Toronto: Barry Jenkins Discusses Swimming Lesson Scene in 'Moonlight'

Barry Jenkins
Jesse Grant/Getty Images for DIRECTV

Barry Jenkins attends the DIRECTV Bungalow Presented By AT&T at the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards on February 23, 2019 in Santa Monica, California..

"There was an almost spiritual transference between the two characters," the Oscar winner told a virtual conversation with French auteur Claire Denis at TIFF.

Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins discussed his coming-of-age drama Moonlight at the Toronto Film Festival on Friday by dissecting the swimming lesson scene that comes early on in the Oscar-winning movie.

"The physical swimming is a very small part. There was an almost spiritual transference between the two characters," Jenkins told the virtual discussion with French auteur Claire Denis as he underlined the emotional impact of the ocean sequence.

In Moonlight, Jenkins has a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali), cradle in ocean waters a young boy, Chiron, played by Alex Hibbert, as he is taught to swim. For Jenkins, that scene, with the ocean water lapping at the camera as the young boy bobs in and out of the water, was as much about feeling and emotion as the imagery on the screen.

"A boy learning to swim where I grew up, and a boy learning to swim, maybe they're doing the same thing, but they're going to have a different impact," Jenkins said. He pointed as inspiration for Moonlight to Claire Denis' 1998 movie Beau Travail, where the desert landscapes of Djibouti in west Africa provides a backdrop for a scene in which bare-chested French legionnaires' undergo rigorous training.

"It's men training. It's about remaining physically fit. But to see it presented by Claire Denis, it was so much more," Jenkins said of the French director's exploration of the the male identity. Denis explained the origins of the scene of French soldiers doing military drills under a sun-baked African sky.

"My aim was to represent this army. It's their life. It's their family. It's more than a brotherhood. So this movement that I saw in the morning as a salute to the sun rising, and maybe a salute to being together in this desert," Denis explained.

The Chocolat director then pointed to a fight scene Jenkins included in Moonlight, where Kevin is told to punch Chiron in the face, and he reluctantly agrees to do so, only to tell Chiron to "stay down," rather than bravely get up as he does to receive more blows.

"It's very painful," Denis said of watching the young boys fight in Moonlight. "I'm not young and strong. But if I see a fight in the street between young boys -- we have fights in the street where I live in Paris -- I can't stand it. I have to not fight, but try to stop it. I can't stand to understand that someone will be obliged to receive the fists and to be beaten up for any reason," she explained.

The French director said other women can empathize. "Women have other ways to beat themselves up. It's not the same type of fight, but has that cruelty, with that willingness to destroy. This is something that men and women share, in a different way," Denis argued.

The Toronto Film Festival concludes on Saturday.