Sparking joy during a pandemic: filmmakers Kaitlyn Schwalje and Alex Wolf Lewis speak about their Sundance short “Snowy”

Most people grow up with animals in their lives, whether it’s a pet, a neighborhood squirrel, or a trip to the zoo. Filmmakers Kaitlyn Schwalje and Alex Wolf Lewis did a beautiful thing by creating a short film about a pet turtle named Snowy. Snowy is a 25 year-old turtle and for most of those years has lived in a basement of a family’s house near Philadelphia. Filmmaker and DP Alex Wolf Lewis is related to this family, as cousin/nephew. Being a filmmaker, he decided Snowy would be the perfect subject for his first collaboration with partner Kaitlyn Schwalje, a journalist and science nerd. She went to school for Physics and from there got into radio and podcasting. This documentary short is Kaitlyn’s directorial debut. Alex’s family hosted them while they shot “Snowy”.

Talking to both Kaitlyn and Alex, I could see what a great team they are as partners and directors. They are so in sync and are very passionate about the stories of the ordinary and transformative, specifically involving animals. The interview was as uplifting as this short, which is part of the Docs Short Program 1 at Sundance, screening January 28th at 9 AM MST. Buy tickets at tickets.festival.sundance.org

KAITLYN SCHWALJE

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you two to “Snowy”?

ALEX WOLF LEWIS: The people you see in the film are my family, that’s my Uncle Larry, Aunt, and those are my cousins. As long as I can remember Snowy has been around. I was always marveling at the fact that this little poor turtle had the will to keep living for so long. It went from my cousin’s bedroom to the kitchen, and then the basement. He just kept getting lower. Not that there is any ill will towards the turtle in that family, but they were busy. My Aunt and Uncle were working, all three of my cousins played sports so they were traveling. I just felt like we had to do something, and that something just happened to be a documentary. Kaitlyn and I were looking for a way to collaborate, and I felt we had a story here.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: He described to me the story and I was trying to wrap my head around it, that there was this turtle living in a basement. In my imagination there was no tank, it was just a roaming free range turtle living off of cardboard and crumbs. Then I got to join Alex for Thanksgiving at his Aunt and Uncle’s house and see the turtle myself. I have a background in Science Journalism. So I was imagining taking an angle of it being a family comedy, but also really trying to get inside of the turtle’s head. We just went for it from there.

WOLF LEWIS: One of our favorite documentaries would be “American Movie”. We both grew up with “The Office” and “Arrested Development”. The elements were there. And Kaitlyn was there to guide us through story-wise. 

ALEX WOLF LEWIS

MARTIN: Kaitlyn, science being a strong part of your background, how did that play a role into filmmaking?

WOLF LEWIS: Before Kaitlyn answers I want to say that “Snowy” is the first documentary film she’s ever made, and she’s incredible.

MARTIN: Wow, that’s impressive!

SCHWALJE: That’s very sweet Alex. Growing up I always had a fascination with film. I remember making a slasher movie with my cousins and cutting up pieces of fruit roll up to use as gashes. So there was always a love of film and storytelling. But I was definitely a math and science kid. That was a big driver through to my mid-twenties. I studied physics, and like many people who studied physics I was seduced by the romance of space and fascinated by how things work.

Then I started working at the Walt Disney company in their research division doing a lot of work at the soldering table, building prototypes. A lot of precise and tedious labor. But the work we were doing was fascinating. I was in the haptics division, so I was developing prototypes that simulated touch. Like the feeling of an animal heartbeat on your back. I thought it was so cool, this mechanical approximation of a very human sensation and I just wanted to get out of the minutiae of soldering circuit boards, and more into the talking about it. From there I took a lot of turns, but in the end I came full circle back to my love for film and storytelling. 

