Melissa Gomez’s inspiration for telling visual stories comes from growing up with deaf parents in their homeland of Antigua.
“My parents don’t use sign language, but gesturing with our hands played a big role in how I learned to communicate,” says the filmmaker whose first full-length documentary, Silent Music, will premiere on September 15 at the Caribbean Tales Film Festival in Toronto.
The 70-minute long documentary takes Gomez on a personal journey as she investigates the silence and communication breakdown that define her Antiguan family.
“It took me a little while to realize that the power of my deaf family’s story lay not in how different my parents’ deafness makes us but rather in how similar we are to everyone else,” said the film’s director, producer and writer. “In this film, I aim to gain a deeper understanding of who my family is beyond their deafness and the result is something that has both surprised and moved me.”
Gomez said Silent Music is incredibly personal to her and there were many challenges in telling such a story.
“In a lot of ways, I think making a film about your family can be one of the most difficult things you can do,” said Gomez who is based in New York. “The biggest challenge was the need for objectivity, but how do you maintain that about your family? My solution was to hire an editor who knew nothing about my family. His distance from the subjects in the film was invaluable. At first, I wanted to tell a story about my amazing deaf parents, but the editor helped me realize that the most interesting thing about my family was not necessarily the fact that my parents were deaf but that my parents as individuals – deafness aside – are very compelling characters.
“It was really important to me that I depict my family truthfully and honestly, so another constant challenge was figuring out how to navigate the fact that no one likes a magnifying glass placed on their flaws. As a result, I spent a lot of time, energy and sleepless nightsbeing sensitive to that. It’s my hope that that sensitivity comes out in the film.”
Melissa’s parents are very supportive of the film.
“It was a tough pill for them to swallow at first because I think it was a lot more honest than they were initially expecting,” said Gomez who worked with Oscar award-winning director Alex Gibney on his documentary feature, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, which was shortlisted for an Oscar in 2010. “But as time has passed, they have recognized that it’s actually a very positive and uplifting story even though it includes some very difficult moments. I am incredibly grateful for how supportive they have been. They are incredibly excited about the premiere in Toronto. I remain very sensitive to their reactions and it’s my hope that audiences will see all the love that went into the making of this film.”
Silent Music was filmed in Antigua and Missouri where her mother’s family and many of her parents’ deaf friends live.
Gomez said it took almost seven years from the time she started to think about the project to when it was completed.
“One of the reasons it took so long is because it’s such a personal story,” she said. “The extra time gave me the distance that I needed to be as objective as possible. I was also working long-distance with a lot of people on the film and I practically had a tiny budget. That meant that everyone worked on the film in between other projects.”
Film editor Jay Prychidny and sound engineer Quaison Nangle live in Toronto; music composer Andrea Caro is in England and co-producer Lianna Walden is based in Vancouver.
A Ryerson University graduate, Gomez is excited to be returning to Toronto for the world premiere of her first feature documentary. She completed an undergraduate degree with honours in Image Arts: New Media and it was also at the downtown university that she produced and directed several short films, three of which were selected for the National Student Shorts Film Festival in 2001 and 2002.
She said she chose to study at Ryerson because the university offered her the opportunity to blend her three interests — visual arts, storytelling and academics.
“When I first started university, I went down the academic path but quickly realized I needed to be doing something creative,” she said. “Discovering the Image Arts: New Media program was a turning point for me as it gave me the creative tools I needed to figure out what my medium is, which is documentary.”
The youngest of three children, Gomez spent five years in Toronto before returning to Antigua where she founded and managed her own independent production company, Cinque Productions, with her fiancé Christopher Hodge.
“The time I spent in Toronto was one of the best in my life,” she said. “I absolutely love this city and without a doubt it is one my favourites. It’s the city where I came into my own as an adult, met amazing like-minded creative people and started many life-long friendships. I come back here as often as I can and I could live here again in a heartbeat.”
Three years ago, Gomez completed her Masters in Screen Documentary at the University of London Goldsmiths College. That same year, she produced and directed Share and Share Alike which is a medium-length documentary that explores the relationships between three Antiguan brothers and the uniquely Caribbean way in which they fought for a brother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia 25 years ago.
The film made its North American premiere at the Caribbean Tales Film Festival in 2009. It won the Best Film/Video Documentary Production award at the 2010 Berlin International Black Cinema Festival and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2010 Pan African Film Festival in Culver City, California.
The world premiere screening of Silent Music takes place at Harbourfront Centre, starting at 6 p.m.