Arts·Q&A

Let's talk about sex...and demonic possession. Debtera is a web series about the 'worst STI ever'

Inspired by Crazyhead and the creator's East-African culture, this dark comedy is trying to get off the ground.

Inspired by Crazyhead and the creator's East-African culture, this dark comedy is trying to get off the ground

Scene from Debtera. (Debtera)

Last week, I put together a list of the must-see web series being made by Canadian women— but while researching the story, I was dismayed to discover there's a dearth of scripted series made by, or about, Black Canadian women.

You'll find a few examples online. There's Black Actresses by Degrassi alum Andrea Lewis, but new episodes haven't been posted for years. Meanwhile, author and sexologist Shannon Boodram makes hugely popular videos — everything from roundtable talks to dance lessons.

However, when it comes to scripted comedy and drama, the interweb is disturbingly devoid of content created by Black Canadian women, a familiar pattern in the legacy of Canadian media regardless of the platform.

That said, while I was working on last week's column, I did stumble on several projects in development: Mo' Love, a roommate comedy by Glace Lawrence; Virgins!, a series about dating and relationships by Aden Abebe.

And then there's Debtera, a supernatural comedy that I had to learn more about.

Created by Toronto filmmaker Lu Asfaha, it tells the story of a young woman who contracts a pretty nightmarish STI from her new boyfriend: demon possession. The project is in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign so they can get the series made.

Asfaha and I spoke earlier this week over email.

Watch a sneak peek of the series:

How did you come up with the idea of demon possession as an STI?

Well, for one, I come from the Eritrean community which believes in demon possession. The possibility that the devil can sneak inside you was always present and I grew up hearing stories attributed to dark magic.

There's also a lot of shame and secrecy around sex and sexuality in the community. Especially as women there's pressure to be the good Eritrean girl, and that strict mould includes not engaging in any sexual activity before marriage. Even just dating is taboo and a lot of girls go to extreme lengths to keep their dating lives a secret.

I'd also been wanting to explore the complexity of consent in my writing, and mixing sex and demons seemed like a great way to do that.

More than just STIs, magic serves as a metaphor for sex in the series. When the idea came to me, it was really born out of things that were already part of me.

Lu Asfaha (left) on the set of Debtera. (Riya Jama)

Let's talk about the title. Tell me about the significance of calling your series Debtera.

When I was developing the series, it had a pretty generic working title: Cursed. I racked my brain for months to come up with something that really captured the series, and a fellow writer suggested I use a Tigrinya word since the series is influenced by Tigrinya culture. I considered words for witch and disease but it wasn't until my dad told me about the history of the word "debtera" that I knew I had the right title.

In the community, [a] debtera is someone who knows all about the church, its customs and practices, and might perform rituals. I had no idea until my dad told me that they were also a source of knowledge for magic, including dark magic. They would perform spells and even used to do things that went against the church, like providing women with natural contraception, so they were considered evil by some.

Debtera is a supernatural story influenced heavily by the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, so it's really a perfect title.

I don't think I've ever seen a supernatural dark comedy based in East African mysticism. What are you hoping to bring to the screen that may be new to some audiences?

There aren't a lot of shows that feature East African culture at all, to be honest. And even though Eritrea is hyper-visible, sitting where it is in the Horn of Africa, the world doesn't know much about us or our culture. Christianity is widely seen as a western religion but its origin in the Horn dates all the way back to the 1st century, and our customs and traditions have been passed down for generations, largely unchanged.

Our customs differ greatly from what most people understand to be Christianity, even from other Orthodox Churches, and I would say are more similar to the other Abrahamic religions. I'm excited to give audiences a taste of that.

I could wait until I'm successful and have my own production company to make space for people, but there's nothing stopping me from doing that right now.- Lu Asfaha, filmmaker

I also want to explore the darker parts of our culture. Because we aren't reflected in the media very much, we let a lot of old and harmful behaviours run rampant. Things like homophobia and slut shaming are prevalent in our community and cause a lot of harm, pain and secrecy. I hope that bringing those issues to a large platform and will start a discussion that lets our community learn and heal.

Witchcraft and demons have been favoured themes for several shows with female leads such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed and Crazyhead. Did any of them influence your own storytelling decisions while writing Debtera?

I am actually a huge fan of supernatural fiction and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of my favourite shows growing up, along with Angel, Charmed and Sabrina. I wouldn't say those particular shows influenced me while writing Debtera but they've definitely influenced the types of stories I like to write.

The demon-fighting heroines of Crazyhead. Debtera was influenced by the UK horror-comedy. (Netflix)

Crazyhead had a big influence on Debtera, though. I started writing this series after binge-watching that show.

I had been trying and failing to write a supernatural series for years and modelling it after the shows I grew up loving, with their big ensemble casts was, I think, where I went wrong. My writing has always been more intimate and specific in characterization, and focusing on a small cast with only two main characters is what allowed me to explore them and their relationships in an organic way that let the story tell itself.

I also drew a lot of inspiration from Misfits. That brand of dark humour appeals to me and lends itself very well to a show about sex and demons.

Why a web series?

Honestly? Accessibility. This series could easily be a half-hour television show, but if I tried to get it made that way, it wouldn't happen for a long time. It's too different and risky and the television industry here doesn't take a lot of risks.

Making it as a web series with a small budget and crew lets me make the story I want to make and give it to an audience that is more than ready to receive it. It also opens up the audience to include anyone with internet access. There are people all over the world that would love to see a story that reflects their own experiences and does it in a fun and magical way, so why not give it to them?

Who do you hope will tune in?

Everyone. The characters and situations are specific but the themes are universal. I hope anyone that likes supernatural comedies will give it a chance. That being said, this is a story about Black girls by Black girls, so if you aren't here for Black girls, this might not be the show for you.

Mama Mehret as Aday in a scene from Debtera. (Debtera)

Your crew for the trailer was entirely of women of colour. Why? What impact do you think this has (if any) on what people see on the screen?

Creating space for other women of colour filmmakers is important because it's hard to make headway in this white male-dominated industry.

Recently I was having a conversation with a friend about the importance of doing the work now. I could wait until I'm successful and have my own production company to make space for people, but there's nothing stopping me from doing that right now. There's nothing stopping anyone — you just have to want to.

I think it's also important to the story because there are just some cultural markers that you inherently understand as a woman of colour, and specifically as a Black woman. I always welcome critique but crew members that ask why a character stops to take her shoes off at the door only slows down production. There's an authenticity in having the people behind the camera reflect the lived experiences of the characters I've created.

Debtera's series creator Lu Asfaha also plays Letty on the show. (Debtera)

Diversity in film and television is a hot topic. How do you think Canada is doing in this regard?

Quite poorly, to be honest. It seems that every few years we get a television show or film that checks off some diversity quota and we all need to be happy with that. Every group gets to have one show meant to represent all their multi-layered experiences, unless your group is small town white Canada. It's part of the reason I don't think a show like Debtera could get made here for many years.

What are your greatest challenges as a working filmmaker right now?

Getting funding. I'm at a point where I don't want to move forward with a project unless cast and crew are getting paid for their labour and we have the budget to do the story justice but it's pretty difficult to come by. Everyone is hustling for the same funding programs and grants, and without big names attached to your project it can be hard to stand out from the crowd.

There are alternatives of course, like crowdfunding — which we're pursuing — but even that can be difficult if you can't get eyes on your campaign. My crew has the skills and talent to bring the story to life and the commitment to make sure we're telling the best story possible, but without funding it all becomes more or less futile.

Learn more about Debtera's Indiegogo campaign.

About the Author

Amanda Parris

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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