Fierce Females no.28: Catherine Joy White, Filmmaker, Writer & founder of Kusini Productions
• • • A recent recipient of the prestigious Forbes Under 30 accolade, Catherine Joy White, the filmmaker, writer, Founder of Kusini Productions; a platform that champions diverse voices and talent, Gender Expert for the UN and wild swimmer is truly a force of nature. The Fierce Female series was created with women like Cat White in mind, women shaking up their industries and exploring the world with new vision. We were so excited to catch up with Cat on the eve of the release of her new film, Fifty-Four Days, a stunning short directed by Cat following the journey of a girl who starts wild swimming every day for 54 days in the wake of losing her father to suicide.
Cat, you have quite the CV! Let’s go back to the beginning…where did you grow up, what was life for you like as a kid?
Such a great question! Well, I’m born to a Jamaican mother and an English father. I grew up in a small town called Northampton in the East Midlands with family on my Mum’s side being in Wales and my Dad’s side being in Yorkshire. I guess that meant that I have always had a very transient feeling of what home was to me. Life as a kid was travelling all over and connecting with lots of different people, groups and cultures. I have two sisters and they are my absolute best friends. My biggest heroes as a kid were women such as Rosa Parks and Emmeline Pankhurst – I probably owe a lot of that to my upbringing. I was raised by an incredible lineage of strong women – but also my Dad is a real feminist. He never made me feel like there was anything I couldn’t do because I was a girl. He gave me my love of running and of the great outdoors – swimming, marathons, scuba diving (even with sharks!): you name it I did it. I wouldn’t say I was fearless but I did have a drive to embrace the fear and do it anyway.
You have a wonderful relationship with wild swimming, of which your journey is being brought to life in your new film, FIFTY-FOUR DAYS, following the journey of a girl who starts wild swimming every day for 54 days in the wake of losing her father to suicide. How did your journey with wild swimming begin and why?
In January 2021 I was totally blindsided by the news that a friend had taken his own life. We were deep in lockdown 3 by that point and with lockdown limiting every single one of the traditional ways of grieving, I honestly just didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was choking on my grief. And then, on one of my daily allotted walks I was walking past a lake near where I live and I just decided to get in and swim. I think I just wanted to feel the shock of the cold – or feel like I could feel something – anything – again. Something shifted in me and I felt like I could breathe again. It became a part of my routine and eventually a part of my healing journey.
How do you find wild swimming benefits your health?
It sounds dramatic but I honestly think wild swimming helped save my life. I was broken at the time when I started and I could not find an outlet that could adequately shift the total panic and devastation that I was feeling.
Water has always calmed me and made me feel connected to what has gone before and what will come after. It’s almost a holy place for me – my head clears, I have waves of euphoria and also waves of sorrow – but I am able to feel what I need to feel.
How did you decide to create a film from your experiences?
It came around the time that I realised that swimming was actually starting to heal me and make me feel better. I wanted to get proactive about how I could help others. I became mental health first aid trained and learnt about the warning signs for those suffering from mental ill health. I became particularly aware that men (and Black men in particular) are most at risk. Inspired by this and trying to make sense of the hurt, I wrote Fifty-Four Days about a girl who starts wild swimming in the wake of her dad taking his life. I realised that I had something to say and, something which is rare in the usual case of stories of suicide: I wanted to tell a story of hope. I would say that Fifty-Four Days is a story of fierce determination that no matter how dark things get, hope is always right around the corner.
You really weaved in strong and wonderful narratives around mental health into the movie, and even how the movie was filmed itself, right?
Yes! Along the way I started working with the incredible inclusive swimwear brand Soul Cap, as well as outdoor changing robe Dry Robe and the wonderful Seabirds so as well as the film itself we are also advocating and working for inclusivity, access to water and better mental health provisions on a wider scale. I’m so proud that we also partnered with PAPYRUS, the UK’s young suicide prevention charity who I have also just become an Ambassador for. We also worked with the incredible Laura White Coaching as our mental health and wellbeing coordinator, so every single cast and crew member on the film set had access to mental health support, something which is still a rarity in the film industry.
As we understand, you discovered that according to Swim England 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children in England do not swim, which are really shocking statistics… How can we flip this and change it?
So shocking I know. I always say you can’t be what you don’t see and so we just need to see more Black swimmers, really see that it is a space for us. Groups like Swim Dem Crew are doing such great work on that front.
It even comes down to basic limitations, like for example how swimming caps haven’t traditionally been wearable for people have afros or traditional hairstyles right?
Absolutely. Before I started wild swimming I was actually a keen swimmer in pools. I’ve been swimming since I was a little girl and have always loved how the water makes me feel. More than that though, I was good at it. I actually represented my county as a swimmer when I was younger and could have gone further but at some point in my teenage years I just stopped. I really started to feel like it wasn’t a space for me. I hated what the chlorine did to my hair – it just genuinely embarrassed me. Discovering Soul Cap was a life-changing experience for me. I felt like I belonged in the water for the first time.
What are your hopes from your work on your film and the work you are doing to enable better access to people of colour to swimming?
Even though we have come a long way in talking about mental health, suicide is still a taboo subject. I want this film to shine a light on an untold story, providing comfort for people and helping them to feel less alone, whilst also raising awareness among those who haven’t experienced this kind of loss.
This film shows that when life throws something unspeakable at you, you can get through it. I just want it to be hopeful and inspiring for people and remind them that we can do anything we put our minds to and we don’t know who or what could be around the corner to help us.
I also wanted to shine a light on the narrative that continues to state that Black people don’t swim. I am the living proof that this is not true and I honestly feel at my most free in wild waters. I hope that exploring this in the film will inspire a whole new generation of swimmers!
You are also a Gender Expert for the UN, tell me about your role here and what you do?
It’s really varied but recently I have had the joy of working with the Premier League and the Premier League Charitable Fund on Premier League Changemakers, a gender equality and mental health program for young women and girls in England and Wales. The program covers self and identity, leadership and empowerment and positive mental health and wellbeing – and incorporating all of this with sport! It’s so inspiring to see the response we have had already and I hope it will inspire the next wave of leaders and change-makers – that is really important to me.
You are the founder of Kusini Productions, a platform established to create opportunities, change the narrative and champion voices of Black women and girls. Please tell us about your hopes and dreams for Kusini?
I started with Kusini Productions out of a deep-rooted desire to change the way that Black women were perceived – and to allow us to create our own narratives! I want to continue to challenge the status quo, make bold and inspiring work and really create opportunities for those who wouldn’t otherwise get to have them. Oh, and maybe win an Oscar?!
How do you like to chill out and unwind?
A long run followed by a bath with lots of nice candles and music!
Any wellness non-negotiables?
I am not very good at either of these but:
and not checking emails outside of certain hours!
Fav swim spots in the UK?
Port Meadow, Oxford and Waterfall Woods, Brecon Beacons! + any Devon beach or Scottish loch!
You can follow Cat here and stay tuned for the release of Fifty-Four Days.