An Interview With The Director of "Used and Borrowed Time"
Sophia Romma, Ph.D., Esq.CINEMA
Screenwriter/Playwright/Theatre and Film Director, Dr. Sophia Romma is the screenwriter and producer of the Garnet Grand Prix Award-Winning international arthouse motion-picture, Poor Liza, starring Emmy Award-Winning and three-time Golden Globe-winning actor, Ben Gazzara and Obie, two-time Emmy and Academy Award-Winning actress, Lee Grant. Poor Liza, directed by the émigré cult director of Liquid Sky, won honorable mention for best original drama phantasma at the Cairo Film Festival, took second prize for the revival of surrealism and mysticism in film, won first prize at the 21st Moscow International Film Festival for the Bunuel Film Series Tribute and was awarded the Garnet Grand Prix Bracelet from the St. Petersburg Literature in Film Festival, which is equivalent to receiving the coveted Oscar. Sophia Romma penned the screenplays and directed three films for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Dramatic Writing Program: So Happy Together, Pornography! Pornography! Pornography! and Commercial America in the ’90s. She wrote the screenplay for the documentary: Call Girls for Hire: The Sex Slave Trade Epidemic in Eastern Europe for which she was honored with Moscow’s Social Awareness Documentary Film Award at the Moscow Women Make Documentaries Film Festival. Romma also wrote and directed a series of cutting-edge short films for the New York Film Academy: Underneath Her Make-Up (unveiling the stigmatized and hounded LGBTQ community in India) and The Frozen Zone (shedding light on the supernatural healing powers of ancient shamanism and its infinite wisdom).THEATRE AND INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LAW
Dr. Romma is the author of fourteen stage-plays, produced Off-Off-Broadway/Off-Broadway, three of which were produced at La MaMa E.T.C. Her play, “The Past Is Still Ahead” which she wrote and directed ran at the Cherry Lane Theatre, at the Midtown International Film Festival and toured Montauk, London, Moscow, Montreal, and Seoul. The Negro Ensemble Company presented “The Mire” at the Cherry Lane Theatre, heralded by the New York Times for “grinding down stubborn cultural borders with love’s symphony.” Romma’s “Cabaret Émigré” was lauded by The Villager for: “Delving deep into the dislocated émigré’s soul in erotic quantum verse.” Romma graduated from Tisch School of the Arts, earning her B.F.A. from the Dramatic Writing Program and her M.F.A. from the Dramatic Writing and Cinema Studies), holds a Ph.D. in Philology from Maxim Gorky Literature Institute and a Masters of Law from Fordham University School of Law. She directed plays by Leslie Lee, August Wilson, and Austin Phillips at the Schomburg Center, taught Playwrighting and Screenwriting at the Frederick Douglas Creative Art Center, and The Art of Absurdist Theatre Directing at the Mayakovski Academic Art Theatre. She also taught The Art of Narrative Screenwriting and Film History at the New York Film Academy and Cinematography at VGIK (the legendary Russian State University of Cinematography). Romma served as the Literary Manager of the Negro Ensemble Company for over five years. She is the Producing Artistic Director of Garden of the Avant-Garde Film and Theatrical Foundation, dedicated to achieving gender parity in theatre and fostering peace through performance art. Currently, she is the Human Rights Foreign Policy/Extremism Fellow at Human Rights First. www.gardenoftheavantgarde.com.
In an effort to shed light on an all too horrid and common practice of shameful racism and segregation in the 1960s, during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement--I embarked upon the journey of documenting an incident that occurred in Birmingham, Alabama during the conflagration of segregation. This horrific historical incident that sparked deep-rooted interest and spurred me to research this momentous moment in time was recounted by the dignified educated son of slaves who worked as a chef on the Amtrak train which had transported my grandmother and me to Alabama from New York during Halloween, once upon decades ago. The chef extraordinaire had cooked up the most delectable rosemary baked aromatic lamb chops and collard greens, as he poured his heart out about this truly sad tale. This deeply psychological documentary drama captures the narrative of the chef's young cousin, a civil rights leader, and poetic soul who had expired way before his time at the hands of a clan of heartless white supremacists. The unspeakable crimes committed against an innocent blind girl and her African American soul mate is a tragedy that unfolds in my drama phantasma. I hope that this film shall serve as a reminder of the evil that can descend upon innocent spirits seeking to change our wounded world for the better and as a beacon in the plight for human rights, parity, and equality as one nation and one people harbored under the unified multi-colored and multi-national blanket of universal hope, guided by a forgiving, understanding Lord who made Us as One.
We spoke to the director of "Used and Borrowed Time" regarding her film.
Used and Borrowed Time is set during the 1960s in Alabama. How did the writing of your film start with the script?
I have dedicated twenty-five years of my life to the burgeoning vibrant halls of the theatre. Writing stage-plays imbued with the language of the Gods in verse has whetted my insatiable appetite for the ardor that may only be expressed in cinematic verse. I am indebted to Italian Neo-realism and to the intimately philosophical existential spirit of the films of Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Cesare Zavattini, and Federico Fellini. I commenced upon a journey to write a short play inspired by a true lamentable and horrific event in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. My American mentors were of African American descent, namely the Obie Winner and Tony-nominated playwright, Colonel Leslie Lee who directed three of my plays at the legendary La MaMa Experimental Theatre, the celebrated Ellen Stewart, (“Mama” who had founded La MaMa and with whom I developed my experimental stage-plays while living in her artist’s villa in Spoleto, Italy), the indelible Charles Weldon, the Director of the Negro Ensemble Company who had directed two of my plays Off-Broadway, and my professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, the genius Spike Lee. I have vicariously lived through their experiences of racism and intolerance. I am an émigré and a refuge from the former Soviet Union and know all too well what it is like to live under the threat of religious and ethnic prosecution—under the scrutiny of a sickle. I began writing a short play commissioned by The Players at New York’s Gramercy Park South, where it was performed in September of 2019. The play shocked the audience with its depiction of a starkly unforgettable moment in time that shamed our past. The sadism and blatant racism unleashed by this merciless white supremacist backwoods family living a solitary existence in Birmingham Alabama brought the audience to a rather frantic state, as a lost young interracial couple faced the bullwhip from a bigoted rant and a rally of threatening pitchforks, while they were captured by this warped religion toting clan who truly believed in their own version of righteousness; which in itself is a paradox and a twist in the sobriety of faith.
The Golden Age of Italian cinema illuminated the complex romanticism of the Italian psyche and the squalid conditions of everyday life, including the imprint of poverty, governmental oppression, injustice, inequity, and desperation. I am a disciple of poetic realism and Christian humanism.
The Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama is such a momentous poignant movement in the American historic landscape. Since I am an International Human Rights Attorney and serve on the International Human Rights Committee at the New York City Bar Association, spearheading the Criminal Justice and Racial Justice Project, I have conducted a great deal of research into this city of segregation. Birmingham, Alabama was, in 1963, one of the most blatantly segregated cities in the United States. In reading about the fifty unsolved racially motivated bombings between 1945 and 1962, and how the city had earned the nickname of “Bombingham,” I grew socially conscious of my duty to recount this sad true tale in a drama phantasma staccato quantum verse. My research on the events that transpired in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s led me to learn of a neighborhood that was shared by white and black families which had undergone such numerous violent attacks that it was called "Dynamite Hill.” Even African American churches of sacred worship were attacked during the conflagration of segregation in the 1960s. Brimming with all of these tender volatile issues, I tackled the feat of transforming my short play into a screenplay and then the deities of creativity overcame my soul; captivated my imagination which manifested itself in the labor of expressionist cinematic love—of 180 pages. I view this film as a manifesto calling for social change which has been a long time coming.
What inspired you to make this film?
