Drones zip above West Philly streets, casting a watchful eye on residents. Police control checkpoints and enforce curfews in “high-crime” neighborhoods. Protesting in Center City is illegal.
Yet the trolleys, the rowhouses, even the towing signs look the same.
This is a Philadelphia of the near future, one that independent filmmaker M. Asli Dukan and her team have created for the web series Resistance: the battle of Philadelphia. The ambitious speculative fiction series, which premieres at the annual Blackstar Film Festival in West Philly on Friday, explores questions like: What would happen if the government privatized all social services? What would it feel like to live in a police state? And, as one character in the series puts it, how do you resist when your opponent is the system?
Watch the trailer below: (The entire series will be posted after a screening at Scribe Video Center Sept. 7.)
Dukan, 45, is a veteran filmmaker and New York City transplant who settled in West Philadelphia in 2014 after getting to know the city’s black arts scene: from the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention, which is held in Philadelphia every year, to the science fiction collective Metropolarity to public interest attorney Rasheedah Phillips’ work with afrofuturism to Blackstar itself.
Philadelphia, she said, has been good to her as an artist.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the 40-minute series, which Dukan and her team shot in five days last October with 11 actors and 20 crew members.
“When I see filmmakers, I think ‘black women’ because that’s who I am,” Dukan said.
A set comprising mostly black women was a new experience for Kennedy Allen of radio show The Black Tribbles, who made her film debut as one of the main characters in the ensemble cast.
Makeup artist Mary Arlynda Vermell had palettes of color that suited her complexion, and costume designer Kima Baffour made Allen feel like the shape of her body was not “an obstacle that needs to be altered away,” she said.
“But seeing a black woman direct such a large … group of people, handling challenges with dignity, grace, and a great sense of humor, made everything amazing,” Allen wrote in an email. “It seemed … right.”
Many of the actors and artists who worked on the film were inspired by what they described as the political urgency of the film.
“Even though it’s based in the future, these things are happening right now,” said animator Jose Mazariegos, the force behind the project’s visual effects — phones look like they’re implanted in the characters’ palms and computer screens emerge seemingly out of thin air. Mazariegos, 38, said he identified with the spirit of resistance, with people taking action and choosing not to be complacent about the status quo. “We have rights,” he said. “We can organize and protest.”
Coproducer Sara Zia Ebrahimi said the series is a powerful way to imagine how things might develop if certain trends — say, the closing of Philadelphia’s public schools — continue, and pose the question: How can we stop this evolution if we don’t want to end up in that future?
The series had strong local ties: Dukan set the work in West Philadelphia because of its history of police brutality, like the MOVE bombing, but also because of its history of resistance. She shot the series on location there, and largely worked with a West Philadelphia-based crew, like theme-music composer John Morrison who can often be found DJing parties at neighborhood haunt Dahlak and whose debut album, called Swp: Southwest Psychedelphia, was a “love letter” to the city. That the series was so site-specific gave it a feeling of authenticity and rootedness, Ebrahimi said.
As part of her role, Ebrahimi helped raise money to finance the series; film is notoriously expensive, which is often a barrier to entry. There are so few opportunities, Ebrahimi said, for artists to get their work financed if they don’t have a long, established track record.
“So it becomes about pulling on community support,” she said.
She and Dukan, along with executive producer Anissa Weinraub, ended up raising the $15,000 it took to produce the film with small donations on GoFundMe and a grant from West Philly-based Scribe Video Center. Another supporter in West Philly hosted a fund-raising brunch for the series. In 2016, Dukan won a grant from the Leeway Foundation, which supports women and trans artists, that helped fund the project. (Ebrahimi, who is also a filmmaker, is the program director of Leeway but did not begin working on Resistance until after Dukan won the grant.)
Dukan worked with Alex Smith, a comics and short-story writer who’s a member of Metropolarity, to write the script. Smith, 42, of West Philly, said that in his writing, he tries to capture the surreality of how it feels to experience the world as a queer black man.
“I knew I wanted to write something dreamy,” he wrote in an email. “I wanted to present the idea of struggle and resistance as an act of dreaming, of reimagining spaces, and to me the best way to do that is to conjure up the essence of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or like a Hype Williams music video — I wanted it to have an impact on all senses and not just be, like, a procedural, like NCIS or Law and Order or something that doesn’t stick with you, challenge you, or prick at your imagination. Dreams are important, so is film and art; the two can coexist, should coexist, MUST coexist if marginalized people expect to be liberated.”
But he also worked to ground the dialogue in the everyday, since the world of Resistance is populated by real people. That combination of surreal and poetic, yet also grounded and realistic, is important, he said, especially when it comes to telling stories about black people.
“I think it’s time that regular, everyday, artistic, hardworking, black people get their stories told in new and exciting ways without stripping us of what makes us,” he said.