We caught up via zoom with the writer/ producer and actor behind ANCYW, Otoja Abit (David), as well as the lead actress Nia Fairweather (Jennifer) and Adriana DeMeo (Gabby). Warning: this article contains spoilers.
We’re in 2020 and ANYCW is the first lesbian Christmas film to land mainstream. (It arrived on Netflix in November 2020). Not only this, it also features a diverse cast.
Otoja: “It’s 2020… why has there been no type of Christmas sapphic love story? It’s not insane, but it’s the way of the world, it’s what we’re dealing with. And to have a person of colour as a lead, this is something where we shouldn’t be waiting this long… A lot of people want to compare us to other films, who have bigger budgets, but we have definitely a film that’s made me love. You can see that in the film, you can see in the characters, you can see that in the response from people that we’re getting like yourselves.”
Adriana: “…that’s why I love it, and that’s one of the reasons why when I read it I was like ‘this is going to speak to an audience that really needs a movie, like this!’ because it challenged the rules of Catholicism’”
Nia sees it as an opportunity for more of these stories to be told:
Nia: “I like to believe that we’re this spark. It’s interesting to see networks change and pivot a little bit and I feel like that’s what happens when we tell authentic stories, without intending necessarily to be the first but it’s great, but no means should we be the last.”
Nia gets emotional: “I think what warms my heart is that it has the ability to save lives. For people to be able to see themselves, and to see their loved ones and just to know and celebrate, I think for me, in my core of core, that’s what brought me onto the project. It wasn’t just being an actor, and looking for my lead role, and this is my first lead role in a feature film by the way, and so for me I’m just like, this is so much bigger but wrapped up in this theme of Christmas.”
Nia: “I’m glad that it’s serving as a story of representation but what I would like, in maybe 10 years, that it becomes just a great love story. That is where I definitely think we’re heading as a society!”
As ANYCW is being praised for its diversity, with a leading black actress and her Latino father (Papi!) played by David Anzuelo, we wanted to get Nia’s thoughts:
Nia: “it’s interesting, you know what, I thought me being cast as the lead was diverse (laughs). As a black woman, I felt like me being his first choice for the role and coming on board, I felt like no matter what I’m casting, that’s what I innately represented, right. I didn’t know who he was going to cast, as I was casted first… I think it’s great (David Anzeulo as her father) and I 100% support it.”
Nia adds: “Diversity is always great, because the world is diverse… I think it’s important to have casts and characters that depict a broader spectrum of humanity, really.”
The writer and producer Otoja Abit (who you may recognize as David from ANYCW) is the brains behind the film. Following the success of his short film, Jitters (which Otoja also stars in), he was approached to expand it into a feature film.
Otoja: “People were surprised to see two men getting married in a Catholic church and how normal it seemed and from there I realised, I’m catholic and think it’s a normal thing. But what happens when other people who don’t, who step away from the church because of that, because of their own faith and their love?”
An opportunity arose with Conglomerate Media and they offered a small budget to expand Jitters. Expanding Jitters wasn’t working and Otoja remembered how amazed people were about seeing same-sex couple getting married in the church. Otoja therefore decided instead to explore the storyline with female characters.
Having received some criticism about ANYCW being written and produced by a man, Otoja explained: “Me being a male, I understand it’s a different thing but I was also raised by my mother and my sisters, in a house full of women! I kind of understand what’s going on there! I wanted to write a story basically shown about love and make it universal… I understand that but I also understand that it’s created with the right intention and I hope people enjoy it, and if they don’t that’s fine, but do know that Hollywood isn’t making films for you that you want to be seen now. They probably will now that we’ve made this film as they’ll realise and hopefully they’ll do more. We just want to start a conversation and people being supportive. I think literally being the first Christmas film with a person of colour lead in a lesbian love story, that’s forever! I mean 2020, I’m a film lover, and we’re the first at doing that. I think that’s something I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”
With a small budget and a 14 day shooting period, Otoja had to call on friends and those he knew to get involved. The first to sign on was Chris Noth aka Mr. Big from Sex and the City, who plays the role of a Catholic priest, Father Kelly.
Nia read the script thoroughly and wanted to see if it’s a story she wanted to give her voice to: “I think it’s important as artists for us to also make sure that the materials are also mirroring things that we want to put into the world. I was also very particular about how the representation, and what is going to be encompassed in this story.” Nia added: “For me it was an honour and the moment I said yes, this script is Otoja’s baby, that’s how I see it. Now I have to raise this baby into the world.”
Otoja sent his friend Adriana the script as the character Gabby reminded him of her. Upon reading the script Adriana commented that: “his (Otoja’s) sweetness and his grace just emanates from the page and the minute I read that scene with Father Kelly, I knew it was something I really had to do”.
As Father Kelly, Chris Noth gives an empowering and emotional ‘love is love’ speech in the church.
Otoja had worked with Chris before in a play and Chris executive produced his second film Jitters. Chris read the role of Father Kelly and thought it was a great part.
