Roni Nicole Henderson’s short film, bridge/refrain, is a visual poem about the transmigration of the soul after death.
Over the course of several scenes, the ritual use of music, dance and the adornment of crowns and necklaces bring a young black woman from one world to the next. Wet strips resembling burial linen are pasted on her skin. A series of attendants dance about her, marking the ceremonial passage. The woman herself ultimately dances as well, joining a new community.
The film — now showing on a continuous loop at the Columbia Museum of Art — will have its official premiere this Thursday.
For Henderson, the film is both topical and personal.
On a broad level, it is intended to honor the victims of gun violence. As Henderson describes it in a press release, the young woman in the film arrives in the land of her ancestors.
“Here, she discovers that though there is healing for her wounds and safety in the arms of benevolent beings, her work is far from done,” Henderson says.
On the set of And the People Could Fly — the film she is making for the forthcoming Indie Grits festival — Henderson spoke about the inspiration for the film, which also has roots in her own life.
“After some tumultuous life changes, I went to home to live at my grandmother’s house to help her sell a family home,” the 38-year-old artist says. “I just started having very vivid dreams of my mother’s life. She died when I was 20. Mothers transmit a lot of information as you get older, so losing her at that age cut off a lot of things she would have told me about her mistakes and choices.”
The dreams were “very cinematic.”
The youngest of five children, Henderson grew up with parents who were both heroin addicts.
“There was a big community of people that raised me,” she relates. “My grandmother raised me at times when my mother would go to jail, or do whatever drug addicts do.”
Her father was a poet and her mother was a painter.
“They were scarred. They were hurting people. Heroin was their escape. I never thought that they didn’t love me. They were really loving, beautiful people, and from a young age I really did see them as sick.”
Although she went on to escape a dangerous environment and become a teacher, the idea of putting her own story into images eventually motivated her to become a filmmaker.
“My lifelong dream, for a long time, was to be an amazing English teacher,” she said. “It was during my third year of teaching high school English that I realized how powerful media was. I could do concepts, particularly with composition, and kids would get it so much faster.”
Her first stop was learning the craft.
“I decided I should go to film school to learn how to tell her story, my grandmother’s story, and my story.”
The Savannah College of Art and Design was the destination, where she admittedly stood out among the other students.
“I was older,” Henderson recalls. “I wasn’t an undergraduate student. I was a grownup who had had a career, so I took full advantage of what they had to offer.”
She soaked up the knowledge, especially from instructor and film director Annette Heywood Carter.
“Her influence really helped me to embrace my story,” Henderson says. “That my story had value, and I was the only one who could tell it.”
Films like Black Orpheus, Amelie, Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, early Spike Lee and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust all had an impact.
“Anything with movement and loads of beautiful black people,” she says.
In bridge/refrain, Henderson imagines the story we can’t see or know, of what happens to lives cut short.
“A lot of young people left the earth, and went on to some place,” she says. “I needed to imagine some hope for them.”
Instead of walking streets of gold, she thinks of an afterlife that is purposeful.
“So bridge/refrain is about the part of a song that carries you over, that transports you,” Henderson explains. “It’s not the end, but it’s always the best part of the song.”
Where: Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St.
When: Through Feb. 25
More: 803-799-2810, columbiamuseum.org
Screening and talk with Roni Nicole Henderson on Thursday, Feb. 15, at 6 p.m. Tickets cost $5; free for members.