Thinking 'Bigger Than US' - Theme Week


By Kenneth Miller

All photos courtesy of Francesca Chaney.

It would be easy, without proper inspection, to list off Francesca Chaney as just another 18-year-old who sits around all day binge watching Orange is the New Black, then impatiently waits for the next season to commence after its completion. However, this teenaged Garifuna treasure made use of the show’s lull, taking time to film, produce, and edit her first documentary short, Bigger Than U.S.

As if her solo efforts weren’t impressive enough, Chaney’s documentary was picked up by the Belize International Film Festival and will screen there in a few weeks.

The Belize International Film Festival is celebrating its 9th edition of showing movies this year. The event’s mission is to promote a universal acceptance of Caribbean identity while focusing on greater understanding of multi-cultural societies. The director of the festival, Suzette Zayden, is a strong believer that when one engages creativity as an awareness tool, it acts as a catalyst for activism and cultural tolerance.

Bigger Than U.S. examines the idea of people finding their cultural identity while being uprooted into a foreign land. Chaney documents the lives of three young adults, all from different Caribbean countries, who, during adolescence, were brought to the United States in pursuit of the American dream. The story works to address the confusing issue of which country such individuals can truly consider home.

This biopic briefly chronicles the lives of Kwame Simpson, a 20-year-old native to Guyana, Katiana Kersaint, a 20-year-old from Haiti, and Helen Barnes, an 18-year-old born in Jamaica. As these three individuals struggle to learn the language and adapt to the culture, they relentlessly stay connected to their roots.

Spectators can witness how Kersaint’s troubles with the English language cause her to struggle in school. Other scenes show Simpson discovering his talent in acting, which he claims would not be a career path eligible for pursuit in Guyana.

Chaney says the inspiration to go about the documentary came from her mother.

“She came here when she was 17 years old from Belize,” she tells BTR. “With Bigger Than U.S. I got to take a step back–since I was born in the United States–and see the obstacles I would’ve faced had I been born in Belize.”

This picture, being the longest piece Chaney produced, was filmed over the span of her one-week spring break vacation. She journeyed to Brooklyn with her Canon Rebel camera, documenting five hours of footage. Later, she condensed everything into a 30-minute film, then submitted it to the Belize International Film Festival under the “Short” category.

Alas, Bigger Than U.S. became the documentary short selected to represent America at this year’s festival. That’s already a huge accomplishment for a Brooklyn College student who just enrolled in her fall classes to study documentary filmmaking.

Disbelief struck Chaney when she found out about the acceptance via email, causing her to slide off her couch and scream. She says she was eager to tell the select people she had confided in about the entry process. But to her dismay, no one was around.

However, she and her entire support system will all be flying out to Belize on Jul. 15 to attend the festival screening.

After the five-day festival, each contestant’s piece will be critiqued by a panel of judges who hold an expertise in film. After winners for each category are determined, Zayden confirms they will receive prizes of “an original work of art in the form of a wooden trophy hand carved in zericote wood,” as well as “a cash prize of $1000 Belize dollars (US $500).”

Regardless of the results, Chaney considers herself an amateur filmmaker who is still learning the basics.

In the meantime, she is focusing on new projects such as her upcoming event on Jul. 12, Quest Awards, which highlights members within Girls Advocating and Innovating the Nation (GAIN). A community group based in East Brooklyn, Chaney founded GAIN while in high school. Their goal is to build young women’s self-esteem while encouraging them to become social activists and voice their opinions on various issues.

“While in Belize, I plan to start filming a documentary-series on social, cultural, and personal interpretations of what it means to be black in terms of anywhere outside of the United States,” says Chaney. “The definition of black is completely different in America, than in Belize, than in Ghana.”

Chaney hopes to shed light on dense societal issues while influencing an atmosphere of equality and unification.