Filmmaker Christina Raia is creating empathy through film

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I met filmmaker and Seed&Spark’s head of education and outreach Christina Raia in March at the 2019 Girl Power Film + Media Summit, where she gave a presentation about film distribution. Hearing Christina talk about her passion for helping filmmakers get their projects funded and distributed was inspirational. We spoke in April on the phone about her filmmaking journey and her film “About a Donkey” (available now on Vimeo on Demand).

Christina Raia

As described on IMDb, “About a Donkey” is about “The trials and tribulations of the Owens family. Ann is depressed, her children are a mess, and her husband just bought a donkey.” What I found very innovative and inspiring about “About a Donkey” was not only the film, but also Raia’s marketing and distribution strategy.

“None of our advertising tells you that three of the characters in the ensemble are queer-identifying. But about twenty-five minutes in to the movie, there is suddenly a romance developing between Cecilia, the oldest daughter, and the grandmother’s aide who is a woman,” Raia said. “It’s been interesting because our mission is very much to present these characters that are a family, and hopefully you are identifying with some, and rooting for some, and nearly half of the characters happen to be queer.”

And Raia and screenwriter Kelsey Rauber specifically targeted film festivals that happened to be in districts that were in red states.

“I looked at election data specifically. And from that I would look at festivals that had good local turnout. I’d talk to previous filmmakers and look at photos from the festivals. I wanted to make sure we weren’t going to have rooms filled with filmmakers, that we were going to have real local people coming in to watch something that, you know, there is a movie happening in their town and they would probably never rent a movie of what they are seeing here on iTunes, but they are going to come out because there’s not too much else going on. So we had a wonderful run where that happened quite a bit, and for the most part it has been really positive,” Raia said. “We experienced some people walking out during a kiss between the two women, and that happens, which is unfortunate, but it’s so ridiculous because it happens twenty minutes before the end of the movie. You sit through the whole movie, why are you going to leave when this sweet kiss happens? It’s not sexual, you know? … But I hope a little bit of a seed was planted in them.”

Learn more about Raia’s influences, work, and future projects in our interview below.

GROWING UP

CHRISTINA RAIA: I grew up on Long Island. My mom is originally from Trinidad. She moved to Queens when she was fourteen, and then moved to Long Island, which is where I was born. I moved around a bit, but mostly grew up in Long Island. I always had extended family in Queens, so I also spent a lot of time in Queens, which is where I currently live.

REBECCA MARTIN: What were your earliest passions that got you into filmmaking?

RAIA: I was writing at a very young age—my mom would tell you that I was writing short stories when I was like five or six. I still have some of them, and they were mostly written in crayon.

I also just watched a lot of TV and movies. I grew up with a single mom, she’s wonderful, and she worked a lot, so my older brother and I got to rule the TV and watch a lot of things that we weren’t necessarily allowed to watch. And that kind of opened my eyes to a world of stories. I didn’t know anything about the industry or about what it took or meant to make a movie, but I loved movies. At some point I started to tell people that I wanted to make movies. I had a lot of extended family that was like, that’s not really a thing. Coming from an immigrant family and for the most part a lower-income family, that was not thought of as an option. So no one supported it, except my mom, who worked a full-time job, and part-time jobs on top of that. She was like, I’m working hard so you and your brother can pursue something that you love.

MARTIN: That is awesome.

RAIA: Yeah, so that passion was always there. When applying to school, I originally started out pursuing psychology, but very quickly, I was like, I want to study film. It’s just what I want to do. So I majored in film and minored in psychology.

MARTIN: Where did you go to school?

RAIA: I went to CUNY Hunter in Manhattan.

MARTIN: So you’re a director and a writer, along with working at Seed&Spark.

RAIA: Yes, I also produce my own stuff. I produce out of necessity, largely because, especially early on, no one was knocking on my door saying they wanted to help me tell stories. And I wanted to tell my stories, so I taught myself how to produce and own a production company, but my main passion is in writing and directing.

MARTIN: Did you start creating films while you were at Hunter? Is that where you discovered your skills? How did that process go?

RAIA: I originally wanted to go to NYU but I couldn’t afford that when I was younger. The financial support they would offer was not enough. So I was a little disappointed to go to Hunter. But once I got there I realized I was surrounded by my peers, who had the kind of passion I had. For the most part, they weren’t people that were born into the industry or had any ties to it, it was a lot of dreamers with that working-class hustle, like me. I felt at home in a way I don’t think I would have at a top-tier film school. There was so much diversity. I very quickly found my film family, as I call them, who I still collaborate with. That said, even though it’s a very diverse school, the classes were still very male-dominated. And I felt that I had lack of access to things that my male peers had. There was a lack of support for women. I’m the kind of person if you tell me I can’t do something, I want to do it.

MARTIN: I hear ya.

RAIA: And so, I think it’s interesting. I went into school very naive, thinking I’m going to follow my dreams, I’m going to make films, and then I learned I was coming into an industry that was full of bias and there’s hardly any women directing. At least not getting the opportunity to do so. I mean there is plenty of women in the Directors Guild, but they’re not being put on lists, and they are not given equal opportunities. So I really started to understand the way the industry would limit me because of my gender, and then multiply that by being an ethnic minority. So I started to realize the industry was so complicated, and not for me in a lot of ways.

