Tackling present day topics in media is an often used method to break down and understand perspective in a better manner, however it’s easy to get the message lost in insincerity. Many have attempted to tackle the Covid pandemic in recent media and often are met with lukewarm feelings. It always boils down to sincerity and a feeling of genuineness. Especially with a topic that the world is actively facing still. Offside Productions is the recent contender to the challenge, with the upcoming anthology series Normal Ain’t Normal, co-produced by BuzzFeed and activist & actress Rosario Dawson. The series presents the realities of social injustice and economic disparity in America that became more prevalent during the height of the early stages of the pandemic.
Helmed by director Yvan Iturriaga and co-writers Josh Healey, Reem Assil, Tommy Orange, and Reyna Amaya, the 4 episode series will be available to stream on BuzzFeedVideo on YouTube and Facebook starting September 27th, 2022. The digital short series tackles our current pandemic landscape in a fresh manner by realistically pulling in raw humor and diverse storytelling to reflect the local community’s experience. Who better to share the realities the Bay Area, specifically Oakland, faced during the pandemic than an Oakland creative team. Each episode involved different members of the team and pulled from personal experiences from their professional, health, and racial experiences during the pandemic and it’s immediate aftermath. With mixes of fantasy, emotional monologues, and humor, each episode of Normal Ain’t Normal reminds the audience of what’s truly important: community and our fellow humankind.
Featured cast included actors and debut acting from Reem Assil, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Martin Sensmeier, Tristan Cunningham, Sal Lopez, and Rosario Dawson. The Knockturnal had the opportunity to speak with Director and co-creator Yvan Iturriaga and writer/actor Reem Assil about their experiences with the series.
How do you go about telling a story on a topic that is still actively going on right now? Film is typically an escape, so how do you tackle keeping it fresh and pull viewers in?
Iturriaga: “It is our intention, me and Josh (Healey), and our passion to work on films that is very relevant to our lives. Sadly the pandemic is still relevant these years later, however the story really focuses on the working class community. We knew the impact of the pandemic, even after the vaccine would carry on for a long time. The pandemic made a lot of people realize, things are going to change. What was “normal” wasn’t okay, and things that were taken for granted needed to shift. We live in a society that doesn’t value workers and their stories need to be heard the loudest.”
As a director, did you come across any areas of opposing vision while working with the writers for each episode?
Iturriaga: We didn’t have any conflicts. There’s a lot of trust, we often shared guides and drafts to each other to ensure strong collaboration amongst us. My job as a director and directing what others wrote, is to actually trust the writers. I always went back to them, especially with Tommy (Orange) as there’s a story very specific to him, and who am I to tell a Native American story. I need his validation and guidance to tell it right. For us, writers are very key and we need to follow them.
Reem Assil, Oakland based chef and writer shared similar sentiments in her journey in writing out an episode for the series.
Assil: “For me, the most healing thing is to take people on my journey with me. Makes you more vulnerable which has its drawbacks and I certainly grapple with that in my episode. But at the end of the day, it allows others to not see you as this two dimensional person. My identity is inter-sectional, I’m a Palestinian woman but I’m also a restaurateur and a worker. All of these identities play into how I see the world. The pandemic made that perspective for me much clearer, and in the series we really zoned in on that experience. What I want is justice, I don’t want to be a cog stuck in the wheel or be a token for the outside world to create their own story.”
Assil had opened her restaurant mere days before the California lock-down, and grappled with the realities of taking care of her employees and livelihood during an unknown time. The crucial value that helped everyone carry forward strongly through the pandemic was always community and caring for each other. Assil often mentioned that the label of chef is not for her, as it has a connotation of a “one man show” but behind every success is the hard work of an entire staff and team. These feelings of vulnerability, community, and facing the unknown are prevalent throughout the writing of the series, allowing viewers to remind themselves of the raw emotions that many people faced in the height of the pandemic. But the series educates viewers through four characters perspectives stemming from diverse backgrounds to highlight the diversity of Oakland’s community is a strong point and should not be forgotten. The cinematography tactics used weaved elements of spoken poetry and speeches to add emotion through the camera, making the acting extremely human. Iturriaga’s direction and art style behind the camera really highlighted each actors strong suits, whether that be facial expression, body language, stunts, or more. His direction really pulled together the synergy of each script to relay messages in a succinct and impactful manner.
The select audience that night were privy to a full screening of all four episodes of the digital series, and a panel discussion touching on all the sociopolitical topics highlighted within the series. Oakland gentrification, tech boom, Covid medical bills, the fluctuating financial landscape, these are some of the ongoing realities for many in the Bay and the pandemic was quite isolating. The team aimed and succeeded in bringing to light those realities and using storytelling as a tool to remind others, you are not alone. In the words of co-creator and writer Josh Healey, “Normal is what got us into this sh*t in the first place”, so it’s beyond time for us to re-define our “normal”. Society is always stronger together, and change can only come from community care and action. The premiere was held at the Oakland Museum of California, and the theater was filled with laughter, acknowledgement, and a silent reminiscence as we were taken through a journey of emotions many of us have reflected on privately in the last few years.
Co-creators Iturriaga and Josh Healey have worked with Offside Productions before, as well as co-producer Rosario Dawson, and the production house focuses on digital projects to amplify grassroots’ movements. A goal held dear to the cast and crew for Normal Ain’t Normal, and a message ringing clear to all who watch; communities hurting to live is not a normal meant to be upheld. The partnership between Offside, Iturriaga and Healey remains dynamic and robust. With the inclusion of Dawson, the powerhouse team brings to life a poignant commentary on the pandemic, without being insensitive to those of us still processing the trauma of a worldwide event. A quick to consume series that all should see, with beautiful direction, powerful acting, and genuine writing allowing the heart of the series to resonate in viewers’ for time to come.