July 20, 2015
Mawell Addae Presents Thunder: A Film Inspired by the Beauty in Grief
by Kelsey Hamm
In May our editor-in-chief Rula interviewed death doula Laura Saba for VICE.com.
For those not familiar with midwifery or birth doulas, the words “death doula,” at first contact might sound like a creature from a Stephen King novel.
In reality, death doulas face every day what the rest of us fear, the inevitable ending to all of our tales no matter how we may struggle in life.
For all our sadness when it comes to the passing of loved ones, how will it feel for us as individuals when we face our time? Death doulas exist for these moments, helping the dying and their family members cope with the inevitable grief of leaving this earth.
Maxwell Addae, award winning film maker of The Man in the Glass Case (2010) discovered his own battle with grief after losing his father last year. The result is Thunder, a film capturing the journey of a young death doula as he navigates the decline of his terminally ill grandfather. Thunder is set to begin filming in August and will feature custom music from Ralph Johnson, an original percussionist and vocalist for Earth, Wind and Fire.
On the Cusp sat down with Addae to discover just how powerful a catalyst grief can be in the creation of something beautiful.
On the Cusp: Tell me about your start with Thunder, why did you begin writing?
Addae: I began writing out of desperation. I felt overwhelmed, frightened and confused by what grief felt like. I started to latch onto whatever I could find that made sense to me, and the death doula was a perfect vessel- someone unafraid of death. I grew up very scared of losing someone I loved and of dying myself. Many of us really have no idea what death means. There was a religious background that was helpful and not helpful, but I knew I wanted to dive into everything and face it head on. I was more afraid of what would happen if I tried to let it go, if I didn’t take a route confrontational to my pain.
OTC: Can you tell me about the Protagonist of Thunder?
A: The character is a male of color in his early 20’s. I hadn’t heard of a male death doula previously so I thought that would be interesting. He’s a young man with an office job and a lot of 20’s angst, who is trying to move on with his life. This is where the film begins before we introduce his grandfather and past friends and family members. He is forced to find his identity in that moment, to decide if he wants to step up and deal with everything even momentarily. He has older family members and he realizes through them that he is always helping people.
OTC: Is there more significance behind the male identity of his character?
A: I am really speaking to young males and identity, which can often be easily shaped and drawn out for us while the places where we push back can feel lonely. I wanted a new character who was creating his own identity and building support around it. He is very comfortable with death, and it becomes complicated for his rational side that is fine with death verses the side that believes death is very personal. One of his family members is very expressive and very emotional, and they start to learn things about each other that help them process things together in a way they’re not aware of.
OTC: How much of your personal story is included in Thunder?
A: Thunder is not a documentary about my experience with my father, and it feels safer to have my story be in this other world. With this character I feel like I can speak more directly. All my work is personal. Sometimes I get jealous of song writers because I feel they can make their work personal, and decide how they’re feeling and be inspired. I begin with writing, and then figure out how many of my friends I can get together for shooting, acting, editing, lighting, and wardrobe and put it together. I do approach my writing as a songwriter.
OTC: A main theme in Thunder is the beauty in grief. Why take a positive view on grief?
A: In the past, I’ve watched the process of my friends who have lost loved ones. What I learned from them and my own experience is that you learn a lot about yourself and how you react to really hard emotions. Often, people can latch onto unhealthy things that are distracting while others ask how they can process and be present in grief at the moment. I’m learning that I know how to step up for myself and there is beauty in that. [Grief] is easy to deal with short term, but that attitude can be damaging. A loss that great cannot be dealt with in that short amount of time.
OTC: Why the name, Thunder?
A: I’m from Texas, and we get a lot of rain in Texas. It can get so loud that it just shakes through you. It can rumble the whole house and wake you up and scare you before you realize there’s no need to be afraid. That’s how losing my father has felt.
I tend to describe things in pictures when I’m trying to convey an emotion. I’ve described grief as a big heavy jacket someone put over me, one that I didn’t ask for but still have to manage to live my life around. The hope is that I get to a place where I can really take the jacket off and put it over my arm. I want enough control to wear it so it doesn’t feel like its encompassing me.
OTC: What do you admire about death doulas?
A: I appreciate the philosophy of death doulas. They’re big on changing the culture around death. In the past, a family would be more involved with the burial process, and that’s changed culturally. There became this distance and fear around death, now removed from us, which is damaging. Now there is no culture that will help you cope. I still have a creep factor regarding death but I appreciate a death doula’s philosophy and comfort with it- they feel natural in their position.
OTC: How did the script act as a coping mechanism for you?
A: Sometimes, writing felt like a bad idea. Why am I constantly wanting to put myself through thinking about this event and writing about it? Sometimes I don’t, of course, when the characters are focused on something else, but it made me sit with my feelings instead of finding ways to not feel. I’ve been angry at the process and thankful at the same time. I trust myself to dive in and bring myself out.
OTC: Do you have a cinematography style planned for the film?
A: I gravitated towards blues music, the combination of sadness and sorrow with entertainment and hope. I will be taking a lot of blues-genres motifs, with blue and orange visuals. It is a contemporary piece, but we will be borrowing some looks and lighting and music from jazz.
OTC: Do you have a film philosophy?
A: I tend to like to write stories with black male characters. I am very passionate about growing the genre of artists who are trying to tell different types of stories, with people of color and queer characters- that’s very important. With each film I try to speak louder and more intently as I want to join this growing community.
Other members of the Thunder cast include Producers Andre Patch and Erinn Bell, and actors Leighton Allen, Christina Karis, Bruce Lemon, and Same Adegoke.
You can follow Addae on twitter here: https://twitter.com/MaxwellAddae
Visit his website here for movie updates and more: http://www.maxwelladdae.com/