KAITLYN SCHWALJE BTS with Snowy

WOLF LEWIS: I did want to chime in, because I feel that Kaitlyn is selling herself short. After Physics, the logical jump for her was to become a radio producer. She was working for The Leonard Lopate Show in New York for a little while. Then she got a degree in Interaction Design at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design where she worked on a lot of science related projects. I think that’s why Kaitlyn can make a movie and she’s incredible because she’s had this research background, and then she has a design background which translates for me as an extreme attention to detail. Then she went to the SALT Institute in Maine where she studied podcasting, and then got into written journalism. She did a story for 99pi, National Geographic and other platforms. So I feel like you missed a couple turns-

SCHWALJE: I mean it’s a lot of left turns. When you make too many left turns at some point it’s like ‘what’s going on here?’. My dad is an engineer from a family of engineers so it was always an acrobatic routine trying to explain my life path to him and convince him that everything was going to connect at the end. 

WOLF LEWIS: Do you think that it did?

SCHWALJE: Absolutely. 

Gerald Butler (300) in cold blooded cognition lab at the University of Lincoln (UK)

MARTIN: That’s great. And I love how you bring all of those scientific experts and a psychic into Snowy’s story. Can you talk about that?

SCHWALJE: It started when I got in touch with this woman Dr. Irene Pepperberg. She’s famous for teaching this Parrot named Alex how to talk. A lot of her work is on animal cognition, specifically with parrots. And I knew that I wanted an expert voice to elevate the film. I got in touch with her, she’s super lovely, but she said, “I’m a parrot lady, not a turtle lady. But there is this woman in England who you have to talk to named Dr. Anna Wilkinson who runs the cold blooded cognition lab at the University of Lincoln.” So I called Dr. Wilkinson up and she was very welcoming, as scientists are. I find through interviewing people, scientists are the most generous with their time. It seems in their DNA to educate the public about their specific field of study. I spoke with her and she said, “yeah, come interview me.” I put the phone down, and found Alex sitting outside on our deck, and I asked “Alex, do you want to go to England?.” In Alex fashion he immediately responded, “Hell yeah.” 

MARTIN: And how did you meet the psychic?

SCHWALJE: I found her through a Huffington Post article, it was something like “Best Pet Psychics in America”. She was in Jersey City and we just went over and explained the project. We came with photos of Snowy and explained the situation. And she just gave us this incredible reading. 

WOLF LEWIS: But we were happy to find out that Snowy loves us. 

SCHWALJE: When we went to England to visit Dr. Wilkinson, we made a pit stop in London because I had never visited before. We went to visit the Royal Veterinary College, and they toured us around. We saw skeletons of different turtles, and got to peak into their dissection lab. There were containers full of brains and plastinated horse heads cut in slices, lungs, hearts. It was otherworldly.

WOLF LEWIS: Kaitlyn’s dream vacation.

SCHWALJE: It was a dream. 

Uncle Larry cleaning Snowy’s aquarium

MARTIN: I want to talk about Uncle Larry, next to Snowy, I feel he is the heart of the film. Can you talk about him and his transformation?

WOLF LEWIS: Everybody in our family was incredibly willing to be on camera. We felt so lucky. And they were hosting us, always trying to feed us. Uncle Larry and the others would always ask, “why are you trying to make this film? Who the hell will watch this?” It was kind of the joke, but not really.

Uncle Larry is a very open minded person in a strange way, so he never took any of this personally. At the end of the day he didn’t really have the bandwidth to think about Snowy more than make sure he was fed, had water, and a clean tank. When you get into a routine in your life it’s easy to keep doing things by rote or by habit. The whole point of the movie was to shake up the family, shake up the situation in a fun loving way. And he was in on the humor of it, but he really did have this revelation. At the end of the movie he says he saw Snowy in a different light. Larry was expressing his gratitude at times. And thanking us for shaking up his routine. He said that he was going to try to take that into different aspects of his life, so he can try to see everything else in a new light. 

