The Phenomenal Women behind AIMEE VICTORIA discusses film gem

AIMEE VICTORIA is a short film birthed and created remotely during the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020. It was inspired by true stories of relationships from disabled and LGBTQ+ people whose stories rarely make it to the big screen. 

The film is the third episode of The Myth of Control web series created by Mikail Chowdhury. Actress/producer Chrystee Pharris (Amazon rime/Allblk Craig Ross Jr’s Monogamy) served as the film’s director. “For me, it’s a love story. When you watch TV or films, they make a big deal of it being a mixed, deaf, or LGBT couple. I think it should be more about a love story, and they just happen to be women,” she said. 

PrideIndex had a Zoom conversation with the phenomenal women that helped to bring this gem to fruition. They are Chrystee Pharris, Director; Sana Soni, Producer; and Natasha Ofili, Actress, who plays Aimee. Here’s what they shared about overcoming obstacles to bring this film festival favorite to life.

AIMEE VICTORIA will be shown at the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival & Lecture Series on Sunday, October 24 at 1pm click here to purchase tickets and will be available for online screening until November 7, 2021.

PrideIndex (PI): Thank you, ladies, for agreeing to the interview today to discuss the film AIMEE VICTORIA. My first question is for Chrystee. Where did you find the inspiration for AIMEE VICTORIA?

Chrystee Pharris (CP): Well, you know what, let me allow Sana to the Producer, who came up with the whole entire project, she can give you a little bit more background, and then I will go from there. Okay.

Sana Soni (SS): Mikail Chowdhury and I got together at the very beginning of the pandemic last year and said, why don’t we create something? We don’t know how long this is going to go on. We know lots of amazingly talented people who are just sitting around, not able to shoot anything. What if we made something? So we’ve gathered about 25 friends, we decided to make a web series or a short-form series, like seven episodes, 10 minutes each. And that was then it went into production in late mid-late June last year. AIMEE VICTORIA was actually the third episode of that series. Chrystee also stars in Episode Five of the series that we love this episode so much, and it stands perfectly on its own as its own little story. So we have to show the world. So that’s how it went ahead. Each of the episodes focused on a different member of a group of friends. AIMEE VICTORIA was the most beautiful, uplifting story that we had. That’s exacerbated by the pandemic. But it’s not all about the pandemic. It happens to have deaf women in it, but it’s not all about being deaf. And our writer, Hannah, has a lot of experience with the deaf community and is part of the LGBTQ community. And she wanted to tell the story. And when we read the script, we just loved it. So that’s how it came about.

CP: I would just add Mikail called me out of the blue and said, “Hey, I would love for you to direct.” I said I’ve never directed TV or film. He said, “That’s okay. We want you to do it because we think that you’re going to bring something amazing to it.” After sending him a bunch of different directors, he said, “No, I still want you to do it.” And so, I took on the challenge. Many blessings came out of it; first, this project has been in 20 different film festivals. And had I said no, or was afraid to take on the challenge, I would not have met these amazing women who happened to be deaf. The fact that there’s a community that I wasn’t even aware of. It’s kind of like when you hear people say, Oh, I don’t have any black friends, or I don’t have any white friends, or I don’t have any LGBT friends. It made me realize, I don’t have any deaf friends. I’ve become this advocate of being on their team. That’s why I wanted her to be in this interview process because I want people to not be afraid of crossing over into a territory that they’ve never experienced before. I think sometimes we think people don’t want to don’t want to cross over because it makes them uncomfortable. I want to be uncomfortable and understand a new life that I need to learn how to communicate to the deaf community.

PI: I commend you, ladies, very much for this project and for stepping outside of your comfort zone, if you will. You could have simply made another love story. Still, you decided to add the story of a marginalized community or communities whose story we rarely see on film. Could you take a step back and tell me about that web series? 

SS: It is called The Myth of Control. It was about six friends hunkered down dealing with their own issues, exacerbated by the fact that there is a global pandemic.

PI: What is the takeaway from this story? What would you like audiences to retain?

SS: It’s a lot of inspiration and hope. And just like, a warm gushy feeling, you’ll see when you see it.

