Born in London and raised in Trinidad, Penelope Jagessar Chaffer is a filmmaker, entrepreneur, artist, writer, and environmental activist based in New York City. Penelope is the CEO and founder of the tech startup Partus and is the first female Black director to be nominated for a British Academy Award (BAFTA). She is currently a MIT research fellow whilst concurrently holding a Sundance Institute artist residency in partnership with Johns Hopkins University. She has numerous nominations and won over 10 awards for her work at the BBC and Channel 4 in London, including two BAFTA nominations, a Royal Television Award nomination, and a British Documentary Award nomination. As an advocate, Penelope has been invited as a TED speaker to discuss environmental chemical pollution and its impact on babies and children. I had the pleasure of speaking with Penelope about her background story, her BAFTA nominated documentary Me & My Dad, the story behind Toxic Baby, her advocacy work, the importance of mental health, and what being powerful means to her.
Tell me about your background.
I was born in London to two Trinidadian parents who were there studying at the time, and we moved back to Trinidad when I was three years old. My mother is of Nigerian and Carib American Indian descent and my father is of Indian and Scottish descent. In my generation, this was an unusual combination of ethnicities. Additionally, because I was Black and I had this British accent, I always felt like an outsider even within my own culture. I did all of my schooling up until age 16 in Trinidad where I primarily focused on math and sciences. I did my final year of high school in Canada and my aim was to study medicine as my first love was human biology. I was accepted at The University of Western Ontario to study biology as my pre-med. However, my dad who was a well known judge in Trinidad, was sent to prison for bribery and corruption. As a result of that, I had to leave my studies because all of the funds that were set aside for my tuition went to his defence. I ended up back in London due to my family’s concern that I would not be able to navigate the fallout from the political scandal of my father’s incarceration. I didn’t know anybody in London, but because I was born there, I was entitled to a British passport. It was challenging for me at the start of my adult life in terms of trying to get a job and not facing discrimation. In London, I debated whether I would go back to medicine, but there was a moment of faith where I started doing media work and it blossomed from there. I was accepted to a traineeship at BBC in London and that’s where my career started. It was an abrupt pivot from medicine to directing, and I have been in that space of storytelling through visual imagery for my career.
What inspired you to become a filmmaker and director?
Going through traumatic moments, such as my father going to prison, losing my home, and arriving at a place where I didn’t know anything at all, really made me question who I am and what I want from life. All the adulting questions came up and I realized that I was a storyteller, but I wanted to tell stories about the human body. I was always drawing, writing, and reading as a child – they were things that I did because I loved doing them. When I thought about what I wanted to do, like being a doctor, that was really conscious but all of these artistic and creative things I did as a child were instinctive. All that story creating, the writing, the drawing really meant that I was writing and directing at a young age, but when you’re a Black girl growing up on a tiny Caribbean island, the idea of being a director/filmmaker doesn’t enter your consciousness. Now more than ever that would be considered a realistic aspiration for many girls of color, but not in my time. Once I landed in London, the technological advancements made it more democratic and accessible, which allowed me to experiment and realize that this is something I really can do. I didn’t have any formal training in filming, nor do I have a degree (of any kind) in general so it shows that if you are determined enough and prepared to put in the work, you can aspire and achieve anything in this world.
Tell me about your first film Me & My Dad. What was it like being the first female Black director to be nominated for a British Academy Award?
Me & My Dad was an incredible, beautiful life changing experience for me because it allowed me to do something that many children want to do with their parents. As children, when we grow up, we have the potential to be damaged by the interactions that we have with our parents. My father and I had a very hard relationship so this film allowed me to cement a reconciliation that I had been working toward. In fairness to my dad, he really respected the project and he was able to really sit and listen to the consequences of being his daughter. As a director, it was challenging because I was doing something that was intimate and important to my own life. I was telling my story, doing it in front of my camera, directing myself and my dad. It was a personal and upsetting story, but it was a beautiful experience because it allowed me to go to a place that very few filmmakers get to go.
I didn’t know about being the first Black, female director until I went to the BAFTA ceremony. Someone came up to me and said, “I think you’re the first Black female director because we have never seen a nominated Black female director.” It was fascinating for me because as a Black person, I thought surely you would have some kind of record on this but, at the time, diversity wasn’t really something they tracked. It speaks to how, traditionally in the industry, it wasn’t seen as something that should be noted. The concept of diversity wasn’t something that registered in these organizations at the time. I think that it’s only now that organizations realize that there’s this extreme polarity of representation, especially in terms of recognition and opportunity. It felt great to me, and it allowed me to grow as a human so that my ability as a filmmaker is so much more mature and well-rounded. It is a huge source of pride for me to be nominated in general, let alone to be the first Black woman and to be in a situation where I was recognized for a piece of work that portrayed my community and family from a very authentic place. The acknowledgement was incredible and the biggest accolade I’ve received, but what’s important to me is that I got to represent my people, myself, and my culture in a very authentic way. For BAFTA to recognize that authenticity, the humanity and the beauty of the story was very powerful.
What do you think is the greatest challenge women have to overcome in the media industry, and what do you think is the solution?