And so I started to think about the films that I wanted to make, and how to tell these stories. I was lucky enough to be coming up with the internet starting to shift into a place where there was a vocal and hungry audience, and social media was really coming up. And so the year that Kickstarter came along, I decided to try that out, because I had peers who had family members who could write them checks, or financially help them make films. I didn’t have that. And so I decided to try this thing that was called crowdfunding, to see if I could find people online who cared about what I wanted to make, and I did. And that’s how I started to carve out this other career for myself in crowdfunding, even before I knew that’s what I was doing. Because I was part of this thing that was new and not many filmmakers understood how to use it effectively.

MARTIN: That’s great.

RAIA: I also made a lot of school projects. I generally would make a short outside of class every year I was at school, usually over the summer. And I was definitely finding my voice. Generally growing up I watched a lot of—with my mom we would always watch “The Twilight Zone” marathon on the 4th of July, and New Year’s Eve, and that was a big thing in my family. And we would watch a lot of sitcoms together, which built my punchy sense of humor. I tend to process negative things in my own life through humor, which I guess is where that came from. In my own work I really gravitated towards doing genre work and comedy. I kind of honed those two things while I was in school, and now my work is almost always horror/thrillers or comedies, or I mix the two because I love subverting expectations and playing with tone.

FILMMAKING AS ART THERAPY FOR VETERANS

MARTIN: After school, where did films and crowdfunding lead you?

RAIA: So again, kind of ambitious and naive, I decided to make my first feature my senior year of college, and that was a huge learning experience. I’m proud of what we accomplished, but it’s a very flawed first feature. I did crowdfund that, so that got me to speak on panels at film festivals because I was was one of the only filmmakers that was really using crowdfunding to build an audience. Because it was my second campaign at that point, and just being a young filmmaker making a feature, people were interested in having me speak on panels. And then, as far as it was paying the bills, I got hired for a mobile film workshop that was called the Patton Veterans Project, which was essentially, I was a film instructor for a film workshop that provides filmmaking as art therapy, for veterans that are struggling with PTSD.

MARTIN: Wow, that’s awesome.

RAIA: Yeah, it was a really wonderful rewarding job. It was also really sort of traumatizing in of itself, particularly because as the only woman instructor for the first year and a half, I was always partnered with women who not only had combat trauma, but were survivors of sexual assault. So it was like really rewarding, but also really hard, kind of emotionally draining. I was part of it for three and a half years. It gave me a sense of fulfillment by using my skills as a filmmaker helping people tell their stories, and helping them heal. Even if it was just a small stepping stone towards their recovery. And it also helped my own filmmaking. We helped veterans make these short films that were completely visually driven and it helped me stay in touch with that level of creativity. But after doing that for three and a half years, I decided to move on because it was starting to get to me emotionally, and was more like being a therapist than a filmmaker, which I’m not fully qualified for or wanting to pursue with my career. But it was it a great experience and I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of the veterans I worked with.

And at that point I had been in the orbit of Seed&Spark, because [Seed&Spark Founder and CEO Emily Best] had convinced me to switch platforms for my third campaign. And I had a positive experience, so I became an advocate for the company and what they were doing.

MARTIN: That’s great.

RAIA: And they were like, hey we’re expanding and we’re ready to bring someone on for crowdfunding beyond the founding team, do you want to join us? And at that point it was just as a teacher, and it was part-time, so I traveled a bit, and I would teach, and then it quickly became a full-time position of helping filmmakers launch campaigns. And now I’ve been with the company for three years.

“ABOUT A DONKEY”

MARTIN: You mentioned in your talk at the 2019 Girl Power Film + Media Summit that you were working on a film that’s now in the festival circuit. Can you share more about that one?

RAIA: “About a Donkey” is an inclusive ensemble comedy about a family that’s struggling with various things and kind of stuck. And the dad decides to buy a donkey, and it shakes up all of their lives. It was written by Kelsey Rauber who was my cocreator of the web series. She and I had met in a TV writing class in college, so she is my main collaborator. When I’m doing comedy, I’m usually working with her. When I’m doing horror or horror-comedy, that’s all me, that’s usually my go-to. But when we work together, we do comedy. And we naturally do a lot of LGBTQ content together because Kelsey is a lesbian and just generally we’re passionate about authentic representation. So in this film, there’s no main character, the ensemble is two parents, three adult children, all the adult children have kind of love interests, and the grandmother character. So it’s a big ensemble, but the oldest daughter is kind of like the main character. She is a lesbian and she has a love story that is a main arc of the film. Kelsey wrote it. It’s somewhat inspired by her own family, and I was really drawn to it because it dealt with weighty issues in a heartfelt and humorous way. I feel like laughter is unifying. If you can laugh together, you can build some bridges, and you can talk about stuff.

MARTIN: That’s so true.

RAIA: … And who knows if they’re going to vote differently, or if they are going to consider the LGBTQ people when they are thinking about how they’re voting in the future, but hopefully, maybe, they’re a little more empathetic in some capacity towards people. Ultimately we’re trying to build some exposure for people who wouldn’t seek out overtly inclusive content.

About a Donkey (Official Trailer) from CongestedCat Productions LLC on Vimeo.

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