SCHWALJE: Larry had the best of intentions in being Snowy’s caretaker. But with very little information it was revealed that he wasn’t doing nearly enough to take care of him properly. Our takeaway was that there is always room to better understand people’s life experiences outside your own, whether it’s your mother, your neighbor, or your pet turtle-

WOLF LEWIS: That has been locked in your basement for 25 years.

SCHWALJE: Yeah [laughing]. 

Uncle Larry with Snowy

MARTIN: I loved when Snowy was brought outside roaming around in the grass. Such a freedom.

SCHWALJE: He loved it. He was basically in a persistent state of hibernation, because he didn’t have a heat light in his previous cage. The transformation from him being in his shell for the majority of the day to out and exploring was huge. 

WOLF LEWIS: Also, we passed along all of the recommendations that Anna Wilkinson gave us. One of them was that turtles get kind of freaked out by glass cages and there were a bunch of other things that we did based on her recommendations. Mind you when they got Snowy there wasn’t the vast amount of resources that they have now online, that you could just google in how to take care of it. So when they got into their habits of taking care of it they were like, “he’s alive, he’s surviving, I guess we must be doing something right.” But surviving does not mean thriving. 

SCHWALJE: That’s the spookiest bit, and kind of the thing that hit home the most for me was that line, survival is not proof that you are doing a good job of taking care of somebody. It’s not proof of happiness or contentment. Sometimes people or creatures are alive simply because they’re survivors.

MARTIN: Talk to me about the women and team behind “Snowy”.

SCHWALJE: We’d love to! Our editors are a German couple (Katharina Stroh and Alexander Heringer), who actually got stuck behind the travel ban when visiting Germany to see their families. So there was a lot of back and forth with zoom. Kata (Katharina) is amazing. She’s infinitely patient, and she and Alex also just independently brought all of these great ideas to the edit. 

We have a producer, Rebecca Stern, our guiding force, our lighthouse in stormy weather, who worked with Alex as the director of “Well Groomed”. 

WOLF LEWIS: I was the DP. 

“Well Groomed”

MARTIN: We covered that film, it’s great! One of our contributing writers interviewed Rebecca Stern.

SCHWALJE: She’s great. Through her we also met our producer Justin Levy. Our executive producers are also this ferocious group of ladies: Meryl Goldsmith, Dana Nachman, and Cheryl Dillard Staurulakis. They’re definitely collaborators in the truest sense of the word. 

And Caroline Hadilaksono was our illustrator. Before we found out about Sundance and were deep in quarantine, I wanted to make a bunch of swag around the short, to give me some outlet and something to pour my energy into. We teamed up with Caroline, and made a bunch of temporary tattoos, bags, and posters. She is the design eye for everything we do. 

KAITLYN SCHWALJE BTS of “Snowy”

MARTIN: Was it exciting for you to be selected for the festival?

SCHWALJE: It was like a shot of adrenaline to life in quarantine, it jumped us into high gear, and gave us something to live for, when life and Maine weather was otherwise looking pretty bleak. 

We looked at the odds of getting in and there was no world in which we thought it was going to happen. We’re super proud of our movie and thought we had something special, but considering all that is happening in the world we didn’t think there would be room for us. So yeah, we were thrilled.

WOLF LEWIS: And the responses we’ve been getting from people have been overwhelming to us. Kind of in the same way that you’re saying, that this film is something we need, or something that the world needs. We are very grateful. I do think that we did try to do that with a thought provoking, unpretentious and intimate story, everything from start to finish. We wanted the film to feel like a cookie that your Grandma baked for you. 

ALEX WOLF LEWIS makes a new friend, “Snowy” BTS

MARTIN: Can you tell me anything about this “The Turkey Relocation Project”?

WOLF LEWIS: We’re still figuring out what form “The Turkey Relocation Project” will take. Will it be a short, or a part of a series, or a feature?

