21 Apr 2024

Origin: Ava Duvernay’s thought-provoking new film on caste systems

From Culture 101, 12:30 pm on 21 April 2024

Oscar-nominated US filmmaker Ava Duvernay’s new thought-provoking film Origin is based on the New York Times bestselling book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson.

The film explores Wilkerson’s discovery of connections between the slavery of African American people in the US, India’s caste system and the Holocaust. Wilkerson finds these are all linked not by racism but by the social hierarchy of caste systems. The biographical film recreates Wilkerson’s journey of writing and researching the book. 

Released in 2020, Caste was number one on the New York Times list during the 2020 US election, spending 58 weeks on the list.

Ava DuVernay attends the 96th Annual Academy Awards on March 10, 2024

Ava DuVernay attends the 96th Annual Academy Awards on March 10, 2024 Photo: JC OLIVERA

“I was really impacted by the ideas in the book” says Ava Duvernay known for films such as Selma, 13th, A Wrinkle in Time, and When They See Us.

“I was drawn to the idea there’s this social phenomenon, this anthropological thesis that states that so much of what we experience as human beings is linked through the idea of caste,

“Caste is the way we divide ourselves from one another.”

Speaking to Culture 101's Perlina Lau, Duvernay says all the ways we divide ourselves can be attributed to caste. Policies and procedures are then put around these ideas, allowing some people to accrue power and status, and others not.

“That idea was so propulsive for me and so dynamic for me.” It allowed people to connect around a word that brings us together, rather than tears us apart.”

There is a central theme of grief in the film. 

“During that time; Wilkerson had lost loved ones and the grief and loss coalesced into a powerful narrative.”

Duvernay says whether it’s through death, separation, segregation or dehumanisation, these are all ways in which we lose each other.

“There’s also deep grief when we’re oppressed and that grief has effects on both sides. 

“It’s not always the person who’s being oppressed. There’s also victimisation of people doing it - and they may not even realise it.

Duvernay shot the film in 37 days across three countries - Germany, India and the US.

“I choose the story I want to tell and then I figure out how to tell it. This is a film that was quite expansive in its global reach and production needed to span three continents. 

“We really, as independent filmmakers, have a lot of gumption and gusto and street smarts, as they say.”

The 51-year-old filmmaker, screenwriter and producer didn’t pick up a camera until she was 32. She’s received an Emmy Award, two NAACP Image Awards, BAFTA Film and TV Awards and she’s been nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe.

With her film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, released in 2018, she became the first African-American woman to command a $100 million dollar budget. 

There’s a level of activism in Duvernay’s process, both in front and behind the camera. In 2021, the filmmaker launched Array Crew - a database for Hollywood’s ‘below-the-line’ roles such as cinematographers, gaffers and sound technicians, which bring the vision to life rather than those in the so-called creative team.

Array Crew’s main focus is to elevate women, people of colour and those underrepresented in the film and TV industry. 

“I think in this day and age… It takes more work to exclude than it does to include. To include simply means - I’m going to open this up to anyone who qualifies. 

“To exclude means ‘I’m only going to call the people I know’ and ‘the people who look like me’ - I find it to be more cumbersome.”

Aotearoa singer-songwriter Stan Walker has also written a song - I Am - especially for the film after being contacted by the director. 

Walker spoke to RNZ’s Music 101 earlier in the year about the song as an emotional reaction to watching the film. Walker says his mind and heart were changed by Origin, and it left him feeling more connected to humanity as a whole. 

Origin is in cinemas now in Aotearoa New Zealand.