In an effort to shed light on an all too horrid and common practice of shameful racism and segregation in the 1960s, and amid the unjust enactment of anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement—I embarked upon the journey of documenting an incident that occurred in Birmingham, Alabama at the peak of protests against segregation laws and inequity. This horrific historical incident that sparked deep-rooted interest and spurred me to research this momentous moment in time was recounted by the dignified educated son of slaves who worked as a chef on the Amtrak train which had transported my grandmother and I, once upon my past, to Alabama from New York, during Halloween. This humble chef extraordinaire had cooked up the most delectable rosemary baked aromatic lamb chops and collard green, and while the train tooted onwards with full steam ahead, he poured his heart out about this true bitter tale of tender ill-fated love. This lashing psychological docu-drama welled tears in my eyes as the tale captured the narrative of the chef’s young cousin, a civil rights leader, and poetic soul who had expired way before his time at the hands of a clan of heartless white supremacists. The unspeakable crimes committed against an innocent Jewish blind girl and her African American soul mate is a tragedy that unfolds in my experimental drama phantasma. I pray that this film shall serve as a reminder of the evil that can descend upon innocent spirits seeking to change our wounded world for the better and as a beacon of hope in the plight for human rights, gender parity, and equality as we stand united—one nation under the unified multi-colored and multi-national blanket of universal hope: guided by a forgiving understanding Lord who made Us walk upon this earth as One.
How did you find the cast and crew?
I believe that painting on the cinematic canvas with images is the very essence of this unique craft. I yearned to work with the creativity of the Zen, the mystical, and the magical—since much of my screenplay was written in a fantastical trance, especially when the Older Eva Gold is transported in phantasmagoric style to revisit her torturous Alabama past and relive her ill-fated love affair. I was fortunate to strike the fancy of an Estonian Film Production Company well-versed in the aesthetic of creating art-house independent motion-pictures. Hence, although even while filming, my cinematographer who is from Belarus, worried about the controversial aspects of the film; I was indeed grateful to be working with such an eclectic international ensemble from Eastern Europe. My brilliant Estonian post-production team was well aware of my reverence for 20th Centuries master film artisans like Renoir, Bergman, Welles, Parajanov, Tarkovsky, Bresson, and Pasolini. I am a true cinephile so I explained that I desired to recreate the special aesthetic of Bresson. Cinema, naturally, is not simply filmed theatre. I explained that I wanted to create a novel quantum verse language and apply that language to film. My crew was asked to fashion this new potpourri of theatrical imagery that could express a character’s inner state, spirit, and mood in wild bursts of cinematic emotional expressionism. Much like Bresson, I wanted to show raw faces, depict real emotions not demonstrate fabricated acting techniques. Hence, after being in theatre for over two decades, I had amassed an entire arsenal of theatre actors to choose from in searching for the right fit. I also turned to Backstage for aid in casting. Finally, I worked with my longtime casting director of the theatre. She is very precise and scrupulous regarding casting and she is keenly aware of the importance of proper casting on the success of the film. Together we gathered a symbiosis of faces and acting techniques befitting of the lyrical tone and leitmotif of my film. Cinematography is a cogent universally captivating form of cinematic writing. The visual medium must reflect and compliment the written word. It is a delicate balance, surrounded by the haunting of space and time which I feel was beautifully represented by my talented cast and crew.
What kind of impact does your film have on society?
I hope that the impact of Used and Borrowed Time will not merely be a philosophically psychological one but the film will resonate as an impactful visceral visually stimulating experience seeking and calling for social change, tolerance, and universal acceptance of our differences as human beings. After all, the audience is immersed in the battlefield of false prophets, exposed prima facie to fascist motives, conscripted to tango with manic passionate love, to witness perversion and to experience the inner conflict of humanity as men and women struggle with self-identity, religion, sexuality, race, ethnicity and a serious culture clash. The fact that the past is still ahead and that we should never forget the treacherous acts of that past is brought to the forefront in this motion-picture. It is my wish that the lingering effect of Used and Borrowed Time, does indeed loom over impressionable souls. There is of course an austere reality to the tragic effects of racism and bigotry which I have unveiled as it courses through the cinematic veins of this film. However, this invasion and intrusion into the love of an interracial couple who walked this earth shackled by predestined biases are juxtaposed with the lyricism and mysticism of a magical phantasma—purposely glossing over the unbearable tragic events that I feel will visually linger for eternity with those who unpretentiously care about humanity and the search for equality for all.