SCHWALJE: I can say that we’re super into these animal stories, at the heart of it it’s about looking at how animals and humans share space and resources, and the kind of stories that fall out of that conflict, that compromise. There’s a lot of humor and frustration, but there’s also a lot of ethical considerations around where we draw the line between the human and animal world. And that is something we’re having to constantly contend with as a species. It changes and it’s a constantly evolving thing. We hope that the projects, the ones we have in mind are bringing focus to this.

WOLF LEWIS: In a similar sense we want to spark joy and wonder, and not take too serious of an approach, but also in the same way know that you are left with a good feeling, but also you’re looking at your own life, or even the life of your pet. You’re hopefully looking at the world in a little bit of a different way, and it doesn’t feel too much like a vaccine or a shot. 

SCHWALJE: Humor is the sugar that helps the medicine go down.

We also hope to take very ordinary subjects like a neighborhood squirrel for instance and run so far with the idea that we arrive at an unimaginable place. A place of wonder. A previous project I did was on the history of urban squirrels for 99pi. Something I discovered in writing and producing that I’m carrying over is that urban animals can be kind of therapeutic to people, and doing some kind of a social service. Having a pet that doesn’t belong to you, but belongs to all of the residents of the city, it can do wonders for people’s mental health. And it’s kind of an element that I hadn’t really looked at wildlife like that before.

WOLF LEWIS: We’re hoping to adapt that podcast into like an animal series, and “The Turkey Relocation Project” will also fall into that.  

MARTIN: Final question, what do you hope people will see in your film?

WOLF LEWIS: I hope that they can try and re-examine elements of their own life, in the same way that Uncle Larry took a hard look at Snowy. And I hope that they can take that sense of wonder and fresh perspective to make the world better or make a relationship that you had better. 

And the message would be if you put in the time to understand somebody or you put in the time to try to figure out what somebody actually needs, you might be surprised. It’ll take you down a fun path and next thing you know you’re on a train heading to the University of Lincoln. And then you’re in a room full of numbered tortoises, named Gerald Butler. Follow that path.

SCHWALJE: Follow that path with some openness and humility and there’s all sorts you can discover about people and creatures.

MARTIN: Anything else?

WOLF LEWIS: The one thing we want people to also do is check instagram because Kaitlyn has started this amazing online series with interviews and photos of pet stories. Everybody we know has this incredible story about how something happened to their pet. We want people to send in their stories, and it’s a fun way to engage. 

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: The stories are about everything from the deaths of childhood hamsters to vodka loving parrots and a plan to bury a beloved cat in Central Park. Please share, we’d love to hear from you. No story is too small. Find us on instagram @snowy_the_film  #housepetstories 

Indigenous Filmmaker Erica Tremblay charts her road to making “Little Chief” and future projects

If there’s anything that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, it’s the sovereignty of joy. And how for so long our stories have been relegated to a time period and to a certain traumatic response baseline. I think it’s just time for us to realize that we can live in trailer parks and be happy. We can have successful jobs and still be indigenous. Joy is just so important. I’m so excited to see so many indigenous artists out there starting to explore what it means to be a modern happy indigenous person. 

Erica Tremblay
Erica Tremblay

We kick off 2021 with indigenous filmmaker Erica Tremblay, who represents a new kind of filmmaker for a new kind of world. 2020 broke us down and rose us up. We saw more clearly through an epidemic the injustices in our culture, which brought us closer together as humans.

The quarantine has also forced the industry to step back from the glitz, glamor, and the box office numbers and really take a look at what’s missing in story and representation. This year, a diverse array of scripts have been written by underrepresented artists, along with initiatives like #StartWith8Hollywood that are connecting these underrepresented storytellers to top level executives in the industry. The ways of Old Hollywood are starting to fade and it finally feels like we’re coming to this place where they are allowing the experiences of these underrepresented writers to inform the characters that we see onscreen. They truly embody the voice of the people.

