By CASS CLARKE
Those who work in journalism know best that it’s an industry hellbent on destroying itself. In 2019 alone, Business Insider reported that almost 8000 mass media workers were laid off as a result of corporate buyout plans, moving away from local print outlets and “streamlining” manual work with algorithms that made people’s prior workload “redundant.” Netflix, oncer the only streaming service available for film and television, lost nearly 20,000 subscribers within the first fiscal quarter of 2022 – leading them to lay off 300 employees in June. This move happened two months after Netflix shuttered Tudum, its website covering the latest news in movies and television. Tudum specifically courted PoC writers and editors – mostly women of color – only to lay them off within five months of full-time employment. As one writer told NPR, “They went very out of their way to hire high-level journalists of color who have quite a bit of name recognition and a lot of experience and talent… They were just buying clout to lend credibility to their gambit.”
Filmmaker Lu Asfaha dives into the ways in which journalism cannibalizes not just its workforce – often underpaying and overworking them – but also queer Black culture with her short film, FRESH MEAT. Her work is a beautifully brutal statement about the horrors of capitalism and who most often sees the brunt of its impossible labor demands. The timing of Asfaha’s Canadian premiere at 2SLGBTQ+ Film Festival eerily coincided with the latest Netflix layoff, sadly proving that the short film’s central message is more relevant than ever.
In FRESH MEAT, Nia (Malaika Hennie-Hamadi) has just landed a dream job as a journalist – a full-time staff position at Drop Media with her own office, benefits, and byline. However, Genevieve (Michaela May), her boss, warns Nia that most new writers don’t survive the toll the office takes on its new hires. What unfolds is a creepy and harrowing tale about the lengths Drop Media goes to for a good story.
Recently, Asfaha sat down with Rue Morgue to discuss how it felt to speak to viewers who connected to the film. We also explored how she approached marketing her work and where she’d like to take the world and characters of FRESH MEAT next in a feature-length film adaptation of her work.
FRESH MEAT is about how the media appropriates Black queer culture, and it’s told through the lens of a cannibalism story, which is such an apt and chilling metaphor. I would love to hear about how post-premiere your feelings about the connectivity between those two things evolved – especially after seeing other people’s reactions to your short film?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that the concept of the film always resonated with people. I think that almost regardless of what industry you work in, it definitely can feel like your labor is being taken for granted and is being exploited, which is just a result of living in a capitalist system. But I think getting to sit and experience the movie with an audience, and having people come up to me afterward and tell me how much they really related to what I was talking about was really an incredible experience. And it makes me really want to dive deeper into the thematic elements of the story and dive deeper into the metaphor. I think that there’s so much that I really did have to leave out because it’s a short film.
It makes the runtime short and super tense. The choice to leave out explicit gore works really well. It’s haunting because you can imagine a lot more behind the scenes of what’s happening in this world. I’d love to hear your take. From writing and directing it, how did you decide on how much violence to show versus how much to imply?
I’m – personally – not really a huge fan of gore. I think it’s great when it’s used well and when it’s necessary, but I think, maybe, I’m of the opinion that it gets overused. For me, I’m always making sure that anything that we’re doing, we’re not doing just for sensationalism. We’re doing it to make a point. I don’t think that that was really necessary for the short.
I do feel like if I were to dive deeper into a story, I would have to get gory. I would have to show more violence in order to really deep dive deep into it – the connection between capitalist labor and anti-Blackness and appropriation. I think you really would in order to express how violent those things are. You would have to delve deeper into the violence.
I think another consideration that maybe people don’t talk about so much is that we have a budget to work within, and things like violence and gore cost more money. So I think that was definitely also a consideration when making the short.
There’s this lip-smacking sound at the end credits. It gave me such chills! I think that’s a great way of, again, implying some nasty stuff going on behind the scenes. Well done on that one.
Yeah, that’s what’s so great about horror. You can do so much with just an image and a sound. You can really ratchet up the tension and anxiety that the audience is feeling without having to get very violent or very gory because it is that anticipation that something bad is about to happen.