Natasha Ofili (NO): First of all, I worked with such an amazing team, with Sana, Chrystee, and Mikail. They have been so open-minded and open-hearted through the whole process. The story itself was unique, and you don’t see that kind of story representing deaf people. You see the same narrative of all deaf people needing help and folks thinking, oh those poor deaf people, bless their hearts. This story {AIMEE VICTORIA} is really about women who are going through their own issues and dealing with their own demons. There’s love involved; there’s a relationship in the story, so you know how you navigate that experience. It was nice for the audience to see black women, the LGBT community and know they’re human, know there are deaf characters, too, and have compassion for that. I’m grateful to have been a part of this series and the short film. It was special working under Chrystee as the director. She was amazing; pulling so many emotions out of this made me think. It’s funny, after that experience I feel like I became a better actor. 

CP: For me, it’s a love story. When you watch TV or films, they make a big deal of it being a mixed, deaf, or LGBT couple. I think it should be more about a love story, and they just happen to be women. The common denominator is love, and that’s what I hope people get. As storytellers, our job is to make people think differently and see a different perspective they’d never really seen before. I hope that’s what the story does.

Photo credit: video still from AIMEE VICTORIA

PI: With a short film, you have a limited amount of time to tell a story. How did you decide which elements were important to include in the film, and which ones you did not need not to focus on?  

SS: AIMEE VICTORIA is part of, The Myth of Control web seriesAt the beginning of the film, we bring in another character who has their own episode in The Myth of Control Episode Six. We probably wouldn’t have included that scene if AIMEE VICTORIA had been conceived as a short from the beginning. The scene does establish our main character’s depth. 

I think it is a question for our writer, Hannah, and for Chrystee, the director. They’re the ones who have to decide what goes in and what doesn’t. In a short period, every single frame and dialogue count. Ultimately, the editor will cut it, so we have to work closely with them to ensure that everything we deem important is there for the story’s sake. And it’s not just for the sake of the story, but the feeling we want to convey, the tone of it, and its vibes. I’ll hand it over to Chrystee. 

CP: I think you answered everything. Big kudos to Hannah for writing the script. Directors, Producers, and people in the film, always say, “we’ve got to trim the fat off.” There wasn’t a whole lot of fat that needed to be trimmed off the story. Natasha and Stephanie did such a great job with their acting, so there weren’t many things that needed to be cut. 

NO: Hannah, who wrote the script, is involved in the deaf community, so the script’s authenticity was 100 percent on point. It was critical to represent our deaf community, how we live our lives, use video relay services like what I am using right now to communicate with all of you, and communicate through sign language. The script’s authenticity needed to show people what that standard narrative around deaf people was.

CP: Natasha, talk about your experience in show business. Describe the auditioning process. Do you have a lot of roles that come up? What are the challenges that you go through with that?

PI: You’ve just taken my next questions. (Laughs) 

CP: Sorry. (Laughs) 

PI: No problem.

NO: It is tough to find roles as a deaf actor. There are minimal roles out there. Typically, the roles out there are for one-time appearances, and we’re shown in a pitiful situation. After my arrival on The Politician on Netflix, more roles started to open up for me. We still have a long ways to go. I’m going back and forth as a deaf actor and taking on speaking roles. Speaking roles are not my natural thing to be doing. I want more opportunities with speaking roles as well. Not just relegated to assigning roles. I see a bright future in Hollywood, especially with many projects and stories and audio-visual things coming out. It’s going to have more doors opening for myself and other deaf actors.

CP: Natasha talked about when she was on set. I want to say it was The Politician, I’m not sure. But maybe how being on set you might be afraid, like, Oh, it’s gonna take too much work to try to figure out how we’re going to communicate with them. She talked about how they figured out a way, like, oh, why don’t we just do this so that she knows when to enter? Because she needed to enter the scene. I’ll let you explain it, Natasha. Still, she needed to enter the scene from a specific sound or by somebody saying something specific. But they didn’t know how they were going to be able to do that. 

Here, I’ll let you tell the story. I think it’s such a great story. I believe it is important for everybody to hear the story because it made me say, oh wow if I just think out of the box, we can have more deaf people be a part of our projects. But go ahead and Natasha.