I’m excited about filmmakers like Erica Tremblay because her stories come from a place in her heart, and she brings indigenous stories to the screen that celebrate the culture of the modern day indigenous people. I first came across Erica Tremblay and her work at Sundance 2020, which premiered her short film “Little Chief” that stars Lily Gladstone (“Certain Women”, “First Cow”). The film is about an indigenous woman who teaches at an elementary school on a reservation. Over the course of a school day, you see how her life intersects with that of a nine-year old boy. The film touched me, and when Erica came up in my recent research of indigenous female filmmakers, I was reminded about the unique and heartfelt nature of her story.

In our interview, we talked about Erica’s road to filmmaking and to her short film project, “Little Chief”. We also discussed future projects, and her thoughts about indigenous filmmakers and storytellers bringing their stories to the screen.

Regarding her future projects, I’m very excited to follow “Fancy Dance”, recently accepted into the Indigenous Black List, and a Sundance Lab. “Fancy Dance” synopsis: Following the disappearance of her sister, a Native American hustler kidnaps her niece from her white grandparents and sets out for the state powwow in the hopes of keeping what’s left of their family intact.

REBECCA MARTIN: What got you into filmmaking?

TREMBLAY: I’ve always been drawn to storytelling as a way of communicating. One of my favorite things when I was a kid was listening to my uncle tell all of these crazy stories and they would always change, and we were like, “Ok, uncle, that was not what you said last time.” 

Also, I think when you grow up with a lot of indigenous folks around, there’s this use of creativity and humor that helps you get through some of the trauma that everyone is experiencing collectively. For me, growing up, I loved going to the video rental stores. I was obsessed with Shirley Temple, and the Little Rascals, and we would watch those tapes over and over again. I just fell in love with the idea of telling stories. 

When I got into high school, I convinced my mom to buy a VHS recorder. I think it was a used one from Goodwill. I started recording little films and little movies in the neighborhood. They were mostly these little plays and musicals. They are completely awful [laughing], and I don’t even know if we have a lot of them still, but I would edit tape to tape, and create these little stories. When I went to college, I knew that I wanted to do something in that realm. I didn’t go to a formal film school, but I took all of the production classes that I could get my hands on. 

Shortly after graduating college, I just packed everything that I had in my car and drove to LA. Looking back on it now, I was very naive in thinking $800 was going to be enough to live in LA. But I think if you put your mind to something, you can just work your way through it.

It took a lot of years to get here. I was in advertising for a while, and I worked on the publishing side of things in New York City. I was doing doc work on the side. Finally, a couple of years ago, I realized I just needed to try and make filmmaking my sole focus. That’s what I’ve been doing, really pushing and trying to make films, and have my own career, as its own sustaining job.

MARTIN: Did you grow up in an indigenous community?

TREMBLAY: I grew up half in Missouri and half in Oklahoma in a town called Seneca. I’m from the Seneca-Cayuga Nation. We have a reservation, but it was not like a reservation that you think of, and that you see in the movies, as one tribe on a reservation. I grew up in a very patchworked community with a lot of indigenous as well as non-indigenous people around. Certainly my mom was on council. She was always a part of tribal politics and we were deeply embedded in that community growing up. 

MARTIN: What brought you to “Little Chief”?

TREMBLAY: Growing up, my mom taught at the Wyandotte school, or the Turkey Ford School, which is where we shot the film. My sister is older and she has also been working in the Oklahoma school system. I’ve never been a teacher, but I’ve just been in the schools and around my mom and my sister’s classrooms for so long. 

They say write what you know, and I sat down and had a cocktail napkin full of different ideas and I was like, “you know what, I’m going to write a love letter to my mom and my sister, and really all of the other matriarchs that are in our community that are really struggling to push through their own traumas to provide safety and education to our youth, and also bring love and joy to the youth community.”

