Reel Women: Kelley Kali, Writer and Director

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To call Los Angeles-based filmmaker Kelley Kali “talented” would be a gross misrepresentation.

The Howard grad and USC Film School post-grad is an incredibly smart, funny, witty, courageous and yes, talented filmmaker.

Her harrowing short film, Lalo’s House, a moving and distressing tale about child-trafficking in Haiti, has been honored by the Telluride Film Festival, the American Black Film Festival in the Emerging Directors category, Journées Cinématographique de Carthage (winning the Silver Tanit Award), and many more.

Kelley has also won the 24th DGA Student Film Award and a Student Academy Award at the 45th Student Academy Awards.

Reel 360 had a chance to sit down with the NCAA Division 1 lacrosse team captain and talk about her film and her journey as a filmmaker.

Lalo’s House is powerful and inspirational. Tell me about a little bit about the inspiration for the film. My background is in anthropology and film. I was working in Haiti before the earthquake researching children’s rights and living conditions. When the earthquake happened, I went back to Haiti to help. That’s where I caught wind of a alleged Catholic orphanage doing heinous acts with children. The head nun was reportedly allowing foreign men to come in and sleep with the little girls there.

So I researched her and the orphanage and discovered that it had never been ordained.

In essence, it was posing as an orphanage to seek funds and donations from benevolent people. They even have a website! It was totally organized and I began investigating her.

I discovered that it (the trafficking) had been going on for a while. About seven years in, I shot footage for a documentary. I used the footage to get accepted into USC for my master’s degree.

Once I was accepted, I was encouraged by friends, faculty and even my mother to turn the film into a fictional narrative. That became Lalo’s House.
 

Throw aside the director’s hat right now. How do you feel as a woman that you’re documenting young girls being used for sex? Were you scared? Angry? You know you look back on your younger self and you think like, “Wow I was a little crazy?” But, I was driven by this instinctual drive to protect. People warned me about her (the head nun). In hindsight, I see how dangerous it was. The villagers told me that I needed to chill out and stop because she was a mafia type. She’s had people killed. In other words, I was dealing with “The Godmother.”

I interviewed grown men who were afraid of her and didn’t want to appear on camera. They knew that she killed people before.
 

So, you were actually dealing with the Haiti version of The Nun? Right? When we went to Haiti I had to tell the crew to not mention child trafficking or trafficking in any sort of way. We did not want the word spread because it could have become really dangerous for us.
 

When did you shoot? We shot in June of 2017. The entire month. It was a 12-day production. We went to Haiti in the beginning of June and it was a month of non-stop set building, traveling, filming… all that with children.
 

Talk to me a little bit of crowdfunding. Oh my. We crowdfunded for Lalo’s House for a good six/seven months. To try and raise the kind of money we needed as graduate students at USC was daunting to say the least. This was before I was able to contact Garcelle Beauvais.

After Garcelle read the script, she and her producing partner (Lisa L. Wilson) decided to come on board. They shared our crowdfunding campaign within their network and they are also very good friends with Jamie Foxx. He decided to come on board as a contributor and it was his support that helped us get to Haiti and pay for the flights, etc.
 

Were you a fan girl when you met Garcelle? It’s so funny. You’re supposed to meet at and it’s 10:01 and you start thinking, “she’s not coming.” And then all of a sudden she’s there and she’s not late at all.

Garcelle was like a goddess when she entered the W Hotel lobby. I fell even more in love with her because she is so humble. She actually took the time to meet with a young student filmmaker. People don’t always give back and help lift somebody else up. But Garcelle did.

She took the time out of her busy schedule to sit down and talk with me about this project. I was so excited and so honored on the inside, but on the outside, we conducted the meeting professionally. At the end, I was hugging her!

ALSO READ: Reel Women: Ashley Platz, Actress, Writer, Producer

What was interesting about her role is that she was not a one-dimensional villain. At times, I felt remorse on her part. Thank you for catching that. I tried to do my best to never judge our characters while writing them. I guess it might be my anthropology background or being raised by a pastor, but I do my best to try to understand why someone would choose to partake in such atrocities.

I’m certain when she was a child, she didn’t grow up saying, “Mommy I want to be a child trafficker when I grow up.” There are circumstances that people are faced with in impoverished areas and they sometimes, in order to survive, make some very bad decisions that hurt other people.

It’s easy for us to sit in our warm houses, with our hot running water that’s on demand and driving our beautiful cars, to point fingers at somebody else who’s never had these amenities and resources and say, “How dare you. You horrible person.” But who are we to say that if we were placed in those same circumstances that we would not have made similar decisions? I wanted to make this character have a little more depth and dimension like we all are as people.
 

Let’s talk about the shocking scene that bothered me and I’m not going to go too much into it because I don’t want to spoil it. What goes through your head as a director while you’re shooting? I wanted to make sure that the scene felt genuine. I wanted it to be truthful. I didn’t want to overload the audience with so much brutality that they couldn’t digest it.
 

Who inspired you as a filmmaker? I like to say what film really impacted me. Life is Beautiful influenced me a lot. The dynamic between the father trying to hide atrocities from his son by being humorous and just trying to keep the real world away from him. I took those elements from Life as Beautiful and applied it to Manouchka, the older sister who knows the truth about life and the orphanage.

Pan’s Labyrinth is another one of my favorites. The way they told a children’s fairy tale with such a dark and beautiful execution blew my mind the first time I saw it. I never saw children be so real and so sad, but yet beautiful to watch.

Believe it or not Braveheart. I read the script and I loved how Mel Gibson wrote the action. I took the liberty and freedom that Gibson used in his screenplay to model my descriptions about Lalo’s world.

Lalo’s House stars Beauvais, Denise Milfort (The After Party) and Jasmin Jean-Louis as Manouchka. Reel 360 looks forward to other projects from the talented Kali!

 
Contact Colin Costello at colin@reelchicago.com.

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