Storytelling is a process that involves unpacking the truth: peeling back layers and revealing, no matter how unsavory or uncomfortable, the raw and authentic parts of our humanity that are often sequestered in corners or shoved into closets. With her breathtaking short film, Lalo’s House, filmmaker Kelley Kali — a University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts graduate student who is the first Black woman to win the Student Academy Award for a fiction piece —exposes the heartbreaking issue of child sex trafficking.

Lalo’s House follows two Haitian girls,14-year-old Manouchka (Jasmin Jean-Louis) and her 5-year-old sister, Phara (Kyra Rose), who are kidnapped off the streets of Jacmel, Haiti and forced into an underground prostitution network which operates as a Catholic boarding school. Desperate to free her sister and herself, Manou hatches a dangerous plan to escape and find a path back home.

Ahead of the 91st Annual Academy Awards nominations which Lalo’s House is now eligible for, Shadow and Act sat down with Kali to chat about making Lalo’s House, her journey into filmmaking, and why it’s so critical for Black women to have a say in our art.

Kelley Kali and Jasmin Jean-Louis | Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kelley Kali
Kelley Kali and Jasmin Jean-Louis | Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kelley Kali

“I was in Haiti before the earthquake in 2010,” Kali remembered. “I was studying children’s rights and living conditions with my anthropology background. Then the earthquake happened, and I went back to help. While I was there, I caught wind of this ‘Catholic’ orphanage, where the nun was allegedly allowing foreign men to come in and [sexually assault] the children. As I started to investigate that over the years, I found that she was more like a mafia queen. People in the village that I interviewed were absolutely petrified of her. They said that she’s killed people who’ve interfered with her business before.”

Those initial interviews and that research eventually became the basis for Lalo’s House. “Lalo was pretty much the Haitian version of the boogeyman,” she explained. “She’s a woman who eats kids. I was like, ‘My gosh; this is a perfect metaphor for that nun that I’d been investigating.’ She is, in essence, consuming the innocence of these little girls through child sex trafficking.”

Kali had only one choice in mind when it came time to casting Sister Francine —Haitian-born actress Garcelle Beauvais. “I knew I wanted Garcelle,” the Howard University alum emphasized. “I knew it. People were really surprised because she doesn’t typically play this type of character. However, people who do these types of crimes are usually very charismatic. It took some time for me to get in touch with her, but eventually, we had lunch, and I gave her the pitch deck and the script. She called me just a day or two later. She’d shown the script to her producing partner Lisa L. Wilson because they have a production company called Beauvais Wilson Productions. She said, ‘Not only do I want to act in this, me and my partner, Lisa, want to executive produce this, and make sure that we have the resources you need to do it the right way.’ She got Jamie Foxx involved, and he donated $25,000 to our short, which helped pay for the flights, and the food and the housing for everyone to go. All we needed to do was to fundraise the difference for the expenses of the film. Garcelle and Lisa and Jaimie Foxx were the ones who really helped breathe life into this project that I’d been working on for almost ten years.”

Garcelle Beauvais | Photo Credit: Lalo's House
Garcelle Beauvais | Photo Credit: Lalo’s House

Though Kali wants to make it clear that child sex trafficking happens globally, she chose to set her story in Haiti — specifically Jacmel, a stunning blue watered beach town for a specific reason. “Jacmel is my favorite city in Haiti,” she explained. “Coincidentally, the only film school that’s in Haiti is located in Jacmel. It’s called the Ciné Institute. They helped us while we were on the ground there because we shot half of Lalo’s House in Haiti, and then the other half we shot in Los Angeles. We had to be very careful about what elements of child trafficking we shot in Haiti. The word getting out was quite dangerous because the nun’s still out there. I found it very, very important to depict Haiti and show Haiti for its beauty, because as you know, often times when we do see Haiti, it’s only shown its poverty –its suffering. There is a beautiful side to Haiti that I think is the true Haiti.”

Jasmin Jean-Louis and Kyra Rose | Photo Credit: Lalo's House
Jasmin Jean-Louis and Kyra Rose | Photo Credit: Lalo’s House

Due to the subject matter, there are some very difficult scenes in Lalo’s House, including a rape sequence. In the film, Manou witnesses another girl, Islande, being raped in the orphanage. Lali was careful about making the scene tactful while being mindful of its graphic nature. “It was such a hard day emotionally on set,” she recalled. “We had a closed set, so only people who needed to be there were allowed to be there. The actress, Julyza Commodore why plays Islande was 19. However, she’s still a young woman, and it’s still a very uncomfortable scene. Then our actor, Scott Young, he was so understanding and communicative. We had a stunt coordinator on set with us to make sure that the actors were comfortable, and everything was done properly, and that we had safety words. These actors were so committed to this that they wanted to make it as uncomfortable and real as possible, and they just went for it.”

Though Jasmin’s character Manou witnesses the assault in the film, the young actress was actually only speaking with Lali when the film was being shot. “We were very, very protective of our kids,” the USC alum explained. “She wasn’t on set that day. We filmed her looking through the door another day. I was on the other side of the door, talking to her about the things that bothered her, her fears, society, and the things she’s questioning as a young Black woman. She gave me consent to bring those things up whenever I needed to for the film.”

With the Student Oscar in hand — which has been won by greats like Spike Lee and Rober Zemeckis, Kali has the world at her fingertips. The writer, producer, and director recently signed with Creative Artists Agency, and she’s hoping to break ground on a feature-length version of Lalo’s House at some point. “There are a lot of other projects that I’m interested in,” she said wistfully. “I think if you were to describe my interest, it’s not genre based, per se. It’s more about the message. I want to do stories that have positive social change. I won a pitch with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s company, New Form Digital for a fantasy project. They likened it to an American version of Harry Potter with a little Black girl in the South in Louisiana.” It’s a project inspired by Lali’s medicine man grandfather who was born in the South in 1897.

For now, Kali is determined to push her art and Black art as a collective forward. “It’s important for us to know that we have a lot of impact on everyone who chooses to spend the time with us and our art, and giving us their time in watching it,” she explained. “We need to do, in my opinion, the due diligence of leaving them with something that will help them grow as a person.”

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Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide