Processing complex emotions/feelings is difficult enough as an adult, but for a young mind to have to try and unravel some of life’s most harsh truths just feels cruel. As unfathomable as it is to think about, this is the situation countless children around the world will have to deal with on a daily basis, as their circumstances mean they come face-to-face with grief. Runyararo Mapfumo’s 16-minute short Dawn in the Dark immerses its audience in one such situation, as we’re thrust into the world of the titular Dawn, and her teenage Uncle Nate, as they both struggle to deal with some life-changing news.
“The situation causes a shift in their usually fun dynamic”
“I wanted to explore the difficulty of the moments before grief and the anxiety it creates through the lens of a young girl”, Mapfumo explains as we discuss the inspiration for her narrative. “The situation causes a shift in their usually fun dynamic, to one that is a little more stilted and stressful. Whilst their friends worry about homework, falling out and parties, Dawn and Nate take on responsibility early and prematurely try to find their feet in this complicated season of life”.
Largely set in the home usually occupied by Dawn and her parents, Mapfumo’s film introduces the dire situation of her narrative through empty shots of the house, underscored by audible echoes of recent events. The first time we encounter young Dawn, she’s in bed struggling to sleep (her understandable inability to settle is a theme of the short), as she creeps the hallways of her house we’re soon introduced to her Uncle Nate, leaving a worried voicemail in hushed, emotional tones. From here on out, the situation is set and the film is all about the dynamic between our young protagonists and how they both struggle to process the range of emotions circulating through their headspace.
Essentially, a two-hander between the film’s young actors, Percelle Ascott and Livia Nelson, Dawn in the Dark is driven by the performances of its lead stars and the success of the short rests very much in their hands. Mapfumo obviously recognised this early on, as she reveals (as we discuss her production) that she worked “closely with the actors in the lead up to our shoot days making sure they connected as a unit through workshops and fun days out” and that prep really pays off. Often, it’s the youngest performer who steals the spotlight in these storylines, but while Nelson is excellent in what appears to be her first time in front of camera, for me it’s Ascott who really gives this short its impact and weight.
For Dawn in the Dark to work, you have to believe in the relationship between Nate and his niece and Ascott’s performance not only provides the perfect counterbalance to Dawn’s worried energy, compassion radiates from him throughout. You can tell he’s struggling with this new dynamic, his relationship with his niece usually hinges around frivolity, but now he has to be the bearer of bad news. This weight he carries feels tangible and its burden only appears to get heavier as the story unravels, until at last, he crumples under the strain in an emotional conclusion on the sofa with Dawn.
Dawn in the Dark is an emotive piece, but it’s not a film that wallows in grief to elicit cheap audience reaction. Subtlety is key here and though a lot of credit must go to the young cast, Mapfumo’s deft directorial hand also plays a major role in ensuring the short never becomes overly dramatic or manipulative. Working closely with her head of department’s they were meticulous in checking that every creative choice was “in service of the story”. Joel Honeywell’s (Haircut) cinematography is stylish but naturalistic, Mdhamiri Á Nkemi’s (Night Bus, The Devil’s Harmony, Frank’s Joke, Facing It) edit is patient but incredibly well-paced and Jack Newton’s (Who also worked on Facing It) score is minimalist but effective. Every element of production combining to guarantee Dawn in the Dark lands its impact.
The fact that Dawn in the Dark is such an accomplished piece will come as no surprise for anyone already familiar with Mapfumo’s name. Her excellent 2017 short Masterpiece (a film I always felt we neglectfully overlooked for S/W) announced her as a name to watch and this latest short only works to cement that opinion. Since completing Dawn in the Dark, the filmmaker made a new short, What’s in a Name, for The Uncertain Kingdom anthology and directed four episodes of Netflix’s Sex Education season 3 in 2021. Don’t be surprised if we hear news of a debut feature sometime soon.