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LBB Film Club

LBB Film Club: Gold Token

Greenpoint director Ewurakua Dawson-Amoah speaks to LBB’s Ben Conway about creating this poignant visual-musical poem - exploring Black ancestry, tokenism and cyclical pains

LBB Film Club: Gold Token


Gold Token is an emotionally gripping film that combines Ewurakua Dawson-Amoah’s evocative poem of the same name with long-time collaborator Adeleke Ode’s music, in an arresting visual sequence of dance, still portraits and haunting archive footage.

The film stands as a spiritual successor to Greenpoint director Ewurakua’s film To The Girl That Looks Like Me, which also brings to light important issues regarding race, performative activism and self-love. The atmosphere that Gold Token creates changes from that of frustration and desperation, to empowering and unsettling. The young director shows maturity and nuance beyond her years, opening a dialogue around important and deeply personal topics, whilst communicating them through a range of bone-chilling and goosebump-raising techniques and visual mediums.

LBB’s Ben Conway caught up with Ewurakua to discuss using art as an outlet for frustrations, the process of marrying poetry, music and film and looking forward to frightening her audience.




LBB> Why is using filmmaking, as a way to process issues and frustrations with the world, helpful for you?


Ewurakua> For as long as I can remember I’ve dealt with my frustrations by going into my head and creating art. It’s the only way I know how. If I were to stub my toe on a rock right now and somebody asked me how I was feeling, I probably wouldn’t be able to respond. But if I went off and wrote - be it a script, poem, or song - I can look at it and go ‘Oh, this! This right here is exactly how I feel right now.’ When I was young, I channeled my frustrations into short stories and eventually poetry. I’d carry around a notebook and jot down the things that bothered me. Then I’d go home and develop it. School bullies became fodder for story characters. Lines in arguments would inspire opening lines of poems. Film is an extended version of that process, allowing me to also bring visuals into it. 

LBB> With that question in mind, when did you decide to make this film? Is there one moment that sparked the idea?


Ewurakua> The overall idea had been brewing for quite a bit. But the moment that pushed me to buckle down and start writing was Blackout Tuesday on Instagram. Seeing so many profiles post a passive black square and call it ‘support’ for Black lives really boiled my blood. It wasn’t the black square itself, but the action that followed - which, for many, was nothing. 

LBB> How would you describe the theme and message of this film?


Ewurakua> Gold Token is an exploration of Black ancestry, tokenism, cyclical pains, and ultimately how society uses the Black experience, especially in recent years, as an aesthetical piece for consumption.

LBB> To The Girl That Looks Like Me focused on exposing cultural appropriation and was largely a positive celebration of Black women and self-love. What inspired the change in theme and tone in this film?


Ewurakua> I write and create based on what presently moves me. TTGTLLM was inspired by the appropriation I was witnessing in real-time. When I wrote To The Girl That Looks Like Me, I’d just entered a period in my life where I was starting to accept and love my skin and hair. So much work needed to go into that healing process. So when I saw my culture literally being ripped away, and suddenly deemed hip when it wasn’t on my skin, I needed to write. The same thing happened with Gold Token. Once I realised our stories were being - yet again - taken into the wrong hands, I needed to write.



 

LBB> The prep time for this film was eight months, leading up to a quick two-day shoot. What was that prep process like? 


Ewurakua> I’m a massive overthinker, I tend to pour over the tiniest details to make sure everything comes out just right, since my work is typically a commentary on pretty big themes/situations. 

In the first two months, I focused solely on the creative side. I wrote the lyrics to Gold Token and recorded more voice note variations than my phone could handle. Initially, this was just going to be a music video. But when I finished writing the song I realised there was more I wanted to say, and poetry would bridge that need. 

Months three to five consisted of mood boarding, casting, locking the location and Covid safety prep, and in months six to seven, I shifted back and forth between creative and logistics with my producer. I was on the phone with my production designer Sophia nearly every day. Working with her was one of the most rewarding parts of the process. A lot of the props in the film came right out of my childhood home or had connections to West Africa and the Caribbean. She wanted to make sure she represented everything properly, not just for the sake of visuals. 

