentor, I tried to get down to the kernel of what I wanted the film to be by thinking about why I, myself, seemed to be so compelled by them and their work. It was definitely that sense of sisterhood I got from listening to their podcast. It was definitely that free-flowing, unapologetic, unabashed frankness that I admired in them that only comes from an intimacy you develop with other Black women — whether they’re sisters, best friends, cousins, etc.

Being so close in age with my own sister the way Michelle and DJ are, even though I was adopted, I knew that having that safe space to bond was important. In Black women relationships, we are each other’s medicine. Our fellowship is the necessary tinctures we need frequent doses of in a heteronormative white patriarchal society.

So going to London with that in mind, I wanted to talk to them specifically about their relationship with each other — Michelle and DJ as sisters and babirye and Michelle as friends. And then, I just wanted to stand back, prop up the camera and just capture how they embodied that dedicated, intimate platonic love in their actual lives.

Fatima: How did you get your start in Film?

Shelby: I was always interested in storytelling and generally just making things—anything. I started with music when I was really young, then in high school I was writing plays and short films. In 2013, I was doing most of my creative work as a music producer in NY, and I bought my first camera and was finally able to marry those two passions together. I first shot a web series that, thankfully, is very difficult to find on the internet. I did micro videos that consisted of me just following my musician friends around and cutting together the footage. I torrented a version of Final Cut Pro and got to practicing with my edits. After 3 and half years of kind of faffing around, I figured out I was good at making documentaries more than anything else. To this day, it’s just a rotation of music and film — conceiving both music projects and film projects in tandem. So I created five out of the seven tracks of original music specifically for Talk the Ting. And yeah, it was as simple as that, but I didn't receive any formal training — I actually studied International Business when I went to college. 

Fatima: "Womanism and black friendship" in Talk the Ting is as important, if not more important, than the support a black woman could receive from her family. Please tell us about the life of an immigrant in the UK/US, the generational divide in terms of mother-daughter relationship, and the impact on mental health.

Sistren: When you are first generation born, you grew up in a culture that is rich in music and parties among others with people from the same culture, but when you step out of that midst, you are no longer allowed to celebrate. You start questioning how these two cultures can coexist, as, though, you have been born and raised in Britain, you have been brought up on African traditions and ideals. It becomes organic to question how to talk about taboo concerns such as being bisexual, sex and love in general, which aren't topics we openly discuss in the African culture.

Fatima: Babirye, you made a comment about the reality of "black women genocide," and after some research done on my end about the suicide rate of black women vs. white women, the most important point that stood out to me is the expectation that suicide isn't a black thing. What is your take on that?

Babirye: Black women are dying everyday at the hands of our oppressors, at our hands. Yet, it is said that black women are overreacting. It is perceived as western issues we adopt, as we are born in these countries (US/UK). The collective dismissal from the community, especially the older generation, holds back from the healing process we could go through if we had open empathic conversations. Until you can decenter yourself and put yourself in another’s position to listen and understand, how will we ever meet in the middle?

Fatima: Do you girls think that black women have to live up to unrealistic social and cultural expectations? Why?

Shelby: From my personal experience, I wouldn’t say that this is so. I would more so say that people expect the least out of Black women, because we are seen to have such little value and be the least appreciated. In spite of that, Black women always over-deliver; in my opinion, we take care of the world as in we literally gave birth to humankind. We hold ancestral and ancient knowledge in our bodies that we give away for free in how we nurture and advise the people around us. We are the backbone of almost every social, cultural, and civil rights movement. We are magicians in how we are able to make due and even thrive in the often destitute conditions we are forced to exist in, feeding mouths and providing homes with very little to work with.

In the workplace, we’re perceived to be stupid, we’re perceived to be lazy, we’re perceived to be uncouth and when we’re not, we’re patronized with comments like “oh you’re so well-spoken,” and still are underpaid even though we overdeliver and work harder than our white and male counterparts. I personally think that Black women are the gold, the romance, the evidence that God exists in a thankless, unappreciative society, and I think that now what we’re seeing in the Black renaissance and with the picking back up of womanism is that Black women are no longer settling on being silenced and undervalued and squashed under the boog of the cultural empires that we helped build. And when I say ‘Black women,’ that’s inclusive of all women-identifying and femme-identifying bodies, because trans women and femme people have carried society just as much as cis women, and get even less recognition. I feel like Black women have done enough work for the world that we can chill out for the rest of eternity until the earth destroys all of humankind. “We all yall muvas!” — as a good friend of mine says. :)

Fatima: Shelby, which part of Dj, Michelle, and babirye's story do you relate to? What has been your upbringing like?

