As the 2022 Sundance Film Festival draws to a close on Sunday, Jan. 30, independent filmmaker Tyrone Cooper is left with a sense of what could’ve been.
“We were supposed to have been on tour on Jan. 23 in Park City, Utah,” he explains. While the Charlottesville-based director’s newest film, “Amanda,” was not in competition at the Sundance Festival, the screening would’ve served as a chance for the film to be shared amongst a host of industry talent. But due to rising COVID cases and a host of logistical obstacles, Sundance shifted toward virtual screenings, leaving Cooper and his tour searching for a venue.
The last-minute cancellation feels appropriate for a film originally set in Brooklyn that rerouted production to Richmond last February amidst New York’s widespread COVID concerns. “It was cumbersome to find places for filming during [the pandemic],” Cooper says. “There were parameters I really didn’t want to break.”
Now Cooper and his film are returning to Richmond for their debut, once again displaying an ability to react on the fly and use the city as a safe haven from global concerns. As an event promoter, DVD distributor, playwright and filmmaker, Cooper is more than familiar with how to adapt to his circumstances.
His new film tells the story of a struggling artist as she copes with her mother’s death and comes to terms with her own feelings of isolation and mortality. “Amanda,” starring Paige Rion and David Straughn, features an ensemble of performers from across Virginia and captures several Richmond locales as spaces for community and empathy, lifting the lonely souls of those who call the city home.
Despite the term “independent film” being so often misused to apply to any non-blockbuster product, in the case of “Amanda,” the description is apt. Serving as writer, director, producer and co-financier on the film, Cooper has willed his personal exploration of art and trauma from nothing into reality.
“I tried to spill pieces of me and put it into the film,” Cooper says. “I deal with my trauma through my filmmaking and writing.”
The release of “Amanda” marks the culmination of a 14-year development process for the filmmaker. Originally written as an ensemble piece, Cooper’s film is a reflection of an artist contemplating her relationship with life, cancer, and how easily everything can be taken away. “We can all identify with trauma,” he says. “We’ll always have someone who’s going to pass away. Life is life. Death is death.”
Cooper’s choice of artistic therapy comes at a precarious time in the history of independent filmmaking. Technological advances have made it easier than ever to get a film made, but COVID-related restrictions have caused unforeseen challenges to directors with strained schedules and budgets.
“It was expensive,” Cooper recalls. “Independent filmmakers don’t pay to put their actors in hotels, but I did. I paid for the crew, actors, I put everybody in a bubble. I wanted everyone to feel safe.”
COVID realities also caused Cooper to reevaluate his film’s setting, finding more similarities between Richmond and New York than one might think. For Cooper, the change highlighted a trend, as his story covers individuals looking for a sense of belonging in a changing, gentrifying city.
“You have these buildings, these communities in South Richmond that are becoming more gentrified,” says Cooper. “I was able to keep that story intact and still be in Richmond.”
But while identifying the city’s shortcomings, “Amanda” also lovingly portrays the streets and storefronts where its titular character is able to cultivate a surrogate family of friends, artists and eccentrics. After 14 years of writing, re-writing, organizing, and directing, Cooper can return to Richmond with a finished product extolling the virtues of kindness and connection.
“That’s what I want people to take away from ‘Amanda,’” Cooper says. “You never know what people are going through, and the fact is, you don’t have to know. But it takes no effort to give a kind word.”
“Amanda” will be screening at MovieLand at Boulevard Square on Saturday, Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. The 45-minute screening will be followed by a 45-minute panel discussion moderated by Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office. To purchase tickets visit https://amandathefilmrvafeb5.eventbrite.com.