Tito began learning how to swim last year.
In conversation with filmmaker Olivia Smart, Tito discusses how Olivia made her 2023 Netflix Documentary Fund short BLACK STROKE and how she’s working to dispel myths surrounding black people and water.
As someone who recently learned how to swim this is so relatable and so inspiring. It makes you feel seen as a black person. How do you feel now that your project is nearly out in the world?
I feel nervous, because I think a lot of the time you spend kind of making it in your own world. For me the main priority when making this was Black Joy that was like the bottom of it. And I really wanted to make a film that really made you feel something and made you feel seen and made you feel a sense of warmth.
What were some of the biggest misconceptions that prevented people from swimming, including those you interviewed?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that our bone density is so heavy that we're just going to drown. And that's not actually true, I was speaking to a lot of scientists doing the research. And the difference between the bone density of black people and the bone density of white people is so minuscule that it would make absolutely no difference in you learning to swim.
So I think that was a huge factor, I think it was really difficult in terms of kind of getting people to swim. Because a lot of the time when you go into these places, there's not many people that look like you. So it doesn't really feel like a place that's overly welcoming.
I think with bodies of water, there's a huge fear because they can move and they can change so rapidly, and you can't feel the floor. So for me, it was about kind of proving that black people aren't a monolith, that's why it was so incredibly important for me to have three completely different stories with three completely different goals. So that when black people watch this, they could find relatability and at least one of the three characters, if not all of them.
What’s your favourite swimming technique?
I mean, it's gotta be the front stroke.
It’s pretty funny because I could actually swim and I thought that was a really great swimmer/
These guys were having professional lessons, and I just kind of go in the pool when I'm on holiday, so when I actually got in our swimming instructor, Harley was like, “Olivia, I think you could do with a few lessons”. I was like, “What, this is my film!”, like, these guys are basically learning. I had only got in the pool with them to support them and encourage them and to prove that I could swim. So I've been saying that I could swim the whole time. And it was just so embarrassing that I was getting tips and they were showing me up.
What would you say is the biggest reason that we should learn how to swim?
I think it's a life skill and it's freedom.
It's about being able to go abroad with your friends, and knowing that you can join in, knowing if you're on a boat party, if the boat goes down, God forbid, that you're going to be okay.
These guys learn in eight weeks, twice a week. We didn't cheat it, Aaron actually learned in seven weeks, Maria actually learned in about five because she had to have a blood transfusion midway through, so it was actually less than eight weeks.
So I think the level that Aaron got to having not been in a pool for 10 years, to be able to, I don't know if this is a spoiler alert, but to be able to get to the level that he got to was really impressive.
It’s something that you can really feel present in your own body and like it's very affirming for your body confidence and your body image. Especially as black people, I don't often watch a show or see myself in the media, in our natural state. So was that something that you were ever conscious of when filming or directing?
I think for me, what a lot of people probably didn't realise is we actually had a predominantly black crew. So both in front and behind the camera. I think we had one white guy, God bless him. That was Mick, that was our soundie, but everybody else was black or mixed race.
I think it was really important for everybody to feel like, you know, if we're laughing at them, we're not kind of poking holes at them, we're all kind of in the same space. And what we found when we were actually making this film was most of the crew couldn't actually swim either.
I think it just made the whole experience so much more authentic, because I think the crew were really inspired by what was achieved by, you know, the three contribs, Satema, Maria and Aaron. I think, to be able to tell black stories, where they're not in proximity to suffering, they're not trauma based.
It's a real story of overcoming and achievement and joy, for me as a filmmaker is why I came into the industry in the first place.
Olivia Smart's BLACK STROKE is available to watch via Still Watching Netflix here.