I meet Theresa Ikoko (creator and co-writer of ROCKS) over zoom, framed by leafy green plants with sunlight glowing on the side of her face. Her smile and warming voice emulate a peaceful but joyful energy that shines through my screen and into my Edinburgh home.
Born and raised in Hackney, East London, Theresa Ikoko is one of nine children; five sisters and three brothers. Before ROCKS was ROCKS Theresa was writing her own film, a love letter to her sister, Tracey: “I wanted to write something for her that was like a thank-you, and an expression of love”, Theresa tells me. “She’s only a year older than me but she is really the most amazing and most responsible, probably a bit too responsible than she should’ve had to be. I would be the Emmanuel to her Rocks, talking about dinosaurs and wonderful imaginary things whilst she was literally carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.”
At the same time, she began working with the female-led creative team, Sarah Gavron (director), Claire Wilson (co-writer), Faye Ward and Ameenah Ayrub Allen (producers), Anu Henriques (associate director) and Hannah Price (associate producer). Led by casting director Lucy Pardee, this special research process went on for almost a year and included sitting in classrooms of inner-city London schools, workshops and open auditions; over 1500 girls were seen and eventually 30 girls came to the forefront.
You co-wrote ROCKS, your first time writing for film, then you spent almost a year workshopping with the cast. What was this process like?
Yeah, thankfully I didn’t have any other experience. For me this was like, why wouldn’t you just do it this way? It just felt very organic, just doing life with this new group of women who are the creative team, we also formed such a bond, such a sisterhood, so many conversations about what it meant to grow up in London, what it means to be British. We would have these conversations with one another, then as we started to workshop with these girls, we would have these conversations with them. We realised the dominant theme wasn’t how I guess a lot of coming-of-age stories, or stories about young women portray as like men being the centre of them. The dominant theme was friendship, female friendship, sisterhood, so as I was working on this thing that was about sisterhood, female friendship, we were in these rooms talking about them. So, then it just felt like, hold on a minute, wouldn’t this be a great soil to plant this seed? And watch it grow, and we genuinely, at this point, had been together for around a year and had so much love, and so much passion. Claire [Wilson, co-writer] and I were trying to work on stories, and none of them were quite telling the truth of what we were experiencing, we really were experiencing magic and I felt like this story [the film to her sister] that I was writing really was magic.
So we just felt like why don’t we see what happens? They responded so well, so warmly, so kindly, so generously, so honestly. If I didn’t feel like this was the safest and best place for it, I would never have given such an important thing of myself to this, and I always say, you know, I wanted to plant a seed to grow a tree in dedication to my sister, but what happened was I planted a seed that grew a tree, that more seeds fell from, that more people planted, that more people toiled the land and nurtured and grew, so what we have now, instead of the tree that I wanted to dedicate to my sister, is a forest. That all of us can dedicate to our sisters, our friends, our family, our communities, whoever we want to, and it really is during a bigger work than I ever had imagined and I really, really, attribute that to the fact that it was such a collaboration with so many women, women you will hear their names and see them, but also women, and you know, a few men, who worked hard behind the scenes and probably won’t get spoken about or mentioned, but it really was, it was such a community effort.
The creative process of ROCKS reminds me of when you co-facilitate, or co-create, with a group of young people on a project or programme, it feels like community work, a field I know you have worked in, that but with a film, would you agree?
That is exactly what it was because that’s my background. Also, Claire does this thing called Welcome Kitchen, which is a welcome cinema and kitchen, a monthly cinema experience to integrate refugees into their local communities. You know, we all really just have a heart for community, we all really come from that place. I think for the rest of them that this isn’t their first experience, they never necessarily would have, or could have, imagined how that could have integrated with this world in this way. I haven’t known any different, so going forward now, I don’t ever expect to work any differently. I think everybody who came across this film whether it was the extras, or supporting actors, or make-up, costume, everybody brought that level of: “Here’s something I have, here is something I have in my hand that I would love to give. Here is something that I would love to offer”, and I think that, for me, feels exactly what a community is, it is a film about community for community.
But you need that energy – it’s refreshing – you need someone to come in and do it differently.
I think everyone, from the very beginning was committed to doing something different, we didn’t know what it would look like, we all just kept saying, everybody, from Faye Ward the producer, everybody was saying: “We want do it differently, we want to do it better, we want to be responsible, we want to be kind and compassionate, and loving and we want to make the best film”, and I hope we did.
You did, I think you did. ROCKS feels like a very ‘London’ film, how do you think ROCKS speaks to those in our communities who didn’t grow up in London?
I think, because that’s what films do, right? Films have been doing that since the beginning of time, whether the film is set in Mars or in Scunthorpe. Films do that, good stories transcend time and space, and I think it’s very important to make stories about people that look like us, that don’t feel like they have to justify the space they take up. We also are as worthy and as relatable and as universally human as Klingons! Do you know what I mean? Like, well if you can watch aliens for two hours, you can watch a couple Black girls buss a joke in London. That is just the joy of story, I think it makes the world smaller, I think it makes the universe smaller, it connects us all, and it bonds us, and you don’t have to relate to somebody to love them. I think, whether you identify with these characters or not, I hope you just love them because they are phenomenal characters doing phenomenal, joyful, loving things.
What is your favourite memory of working on ROCKS?
Oh, too many! One of them, we were on set one day, and we were working on a scene, it was a tough scene to get, it was the social work scene, and it was Bukky’s hardest performance, and the toughest performance for her. I was there on set, giving a lot of notes and at one point Sarah [Gavron, director] just said: “Do you want to just come in to block it with the actors, give the notes to the actors, speak to Bukky?”, and I really just felt, I felt really like oh, I am really making this happen, you know, Sarah and the first AD were just, giving me so much scope. So I just kicked everybody out, shut the door, I talked it through, and the first AD gave me her mic so I could note whilst it was filming. It was only after that people said to me, writers never get that, she basically let you direct a scene. I think that amount of care, and compassion and generosity, was, for me, really indicative of the film, and, for me, personally, I just felt really inspired and really empowered, and it made me want to direct. So that was like a really beautiful moment.
Finally, ROCKS premiered in Toronto, and then was supposed to come out earlier this year but then COVID struck. How do you feel about sharing ROCKS with the world now?
I hope the timing of this is really a blessing to people. I hope on one hand people feel galvanised and energised and restored watching this and go off and you know, do amazing things for people, for communities, for story, for film, for young people, for old people, for whoever, for themselves. But I also hope it is a balm and it gives people a moment of peace, a moment of rest, a moment of love, that I think a lot of people, particularly Black and Brown communities who have gone through a really difficult time, being disproportionally affected by corona, being disproportionally affected by injustices and police brutality, I just hope, there is this moment of rest, and a reminder that your joy is important, you are loved, your existence in itself is a wonderful, wonderful act of resistance and sometimes, that is just enough.
Thank you to Tomiwa Foloruso, writer, presenter and creative based in Edinburgh. Tomiwa specialises in communications and digital production and is also a project manager with the Empower Project. See her and read her here: instagram, twitter or website
WHERE TO WATCH ROCKS