HEROES: JANICZA BRAVO

HEROES: JANICZA BRAVO

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HEROES: JANICZA BRAVO

The director behind the seasons spiciest film details how the stranger-than-fiction tale made it to the big screen.

The director behind the seasons spiciest film details how the stranger-than-fiction tale made it to the big screen.

Photography: Yana Yatsuk

Styling: Sharon Chitrit

Text: Czar Van Gaal

This article appears in V131, available for purchase on July 1st, 2021

If you’ve paid any attention to the indie film scene over the past decade, director/screenwriter extraordinaire Janicza Bravo is probably a name you are already familiar with. If not, then there's never been a better time to take notice. Bravo is serving up the film of the summer with A24’s Zola, a stranger-than-fiction saga ripped from a 2015 Twitter thread.

Janicza wears all clothing Gucci

 Starring Taylour Paige as the witty, down-home Zola and Riley Keough as her villainous frenemy Stefani, the long-awaited flick follows the two as they embark on a chaotic cross-country “hoe trip” gone wrong. Spotlighting the underbelly of Florida’s pole dancing and sex work scene, Zola will leave you at the edge of your seat from start to finish. “I remember reading the tweets in real time, and kept thinking I want to bring [them] to life,” says Bravo, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Slave Play’s Jeremy O. Harris and A’Ziah King, the real-life Zola. “[But] I wanted to breathe life into this story while not forgetting my energy, my flavor, and my DNA,” Bravo adds.

Born to two Panamanian immigrants in New York City, a young Bravo bounced between the concrete jungle and Panama City. After an injury ruled out her ambition of being an Olympic sprinter, she began to hope to work in the arts though, at first, she didn’t think it was more than a pipe dream. “I didn’t see many [people] who looked like me,’’ she says. “I didn’t think there was space for that in my story.” Eventually she leaned full-force into theatre at NYU, where she realized directing and her gift for storytelling was her superpower. Yet her own path to the big-time still felt unclear. After graduating, Bravo worked as a wardrobe stylist for her nine-to-five, while spending nights dreaming up a future in film through writing short film scripts. Eventually, with the help of friends, she made her directorial debut at SXSW film festival with the short film Eat, which was later picked up by VICE. A string of short films followed from Gregory Go Boom and Pauline Alone, to Man Rots from the Head—all preparing her for her first feature-length film, Lemon. The satirical depiction of a hopeless romantic’s midlife crisis that we know as Lemon, proved Bravo had the ability to sustain an audience for more than 20 minutes and ultimately catapulted her onto the indie scene’s main stage. While writing Lemon, Bravo says she discovered that creating a comedy could be powerfully therapeutic. “With my films, I am processing my trauma, my fears, my anxieties, but through a humor lens,” she says. This ethos continues to bleed into her work today—Zola’s titular main character comes to terms with her own troubles through self-deprecating sarcasm.

Janicza wears all clothing Gucci

Bravo’s indie productions have a powerful pull. As well as Paige and Keough, Zola’s star-studded cast includes Succession’s Nicholas Braun and hilarious viral sensation Ts Madison. “They each had some percentage of that character inside of them, they’re imbuing it,” Bravo says of the cast, adding that she filled in the blanks of A’Ziah King’s original Zola thread by sensationalizing the characters. Lacing her specialty of comedic relief with an underlying theme, Bravo tests social boundaries and theories of appropriation with the stereotypical, almost caricature-like nature of the film’s antagonist Stefani. And, knowing that some audiences would sympathize with Keough’s character Stefani no matter how poorly she was presented, Bravo wanted to “play with the attraction and allure of what we decide are black attitudes, black intonations”—and why “we like [them] on white women and not on Black women.” Despite the lurid excess and hairpin twists, Zola presents us with a message—one that Bravo leaves unwritten. “What you take away from this film is an individual experience,” she says. “And that’s the ultimate gift.”

Zola hits theaters on June 30th

Credits:

Makeup Andre Sarmiento (A-Frame) 

Photo assistant Suki Smith 

Location FD Studio

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