• Abeng Studios

Five Seconds and Three Words

As the writer you’ve created the work and the world that is being displayed. As the producer you’ve gathered the pieces together like a shopping list. As the director you’re merely a channel for other people’s talents. Though the credits show the film ending in the way it began, in the mind of one individual, none of it means anything without the collection of the amazing talent which is your cast and crew. In the coming weeks I shall release a showcase about each of these individuals who helped bring this work to life and in all instances advanced it beyond what was originally conceived.

So let us begin with one half of the core of this film, our lead actress of Echoes of a Winter Sunshine, Sonja Cirilo and how she’s an exceptional and special actress but more importantly how pivotal she was to the making of this film.

It’s mid December and I’m finally recovering from pneumonia I caught during my travels on a Thanksgiving holiday trip. First day back at film and video production class, my planned film hadn’t begun production and it was an extensive project. I was given permission to scrap that project and come up with something more simple. Five minutes prior to the start of class I came up with the initial plot premise of a sister having to prostitute herself so her and her little brother could survive in the world. I went home and wrote the first draft.

Now mind you the project deadline is December 24th, it’s December 19th and I don’t have a cast or crew. I learned my first lesson as a producer, don’t expect to cast students during the end of year holiday season, they’re either preparing for finals or are already on holiday with the family. Luckily Luke Momo a fellow director and friend suggested using the casting site Backstage. I scurried home in the early evening, launched Backstage and searched until approximately 3:45am, through hundreds of candidates for my leading actress.

As written in my minds eye, the character of Ashwood was envisioned as a dark skinned woman with a ponytail afro-puff. I wanted to consciously change the limitations that film has always placed on darker skinned people, and dark skinned actresses demographically are specifically limited in the opportunities they’re afforded e.g. Storm in the X-men franchise is Kenyan but has never been represented by the prominent dark melanin or culture of the region but by the lighter skinned euro-centric black women Halle Berry and Alexandra Shipp - nothing against those wonderful women I’m just presenting the type Hollywood likes to cast. Angela Basset was number one on everyone’s list during all fan castings. It’s easy to blame it on the men and say it’s due to the CIS white male gaze but director Bryan Singer isn’t a CIS white male and writer/director Elizabeth Bank of the upcoming reboot of Charlie’s Angel is a Woman. One of the criticisms of the Charlie’s Angels reboot, which I also share is that none of the Angels in the new trailer seem distinct from each other. Award winning Castle Rock writer and podcaster Marc Bernardin states “For me, I really couldn't tell the Angels apart—aside from Kristen Stewart, natch. So many wigs, so many shades of lipstick and brown skin. The trailer never made them pop as distinct. Amazing how the simple "blond, brunette, redhead" of the 2000 flick helps in that regard. “

In the era of the #metoo movement an opportunity to showcase a diversity of women, specifically dark skinned, black women, was missed by all involved in the making of the latest Charlie’s Angels film. Due to these constantly conscious decisions by others in the film industry, I believe it is my duty as a filmmaker to correct this abhorrent behavior in my films. But once I saw Sonja I knew I had to change my parameters. I would be doing my film an injustice if I didn’t. I narrowed it down to a handful of actors but she was my number one choice. I sent her the following message.

Hello, I'm a student at Fordham University and I'm doing a student film. I saw your video reel and I like the passion that I see with your work. I think you show a vulnerability that I'm interested in for one of my two leads. It's a short story about a sister and brother. I would love for you to take a look at the story and see if it's something you'd be interested in.


Oniffe White

Her prompt response.



Thank you so much! I would love to read it just point me to the script. I do leave to go home to the USVI tomorrow and don’t return until the 8th of Jan. Let me know!


Sonja Cirilo



Thanks for the quick response. I've attached the script. Let me know what you think and if it interests you.



Absolutely Beautiful!!! I would be honored to work with you. You just let me know!




Thank you!!! I'm limited by time but I have more projects I will be working on and I think you emote very well.


I was pressed for time but I continued to watch her reel over and over again. I was so impressed by a particular five second snippet where she’s walking in a hallway, carrying a laundry basket and she’s approached and harried by a fellow nun asking the whereabouts of someone. She shook her head, slightly shrugged, nervously blinked and responded with a stutter saying “I’m not sure.” Five seconds and three words captured me for three days that I emailed my professor asking for an extension and I came up with a different project to the assignment. Those five seconds and three words convinced me that there was no other person I could conceive or accept playing this character but her. I messaged her.

I watched your video again and I want to wait till you come back from the holidays to discuss this character and story with you.


I asked her what she thought of the character and her response told me I wasn’t wrong about those five seconds and three words.

What I love about this story is that it showcases humanity. It gives you an inside look on the everyday life of poor America, a story that is often overlooked. With the main character you can see an inner strength that is needed in order to survive but it's tainted with a sense of desperation to provide for her and hers. Ashwood's selflessness is portrayed so beautifully. I absolutely love the relationship between Ashwood and Leon. It shows that despite of age difference these two characters rely heavily on one another. There is a beautiful companionship between these two characters. The writing creates so much opportunity for beautiful stage pictures and story. I was overcome with emotion when I read the last moment between Leon and Ashwood where he comforts her. It resonated with me because I remember the times my younger siblings have had to comfort me. I look forward to exploring to hearing what your vision is. This is an absolutely beautiful story that carries a beautiful message about humanity and a harsh reality about the society. Look forward to hearing from you!



We finally met in January, sat down for lunch and discussed everything from family to films. She was what I expected and more.

Working with her and the other actors was a great collaborative experience. As the lead she set the tone for others to follow. As a one camera film things had the potential to become repetitive and less interesting but this was far from what was brought. Every take was an adventure. She found more of the character every time I said action. I would see her push a tea cup or shake a bag of Cheetos and get so excited by those little details. It allowed for flexibility when it was time to assemble the film.

I am most certainly aware that what she brought to the film is on the screen for the world to experience, but in this era of tentpole films that are full of spectacle it’s easy to miss the nuance that shows theme and character when cinematic storytelling is so bombastic. What we did was cinematic storytelling at its purest with minimal dialogue, this allowed the audience to engage visually with the story and the characters on screen. Ashwood as played by Sonja represents strength and perseverance. You the audience believed she was that without her saying a word. She drew you in with her performance and didn’t let go until the screen faded to black, something that is inexplicable by me. It would be as if I woke up today and found a letter in the mail that said I was accepted to a school of witchcraft and wizardry. I’m dumbfounded to find the right words and it’s a little embarrassing as a writer, but I’ve displayed it for you as a director. Her magic on screen is unbelievable.

I’m so happy to be granted the opportunity to work with such a collaborator, without who the definitive version of this film would not have been possible.

10 views0 comments