“Nanny” is the first-ever horror film to win the Sundance Grand Jury prize. But is it really a horror film? Or simply horrifying?
“Nanny” is set in Manhattan’s posh Upper East Side where the undocumented Senegalese immigrant Aisha (Anna Diop) is hired to live in and care for a couple’s only child.
The girl’s mother (Michelle Monaghan, “Echoes”) is highly-strung and continually “forgets” to pay Aisha. The father is borderline seductive. All Aisha wants is to save money and bring her young son to America.
For writer-director Nikyatu Jusu, “I’m first generation American, I’m Sierra Leone-American and this is pieces of my mother’s story, not a literal rendition of my mother’s experience.
“Growing up, domestic work was one of the more accessible forms of work for my mother – and for Black, brown and immigrant women globally. I always wondered: How is she being treated in these households?
“Then I got into NYU Grad Film and I literally saw the visual manifestation of something I had been thinking about: All these Black and brown nannies pushing mostly white children.
“That was the catalyst and I definitely wanted to incorporate horror elements and specifically culturally relevant folklore.”
Aisha is haunted by her dreams, visions that disturb and terrify. Isolated, she is increasingly anxious.
How did Diop, 34, approach this woman whose issues, however horrifying, are in her head?
“I wanted to see the ascent of her madness and know exactly where I am in her deterioration and make her emotional reality accurate.
“I went through many different possibilities about what the character, her background and history could be. I asked myself, Maybe Aisha has a history of schizophrenia? Bipolar? Some kind of neuroses? These experiences of ‘confused reality’ are common but I felt the stronger choice was that this wasn’t that. That this was all new to her.
“With no support she leaves Senegal to New York and that in and of itself told me a lot about who she was — as far as her fortitude, her intelligence, her courage.
“So when approaching the moments of psychosis or ‘madness,’ I saw them as a place of grounded-ness. Because people rationalize and make logic out of things.
“I summed it up to: I’m exhausted. I haven’t seen my son. I’m working, I’m lonely. And this is why I’m having these dreams.
“I made a choice that she keeps doing that – until she can’t keep doing that.”
“The Nanny” is playing now at the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema and releases on Prime Video Dec. 16