The situation might seem strange: Two men can’t leave a beauty shop. From the moment we stumbled upon the corner shop in the Bronx, its owner, Auntie Yaa, treated us as if we were her own children. With her big smile and sharp wit she welcomed us immediately, cajoling us to try on wigs and sample the lotions she brings from Ghana, her homeland. And we weren’t the only ones — everyone on the block called her “Ma.” Customers trusted her not only to tell them which soap would get rid of acne, but also to tell them how to patch things up with their boyfriends.
But the one person who wasn’t so enamored with the community’s matriarch was Auntie Yaa’s own daughter, Rocky. When the self-assured 17-year-old Rocky walked in, we saw a family conflict brewing: the teenage search for independence butting against the parent’s stern guidance.
The film was outlined for us within minutes of meeting Rocky. She sketched out her summer in three acts, as if she had been waiting for a film crew to arrive at any moment. A few weeks later, Rocky would graduate from high school with honors. Then she would hop on an airplane to spend the summer with her father, a royal chief, at his palace in Ghana. The final step in her plan stood as a culmination of her journey: After her return from Ghana, she would become the first woman in her family to attend college, on a full scholarship no less. We were floored. She was about to live a fairy tale by transforming from an anonymous girl in the Bronx into an African princess at her father’s palace.
Our first film, A Son’s Sacrifice (PBS Independent Lens, 2008), explored a father-son relationship at a halal slaughterhouse in Queens, and we had hoped to make a companion mother-daughter film in another borough of New York. However, making a documentary is rarely a straight path, so we weren’t sure how to meet our ideal subjects. After hanging out with Rocky and her mother, we knew the stars of Bronx Princess had found us. And having spent a year inside a slaughterhouse, we were eager to swap the smell of goats for that of perfume.
Although we aren’t West African or women, we have deep connections to this story. As the children of Jewish and Muslim immigrants who have made journeys back to our parents’ respective homelands — Israel for Yoni and Kashmir for Musa — we understood Rocky’s journey. And perhaps more importantly, as filmmakers in our twenties, we are still close to the experience of being teenagers trying to find a sense of independence. Reliving that experience wasn’t always easy, especially reliving it through a strong-willed person like Rocky. At times, she would poke fun at us for being so corny and lame, bringing us back to our days in the high school pecking order.
But through a summer of such great change, we were the only constant presence in Rocky’s life. By sticking with her through that tumultuous time, we gained her respect and earned a coveted spot in her circle of friends.
Despite the many surprises and twists, the film we completed nearly two years later, Bronx Princess, closely adheres to the story Rocky laid out for us that first day. Making the film became more of collaboration with the family than we had expected. We became a familiar sight at Auntie Yaa’s store — Yoni pointing a camera and Musa balancing a boom pole. Most customers assumed we were making a commercial for the store, but after a few months they realized that even infomercials didn’t require so much shooting.
Our long hours enabled us to gain the trust of both mother and daughter. After one fight at the store we followed them back home, and the mood was tense. Rocky went to bed early and Auntie Yaa asked us to sit down with her. We thought that she was going to kick us out for invading her family’s privacy. But instead she spoke to us softly, “We’re all family now. Tell me: Am I being too hard on her?” The next day, we found ourselves becoming Rocky’s confidants as well, as she admitted she might have an attitude, but she really just wants to be appreciated. We learned to be good listeners so that we could include both of their perspectives in the film.
Equally challenging was our journey to Ghana. We lived at the family’s palace for three weeks while filming. There are special rules for interacting with the Chief, such as speaking modestly in front of him. But as filmmakers, we needed to make certain requests of the Chief, such as asking him to wear a wireless microphone, that were seen as challenges to his authority. After he scolded us for overstepping our bounds, we promised to be more careful.
And then there were customs of which we were simply ignorant. One day, Yoni casually crossed his legs while sitting in front of the Chief. The Chief called in one of his advisors to explain that crossing one’s legs in front of a chief was a great insult. Eventually, we learned how to work within the Chief’s parameters, and before long we were on the dance floor with him, celebrating his chieftaincy at a family party.
We could not have made the film without the early support of ITVS and our executive producer, Marco Williams, whose film Two Towns of Jasper (co-directed with Whitney Dow), aired on POV in 2003 to much acclaim. He encouraged us to look for our common ties with Rocky and her mother.
Like Rocky, we have parents who had high expectations when it came to our education. Just like Rocky’s family members, our parents came to America to further their educations and ensure a better future for their families. By following Rocky through her summer of transitions — from the Bronx to Ghana to college in Pennsylvania — we saw the different ways that her parents tried to prepare her for adulthood.
We hope audiences come away with an appreciation for the many manifestations of Rocky’s education, both in the charter-school classrooms of the Bronx and at tribal councils in Ghana. Rocky’s parents want her to achieve success in the United States by attending college and becoming a lawyer, for example, but it is equally important for her to embody their cultural values of familial respect and tradition. Rocky’s journey between her parents’ worlds and her future may be filled with squabbles and tears, but those growing pains reflect a young woman forming her own identity.
— Musa Syeed and Yoni Brook, Co-directors