Otoja explains: “He (Chris) gets offered Christmas movies all the time… but he liked the idea of this conflicted priest. These are things we’re talking about right now. There will be times I’ll email Chris and I’ll say ‘look what the Pope just said!’ and this is a week after filming!… He knew we could do something special here… I’ll always remember that he always honoured the fact that, you know, he’s not just a friend that puts his support in you with money, he supports you in the sense of doing his job as an actor, showing up and being great.”
The film centres around the premise of having second chances, and exploring the ‘what if’s‘ via a parallel universe, thanks to a guardian angel Azreal Gabison (played by Cooper Kock). In short – Nia is in love with David, planning a wedding with an overbearing mother-in-law and she is presented the opportunity to explore life with her first true love, Gabby.
Nia: “if we are all given an opportunity to go back and we do something, I think that’s a universal thing… What I really appreciate was this idea of Jennifer getting to her most authentic self… Sure with David she could have been happy, but as we know from the end of the film, she discovers through being in this alternate space, different aspects of herself that she misses and things that she wants to bring back, or ‘damn what if i did have a chance with Gabby. I hadn’t even allowed myself to do that! Is this possible?’”
The theme of not following your heart, passion or desires in fear of upsetting a loved one is indeed a universal one. Gabby is given the choice and both Otoja and Nia reflect on the importance of showing this.
Nia: “Azreal says ‘oh he’ll be fine’ (David) and it made me think about how often we may hold back on our own desires or ambitions or choices, or just to be ourselves in fear of upsetting our loved ones or the people around us…. What it means to say ‘alright I can choose me and what I want and life will still be ok. They’ll be ok!’”
Otoja: “… a lot of people forget to do that. They think about the other person but the other person will think about what they want before they think about you. So just do what you want!”
The father of Jennifer, Papi, is played by David Anzuelo. He’s a loveable and endearing character that is sadly deceased in Jennifer’s current world, but to Jennifer’s surprise, is alive in the alternate world. Papi is shown to be accepting of Jennifer and Gabby’s relationship, highlighted especially by the *spoiler alert* wedding scene.
TFE: Was Papi’s acceptance an important aspect to portray?
Otoja: “yeah it was really important, I’m not trying to make a film that’s making a stance for this type of experience, I’m just trying to tell the universal story. A lot of films in the past, and that are coming out now, there’s still this fight… a fight with their families about love, which is fine, it’s a real thing… I think I wanted to explore that their main struggle is something intangible, everyone around them supports them, they love them, their family loves them. Well, in a sense because you know Gabby’s parents didn’t and weren’t there for her, but he, as a father, what is that like. Because I know people who have grown up in households that are very, very supportive, and others who have not, but we have to see those examples of people who are very, very supportive because they’re out there. I think what we put out there as a narrative to keep saying that parents are having a hard time if their kids are coming out or accepting love. I think it’s an honest thing, but for this holiday story I wanted to kind of keep Mr. Ortiz a very loving, supportive, father… And a lot of people love him.”
Otoja felt that he had to add some twists and turns, “nothing out of the ordinary but just enough so people aren’t thinking ‘oh I know where this is going’”. He also revealed that he had planned for a mass wedding of five couples at the same time, but in the end the producer wanted the focus to be on Gabby and Jennifer.
Otoja: “The wedding scenes are definitely something where it’s a beautiful thing to show and hasn’t been done before in a church.”
Adriana: “That marriage scene… I feel like everyone should have that moment, not just a man and a woman.”
Otoja adds: “One of my favorite moments is when he’s at the wedding, I wrote it down in the script that when the two girls, spoiler alert, get married, he jumps up and cheers like he’s at a graduation, you know!”
Adriana: “oh he’s my favourite! I lost it when I saw him go “yeahhhh!” *fist in air*
A lot of people struggle with their religion and accepting their sexual orientation. The movie follows the journey that Father Kelly takes towards acceptance of LGBTQ+ people and celebrating love.
Otoja: “People had their comments about this film being overly religious, and I don’t think that’s the case I just think that it’s showing a story of people who are really into their faith. We’re just showing you what it’s about… To experience, and to know people that have stepped away from the church because of the fact they love someone else, I think that’s heartbreaking and I think the church needs to really re-examine what they put out there to people. I think that’s what’s so important about Father Kelly’s speech, is that this is a passage, people take our word literally as they should and they look at themselves as if they’re wrong and they’re broken, but they’re not. They’re just people who love who they love, they are who they are, and we have to accept that.”
Adriana grew up in an Italian/ Catholic family so she felt this was her personal way of bringing to light and bringing people together. Adriana spoke about how the Catholic church is being more open, especially with what the Pope is saying recently and she has a local church that welcomes everyone.
Adriana ran down to those protesting outside of the church: “I went there about to fight and instead I ended up sitting there in the church, and hearing from all different walks of life and the priest is like ‘you know what, let them fight, they’re allowed to say what they want. But here everyone is welcome at my table’. Things like that are reasons why I do this.”
Otoja: “I think that would be a great opportunity. I think being at home on Netflix, that’s a great opportunity and the more that people talk about our film, the more it raises concerns and questions, the idea that ‘can this be a thing?’ I think so! This is a world we can explore more. I think a second or third one you know, they know where to find us because we want to keep telling these stories”.