The amount of research, love and care she put in to make sure my vision came through in the set design was overwhelming. In month eight, I focused on the creative completely as my producer and AD took over logistics. I worked with my cast and choreographer on each dance, discussed makeup ideas with our artist and went to the location a few times on my own to block out the final dance scene.

I absolutely love one takes, I think they create an opportunity to really play with space and depth and force us to think in the present. When my team arrived at the location and saw the small door frames and narrow bedrooms they were skeptical it would work at all. But I rehearsed that dance in my head close to 80 times before getting to set, so I knew it would. 

A lot of my creative process consists of me going deep into my own head and playing everything out, every possible scenario, every moment, before coming out and verbalising it. 

LBB> And after all of that work, how was the two-day shoot?


Ewurakua> By far, the smoothest set I have ever worked on. We shot at a camp I worked at for most of my teen years. I’d always looked at areas of the camp and thought to myself, ‘I’m gonna make something here one day.’ While working there, I basically memorised the entire space, every building, every tree. So when we arrived I knew exactly what I wanted to shoot and how I wanted to shoot it. 

We kept the cast and crew pretty small, there were only about 18 of us total. I was really specific about who I brought onto set, not only was the material of the film important and special to me but so was the location. I needed to make sure the people I brought on respected that and I couldn’t have been happier.

LBB> You shot amidst a global pandemic, how did that affect the film? 


Ewurakua> At the start of the pandemic, I felt artistically stagnant. But then Mother Nature threw my family some heavy curveballs and I realised how unpredictable life could be. That gave me this internal push to not just leave the idea on a shelf, to just create and follow through.

 

LBB> A signature of your work seems to be appearing - creating beautiful still portraits with the cast - which breaks up and punctuates the more dynamic footage. What inspired this technique?


Ewurakua> A long time ago my uncle came to visit us from Paris. He doesn’t speak a word of English and I don't speak French, but I loved hanging out with him because we both loved film. He carried around this camera and would hold it down at his side, never looking at the lens. He’d walk around like that, snapping photos of random things and stranger people - never checking the lens prior to the shot. Then, he’d look at the photos and make up scenarios about the people or things he captured on his walks. As my aunt translated, I’d try to make my own stories up at the same time, to see if our interpretation would ever be the same. 

I started to study random photo journals online and practice creating storylines around them - what happened before and after the photo was taken. I brought this approach into my filmmaking and my ideas, starting with a still portrait, and crafting the moments around it: the life before and after the photo. 

LBB> The hair and makeup in Gold Token is beautiful, who did you work with on that and what direction did you want to go in?


Ewurakua> My girl Camila Olses! She was a gem! I actually met her through my producer who had worked with her often - get this - as his AD! She had never actually done set makeup before, this was her first time ever. 

She really loved doing makeup on herself and friends for fun and he noticed and asked her if she was interested in this project. We had a couple of phone calls and I went through my ideas with her. I really wanted to bring the pearl motif from TTGTLLM back into this project to link the worlds together. For the actual positions of the pearls I drew inspiration from Allure and really talented Instagram users. Unfortunately a few of the pics I was inspired by never credited the original artist. So I’ve been trying to track them down ever since and let them know how cool they are and show them the film. 

A few people have asked if the pearl placement has some cultural or special significance. The answer is no. Only the pearls themselves - “You are priceless pearls fallen upwards from the seas” - this is the line from TTGTLLM I was bringing back.

LBB> Why did you decide to collaborate with Adeleke Ode again on the music?


Ewurakua> Adeleke and I have a really special creative partnership. I joke all the time that I could say, ‘Do da da do’ and he would somehow just know what I mean is, ‘I want flutes here in a major key.’ We’ve been best friends for five years and in many ways we’re basically the same person. We come from similar backgrounds of being West African kids that ventured into the art space, so we bonded over our shared ‘Black sheep’ experience. Adeleke went to school specifically for music production and I, for film, so we speak completely different creative languages. We have this perfect yin-yang symmetry. 