From my perspective, we still have doors to unlock and push even wider. The fullest challenge for us as women is to get through these patriarchal and sexist gatekeeping mechanisms that have kept us from opportunity. I think the other flipside is that we have to challenge the old perceptions that we have as women ourselves. It is very hard for a woman of childbearing age to work in this industry. Film and television production is incredibly time consuming. Mothers are doing the bulk of child rearing and running of the homes, and they still have to go and do 18 hour shoots, which is a huge ask. We face discrimination not only from men, but also face it from female gatekeepers. We need to have a system in place where female filmmakers don’t fall off the map once they have a child and that there are opportunities for them. We have to find a way of engaging this community and not letting them disappear. There are a lot of women that have the power to hire who have the ability to help change things. It’s particularly a challenge in the media industry where we have very little maternity leave, vacation time, and we choose to try find a way through it, but we’re not often supported. So I believe that the support not only has to come from the traditional male patriarch gatekeepers but also from women. We need to level the playing field for all of us. This is true of every industry.
Tell me about your film Toxic Baby.
Toxic Baby is fascinating because it doesn’t exist as a film for public consumption. When I found out about how chemicals in the environment have the ability to affect the physiology of pregnant women and therefore their babies, I was really horrified. I wanted to have children myself and the idea that I could be poisoning my own children just by living a lifestyle which was marketed to me as the ideal female lifestyle (i.e. wearing makeup, perfume, eating a certain way, cleaning my home) was really upsetting. The thought of doing these things that could impact my baby was very hard. Being a director, I started going through all the archives, and I realized no one has really looked at this issue. I decided to make a documentary on this topic, and I started interviewing scientists from around the world. Eventually, I interviewed hundreds of scientists.
The more I dove into this, the more I realized that it was not a simple story. One chemical alone could be a film and the US has over 80,000 chemicals in circulation in which we don’t even know what their effects are on humans let alone babies who are developing. So I didn’t feel that a traditional, linear documentary would be the best platform for telling a story as large and complicated as this issue. I needed a different mechanism and format to tell this story. My backstory as a technologist is that early on in my career I started doing work which was considered “emerging technology” for the BBC (emerging technology encompasses other forms of storytelling, including virtual reality and interactivity), and I was doing that as well as traditional directing. That took me away from just being solely a documentarian to working in this emerging technology space. The work, “Shakespeare’s Stories,” got nominated for a BAFTA in 2005, and it was the first time BAFTA had a category for interactivity. As I was working in this other world before 2007 – this innovative technology predating mobile/handheld devices – it inspired me to think of different ways to tell this story. I started breaking elements of the project down and looking at what would be the best platform for each project.
What have been the biggest highlights of your career?
Being nominated for my first BAFTA on the one hand was the major highlight, but I would also like to add currently being Sundance’s artist in residence with Johns Hopkins and simultaneously holding a research fellowship at MIT (without a university degree I might add) is a massive highlight and such an honor. Sundance’s support and belief of my work in what I wanted to achieve has been really instrumental and monumental.
What does mental health mean to you? What are some of your tips to having positive mental health?
Mental health is the absolute key and my number one priority. When I made mental health my priority, it changed my life. That decision allowed me to be strong mentally, spiritually, and physically. I believe that we need to have a practice where we are one with ourselves and to be in tune with that on a daily basis. I am an advocate of finding your own practices, and I encourage people to go with something that resonates strongly with them. I also believe physical movement is key for mental health. I am a part of the AARMY fitness team and having that daily movement and connection for my mental state is huge. In addition to this, I always say to make sure you have time everyday to have a moment of silence for yourself. Mental health is about understanding your own story and creating the best version of yourself. We all have that “superhero” version of ourselves and knowing that we all have the potential and that inner power is so empowering. Be authentically yourself and beam that out into the world.
What do you advocate for and how do you use your own platform to advocate for what you believe in?
As an environmentalist, my advocacy is about trying to get people to understand that the environment can be really toxic and that there is very little governmental control or corporate willingness to clean up our food system, the air and water pollution, and products that we use. The toxicity component of these things come from the same place. The discovery, extraction, exploitation of fossil fuels and their subsequent chemical derivatives that come from that source have the ability to pollute people, the planet, and everything in between. That has fundamental consequences for us as humans. There is no organ system that is not impacted by environmental stress, and it can impact the body in the same way that pollution does. I came up with this concept that is called Internal Environmentalism, which is about seeing our bodies as the most important environment and advocating for that. My instagram and filmmaking is increasingly more about communicating and understanding the effect the environment has on your body, your physical, and mental health. Getting people to understand will allow people to detox, mentally as well as physically, and to be mindful of what we see and what we put into our minds. We need to see our minds in the same way we see everything else, especially in our day to day life.
What does being powerful mean to you?
Powerful is being in a place where you can rule your own power. It’s a feeling of complete embodiment and it is the feeling of understanding that you are in control of yourself. As humans, we are inherently powerful, we are born powerful, we are born full of power. It is our duty to be our own version of powerful and to exemplify that. Once you stand in your own power, no one can take that away from you. There’s nothing more powerful than a woman who stands in her own magnificent authenticity.
What empowers you as a woman?
I empower myself and my self empowerment is multidimensional. I do not look outside of myself for empowerment because that is handing over my power. Gratitude is the foundation. I am really empowered by my sense of gratitude for everything that I have and everything that I hope for. I am empowered by the understanding that I am not a victim and that everything has happened to allow me to create the best version of myself. Becoming strong enough to be able to release that victimhood has probably been one of the most empowering things that has ever happened to me. Ultimately, living my most grateful, strong, and authentic self empowers me most.