Maya Cozier Talks Art, Film, and Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling

Some of you might know the name Maya Cozier from her days as a dancer, some may recognize the name from the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, while others might remember her stint onstage competing for Miss World Trinidad and Tobago 2018. In any case, whatever capacity you know Maya in, you know she’s not a name to be forgotten. And if by some chance you haven’t heard the name Maya Cozier before today, then prepare to fall in love with her charm, beauty, and of course, raw talent – just like we did.

Raised by two artists, Christopher Cozier and Irenee Shaw, in the back of St. Ann’s, it was almost natural that Maya became an artist herself. As an arts student at Holy Name Convent, she won an Open Scholarship for Visual Arts in 2012, and planned to pursue a degree in Fine Arts at Parsons School of Design in New York. But at the last minute, she realized that Parsons didn’t have a film program, and she decided to apply to the School of Visual Arts.

“I knew I wanted to go to art school, I just didn’t know which medium I’d fit into.” she added. “I got a scholarship to Parsons, and when I realized they didn’t have a film program, I made this very whimsical decision, which I tend to do, and enrolled at SVA for film.”

It certainly wasn’t a move that was anticipated by Maya – in fact, she never studied film before making the jump, instead focusing on the traditional mediums like painting, drawing and sculpture-work. But Maya says starring in Nicki Minaj’s music video for ‘Pound the Alarm’ in July 2012 was the reason for the switch.

“I was in Nicki Minaj’s video, and they brought in a crew from the States, and I think that was the first time I saw an international film crew,” she explained. “I was on the street, right behind Nicki in my carnival costume, and I was very fascinated by what they were doing, and realized then it was something that I was really curious about.”

They say curiosity killed the cat, but in Maya’s case, it created a new life: it birthed Maya Cozier, the filmmaker. But much like a newborn, Maya was entering the visual arts world – a competitive one at that – with little to no experience.

“I was starting from scratch,” Maya said. “A lot of students in those programs had done film before, in high school, but the only background I’d had was painting.”

Determined as ever to prove her worth and make her mark, she set out to create her first film – and met up with her best friend Shan who was touring with the Universoul circus. She took a bus to Philadelphia and shot her using her (non-professional) camera, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“It got into the T&T Film Festival, so that was kind of like my first film,” she added. “And from there, I just kept making films.”

But for Maya, it almost felt natural. Despite not having the experience in the medium, she felt like the art of filmmaking drew on all of her different strengths – be in in fine arts, modelling or dancing. It allowed her to create her own version of storytelling, and her culture and background only helped. For Maya, she was ready to tell her story – and being a woman is a massive part of that.

“For women, there’s this culture that you should be in front of the camera, and I felt it even when I was in film school,” she said, explaining that she’d sometimes be one of the only women in some of her classes; film tends to be a male-dominated field.

“I think generally women have a lot of stories to tell, and we have a very strong perspective. I’d like to see a push for more women to take on positions behind the camera, instead of just for them to be in front of it.”

As not only a woman, but a woman of colour, and of Caribbean heritage, Maya felt more compelled than ever to share her stories, and from there, her filmmaking career really began.

When I refer to Maya as a filmmaker, I almost feel like I’m doing her a disservice. She is much more than the hands behind a camera. She’s the brains. She’s the creator of the path. She’s the author of the plot. Maya is not just a filmmaker, or a director, or a producer. Maya is a storyteller. And like many other storytellers before her, she felt the responsibility to pay homage to her home: the Caribbean.

And it was missing the Caribbean that really paved the way for Maya’s first directorial debut: a short feature film called Short Drop. After staying for a summer in New York by herself, and missing home particularly more than ever, she channeled her isolation into creativity, spending the time writing the script that would turn into the short film. It was for her senior thesis, her final ‘test’ to pass before graduating into the real world as an artist, and naturally, the characters that began to take shape had similarities to people she’d meet at home.

“I was just pulling from a lot of my experiences growing up, and I started to think about home, and I missed it, so a lot of the characters are very similar to people in my life or that I’m very close to,” she explained, of the process of writing Short Drop.

“I do feel that responsibility to tell Caribbean stories, but it doesn’t feel like a burden. Because the stories that I do want to tell, the stories that I’m close to, they’re here.”

But although writing Short Drop felt really natural, it wouldn’t transfer onto film just as easily. In fact, after she finished writing the script for the film, she’d shown her thesis professor, who loved it, but even he told her how difficult it would be to shoot and portray effectively.

“I wrote it from this very instinctive place, without thinking about the practicality of how we’re actually going to make it,” she added. “Even the people who were mentoring me knew that it was a difficult script, and that I’d have a lot of production challenges – which of course I didn’t know, because at the time I only had so much experience as a film student.”

And they weren’t lying: the film faced issue after issue during production. Whether it was problems with the car battery or the car stalling, getting equipment into Paramin (where they shot the film) at night, getting through long hours with the actors and actresses, or just figuring out how to capture the essence of the film, so many things went wrong, but it was all for the best.

“When I got back up to New York with the footage, I was just in a daze. Even when I looked at the footage, there was still issues, and that’s why editing is so powerful,” Maya said. “It was such a chaotic experience. My editor and I worked on it every day for two months, and it just came together really nicely.”

And that it did. In fact, the film went on to showcase at the T&T Film Festival, and was awarded the best short film at the TTFW, as well as the Best Caribbean film in Curacao, which automatically includes the film in international film festival, the Rotterdam Film Festival, in January 2019. But the biggest prize that Maya could have taken from Short Drop is all of the lessons she learned throughout it all.

“There’s a lot that I learned from that experience. There’s a lot that I would do differently. There’s a lot of things that I see wrong when I look back,” she explained. “But it spoke to a lot of people, and regardless of the technicalities of it, I think the point of a film is to make people walk away having felt something, and I think we managed to accomplish that with Short Drop.”

And so, with one successful film, a variety of other directorial work, and a degree from a top school in her hands, Maya is confident that she’s ready to tackle her newest challenge: a film called She Paradise, about a young girl who meets a group of Soca backup dancers. Written with Melina Brown, they actually wrote a full-length feature script, and realized that they would need some sort of pitch. Maya scaled the script down to around ten minutes, to create a short film and proof of concept to get the feature made.

“We wrapped production on the pitch in June, and that was a lot smoother than Short Drop,” she added. “I think I learned all my lessons, and it went really smoothly, along with a really strong crew.”

But before they can showcase it, post-production needs to be done: and so, Maya turned to fundraising site Indiegogo to create a campaign. With $10,000USD to be raised, fans and film-lovers alike can pledge as little or as much as they want to help the film get finished.

With support from the Caribbean and the diaspora, She Paradise finally reached its goal, and Maya is ready to create the newest Caribbean masterpiece. With her love for dance, and her love of film, She Paradise is Maya’s story to tell – and with her heart and soul in her work, it’s no doubt that it’ll be a success.

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