Where do you plan to do further screenings for your film?
Being an art-house independent and an experimental film, I feel that this movie is most suited to avant-garde festivals; festivals which promote human rights and justice principles as well as support the cinematic paths of female directors who are often globally underrepresented. I am entertaining international film festival screenings as well as a world premiere. Naturally, I do hope that the film will be shown to an American audience, in American theatres lest we risk the burden of forgetting our treacherous past and so that we can learn from the terrible unjust acts of our ancestors. It is further my hope that this film shall premiere in Italy, France, Western, and Eastern Europe as well as in the Middle East. I do realize that as much as the title of my film signifies that we all live our lives out beneath the shadowy undertones of used and borrowed time, contemporary audience members perhaps may not be privy to the glitter and glamour with a pale shade of death presented in Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece film of four hours running time, such as Ludwig. A love affair that is destined to doom and which is placed to the test by fanatically religious white supremacists is not your ordinary run of mill late night date night film. Yet I have hope that this niche film will indeed find its meaningful appreciative audience and that my plea for social change and justice may be heard among the divisive political storms looming above our war-torn horizons.
You also hold a PH.D. degree and teach. If you had to choose between filmmaking and teaching academically, which one would you choose and why?
This is the type of interview question that makes a sensitive soul weep. I do hold a Ph.D. in Philology and Russian Literature with a minor in French from the Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, Russia. I have taught the craft of screenwriting and the history of American film at the New York Film Academy, instructed advanced playwriting and screenwriting, writing the memoir, and theatre directing workshops at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, which was the most rewarding experience. I have had the pleasure of teaching Cinema Studies at McGill University (in the Slavic Department) and I currently teach College Writing at the New York School of Applied Sciences. I must admit that being a professor and imparting my knowledge upon young, talented, and eager to learn students is a momentous delight and I revel in the academic arena. I care about each student, attempt to hone their creative writing skills and try to give them the tools to develop a screenplay or a play, instructing them on the ancient principles of drama. It would be extremely difficult to choose between teaching academically and filmmaking, however, while I remain dedicated to academia and believe that the youth is our future—I cannot forfeit my lifelong dream and commitment to writing screenplays and to the art of shooting a film. I have aspired to develop my distinct voice in the arts and to be heard, cinematically speaking, since I arrived upon the shores of American soil as a child and had been mesmerized by the Star Wars Trilogy. There is nothing on this good earth that compares to the enthralling glow of the motion pictures and the flames of human life in which cinema unfolds before an audience. I would be obliged to choose the act of making movies for as long as God grants me the gift of treading upon this earth.
What is it like to blend academic work and filmmaking?
I have gained so much inspiration, knowledge, and wisdom from my gifted students over my twenty-year teaching career. I often feel that professorship at the university level and in instructing specific workshops for screenwriting and filmmaking engagement is indeed immeasurably challenging. By the same token, as my students learn from my expertise in the art and craft of dramatic writing, cinema studies, and shooting films; I am blessed to engage with my students in a manner which allows me to cast my investigative nets even farther and to gain wisdom from young inquisitive souls—bridging generations through the cohesive medium of film.
Do you recommend film schools to emerge filmmakers who would like to break into the industry?
I will be quite frank in responding to this question by stating that I do not believe that one can simply become a playwright, a screenwriter, or a filmmaker by attending film school without possessing a desire and passion for excelling in this fine art field. The need to make film must consume one’s very being and serve as a conduit between the Goddess of Inspiration, fascination, and talent for the medium. The film is a special beast and one must strive to recount a story through the lens of the camera, paint with words, and move spectators to tears by showing heightened true to lie emotions. If filmmaking is one’s unfaltering passion, then attending film school will aid the aspirational goals of the dreamer and the artist. From personal experience in attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Master of Fine Arts from the dramatic writing and film programs, I was able to hone my skills in screenwriting, playwriting, and film directing. Classes were taught by award-winning industry professionals amid the dreamy ambiance and freedom of Greenwich Village—a bohemian paradise reminiscent of liberated picturesque Europe. Spike Lee, Marty Scorsese, Venable Herndon, Colonel Leslie Lee, Avery O. Williams, and Richard Wesley were among my illustrious mentors and I have been able to achieve wonders in theatre and in a film under their tutelage. Having stated that, I nonetheless feel that it is indeed possible to achieve one’s dream of making films without attending film school at all—it may just be the luck of the draw, being in the right place at the right time and fueling one’s ardent talent with the realization of making a film in actuality via active hands-on persistence and with the support of monetary funds, of course. One can persevere and oversee a film project from its fledgling nascent state by bringing it to fruition simply through an act of courageous ambition and savvy business sense without ever stepping foot into a film school classroom.
