When we look back at our lives, we all have that one artist whose death truly shook us, often to the baffling reaction of our parents. In Dear Mama…, director Winter Dunn takes us back to September 13th, 1996 and the day Tupac died, as this tragedy prompts a father and daughter of a South LA family to address the disconnect in their different ways of coping with the loss of their matriarch. With sensitivity, Dunn paints an emotionally compelling multifaceted portrait of grief that perfectly echoes the song with which it shares a title.
“This is our version of a ‘90s, hip hop story with the theme of grief as its anchor”
Written by Charmaine Cleveland, Dear Mama… was born during the Film Independent Project Involve program. Dunn shared that the original concept that brought the team together was the “idea of our family navigating a personal loss when the death of Tupac Shakur is announced in 1996”. From there they built the film narratively and visually around the question “how does one navigate grief and how does the death of our icons force us to reckon with the loss of our family?”.
As the filmmakers lean into the nostalgia triggered by the era and Tupac (for most) with the universe in which they set their story, they use that canvas to develop a complex yet realistic and deeply affecting picture of a family who is still in the aftermath of a tragedy. Or as Dunn puts it “This is our version of a ‘90s, hip hop story with the theme of grief as its anchor”.
Despite this strong cultural reference in the film, there is a universality to the story in the disconnect between two people grieving in different ways and struggling to understand each other’s pain and coping mechanisms. I like how the film also addresses the loss of an icon, an almost fictional character, which tangibly won’t really affect our day to day life, yet triggers reactions that below the surface have very personal ramifications. As a teenager, celebrity role models can mean a great deal and oddly adults never seem to understand that, in my own experience. The film expertly follows Tanisha as she deals with those two tragic (in very different ways) losses and how Tupac’s death will actually be the turning point of how her and her father will process the loss of her mother together.
With DP Mike Maliwanag, Dunn wanted to give an authentic feel to the ’90s aesthetic and for the little visual flair, they both aimed to replicate the look of photographs from the era. Although the short was filmed digitally, they shot in a way (rating the camera at 3200 ISO) that recreated the grainy texture that reminds us of old cameras, not unlike Tanisha’s mom’s. From the images to the title, all the inherent ricochets of Dear Mama… resonate long after the end of the credits.
After its world premiere at the 2022 edition of SXSW, Dear Mama… went on to be selected at multiple festivals including the Palm Springs ShortFest, Hamptons and the Aspen Shortsfest, where it earned a Special Jury Mention in Drama. The film has since joined The New Yorker’s collection and Dunn is now actively meeting writers and producers for a potential collaboration, having just finished her shadow job with the Ryan Murphy HALF Initiative.