A lot of people talk about “Little Chief” being this really sad film, and it is in a way because it tackles some complicated topics. But I also think there is such joy in seeing this woman provide a moment of quiet meditation for this young boy. And I witnessed that in my mother’s classroom, everything from her pushing the button and saying “teachers, we’ve got a runner” to her running after a wayward student. I think this relationship is really strong in the indigenous culture between adults and youth. It’s great to see people like my mom and my sister and so many others do the best that they can to be there and teach our kids in culturally specific ways. And it was cool because every single kid that’s in the film is a member of a Haudenosaunee nation.

MARTIN: That’s great!

TREMBLAY: Yeah, we got to bring them all in and collaborate with each other. We were able to have this really awesome day. And I didn’t realize until we were on set that it wasn’t just that these kids were going to be a part of this film, but they got to see a professional film set. They got to know what it looks like to be behind the scenes. It hadn’t occurred to me that even that was going to be something that was going to be leaving an impact. And now they can all imagine being a member of a crew, or can imagine telling their own stories, and seeing themselves as filmmakers.

Lily Gladstone in “Little Chief”

MARTIN: I first became aware of Lily Gladstone when I saw her in “Certain Women”. My immediate reaction to her performance was, ‘she is amazing and why haven’t I seen more of her?’ I love that you had her in that main role. How did you connect with Lily and get her to be a part of this project?

TREMBLAY: All along the way, I was busting through these imposter syndrome walls that I had built up inside of myself, and I was like, “Oh I’ll never get into the Sundance lab, and oh I’ll never do this, or I’ll never do this.” I have been such a huge fan of Lily’s, she’s such a talented actor. 

I emailed her and gave her an impassioned plea. I said, “Please read the attached screenplay, it’s a love letter to my mom. We have a very small budget, but we would love to have you come to Oklahoma and do this film with us.” And she did it. She read the script and she took a chance. She’s at this place in her career where she does not need to do short films, but she took a chance, and she gave me such a great feeling of confidence going into it knowing that I would have her there. She worked so graciously and generously with all the other actors. She’s great and my goal is to keep writing parts for her, and to keep working with her if she will have me.

Erica Tremblay

MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?

TREMBLAY: I still feel like I’m learning so much. But I think that my big advice is to just learn, read and write, and to just practice, and do as much as you can, and find mentors. Look for people in your community, and people around the community that are doing something similar to you, and get together, and make things.

I think if I could go back and tell myself anything, it would have been to just get started sooner. Just make things and get your voice established. You don’t have to have the best camera, you don’t have to have the best lighting. But what makes a difference is if you have a real story that is authentic to you that comes from a new place like Old Hollywood’s establishment has not seen before. They are finally starting to carve out some space for us. 

Another thing is to just be collaborative and to be generous. If you see someone who is doing something and you come and hand out water, or volunteer, they are going to show up for your projects. Collaboration is just a huge part of it.

I can’t say enough about all the mentorship and lab experiences I’ve had. Whether you’re a native artist or you identify as some other way, just google what that is and look for resources. Through the NACF, through Sundance, and through Visionmaker Media, for me those organizations have brought so many amazing opportunities, because I didn’t have a formal film school background. So apply to those opportunities, and you’re going to be told “no” over and over and over again, but then you’ll get into one, and you’ll build a baseline of networking but also just your own education. That’s been crucial for me and my growth.

MARTIN: What’s coming up for you?

TREMBLAY: I’ve got three projects that are currently formulating and percolating that I can talk about.

First, “Fancy Dance” is a narrative feature film that I wrote. It’s an aunt and a niece road trip story. I really wanted to explore the relationships between aunts and nieces because in our indigenous culture, that is really strong. We don’t see those kinds of relationships on screen. I just wanted to lean in. 

I’m also a queer indigenous filmmakers. I want to see queer indigenous filmmakers on screen and in stories that aren’t necessarily based on their sexuality. In my mind, Lily in “Little Chief” was queer. But we don’t see any of that. So it’s kind of like just placing people in their world. “Fancy Dance” just made the Indigenous Black List. It’s also a part of the Sundance Indigenous Intensive, and the script made it into that Sundance Lab. It’s really exciting to have the momentum behind this feature film that I co-wrote with another indigenous writer. 

