Halifax filmmaker Koumbie knows her debut feature, Bystanders—showing at FIN Atlantic International Film Festival on Sep 22—is bound to get people talking, but that’s the point: “What do you do when someone you like does something you hate?” she says, managing to get to the crux of it all before her phone interview with The Coast even cracks the half-hour mark. “Community is everything to me, it’s something that I believe in. And what community actually looks like is something that I think all of us are still kind of trying to figure out. There is an incredibly toxic disease, unfortunately, in our society: It is rape culture and the patriarchy and misogyny and we see it everywhere and it seeps into everything and it's something that is so unbelievably enraging. And also, we all are participating in it. And so how do we not just say ‘Fuck you, goodbye. Move to a different country.’ … Because we can't do that with everybody. And everyone is participating in it. So what does community actually look like?”
This is where Bystanders, which Koumbie began writing in a pre-Weinstein era, based on stories of her friends’ experiences with assault and intimate partner violence, comes from: What do a group of lifelong friends say when they realize one of their own has perpetrated someone else’s #MeToo moment? And moreover, what should they do about it?
Adds Koumbie: “Obviously sexual assault is not a grey area. But what we actually need for real change to happen: I think that part is a grey area, and something that we have not agreed on and probably never will.”
This group portrait of community and complicitness might be too murky or steep in hands other than hers. But Koumbie (who works professionally under a mononym and uses she/they pronouns) is just about the only filmmaker who could be trusted with a story so sharp-edged yet soft-hearted: A veritable triple threat writer, actor and director, they’ve been crafting (and often starring) in shorts on sticky subjects for over a decade now, becoming a luminary in Halifax’s film scene along the way. (In a sense, Bystanders reflects this standing, with a host of Halifax actors coming together to act out Koumbie’s precise vision.)
For them, directing “definitely started because I just wanted to perform and I was too eager to be waiting by the phone for an agent to like, give me an audition, to give me an opportunity,” she says, an almost audible shrug. But it quickly became more than that: When Koumbie takes The Coast’s call, they are working as a cross between first AD and line producer on a shoot in New Brunswick, running to the car to chat on their lunch break. Their resume is an ever-expanding list of jobs on sets across the city and region, including their current training to be an intimacy coordinator. It’s about more than just telling a story or, as she puts it, “loving the controlled chaos on set.” She’s also rebuilding the community that’s meant everything to them along the way.
Between its presentation of imperfect survivors and the choice to never show the act that turns everyone’s world upside down, in Bystanders Koumbie arrives as an unflinching new directorial voice, one who’s ready to know the guts of a story so that it can be told in an unexpected way. When asked their favourite scene in the film, they hesitate about how much to say: “There is a scene in the movie that I think is very possible 90% of our audience will hate. I think it is very possible that a lot of people are not going to like it—and maybe a lot of people aren't going to understand it. But it is something that I'm really proud we kept in, because I think it's important—and it's around how people deal with trauma. I think it's really easy to say that we're not going to judge victims and survivors of this, but then it’s not as easy to walk that talk.”
But Koumbie thinks in film, really. If the audience at FIN misunderstands, it’ll border on willful, since her vision is so clear it makes crystal appear clouded. As her lunch break wraps, she tells a story about the moment she realized she could be a director: “I was [meeting with a potential director for a script I’d written], explaining what was in my head and I said, ‘The camera moves through here, and up here like the close-up here.’ And she stopped me and was like: ‘Why aren’t you directing this? Like, everything just explained to me is kind of what directing is. You've already basically shot listed the thing. Can I ask why you're not directing?’” they recall. “And that was kind of a mind-blowing moment because it had literally never occurred to me. I grew up on film sets, but I'd never seen women directors. I've never seen BIPOC directors. I'd certainly never seen a Black woman director. And so the idea just hadn't crossed my mind. And so as soon as she said that, it was like, ‘Oh, well. OK, yeah. That just makes sense.’”
Fast-forward to the set of Bystanders and that difficult scene, and Koumbie adds: “I’m proud of that because we took risks in the writing and in the shooting of it. And it was phenomenally performed. We were all crying in the other room while we were shooting it.”