The Voice of Change
Nico Opper worked with students to create When I Write It, a film that examines race, culture, and creativity
There's a scene midway through When I Write It, a short film directed and produced by Nico Opper and Shannon St. Aubin, that perfectly captures the tiny details that signal a profound cultural shift. The film follows the lives of two college-bound Oakland teens — Leila Mottley and Ajai Kasim — as they explore what it means to be young black artists. Wandering the city, the pair check out trendy Temescal Alley, a retail enclave with the kind of shops that sell $77 bandanas, a dizzying variety of succulents, and coffee of all kinds.
"They have Earl Grey tea ice cream," Mottley says with a laugh as they pass one store.
"Oh, why does that anger me so much?" Kasim asks, but he doesn't sound angry. He sounds resigned. He says it with more of a bemused sigh than an edge. "I'm sure white people love it. It's for them."
The film is a compelling glimpse into the creative process and the way young people collaborate to shape their world. But it's also about loss, about a world in danger of slipping away. It's set in the waning days of summer in a rapidly gentrifying city where Black culture is being eroded, replaced by, well, Earl Grey tea ice cream and everything it represents. The two main characters are emblematic of what makes Oakland great. There's an uplifting mood of hope and promise as they talk about their influences, tentatively map out their plans, and work through the nuts and bolts of writing a song together. But they are also typical of the residents who may be pushed out of their hometown by economic forces.
"I think we're the last generation of Oakland kids who are going to remember what it was like," Mottley says later in the film.
"That means we hold the culture," Kasim says. "We have to share it, preserve it, save it."
"And mourn it," Mottley adds.
Opper, an assistant professor of Communication, and St. Aubin are both Oakland residents. They co-wrote a largely improvised script with Mottley and Kasim which was based entirely on their lives.
The film was selected for the Tribeca Film Festival this year, one of only 64 shorts chosen from 6,100 entries. It had its international premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto, which happened virtually. It aires July 20 on public television's Oscar and Emmy-winning POV series, which reaches an audience of millions.
The film was completed before the social movement that followed the shocking deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black Americans at the hands of police, but its message could not be more timely.
"They are deeply concerned about the rapid pace of gentrification of their hometown and what impact that is having on their community and communities of color more broadly," Opper said. "There’s no better time than the present to center their experiences, their music, their poetry and their particular views of the world."
St. Aubin, whose grandparents came to Oakland in the great migration, emphasized that the writing and music Mottley and Kasim create in the film is inextricably linked to the place where they live, along with the racial and economic tensions that animate it.
"Some days it seems like Black Oakland is gasping for what looks to be its last breath, other days I’m hopeful, but either way there is a seismic shift occurring and marking that moment in time is important," she said. "I want audiences to walk away thinking about a sense of place, and how race is tied into that. I want audiences to think about the way where we are from informs the kind of art we make."
A Santa Clara University grant funded the production, and Communication Department Chair Mike Whalen, who is also a filmmaker, ensured that Opper had access to equipment and connected her with SCU students who worked on the film. Michelle Wang '20 worked as a production assistant, set photographer, and is now the film’s post-production coordinator, working directly with PBS. She learned about the logistics and planning that even a short film demands, but she also tapped into something more ephemeral.
"There was always a sense of magic happening around us when we captured a musical session between Leila and Ajai, because while the skeleton of this film was planned in advance, much of the actual interaction between our ‘actors’ was not rehearsed," she said. "This was the complexity and excitement of working on a documentary-narrative hybrid."
Kaitlyn O'Hara '19 went from working with a handful of people on student films to scheduling and organizing more than a dozen cast and crew members as the production manager on When I Write It. It was not easy, but it gave her a chance to apply what she had studied in film classes and soak up the atmosphere on set.
"Having someone as a lecturer is one thing, but getting to see that professor practice what they preach was a great learning experience for how I will work on any future films of my own," said O'Hara, who now lives in Los Angeles and works part-time as an assistant producer and researcher on a documentary. "My favorite memories were getting to connect with the cast and crew and gaining confidence in myself. I joked around, brainstormed, and got coffee with some of my favorite professors, worked with friends in new capacities, and met other filmmakers who were supportive and taught me more about different aspects of filmmaking."
The students also got the chance to have an up-close look at those hard-to-describe moments that can elevate a film into something memorable. Michelle Yau '19 now works on the creative team at a tech firm doing video, photography and design, and her work as the assistant cameraperson on When I Write It left a strong impression on her.
"My favorite moments involved particularly beautiful shots," she said. "I believe any scenes where the participants of the film seem to forget that the camera and crew are there are always the most beautiful."
One of those scenes comes when Mottley and Kasim join other musicians in a sneaker store to perform the song they have crafted throughout the film. Kasim describes the song as a reminder that as a young black man, he is still a person, still human. "We're often not allowed that," he explains. The fact that it had to be written is a reminder of how much work is left to be done. But it also illustrates that young, talented artists like Mottley and Kasim can lead the way.