NO: Absolutely, thank you, Chrystee. That is one of my favorite stories about working on The Politician because it was a speaking role. But I’m still a deaf actor. There was one specific scene where my character had to start walking after my other costar started walking. I can’t hear the person walking behind me. I’m not an interpreter. The director of photography (DP) came up to me and said, “I will cue you with a flashing light, like with a flashlight.” The problem was solved instantly. Simple as that. The DP took it upon himself to develop a creative solution. And that shows me that everyone is more than capable of coming up with solutions for every kind of disabled person. The simple solution saved money, and we didn’t put stress on anyone else. They didn’t have to pay somebody else to think about all of these different things.

PI: Wow that was powerful. How long did it take to make AIMEE VICTORIA? 

CP: We shot it in three days. We had an extra day to do some more playing around, which was fun. There were a couple things that I wanted to reshoot. I said, Natasha, I think we could do better, so since we have the time, let’s just reshoot this, and I’m glad we did because it was magnificent. There was the editing process in which Sana could talk about the editing and the sound. Phil, when you get a chance to see it, it’s absolutely beautiful. There’s a sequence where there’s music and a poem of the sign language. The music was something special. Suzanne Brindamour created her own style for the movie, which I had never seen before. She made this piano piece and just started riffing. I asked if she could go a little faster here or slower there or make this a little more upbeat. I think from now on, that’s how I want to make all of my music for my projects.

SS: Chrystee wrapped it up pretty well. We had about 77 people around the world, in 26 different cities and eight countries. It was a lot to coordinate. The editing team and post-production team was large. I can’t remember at this very moment who did the editing and post-production sound editing on AIMEE VICTORIA. [Note: Emily Eldridge Hall and Chris Chan Roberson Edited, Ben Reed was Sound Editor.] Suzanne Brindamour made the music, and I agree it was stunning. It blew us away. She needs to be composing music for studio feature films; she’s a great musician in our own right. I was so happy to get Chrystee in the editing process because directors should have some input. Ultimately, we did have to tie it all up with the rest of the episodes to make sure that it made sense. Mikhail, the other Producer, was the creative lead on this.

PI: Did you face any challenges during the making of this story? How did you overcome them?

Chrystee: Oh, my God. Yes. Great question. Mikail called me and said, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this project.” It was during COVID, and everybody was sitting at home looking and feeling pitiful because we could not go outside. You could not go to the grocery store if you didn’t cover yourself up with a bodysuit. I was thinking, how are we going to shoot this if no one can go anywhere? He said, “I want you to direct this.” I finally said yes. He then said, “Oh, by the way, your two actresses are deaf, we’re going to shoot this over zoom, and we don’t know what we’re going to use to communicate to the actors yet. It was all of these challenges. This is my first time directing, and I’m not even in person. I thought, how do I communicate with a deaf actress? I want because I use my sound to speak, but you can’t do that with a deaf actress, so I had to figure out a way to express what I needed from her without using sound. 

On top of everything, you’re not in the room with the actor. This is a testament to all the actors, including myself, because they had to not only be the actor, they also had to be the script supervisor and camera person. Of course, they had their significant others there with them to set up the camera, but they had to be sound. How can you handle sound when you’re deaf? Somehow at the grace of God and everybody’s patience, we made it through and got this beautiful story. Sometimes we would roll, and I would want to say, Oh, one more thing, but we were already rolling, and the actors couldn’t hear or see me. Well, we’re just going to get that take, and then we’ll just start again. You kind of go forward and hope for the best because we were on zoom. And even though we were on Zoom, you couldn’t see what was on the camera at all times. You had to trust the eye of somebody who’s never been a camera person. I remember when Natasha saw the film for the first time, she cried. I remember her saying, “Oh, my God, this is like the best work.” It made me cry when I saw I was able to do this. So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. 

Natasha Ofili: I didn’t have a lot of challenges. It was kind of the opposite of Chrystee your experience that you talked about. The challenges they faced were good because they helped me grow and learn and expand my mind. I really wanted to make this happen, have it go well, and give my best. My husband and I rolled up our sleeves dug in to do the work. Google Meets captions are excellent. We had the laptop and the iPad connected with Chrystee, the director, so we had that director, actor relationship. It was a fantastic team; everybody checked in on each other and gave feedback. It was a wonderful collaborative challenge.

Photo credit: video still from AIMEE VICTORIA

PI: Is there a possibility of making AIMEE VICTORIA into a feature-length film.

