The last time we spoke with Halifax filmmakers – and real-life partners – Koumbie and Taylor Olson, the duo was preparing to screen their film short I Hate You as part of this past year’s Halifax Black Film Festival.
[Bystanders] has six incredible young diverse actors, and I knew that I wanted that to be a huge part of what would become my first feature. – director and co-writer Koumbie
Fast forward seven months, and they are back with Bystanders, an ensemble drama receiving its world premiere at this year’s FIN Atlantic International Film Festival.
It marks the pair’s latest project as co-writers and Koumbie’s feature film directorial debut in a story about a close-knit group of friends who discover one of them accused of sexual assault.
“And so the question is, what happens when it’s not a stranger or a celebrity that is easy to vilify because you don’t know them,” says Koumbie. “What happens when it’s your brother, roommate, ex-boyfriend or best friend? When it someone you can’t walk away from?”
Born somewhat out of the #MeToo movement, it is at least partially based on several true stories that have crossed the lives of the two writers.
“It felt like it was everywhere, to be honest,” says Koumbie. “But it wasn’t a conversation that we felt was happening on a bigger scale because the focus, rightly so, was on the survivor and the perpetrator. So this is a story more about community.”
Not that the script started with a focus on community, as it saw many rewrites during its five-year process to film.
“This is certainly the longest I’ve ever stuck with a project,” says Koumbie with a laugh. “In terms of writing together, it was incredibly difficult. It pushed us outside our comfort zone but was ultimately very rewarding.”
The challenges Koumbie and Olson faced writing the story came from various factors, including a desire not to sound “preachy,” “to get it right,” and not provide all the answers.
“We wanted to really leave the audience trying to figure it out.,” says Koumbie.
Another significant revision introduced the character accused of sexual assault, who was not initially part of the story.
“The slightly more concrete change that shifted throughout the five years was around Justin,” explains Koumbie. “We didn’t want this story to be about the survivor or the perpetrator; it was only about friends. But we discovered we needed the immediacy of his presence.”
Finding themselves swinging too far into a story about Justin in subsequent iterations, the final script found what they felt was the right balance. “So it was still very much about the group of friends while still having his presence there to amp up the stakes,” says Koumbie.
Filmed at a cabin in Enfield, Nova Scotia, the single location plays an integral role in helping to create a believable world for this tight-knit group of friends.
“It was really important to me because these characters have this deep history, and we needed that history to be tangible,” says Koumbie. “You see it on the walls with pictures of them as kids and their families. They’ve grown up in this remote, isolated place and can’t simply turn off their phones or walk away from the issue. It is in their face, and there is no escape.”
Similarly, it has become a way for the film to challenge its viewers.
“It makes you think about what you would do in this situation and hold each other accountable,” says Olson. “And for the folks who have been in these situations or done something like this, it is knowing that your actions don’t happen in a vacuum and they hurt people and destroy lives.”
“It’s important for people to come out and have that conversation,” adds Koumbie.
Bystanders screens as part of the 2022 FIN Atlantic International Film Festival on September 22 at Cineplex Cinemas Park Lane (5657 Spring Garden Rd, Halifax). Visit finfestival.ca for tickets and information.