Halifax filmmaker Koumbie's feature asks one crucial question: What do you do when someone you love does something you just cannot abide?
Bystanders – a special presentation at FIN: Atlantic International Film Festival – explores the query through a group of friends who go to a cottage for a vacation, and are faced with an issue they've avoided discussing.
“The seed of the film was planted in 2015, after I went to my first film festival. It inspired a short film, and it's about friends who come together on a camping trip. During a game of King's Cup, secrets are revealed,” she said.
“The short didn't work out, as the sound was so bad it couldn't make the light of day. But I learned a lot, and I loved the idea of it. This idea of friends with so much baggage and history, it was interesting to me.”
A film about #MeToo, rape culture and consent wasn't something she was sure she wanted to make, but the last few years have made her feel it was hugely important.
“There was this show called Slut done by Lunacy Theatre, and 13 women were sharing their experiences with rape culture, misogyny, and slut shaming. We were partially having a rehearsal and partially dealing with personal experiences. It blew my mind to see,” she said.
“There were so many eye-opening discussions. Multiple people from different circles were going through similar things. Issues were coming out about people I knew and loved, but these things were so dark and gross. I didn't know how to deal with everything popping up.”
Koumbie spoke to producer Terry Greenlaw, whom she'd worked with on Studio Black, and they discussed funding for what would become Bystanders. Flash forward, and now her feature film – also co-starring partner and frequent collaborator Taylor Olson – is set to debut.
“We did a treatment, and then the Weinstein scandal broke. Then everyone was talking about it, and we thought the story might not have a place. It was trending, and we didn't want to throw our voices to the void. We realized, though, that we were still struggling more than we thought,” she said.
“Both Taylor and I realized that the conversation needed to be had. It's not just about perpetrators, it's about all the people around them left to deal with the ramifications.”
Koumbie has assembled a cast she's truly happy with, and they grew close quickly.
“Everyone was really fantastic and we got really close,” she said. The cast includes Olson, Katelyn McCullough, Deborah Castrilli, Cavell Holand, and Peter Sarty. “We all had connections to each other prior, except for our wonderful lead.”
Marlee Sansom plays Ayda, and she comes from a theatre background. This is her first lead film role.
“This movie was fantastic to make. It was such a unique experience, and this was quite the role to jump into. Koumbie had so many conversations to see what page we were on as people and actors. It was so comforting,” she said. “It was exciting, nerve-racking, and I can't wait to watch and celebrate it with people.”
The community theatre veteran came to Halifax four years ago, and legendary filmmaker and actress Shelley Thompson recommended Sansom for the lead in Bystanders. She auditioned, not expecting anything to come from it. To her surprise, she nabbed the role.
“It's always the things you never expect that work out. I knew I'd love to be the lead, but I never knew it'd come to me,” she said.
The film has heavy subject matter, something Sansom got help navigating.
“It was a community-based production, in the sense that we were a community. We were in one location together every day. Everyone was called every day, and that allowed us to build supportive relationships,” she said. “You always knew your scene partner had you, not just as a co-worker but as a friend. And with this material, sometimes you need that.”
Sansom praised her incredible co-stars, and discussed the wrap day, as well as her director's gentle way of doing things.
“Koumbie told us how amazing it was to watch us hold each other between takes. We would break and laugh when we needed to laugh. But Koumbie is so talented at helping someone navigate their feelings while acting,” she said. “It was just an amazing thing to see, and it helps so much for you to be that comfortable with your director.”
Koumbie, likewise, was so happy to have Sansom as the co-lead in her film.
“This is an ensemble piece, but our lead Marlee just knocked it out of the park. She is a queer, young, Black woman,” said Koumbie. “She has a plus-sized body, which is often not seen on-screen, and I'm so excited to get to show her talent.”
Koumbie is excited to see her film on a big-screen at FIN with an audience.
“This is an important film to me, and I can't wait for people locally to see it. It's hilarious that so many of those who helped make it can't go, because they're all working,” she said. “This crew was so talented. I'm thrilled, excited, proud, anxious and terrified for this. I hope people like it.”
Bystanders screens at Cineplex Park Lane as part of FIN on Thursday, September 22, at 6:30 p.m. For more information or tickets, click here.