I stumbled onto Will Niava’s debut short film, Zoo, via a still I saw online: a close-up of a young man’s face under blue neon, framed by cigarette smoke. Curious about this striking image, I tracked down the film and was immediately pulled into its unsettlingly immersive story, precise and dynamic camera movements, and skillfully designed soundscape. Zoo follows an evening in the life of Amos (Amos Nzamba), an emotionally detached young man living in the suburbs of Montreal. He spends his days hanging out with his friends Slim (Brendan Sheehan) and Santos (Ian Contreras) but doesn’t think much of them. One evening in the parking lot of a convenience store, a misunderstanding between Amos and a troubled man (Ian Cloutier) quickly escalates into a full-blown confrontation. Niava, who contributed to every aspect of production, assembled a talented group of collaborators who helped bring his vision to life. The film, which is featured alongside Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown on the Criterion Channel, is a haunting reflection on alienation, authority, and the power of words. Ahead of its Channel premiere, I chatted with Niava about his approach to filmmaking, the widespread and persistent problem of police brutality, and the role that independent cinema has in shedding light on social issues.
You moved from Ghana to Canada ten years ago to study film production. What was behind that decision?
I was planning on going to film school in Ghana, but when I visited the school and showed them my videos, they told me not to waste my money. Students in their last year told me to go elsewhere. That’s when my parents realized that I might be good! When I arrived in Canada in 2010, the first thing I wanted to know was which filmmakers were from here, specifically from Montreal. I discovered Denis Villeneuve the year I arrived, and he became one of my favorite filmmakers. He and Xavier Dolan were major influences early on. Then there are also the all-American greats like Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Lee. PTA is one of the reasons I decided to make films. I saw There Will Be Blood and I had never seen anything like it. I thought, wow, we need to do something like that in Ghana!
What is the independent film scene like in Montreal?
Every Montreal film feels like an independent production. Every single thing that’s happening here right now has a super eclectic, super vibrant vibe. Filmmakers like Jeremy Comte are coming out with bomb films. He was a major inspiration in school and working with him opened up a whole new world for me. I worked on Fauve, his short film [available on the Criterion Channel]. Jeremy was involved in every step of production. He found locations on Google Maps and lived the whole experience alongside the actors, who were kids. He would shoot them on his phone, and he rewrote the script a few times so that it fit them. That’s also how I make my films: I have to live the experience.
Also, it seems that the Montreal independent film scene helps shed light on subjects that are usually pushed to the side, especially here. Only now, with the Black Lives Matter movement, are we talking about systemic racism, and the government is still denying it exists! I think that films like Zoo help shed light on important issues. The response has been great. Random people have reached out to me and told me they were so moved by it that they now wanted to talk about racism with their friends and family. I think that’s what the indie scene is doing, pushing subjects that need to be spoken about to the forefront. That’s where I see myself thriving as a filmmaker, which is not to say that that’s the only thing I want to do.
Tell me about how you originally conceived Zoo and how it evolved.
I had always wanted to make a film about my experience with cops or with authority in general. I’ve had incidents here, in Ivory Coast, and in Ghana. Once, in Ghana, my friends and I were wrongfully arrested and taken to jail. One of my friends is half white, and when the cops see that, they know that they can take advantage of the situation to demand money. They planted a joint on us. We understood what was going on, but my friend got angry. I tried to calm the situation, but it escalated, and they took us to the station. We were stripped down to our underwear and put in a cell with ten other guys who were in the same situation. They undress you because they want you to feel like you’re nothing. That experience really juiced me up. In the moment, I was panicking. I felt like my life was over and I was never going back to the things I loved. It was a wild experience, and I needed to bring that kind of feeling to the screen.
Then, with everything happening in the States these last years, I wanted to talk about abuse of power from a Montreal point of view. These things happen in Canada, but they’re always hushed. You’ll never see anything on the news. You’ll only find out if someone happens to capture an incident on their phone or from your barbershop. My barbershop’s where I hear all the stories about people being harassed by cops or the metro police.
In early 2019 I was contacted by Anthony Galati, who would become one of the producers on Zoo. He comes from an electronic music background and he wanted to get in touch about a music video idea he had for his project Solitary Dancer. We met for the first time at a bar in Montreal, and he pitched a video idea that was a commentary on police brutality. We were really on the same page. He was deeply upset about what was happening in the world and was also inspired by similar videos by artists such as Yves Tumor and their exploration of police violence. Anthony wanted to partner up to try and tell that type of story as a kind of “extended music video,” but I also wanted to shoot something bigger. I wanted to do a short film, and I was so obsessed by this idea that I wrote the script for it quickly. Between Anthony, his partner Adam Hodgins, and me, we only had the money to make a music video, but my friend Alleck Doxer was starting a production company and I pitched Zoo to him. He put another $10,000 of his own money into the film. It was crazy, like a miracle. We ended up shooting the music video as a short film, which Anthony and Adam then scored. So that’s where it all stems from. The hunger for making this film came from my own experiences, and this opportunity just came along so perfectly.
How did you work with your DP, Simran Dewan, to establish the look of your film?
I had never worked with Simran before, but I looked up to him in film school. He was always working on some really good stuff. I wanted to collaborate with someone who didn’t feel too far away from me and who could meet me at my level—someone who would respect and help me develop the project. Simran was kind and attentive to what I had to say, but he also had a lot of ideas. I always welcome that! We’d try his ideas and mine—we combined them.Early on, I went to Simran’s house to get a vibe and talk about the movie. He related to the story and we had a lot of the same influences. The main one was La Haine. We wanted our film to have the same overall energy. At first, we considered shooting in black and white, to pay homage to La Haine, but we decided not to because we really wanted to distinguish Zoo as its own thing. Simran worked closely with Harley Francis, our gaffer. They have a special bond. Harley has a crazy eye for light, and he’s the reason that Zoo looks the way it does. We didn’t use much lighting, just some tube lights at key moments. Simran and Harley really brought the film to life.
What was the process of casting like?
I was looking specifically for people of different races. I needed a Latino guy for this group to work. I wanted it to look like what Montreal looks like right now: super Latinx, super Black. Except for the troubled man I found on Facebook, none of the actors had acted before. The casting was done guerilla-style. It was very random.
Amos is the only one I knew before. He had done some fashion work and he was comfortable with the camera. He’s a great-looking guy, and I wanted to use his calm force to portray something strong. He has this huge power in his eyes and in his calmness. He doesn’t need to speak to be understood. I always felt that Amos needed to be on the silver screen, and he was perfect for Zoo. I saw Slim, the white guy in the group, in a convenience store. I had just finished the script. He came into the store and was wearing all white with bright pink hair. I kept looking at him and I knew he was Slim. He caught me staring and I gave him my number. Later, we met up in a Montreal alleyway and I pitched him the movie. I had been following the guy who plays Santos online for a few years. He was a random Latino kid I found so dope-looking. I admired his style and his music. I felt like he looked like the future. Like he was tapped into something. So I hit him up and presented the project. He was so flakey! Just like the character . . . Santos is not supposed to care. I pursued him until I made him believe in Zoo, and all of a sudden I had all of my characters right there in front of me. That’s when it felt like it was actually happening.
None of them knew each other before, but when you put these guys together it sparks something. You felt like they had always known each other. It’s because of how I cast. I’m not casting for someone to feel like they have to work hard to become the character. They have to be the character. I molded the script around these guys. I didn’t want them to act as much as I wanted to capture them being themselves.
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