SS: Definitely. Our hope with The Myth of Control was to somehow expand it into a full series with half-hour or hour-long episodes. Mikail had written up summaries of what he envisioned happening in season two or season three. We were excited about turning the short AIMEE VICTORIA into a feature-length film. Anything is possible. To be honest, I hadn’t thought of it before now. I want to talk to Hannah about seeing if she could turn it into a feature because I don’t think I’d want anyone else to be touching this. 

Chrysee adds a question for Sana: Could you talk about Mikail Chowdhury because this project is his baby?

SS: (Jokingly) Mikail Chowdhury wanted everyone to know that he’s very tall. He is a brilliant visionary I was lucky enough to work with. Mikail is imaginative, and it’s amazing how he can come up with so many different types of characters and their relationships that he builds up. Mikail has a vision for what he would like to make; he has many amazing projects of risks and those scripts. Yes, he was the creative lead on this, and he signed off on all the characters. Specifically, he was looking after the story and how it fits into the rest of the series. He ensured there was an authentic voice and that the right people were selected to be in it to direct it. That meant a lot to him. And almost every single time I went to him, he said, I totally agree with you. Or you know what you’re doing. I trust you. 

CP: I wanted to work on this project with Mikail because I wanted to work with this diverse group of people. Not only did he get all of these people around the world, and we’re now talking about the series Myth of Control. You had people from London, all these different places, and then you had the LGBT people who are behind the scenes and Muslim people. Mikail wanted the full spectrum of people, including deaf actors, in it. This project is a testament to him and his vision, which is why I believe so many people volunteered their time to be a part of it. They believed in his dream and what he wanted.  

PI: What’s next for you? 

NO: I do have one project I’m working on. I can’t tell you much. I signed an NDA. I look forward to being able to announce that one when I can. For right now, Mikail and I produced another short film called THE MULTI.  [Note: AIMEE VICTORIA and THE MULTI will both be screened at the British Film Institute in London in December with a Q&A as part of their ‘Busting the Bias’ series of events to improve visibility of disabled filmmakers and performers.] I’m super thrilled about that. I’m also working on writing some other scripts and doing some workshops with Deaf West Theatre. 

 I have a role in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a video game; I portray Hailee Cooper, the first black, deaf character. Everyone loved her relationship with Spider-Man. 

SS: I’m working on my job distributing more and more movies. I help friends out with their features, their decks and connect them to sales agents and other producers. A project that a friend brought to me starts shooting next January, and they’re just finishing up some financing. I had this fantasy that I could help them find that financing. I’ve already connected that friend to a few executives, so I’m hoping they can clinch in some fantastic distribution, maybe even play in theaters. It’s mostly that kind of stuff currently exploring. 

CC: I have a show on Amazon Prime/Allblk called Craig Ross Jr’s Monogamy. It’s the number one show on Allblk because we have crazy fans; they’re obsessed with the show. It’s about couples who are going through marital issues. They do a spousal swap, which is crazy and fun. Starring: Vanessa Simmons, Darius McCrary from Family Matters, Wesley Jonathan from Role Bounce, Jill Marie Jones from Girlfriends, Blue Kimble, and Karen Ward Ross. It’s a labor of love. It helped me to step out of my comfort zone as an actor. And I’m also an Executive Producer. I have two other projects that I’m executive producing, which is Mercer Island. And we have some potential interest in that. I have Goliath on Amazon Prime. My one-woman show In Search of Oh is going back up at the beginning of the year. I do tons and tons and tons of voiceover work. 

SS: Yeah, we’re be playing it Reel Sisters. Watch us there. I think you might be online to vote for us. And it’s an Oscar-qualifying festival. So hoping for as many votes as possible on that. 

CP: The last thing I want to say about the short, I really hope that people can support the film. We’re in 20 different festivals. We’re hoping that we can get it out into the community for people to vote for it, watch it, and vote for it. We want it to get the audience Choice Awards. You have two women who are minorities, Black and Latina. You have deaf women, the LGBT community, a black director, and a Muslim creator. You have all these people of color that created this project. It was a labor of love, and we want people to just see it, share it, love it and support it in any way, shape, or form.

PI: There’s nothing left to say but those words with special meaning for filmmakers everywhere, FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.