Oniffe White, a student in Fordham’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies, wrote and directed “Echoes of a Winter Sunshine,” his first narrative film, about a pair of homeless siblings who struggle to survive in Harlem, New York. It began airing on the streaming platform on June 8.
The movie scenes are almost all nonverbal. The main characters—16-year-old Ashwood and 10-year-old Leon—never speak. But White’s film, which began as a final project for a Fordham film class in the fall of 2018, attracted the attention of Welcome Table Press, a nonprofit media group based in Washington, D.C., that recently awarded him its Discovery Award.
The 14-minute film, created by his production company Abeng Studios, is also currently being considered for several film festivals, including the New York Film Festival, he said.
“Visual storytelling allows you to feel,” said White, a communications senior who will resume his studies this fall. (He took last semester off to finish his short film.) “My thing is to try to allow people to feel the experiences that individuals are going through so they can now help enact change.”
Your film is titled “Echoes of a Winter Sunshine.” What does that mean?
I thought, what’s it like being a black person in America? I remember Malcolm X telling a story about when he was young. He lived in a youth detention home with white folks. He remembered the owner looking out the window one day, and he was like, I don’t know what’s up with these n——. They don’t have anything in the world, but they’re so damn happy.
When you look at Harlem and other black neighborhoods, there’s always that dark winter within that experience of blackness in America. But you always find the happiness. You find culture like hip-hop, dance. Think about the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. That’s the winter sunshine. But then the problem is that things were supposed to get better. If you look at these kids [in the film], they’re echoes of that winter sunshine.
Before 16-year-old Ashwood and her brother fall asleep outside a building, she slips a razor blade over her tongue. What does that scene signify?
For the audience, it adds tension. For the character, it’s fundamental protection of herself and her brother. What else is she going to use as a 16-year-old? Now the idea for that scene, I knew about the razor blades as a kid [in America]. But I was watching an interview between Jimmy Kimmel and Cardi B, and she was talking about having to walk around and have a razor blade in her mouth [for safety], and he just couldn’t believe it. When I was writing the film script, that interview just popped in my mind. I went, yeah. Ashwood would definitely do that to protect herself because that’s someone’s reality in the streets.
You’ve been living in Harlem for almost four years. What is your relationship with the residents who are experiencing homelessness?
I have this one homeless friend. Anytime you’d give him a dollar or two, he’d stop and say, “Hold this bill.” The two of us hold it, one end and the other. He does a prayer out loud: “Dear God, thank you for this man, because he didn’t have to do this. I truly appreciate it. Watch over him. Protect him, guide him, and don’t let anybody f— with him.” Each day, I make sure I have like five dollars. I don’t care if I’m being hustled or not. It doesn’t matter, because one out of five of them need that dollar.
What was the most emotional part of the filmmaking process for you?
I called my sister and read the script out loud to her. I could hear her crying on the phone. I was just like, oh, OK, I have something here. Someone is actually feeling the emotions that I intended them to feel.
What does it mean to be a male, black filmmaker in America?
I can take a plot—the most general one you can possibly find in a story—but add characters that no one’s seen, and tell a story about those experiences. I can show the world stories about people that they don’t know about or themes that they didn’t think they knew about or understand, and give them something they weren’t aware of.
You were born in Jamaica and moved to Long Island when you were 10 years old. What was that like?
When I moved to America in 1989 or 1990, I lived in Levittown, an all-white town. Let’s just say the racism informs you that you are no longer a child. You’re an adult. I’ll give you an example. I was 10, and I just came back from the arcade. I was walking along this street, and there was this yellow station wagon with wood paneling on the side. This big white guy with a mustache, red-faced, rolled down the window, stuck his head out—he’s got his little daughter with him—and yelled, “N—–!” Then he wound up his window and drove off. I’m from Jamaica. We don’t know this word. It just didn’t … process in my head at the time. But I could feel the venom coming off of him.
How did your dream of being a filmmaker begin?
Some people grow up with books or video games. My world was movies. My father would go to a video store and rent movies. We always had stacks and stacks of movies to watch. He was also a wedding photographer for the big hotels, like Sandals [Resorts]. When I was 12 or 13, I would sometimes go with him and help set up lighting and all those things.
Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?
Hopefully, my studio is bigger, I have more short films under my belt, and I have at least two to three full-length, 90-minute films. The next subject I’m trying to tackle is immigration and identity.
How has Fordham helped you become a better filmmaker?
Fordham has afforded me the ability to write stories. I can go to YouTube and learn the technical aspects of things. The technical stuff is easy. But how to make a movie … how to tell a story, how to get those emotions across, how to harness that ability? Fordham [taught me].
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Video by White’s production assistant Leeanna Hariprashad, FCLC ’21