Scheme Engine director and creative director Charles Todd talks to LBB’s Josh Neufeldt about capturing intimate moments, the need for compassionate filmmaking and the importance of being comfortable in one’s own skin
Some of our earliest records of the transatlantic slave trade date back to the 15th-century. During the following centuries, nearly 500 voyages were shipwrecked.
With that in mind, a diving team consisting of Black scuba divers headed the effort to explore the remains and bring historical light to such a grim part of the historical record - all while carving their own special space in maritime archaeological history.
LBB’s Josh Neufeldt caught up with Charles to find out more about ‘Diving with a Purpose’, finding empowerment in traumatic history and transmuting the properties of water and healing into a cohesive visual language.
LBB> How did this film come about? Why was it something that you were particularly interested in making? And how and when did you first learn of the organisation of scuba divers? Their work is incredible! Please tell us a bit about it.
Charles> From the beginning, we were really interested in telling stories of communities that weren’t represented in the wider landscape of media. Alexandra Hannibal [Director of Development at CNN] brought to our attention a group of volunteer scuba divers who were searching for sunken slave ships related to the transatlantic slave trade. Initially, I was wary of sharing a story that, in part, dealt with an examination of Black trauma, but after learning more about the mission of ‘Diving With a Purpose’, I began to see their story as one of empowerment and healing.
LBB> As a filmmaker who often focuses on music, what led to you working on this project and exploring something completely new?
Charles> The films I direct tend to be process-focussed, interpreting and abstracting an artist’s inspirations that lead to the creation of a particular album. While I love working with musicians, many of their stories are well-documented and because of their demanding schedules, I don’t always have the chance to explore the deepest parts of their psyche, which is what I find most interesting. ‘Diving With a Purpose’ allowed for a deeper level of intimacy between myself and the subjects in front of the camera, while also challenging me to confront my own understanding of my identity, lineage and ancestry.
LBB> What was your vision for the final film? Was it a collaborative process, or did you just want the stories to speak for themselves? Maybe a way of asking this is: The film is part of an anthology series - was it quite collaborative with the other filmmakers or a more standalone piece?
Charles> I honestly didn’t see any of the other films in the series until late in the process, which allowed me to focus intently on ‘Diving with a Purpose’. Thematically, I was interested in exploring Black trauma through the lens of healing; understanding that our history is more complex and nuanced than what is commonly shared in classrooms and textbooks. Knowing the setting for the film would be the ocean, I was also interested in exploring the intersection of Black identity and water. The opening line of the film is, “Black identity, Blackness...has never been defined by land masses...” and the closing line is “water is home.” In-between I hope we tell a story of finding refuge and strength in spaces foreign to us.
LBB> What was the production process like? There are shots in and out of water - what challenges did that bring?
Charles> The biggest challenge was ensuring that we were telling the story of who these individuals are, in and outside of the water. It was important that we challenge any preconceived notions that an audience might have surrounding a Black scuba diver. Prior to filming, I spent a lot of time speaking with our cinematographer, Gaul Porat, about the look and feel of the film, specifically how to transmute the properties of water and healing into a cohesive visual language. By the time we were actually out on the ocean, Gaul, who is also a certified scuba diver, was confident in his approach to capture the essence of each subject’s individuality and journey. He did a phenomenal job.
LBB> From an aesthetic point of view, what were your main aims and ambitions with the lighting and grade?
Charles> A common theme in creative conversations was the warmth of Black skin set against the coolness of the ocean. In a story exploring ancestry and lineage, it was important to see our skin as a source of strength and light. I love the image below because Riane feels at home, in her skin and in the ocean. To me, this image is what the entire film is about.
LBB> What was the process of working with the various members of the scuba diving team like? Obviously they’re not actors - you’re capturing them doing their job - so how did that impact your approach to filming?
Charles> Prior to filming, I spent a lot of time connecting with Riane, Kramer and Ayana. Sometimes our conversations would be about the project, but more often than not, we just chatted about life. This film required a certain level of trust and compassion because the subject matter can be triggering and traumatic. I wanted each member to know I see them for who they are and who they aspire to be, because ultimately I would be responsible for telling their personal stories. Once we were on-set, my focus shifted towards being present and available for them, always stepping into their world as archaeologists instead of our world as filmmakers.
LBB> From the trailers, we can see that there are multiple key narratives to the film. Naturally recovering history is a big one, but we’ve also got the diver who had to overcome her fear of the water. As a director, how do you go about featuring smaller and more personal moments without distracting from the main subject of the film?
Charles> This was a balancing act up until the very last edit. From the beginning, I was very wary of treating our subjects as vessels to exclusively talk about the transatlantic slave trade, especially in a film that asserts we are more complex than the truncated histories of our textbooks. The key was understanding the way in which Riane’s story of overcoming fear fit into the larger narrative of Black identity in water. Structurally, we meet Riane professionally [as a program leader] before we dive into her personal story, which grounded her narrative and allowed for her personal journey to reveal itself over time.
LBB> What was your favourite part of working on this project?
Charles> Spending time with Riane, Ayana and Kramer. They’re powerful, purpose-driven individuals who do this work without any expectation of notoriety or recognition. I feel honoured to be a witness to their story. On more than one occasion there were fleeting moments of humanity that, as a documentary filmmaker, you live for. In the image below, Ayana and Riane affirm one another as they drift in and out of sleep and song. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
LBB> What were some of the challenges you faced while working on this project and how did you overcome them?
Charles> A major component of ‘Diving With a Purpose’ is their youth program; a week-long course that introduces adolescents to the world of maritime archaeology. Originally the film was structured around a week spent with the program, but we soon realised the realities of Covid would make that story impossible. As such, we had to restructure our story to focus on three individuals and their respective journeys within ‘Diving With a Purpose’. It’s interesting to reflect on that challenge because now, having gone through this wonderful process with these three members of the program, I can’t imagine the film any other way.
LBB> You described the experience as revelatory. How has working on this film changed your life and what will you take away from the experience?
Charles> Prior to this project, filmmaking for me was an externalised process of experimentation, with more time spent understanding “how” than “why”. Through exploring Riane, Kramer and Ayana’s understanding of identity and purpose, I’ve learned a lot about my own. I’m evolving the way I photograph and film subjects, focussing on a visual language that captures the power of their spirit and the strength of their beauty.
LBB> What do you hope people will take away from watching this?
Charles> I hope young Black girls and boys see aspects of themselves reflected in leaders like Riane, Kramer and Ayana, who are creating a space within the world of maritime archaeology for individuals of African descent.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Charles> Thank you to the amazing people at ‘Diving with a Purpose’ for trusting me with the telling of your story.