This month, we spoke to the AFI Alumni behind the short film WE WERE MEANT TO, the first AFI Thesis film to be named an official selection at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in 12 years. A coming-of-age story set in a world where Black men have wings, the film serves as a searing allegory for the constraints placed on marginalized communities when they are prevented from literally and figuratively taking flight. We spoke with director/co-writer Tari Wariebi (AFI Class of 2020), co-writer Christina Kingsleigh Licud (AFI Class of 2019), producer Jordan Tyner (AFI Class of 2020), cinematographer Veronica Bouza (AFI Class of 2020), production designer Rhea Solanki (AFI Class of 2020) and editor Luodawei Xiao (AFI Class of 2020) about the original inspiration for the film, what they learned from collaborating together and what they hope audiences take away from it in Park City and beyond.
AFI: What does it mean to you to have WE WERE MEANT TO premiere at Sundance this year?
Tari: Firstly, WOW, that was my feeling for about a week. Learning that we were premiering at Sundance was a bit of a surprise considering the length of our film. Historically, with a film over 20 minutes, you never know. But I think, as a team, we worked really hard and made something truly special and fresh. We believed everything was possible with this film, so the Sundance premiere, although surprising, feels appropriate.
Christina: On top of that, being the first AFI thesis film to premiere there in over a decade, I feel blessed. I feel incredibly proud of our team. When Tari and I first met, we bonded over being from similar places, and I’m so proud and honored to show a piece of where we’re from, and the communities that helped raise us, with this film.
Veronica: We formed our thesis team in 2019, and it’s been a rollercoaster of a journey completing the project. The process of our thesis has been a lesson in persistence. With COVID, we were shut down multiple times and refused to settle. With the extended time between starting and finishing, everyone on this team continued to push in their individual craft.
Luodawei: It is an honor to represent our thesis program at Sundance because AFI has been a life-changing experience for me. I’m excited for people to see this story.
Rhea: It’s almost surreal to see the finished film, and the premiere at Sundance was more great news. This film is created with the youth of today in mind and the message of breaking societal barriers. This message means a lot to me personally, especially being exposed to these issues growing up in India.
Jordan: It feels like the sky is the limit for getting this film, and more stories we want to tell, out in the world.
AFI: What led you to pursue a career in filmmaking and what made you first fall in love with it as an art form?
Tari: What ultimately led me to pursue writing/directing as a career was when I finally met someone who looked like me, came from where I came from, and had success and a legitimate career in the industry. That made it feel super tangible and not a pipe dream.
Christina: As a kid, I always wanted to write, but I also grew up without money, so for most of my life, I believed that being a writer, or really any kind of artist, was reserved for those with means. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City and met people from everywhere, from all kinds of backgrounds, pursuing what they wanted to do, that my perspective shifted.
Veronica My relationship with art has been more of a slow burn. Through years of trial and error, my curiosity about cinematography became more of a love.
Luodawei: I just love the editing process. I get to make cool stuff that is not necessarily related to my own cultural background. I learn so much about people, life, culture and art. Also, I’m a shut-in gamer, so it fits my temperament.
Jordan: Going into undergrad, I knew I wanted to be involved in the media business. At the time, I didn’t know what a producer’s role was, but my passion was to be in a position where I could work on the business side of media to help oversee, shepherd and protect the type of stories I wanted to see in the world.
Rhea: My first love will always be storytelling. Form, shape, perspective, color, light and their interplay interests and excites me. Production design is the perfect mixture of storytelling, combined with art and technology. I enjoy experimenting with new technologies like Meta and Blockchain and leveraging them to relate to today’s youth, while using existing techniques to tell impactful stories.
AFI: What was your original inspiration for WE WERE MEANT TO, and what do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Tari: West African culture is filled with folklore and allegory. I can think back to bedtime stories that my grandma would tell me when I had trouble falling asleep, littered with allegories so consciously and unconsciously I was pulling from there. My hope is simple: that audiences enjoy it and that they feel like it was worth their time, and they feel wrapped up in the message and meaning of the film long after it is done.