What were some of the challenges of making your film?
Cinema is a pivotal medium in drawing audiences from different backgrounds into a magical yet uncertain space. I aimed to expose a world of diversity in gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class, and religion in my film to a certain measure. I am not a film studio therefore my production and post-production teams were maxed out to the limit of their capabilities while working on this motion-picture. We attempted against all strenuous odds (dealing with a constrictive tight budget, inclement weather, stringing together a cast from various parts of the United States, and assembling a crew from Estonia) to better reflect the real sectors of society. The production was nonetheless riddled with unexpected surprises and a brutal frigid winter did not help shooting the outdoor scenes. Most of the film is in fact shot outdoors among swaying reeds and open wild terrain. Then we were all hit collectively by a pandemic as the threat of Covid-19 placed unbearable constraints on post-production since my crew returned to Estonia, forced to execute post-production via Zoom meetings in an unsteady virtual realm devoid of the intimacy, immediacy, and efficacy of working face to face on editing and skillful montage. Still Used and Borrowed Time is a testament to the countless people who toiled endless hours and brought the miracle of this human tale to the discriminate palate of versatile cinematic images. My cast and crew owned the set. I am grateful for their faith in this film and their commitment to upholding the important message that its motif aims to deliver, despite the challenges of making an independent, experimental art-house film under these challenging conditions.
What is the next project you are going to work on?
At New York University, I had a professor who had taught a class on Vladimir Nabokov, and the students were assigned to read practically each of his novels. I was a young lady who was touched by the story of Mashenka which in my opinion served as a prelude to Nabokov’s infamous banned novel Lolita. In Mashenka, a young man recuperates from typhoid fever, clenched in the clutches of boredom, and thus conjures up his ideal love—a girl whom he actually meets a month later. Mashenka is the love of his life. Nabokov describes the lass: “a girl with a chestnut scythe in a black bow, burning eyes, a swath face, and a rolling carted voice.” Once the protagonist, Ganin, catches a glimpse of this girl, he is instantly smitten with her much like the lewd character of Humbert Humbert was possessed and consumed by Lolita’s underage visage and aura. Mashenka and Lolita are primary examples of young girls who are victims of solipsism. The two young girls exist only in the sole minds of Ganin and Humbert Humbert as they appear as clip-on identities and not as real youthful ladies imbued with distinct individual characteristics. In a sense, these unfortunate girls are victims of a contrived imagination. I am currently engaged in writing a screenplay revolving around Lolita’s perspective regarding Humbert Humbert in which I depict her every reaction to his haughty sexual advances towards such a young girl. I believe that as a woman I am equipped to ascertain and portray Lolita’s version of Humbert Humbert’s infatuation with a twelve-year-old Dolores Haze and to express Lolita’s vision of this rather perverse seduction of a pubescent girl. While the term “Lolita” has been sadly assimilated into our popular culture as a description of a young girl who is “precociously seduced….sans the wicked connotations of victimization,” I aim to prove on the contrary (drawing from a similarly situated experience) that Dolores Haze is indeed a victim and not a seductress, at least not a conscience one due to her obvious inexperience, fickle pre-teen posture, youth and fleeting innocence which is prone to serve as sensual prey of worldly educated men like Humbert Humbert. I feel that a film based on Lolita’s response to Humbert Humbert’s uncomfortable physical and emotional advances may be times in the era of meaningful social change movements seeking female empowerment while holding guilty men accountable for their deplorable acts against women, such as the #metoo movement.