LBB> How was the process of writing the words and lyrics for the poem and music?


Ewurakua> I was scrolling through Instagram and when I saw all the black boxes on Blackout Tuesday. I thought to myself, ‘That’s interesting. Everyone is participating in what they’re calling a movement but reducing our pain into a tiny social media square. Is that how they see us?’ Right then I wrote, “They don’t see you, but they’ll use you”, reflecting on how the Black experience was quite literally being used to push forward a social media fad. 

With the consistent stream of news coverage regarding police brutality, it was clear that social media users were afraid to speak or post about anything. So Black Tuesday was like ‘Hey y’all! Here’s your chance to say something and prove you care! After this you can go back to your regularly scheduled programming.’ From there I thought about the phrase, ‘Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.’ I wanted to explore the idea of hearing without listening, seeing without looking, speaking without thinking. This is where the following line, ‘They won’t open their ears, but they love the sound of your pain’ came from. 

When I wrote this I was humming the accompanying tune to my phone recorder. As I got to the ‘your pain’ line I stopped humming and started sing-screaming and the following lines, ‘of your skin, of your sound, Gold Token’ just came out.



LBB> Why did you decide to use more music and song than your previous film - which was primarily poetry?


Ewurakua> I’ve always had this secret fantasy of being a musician. When I got to school I realised I could channel my love for music in soundtracks. I started by making very short credit songs for my first few shorts and continued to practice writing for myself on the side. When the idea for this film came to mind I immediately heard music - I wanted it to feel like a cautionary folktale song, a warning lullaby. 


LBB> What was the most difficult part of creating the film?


Ewurakua> Honestly, my only fear while making this film was the safety of my crew and cast. I almost lost my father that summer to Covid, so I was the last person to play with when it came to safety. A lot of pre-production consisted of my producer and I triple-checking safety regulations to make sure we had a safe set. Thankfully everyone was just as cautious, and we were shooting in the middle of nowhere, so once tests came in and everyone settled at the location, it almost felt like summer camp.

LBB> What would you like the audience to come away with?


Ewurakua> When we wrapped production I thought to myself that if no one, not a single soul, decided to watch this film I would be ok. At the end of the day, I made this film for myself. It was the only way I knew how to process the pain and frustration I was experiencing at that time. I wrapped, feeling that I had created something that was 100% me, raw, on the screen. I hope that the viewer feels that too. And that it opens a conversation. 



LBB> Some of the aspects of the film, especially the middle section, are quite chilling. What are some of the techniques and ideas that you’ll take into your future psychological thriller project?


Ewurakua> I’ve always been fascinated by how anything, placed at the wrong angle, can be frightening. I love taking ordinary everyday situations and placing them on a stage, shining a light on them, and holding it there until it makes the viewer uncomfortable.

 In To The Girl That Looks Like Me, I took the action of getting your hair braided, an intimate and vulnerable thing, usually done in the comfort of a salon or home, and I added an audience, creating an extremely anxiety-inducing environment. In Gold Token, I went a bit further. The woman in the chair is just sitting, right? But we can’t see her face, and she’s facing the wrong way on the porch. The girls push an empty baby carriage. The outdoor church is filled with boxes, not people. The little girls play, but blindfolded, gagged and in a stark, grey playground. 

For my next film, I plan to expand on this method. A group of people who embark on everyday journeys, but when the angle shifts and the spotlight is placed, the horror begins.

LBB> How has joining Greenpoint impacted your approach to filmmaking? 


Ewurakua> I created this film around a year before joining Greenpoint, and since joining, my excitement for the entire filmmaking process has reignited - and I’m not just saying that to get on their good side. 

I love creating. Prior to getting signed, I made a deal with myself to create and create often. The commercial space moves quickly, so I have the opportunity to do exactly that. It can get a bit daunting at times, but I’ve always been drawn to challenges.


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