Christina: We want audiences to enjoy the film and have fun, but at the same time, WE WERE MEANT TO is a metaphor for police brutality, and it’s my hope that audiences leave the theater with hearts that are softer to this issue. I hope seeing our film moves people to find a way to support this movement, or at the very least, plants a seed for change.
Jordan: Although the focus is on black men in the film, I believe the message is universal in saying that you are enough. What we want the audience to know is that – whatever you hope for, or think is possible within yourself – the will to get there is within you and not dependent on what others believe.
Rhea: The story is about breaking through systemic oppression and finding your inner power to pursue your wildest dreams. I believe we have ultimately created a film that is both empowering and thought-provoking.
AFI: What did you learn about collaboration by working together while making your AFI thesis film?
Tari: If you’re lucky, you get to make things with your friends. If you are truly blessed, your friends are equally as talented as you or better, and that thing you’re creating reaps the benefits of that. I feel blessed. Through these collaborations, I’ve learned that if you have people working with you who share a similar motor and drive to get better, push boundaries and never quit, you don’t need much else.
Christina: I remember having in-depth brainstorming sessions about what the wings looked like, how they would function and whether they would be practicals or VFX, or some combination of the two – and that was just one aspect of the script.
Veronica: Trust the process. We all leaned on each other to push this film forward. Every problem, whether it was financial, simply running out of time, or not having complete wings, I knew we would figure out a solution as a team.
Luodawei: I learned to communicate and try to stay on top of things so that others will trust you and rely on you. Honesty should always be at the forefront. Without honesty, openness and understanding, the creative process does not function well and the work ultimately suffers.
Rhea: Agreed – communication is key and it’s really important to have trust, transparency and just be able to enjoy working together. All of us had worked together before in different capacities, so it really was just getting into that rhythm again.
Jordan: I realized how important it is to align our entire team with the story we’re trying to tell together. I believe creating a space so each of my collaborators could feel like their opinion is valued and necessary. As a result, everyone willingly did much more than expected. I think this aspect of our collaboration was crucial for helping the perseverance of our team and us all to remain committed to making this project happen after multiple shutdowns and filming during the pandemic.
AFI: What were your greatest challenges and rewards of filming WE WERE MEANT TO?
Christina: I think the biggest challenge in writing this script, and writing in general, is making sure that you are being true to the story and to the characters. Your characters will tell you what’s happening and what needs to happen if you listen to them, and if you have delved deep enough into them, then you know who they are.
Rhea: A big challenge we faced was in envisioning and creating the wings themselves. I actually created prototypes using arm bands, feathers, hot glue and paint before we had them built by a vendor in order to see how they would live in the world and how it would affect how the actors moved and their interactions. In the course of six days, we shot 14 different sets. One of the trickiest things we did was using the same location as both Akil’s bedroom and his parent’s bedroom. We only had it for three days, which was a very quick turnover, so the entire art department had to be creative and innovative and work super fast.
Veronica: On a technical level, I think some of my more formidable challenges were shooting two cameras in very tight spaces, lighting our rooftop scene and having to shot list our ending on the fly. All and all, shooting WE WERE MEANT TO was an absolute high. The biggest reward was in seeing everyone’s faces at the monitor as it came together.
Luodawei: As storytellers, authenticity is something we arrive at, not a clear goal post we can see ahead of us. When you try 10 different songs for one spot and none of them work, keep trying. There is so shortcut except patience, perseverance and positivity throughout the whole process.
Jordan: The most significant challenge was ensuring our limited budget didn’t constrict the story we wanted to tell. The greatest reward is knowing that the script we signed off on three years ago is essentially the same film that premiered at Sundance.
Tari: Every challenge in this film bore the biggest reward if we could pull it off, from designing and conceptualizing the wings, to all the 150 plus VFX shots. Thank you Encore VFX and our VFX supervisor Markus White! Every time we got something to work or actualized something, that win snowballed into another win and then another win, and the idea of making this film felt that much more feasible each day.