I’m assuming it’s because of the length, but I wanted to ask about the decision to not necessarily have one main villain or boss at Drop Media. It feels more about the nefarious practices of entertainment journalism in general and how there’s a culture of knowing bad things are happening that people turn away from because they can’t find a better or stable job. People put up with things in that environment that they don’t feel great about it. I really appreciated how the film showed this, but I was curious if you ever wanted to have an executive character behind these practices? Or if you wanted to show more of, as you’re saying, the system of capitalism and how it’s collectively not good?
I think, again, it really goes into not being able to do as much in the short as I think I wanted to. One of the things that I wanted to include – which we couldn’t just because of the time – [is] that Genevieve is middle management. She, in the work that I’ve created, amputated her leg in order to get the position that she had. Like, she had to give a part of herself to the company in order to get to her position. And it’s only the top executives who are able to fully reap the benefits without having to make any sacrifices. That’s definitely one of the things that I wasn’t able to delve deeper into in the story. I think there are just so many layers to this metaphor.
Pun intended, it’s a meaty one. It’s very meaty… [Laughs]
If you expanded FRESH MEAT into a feature-length film, would you want to continue Nia’s story? Or would you be more interested in exploring other characters within this world?
I think I would really want to actually dive into other characters in that world. I think that’s what is so interesting – more of Nia’s story too, definitely. As a Black woman, my perspective will always be shaped by that, and that’s definitely the perspective that I approached the story from, so of course, I am very interested in continuing to explore that side of it. But I think there are also so many other aspects to the story that I think are really interesting to explore. I would love to explore the support staff; All of these companies have IT experts and tech support. What’s going on over there? To be perfectly transparent, I actually have written a feature film version of this, but I also think that this could be expanded even further to be a series because it would be so interesting to explore it from all of the different elements of a company.
I love what you’re saying about the IT side of things. Who is sending those emails?
I was curious how your thoughts around mass media’s current landscape influenced how you marketed your short film. How did you approach that? Did your outlook change on it?
Yeah, it definitely did affect how we wanted to approach talking about the film and marketing the film because I think that even as recently as the big Netflix mass layoffs happening, it’s always something that’s very relevant and current – at least since I’ve been working on the story, which has been for about four years.
It always seems to be that there’s something new coming up in the media that directly ties into what FRESH MEAT is about. And so I think that was definitely something we leaned on pretty heavily as far as positioning this film and how to talk about it. I’m not a journalist. I have no background in journalism whatsoever, but it was just such an easy connection to make as far as journalism and media [goes]. It was such an easy connection to make without having to talk about the film [industry], which is such a complicated industry.
I think what’s interesting, actually, is in the various stages of this film, we did a little bit of marketing when we were doing the pre-production in order to raise funding. And then in post-production, we did another marketing push in order to raise more funding. Obviously, we’ve done another marketing push now that the film is going to festivals. Every single time we’ve updated the stories that we’re talking about because there’s always something new in the media that directly ties back to FRESH MEAT. So I think that’s been really interesting. The very first media layoffs that I referenced happened in 2019, but since then, a lot has happened.
Speaking of cannibalizing, they’re buying out all the independent magazines. [Laughs]
Is there anything that you wish people would ask more about when talking about “Fresh Meat,” whether around its production, the creation of it, the release of it, or anything that just brings you joy that you want to share?
I wish people would ask me more about my crew because I had such an amazing group of creatives and artists that I’m able to work with on this project. First of all, my producer Fonna Seidu has been on this project with me since late 2019 [or] early 2020. She has been such a driving force and put so much of herself into this project as well. Ashley Iris Gill, who was our cinematographer and who also is a Back queer woman. Amanda Ann-Min Wong, who is a non-binary filmmaker, had such a huge impact on what our sound design looked like, which is so important for a horror film.
I’m so happy to talk about this film because I love this project, but at the same time, I think people really do get caught up in the writer and the director of the project as being, like, the sole person who has created this … It’s such a collaborative process. I would say even collaborating with the actors, there were times when I felt that they understood their characters better than I did, and they asked such insightful questions about the characters that they’re playing. And I think that is very much true across the board of the cast and crew that I worked with on this project. Let’s give them a little bit more shine.
“That’s what’s so great about horror. You can do so much with just an image and a sound. “