Nia: “YAS I think there should be a sequel!”
Adriana: “Ooh interesting question! I obviously don’t know if there will be a sequel, but it would be fun to see them tackle something else together, maybe children!”
Nia ponders what she would like to happen: “If it went from their childhood up until now, the age that they are in the film, I think it would be really cool to show that experience and how their relationship evolved. I still would want it to be a little messy, relationships aren’t as ‘buttoned up’. I would love to see when Jennifer learns things about Gabby where she’s like ‘ew’ you know!”
TFE: “like small things couples go through, ‘you left your dish in the sink!’
Nia: “those small things! I would love to see how being with Gabby, and having that experience, how does it affect Jennifer. Does she still struggle with finding a different part of her authentic self?”
Pondering further, Nia doesn’t put Jennifer as a dog person, “Jennifer would have a cat!… I would keep them as they are, I think they both would be femme, I do. That doesn’t have to change!”
Jennifer also suggests it would be interesting to see Gabby’s family, who is not at the wedding.
TFE: Would Jennifer propose or do a secret flash mob wedding?
Nia: “I think that would be Gabby! (laughs) anything spontaneous like that I think would be Gabby’s personality. Jennifer would still be the planner.”
Nia: “The designer for that dress is Aisha McShaw and we had a fitting at her home studio and tried on all these things. At first I was like ‘I think you made everything for me and can I take some of this home’. My nickname for that dress is actually liquid ruby! I love her! That dress, for me, it made sense. Me, as Nia, would never think of like a red wedding dress, that dress however is like ‘yeah! A red wedding dress! This makes sense!’ It was sexy and it was so form fitting, it was comfortable…. They had a series of other things to try on and when I came out in that, everybody was like ‘YEP!’”
TFE: can we ask, Adriana… did you want to wear the red dress at the end?
Adriana: “NO! I could never look as good as Nia did in that. No way. I was happy to wear my jumpsuit!… what a great idea right? Get married in a beautiful Christmas red dress!”
As lesbians, we rarely get seen or portrayed in mainstream media so we at The Femme Edition want to thank ANYCW, especially for also providing (spoiler alert if you don’t know by now a happy ending.) Plus a Christmas movie!
TFE: How do you feel ANYCW has been received?
Adriana: “We were hoping to not make a cheesy Christmas movie. We wanted it to be steeped in depth.” A dear friend of Adriana’s is married to a woman and has kids and she said ‘thank you for being a part of this and thank you for seeing us’. For Adriana, “it’s comments like that that make me feel really good, that it’s resonating.”
Nia is so grateful: “my heart is so full. I’m so thankful it’s been so well received”. Most of Nia’s family are not in the US, and are based in the Caribbean (primarily in St. Vincent, & The Grenadines and Belize). “So I’m a first generation American and they’re like ‘LET’S GO!’ and they’re sharing it!” A lot of her family and friends are reaching out telling her that they love it. Nia thinks it’s incredible that she’s also had people say they’re going to watch it with their 15 and 13 year old daughters.
It’s not being shown on Netflix in the Caribbean yet and Nia’s family joke about wanting to petition. Nia commented: “It’s great how it’s being received and people seeing it. For me what is the key of the film is that ‘love is love’.”
Nia hasn’t received any negative comments and feels that 2020 may have had a positive impact: “I do feel like in some ways that maybe this year also prepared everyone’s hearts for being a little bit more open… I think this is where we need to be as a humanity… For anyone to block, you know, who we love. I mean really, of all things in the world! OF ALL THINGS?! We need more love in the world!”
Otoja: “someone wrote ‘I saw this film and I’m 11 and it changed my life!’ Not in a way if we are some crazy monumental film but it’s this idea of normalising this love story. Some people go through an emotion and they’re like ‘I know what they feel like, I’ve seen it there, yes I should tell my friend how I feel about them!’ We need to see more of that… That’s why people enjoy the Holiday films, they want to see love stories but in those love stories they see them as a foreign type of thing to relate to. But for our love story, it’s something that’s happening right under your nose and it’s happened to your neighbours, it’s happened to your family and it’s something that you haven’t seen before but you know what that feeling is like, and I think that’s a really good thing for everyone”.
Adriana: “…from what I’ve been hearing from people’s reaction to the movie and especially with what you guys are doing with your website… I just imagine a young girl today getting to use a website like yours and also getting to have a Christmas movie that they’ll look back to, and feel, feel ok about. You know. Feel like ‘I can do this, I don’t have to feel weird about it and this websites here for me.’”
Nia: “It is in fact a family movie, yes it is set in Christmas but that is not the crux of the film. That’s kind of like the backdrop, this moment can happen at any time of the year and it’s happening for a lot of people. I would say it’s an invitation to experience love as it is. And remove from it the trappings of what we think love should be, should look like, who gets to love and how and what. This is an invitation to release some of that and just be in the space and ready to experience love as love truly is…. What would it be if we allowed ourselves to just love who we love? And to allow people to love who they love.”
Listen to The Bells on Christmas by Kelsey Madsen from ANYCW.
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