The director of a film drawn from a viral Twitter thread hopes to show a different way to those who feel they can’t get their voices heard.
Janicza Bravo’s Zola is about an exotic dancer on a wild road trip to Florida. It is based on a string of 148 tweets written in 2015 by A’Ziah King, also known as Zola, which were re-tweeted by stars including Ava DuVernay, Solange Knowles and Missy Elliott.
The thread details a two-day trip that was intended to make some quick cash at Tampa strip clubs, but ended up taking a dark turn involving guns, violence and sex trafficking.
The film stars Taylour Paige as Zola and Riley Keogh as the stripper who lures her on the trip. It uses the whistle sound of the Twitter platform, which plays when a tweet is posted, to denote a piece of dialogue taken directly from the thread. Text messages are recreated as direct monologues into the camera.
Bravo, who co-wrote the screenplay with playwright Jeremy O Harris, said it was important to include nods to film’s digital origins.
She told the PA news agency: “I knew that there had to be these digital gestures.
“Before Jeremy and I were working on it together, in my original pitch, I said something to the effect of ‘If I have to look at a person read their phone and text on their phone, and if we have to put text on the screen, I’m going to f***ing hang myself,’ I believe I said something to that effect.
“Plenty of work does that, and I totally understand the limitations of that and the parameters of that. It’s just how you’ve seen that so many times now.”
She added: “The theatre kid in me thought, ‘Why don’t we just treat them like asides?’
“When we watch Hamlet, there is a roomful of people and he’s having an aside and no one hears it, right, so you can do that with lighting, you can do that with music, and I was just like, let’s just do it here. Why not?”
Addressing the use of Twitter’s sounds, she said: “I think now we’ve turned our phones off, but if you go back four, five, six years ago, just being out in the world, someone’s phone would be dinging, and everyone went for their phone.
“It was almost Pavlovian, but these sounds have been introduced and you know what it is, you know that whistle.
“When people first had Twitter, I knew that whistle. And so I kind of wanted to call back to these threads that have been introduced into our world and we’re not even all the way aware of them.
“But seeing them inside the film reminded people that they’re here.”
The film has called the first movie based on a Twitter thread. Bravo is reluctant to repeat that claim for fear a lesser-known project might already hold the title, but she hopes that her movie will inspire other people like Zola.
She said a film based on a Twitter thread “feels fitting with the time”, and thinks her film “is speaking to this hunger for finding stories on a multitude of platforms.
“The story isn’t just in the novel, and I think that’s really exciting. If it’s really juicy, why not?”
She hoped that her film would open “doors or passageways” for “the next person who tells the story on Twitter or Tumblr or Instagram…”
“Because if you are interested in working in film and theatre, it can feel very closed and it can feel really hard to break in.
“It can feel super hard to break in if you don’t already have money, if you don’t already have some access point.”
Zola is out now in UK cinemas.