‘Gramercy’ film spotlights mental health in the Black community
The fourth and latest project from co-directors Jamil McGinnis and Pat Heywood is “Gramercy,” a narrative short film currently screening as part of the American Film Institute’s virtual film festival, AFI Fest, through Thursday, Oct. 22.
Four years in the making from ideation to creation, the 22-minute film centers on Shaq, a young African American man who returns to his New Jersey hometown for the first time in six months, where his ongoing battle with depression becomes a poetic exploration of brotherhood and personal struggle.
The Brooklyn-based filmmakers, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film, always wanted to make a movie that “kind of surrounded from our own personal truths,” says McGinnis in a recent call.
“Gramercy” shows how symptoms of depression are often subtle and often do not manifest in ways that are easy to pinpoint. “Initially, we had always written the idea around this character of living between these two worlds within one vessel, and the vessel being Shaq,” McGinnis explains. “The fact that you can go to a party and feel one way, but deep down you’re feeling another, and we really wanted to highlight the contrast between those two realities.”
Beautifully shot by Maceo Bishop, who has worked with Spike Lee, Steve McQueen and Martin Scorsese, the film alternates between a duality of worlds: an ethereal color landscape representing a manifestation of what is going on in Shaq’s mind, and the stark, outward reality of his everyday life as represented through black-and-white cinemaphotography.
“Gramercy” received its world premiere at the 2020 Locarno Film Festival, where Variety named it “one of the festival’s not-to-miss shorts,” and earlier this month, it premiered in the UK as part of the 64th BFI London Film Festival.
McGinnis and Heywood first met five years ago while both were working at an ad agency. McGinnis, of Turkish and African American ancestry, is originally from Kaiserslautern, Germany and is a graduate of Florida A&M University’s business school. Heywood, who hails from Fall River, Massachusetts, was a huge cinephile during his teenage years. He recalls “loving movies before ever wanting to make them,” he says.
Heywood landed in advertising after graduating from Emerson College in 2013, having studied film and television. “I never thought about the fact that commercials on TV also needed to be shot the same way that movies needed to be shot,” he says. “I was able to apply a lot of my knowledge to the advertising field.”
Heywood and McGinnis ended up at the same ad agency, where they developed a deep friendship from the beginning. Their conversations about music, film and their upbringings created a unique bond. Less than a year later both left the ad agency but on separate paths. “When we left it was clear to me that we were going to be friends, if not for the rest of our lives, for a very, very long time,” says Heywood.
Shortly thereafter, Heywood had an opportunity to turn a poem into a film and instantly wondered if McGinnis would make the film with him. Their first collaboration, “Things I Carry Into the World,” was an experimental short released in 2016, based on the poem by Cynthia Manick. Two years later, they co-directed the documentary short “Fall River” based on Heywood’s childhood, the death of his mother and growing up in Fall River, through the reflections of his grandmother, Margaret Vendituoli. The documentary world-premiered at the 2018 Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival.
Reflecting on why their partnership works, Heywood says that the two “respect each other a great, great deal. We’re able to listen to each other and put our egos aside and hear where the other person is coming from.”