Shelby: I relate to so much of their story — being a dark skinned black woman, being a queer black woman, being a Black woman struggling with my mental health, not being well-equipped with the tools to show love to other Black women, and having to create models of that for myself. These were all things that attracted me to them in the first place.

But I think the things we don’t have in common are just as compelling when it came to why I wanted to make this film — having a strong sense of roots and culture with parents who were very much still connected with their mother country, growing up in a two-parent household the way Michelle and DJ did, losing a parent at a young age the way babirye has. Growing up under a single mother as the oldest child in a blended family of mostly adoptees — a sense of belonging, and how we develop intimacy with people who may or may not be related to us is one of the things I wanted to explore in the film.

Fatima: Girls, what aspects of black friendship is healing you? And, tell us more about some of the adversities you have been facing.

Michelle: I feel like when you’ve grown up being silenced by a lot of the adults around you, parents especially, it’s hard to find people you can trust with your most honest or crude or ridiculous thoughts and experiences. I find that in my friendships, I am free to do so, to be extra, to disagree with them, cry with/in front of them without fear of being told, ‘I’m no good.’ The acceptance and space to be myself, even at my worst, is both healing and affirming.

Babirye: When you tell your girlfriends being a Black woman is long, and they’re like, 'inittttt.' That feeling is amazing, because in white spaces you can’t complain about being Black, without Billy butting in with stories of the war or his grandad.

Dj: For me, it’s seeing myself in my Black friends. In times of hardships and struggles or when they’re happy, things are going well and they’re succeeding, I feel that with them - like I’m succeeding as well. It’s experiencing all these seperate lives and seeing yourself reflected in them.

Fatima:. How do you define queerness?

Shelby: Queerness, to me, is a state of being where you’re existing outside of heteronormative ideals either in who you choose to love, how you identify, or how you present yourself. For instance, a female tomboy who may still be attracted to men is still quite queer to me.

Fatima: Given the cultural gap, it seems even more difficult for first and second generation immigrants to live openly and accept queerness. How can black women openly approach their life as "queers" ?

Sistren: I would disagree. I think we are the generation that are able to live freely. We are not our parents generation, we are not our grandparents generations, and that is the beauty about it. Queerness is perceived as western; however, in ancient African history queerness was present and the norm. They were called the gatekeepers.

As we as a generation have decided to deal with race issues, we as a generation have also decided to deal with queerness our own way, we are reclaiming out rights to all of our humanity, not just parts of it someone will allow us. Twenty-gayteen is going well thus far.

Fatima: Shelby, the documentary was made possible thanks to crowdfunding. Has the possibility of making your dreams come true changed your perception of humanity, and if so what words of wisdom can you share with the readers about its impact on your personal growth?

Shelby: Yes, I was able to make my dreams come true through crowdfunding, but I don’t know that it’s changed my view on humanity. I feel like it took as much hard work and strategy as seeking out an investor or applying for a grant or working double shifts to finance it myself. I think that stories like this, which often end up on the margins are important and, for a patron who wants this type of content to exist, it’s a privilege to be able to support that type of work, to even have the money to make a contribution. It may even be the more democratic solution to getting work produced as an artist. With investors, grants, festivals, organizations, etc; you have to worry about gatekeepers, you have to worry about politics, you have to worry about having some type of validation from someone. So my advice is if you’re just starting out making work, reverse-engineer what your next ‘thing’ is based on the resources you already have, and continue to build from there. With the first thing I ever made — a web series — I knew I had 1) the couch I lived on, 2) a camera, 3) some friends with free time and 4) my depression. And using those things as fuel, I worked my way up to my current situation — so to speak. If you practice and your work is good, the people will always have your back, and you won’t have to worry about gatekeepers. That’s what’s great about crowdfunding.


Author Fatima Bocoum. Photo courtesy of Shelby Zoe Coley