The film is a highly personal project for both women. Rees originally wrote Pariah as a feature length, semi-autobiographical piece and based a great deal of Alike's experiences on her own. "Pariah is definitely very personal for me," Rees said.
She explained: "When I was growing up, I felt like I was never really comfortable being myself. I've only recently come into and accepted my sexual identity, and when I first moved to New York, it blew my mind that there were these out and proud teenage women who not only knew who they were, but weren't afraid to be themselves. I didn't even know who I was in that sense as a teenager, and I asked myself whether even if I did know back then, would I have had the courage to be who I was? The answer was no."
Cooper had a similar connection. "Alike's struggle was and is definitely my struggle, and the struggle of many lesbians," she said. "I wore many masks for a long time — I was one way with my family, one way with my straight white friends, and another way with my straight black friends. It took me a long time to become comfortable with me — with my spirit and all of the good and bad that encompassed it."
In fact, some of Alike's experiences are still all too familiar to the filmmakers. In terms of dealing with a lack of acceptance within her own family, Rees said, "[It's] something I'm struggling with now, and something that's going to be a long-term fight for me."
Cooper agreed. "Yeah, it's funny, but not funny — our parents haven't seen the film yet, so that kind of will tell you. My family was more accepting, but it's still going to take some time. I'm going to have to sit down with them and sort of preface the film before we watch it together."
Cooper grew up as a military brat, constantly moving from town to town. She credits her father's military influence as one of the biggest factors in shaping her savvy business sense and ability to manage a crisis — talents that came in handy during Pariah's production.
Rees grew up in rural Tennessee, reading Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Gloria Naylor, Nikki Giovanni, Zora Neale Hurston and "pretty much any of the writers that were part of the womanist movement and the Harlem renaissance."
Living and working together in a creative medium hasn't always been easy, but Cooper and Rees have found a balance that works for them. "I think both of us, coming out of the business world, out of corporate America, we pretty much have a good sense of trying to set boundaries," said Cooper. "I mean, not that it isn't a struggle sometimes — especially when we were in preproduction and shooting — it was kind of difficult to take time just for us and the relationship."
That's all changed now that Cooper has left the corporate world for good, and they have both made the jump to the West Coast to pursue their future projects together. "I finally said, 'When are we going to have an opportunity for me to sort of jump?'" Cooper recalled. "So this is it: I'm here — hopefully for the long haul."
Pariah was originally intended to be a feature film, and in fact, the full-length script was written even before the short was made. Rees and Cooper are currently working on making the feature-length Pariah a reality, with Rees finishing up rewrites on the screenplay and Cooper gearing up for the Independent Feature Project market in September.
"Nekisa is banging out the final board and budget," Rees said, "and we plan to be done in time for the IFP market this September so that we'll have a complete package and hopefully attract some funders. We've had a lot of industry interest so far and look forward to moving forward soon." She added, "We'd love to shoot this next spring or summer."
Additionally, they are currently working on finishing up their feature documentary Eventual Salvation, based on the experiences of Rees' grandmother. "My grandmother is a Louisiana native and was born during the Depression," Rees explained. "She got fed up with all the racism and Jim Crowism here in the United States and decided to move her family to Monrovia, Liberia, in the 1950s.
"She lived there for almost 40 years, and remained through much of the civil war until her name turned up on a death list and she was forced to return to the States. In the winter of 2005, with the war finally over and the election of Africa's first female president, Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, she returned to Liberia to rebuild her home and her community, and Eventual Salvation is the story of that journey."
Cooper added: "It is the Africa you haven't seen in the media — images of hope instead of images of despair. Dee, Bradford Young and I are extremely excited to bring these images to the world."
Right now, the filmmakers are raising funds to complete the film. "We've been working over the last couple of years to get funding to finish it, basically," Cooper said. "In terms of timing, we're looking to finish it by the end of third quarter this year, and looking to hopefully get it into the festival circuit starting in January."
What with getting a feature-length Pariah off the ground and finishing up a multi-year shoot with Eventual Salvation, the filmmakers have their plates full at the moment. But Pariah's success hasn't left them blind to the whims of the business.
"This industry is just so fickle," said Cooper ruefully. "You can be hot one day and not the next. But from our perspective, we don't really try to focus on that. We try to focus on telling these stories in the best way that we can."
For more on Pariah, visit the film's official website