A second project that I’ve been working on for 3 years now is a feature doc called “Sisters Gone”, which documents the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in Alaska. The epidemic is really horrific all across North and South America, but I’m focusing on Alaska because of certain challenges. It’s extremely horrific with what’s happening there because of the safety of indigenous women. So I’ve been working on that project, but obviously because of COVID, everything has been shut down. 

And a third project that I’m working on is another feature doc called “Wave Guides”, which documents female indigenous musicians. It shows how through corrupt ethnography and historical depictions, we’ve lost our connection to female indigenous folks and the power of the music that they create. It’s really awesome to see some of these modern artists taking that power back and using music as a guide to communicate. 

MARTIN: Any final thoughts?

TREMBLAY: If there’s anything that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, it’s the sovereignty of joy. And how for so long our stories have been relegated to a time period and to a certain traumatic response baseline. I think it’s just time for us to realize that we can live in trailer parks and be happy. We can have successful jobs and still be indigenous. Joy is just so important. I’m so excited to see so many indigenous artists out there starting to explore what it means to be a modern happy indigenous person. 

And that’s what I’m trying to do too. Familial bonds and community ties are so important to all of us. It’s great to see projects come out that celebrate us as communities and cultures. 

#StartWith8Hollywood, an initiative making waves in the film industry for Women of Color

Interview took place 9/18/20, bringing it back for awareness of #StartWith8Hollywood mission and program.

These days, in a time where we are mostly isolated and at home, hashtags are uniting us through the movements that are emerging. A few months ago, there’s a hashtag that lit a fire underneath the Hollywood industry: #StartWith8Hollywood, an initiative that connects well-established industry mentors to eight Women of Color working in the entertainment industry. What has come from this initiative is meaningful relationships between the people that can make things happen in the industry for the women of color who are going to bring aspects to the screen that have never seen before. It’s exciting to see this unfold. There are many groups like Cinema Femme who have been adamantly elevating the voices of womxn and WOC in film to impact waves in the industry, and get the attention from those who can effect change. #StartWith8Hollywood showed they are listening, and that there is a need for this kind of program, and programs like this to create change, rather than just influence.

#StartWith8Hollywod is the brainchild of Screenwriter and The Bitch List founder Thuc Nguyen. The idea came from her work in the tech industry, and her participation in a #StartWith8 program where she met with high level VCs in the industry. #StartWith8Hollywood picked up momentum after film producer Cassian Elwes caught interest of the initiative and Thuc teamed up with Women of Color Unite founder Cheryl Bedford to develop and implement the initiative. The mentees are first pooled from the members of Women of Color Unite, which includes 1,600 Women of Color in film. Round 1 has completed and 600 meetings were taken, with 300 mentees participating. Round 2 will kick off this winter.

I first connected with Thuc at Sundance, and meeting her, I felt an immediate bond. She is an inspiration to me with her drive and impact through The Bitch List, and now the #StartWith8Hollywood initiative. There was a lot to talk about during the interview. This feature focuses more on the #StartWith8Hollywood initiative, but stay tuned for more pieces featuring Thuc and her inspiring work.

Thuc Nguyen

MARTIN: Before we get into #StartWith8Hollywood, let’s talk about The Bitch List. How did The Bitch List get started?

NGUYEN: The idea for The Bitch List came to be after I saw this woman named Anita Sarkeesian in this series called “Feminist Frequency”. She did an episode on the Bechdel test and Oscar nominated films and screenplays. She said “let’s look at the Oscar nominated movies and screenplays, how many of them pass this low bar test to give women better dialogue.” The stats were not great. I was like, “you know what, it’s too bad we have to wait until the Oscars to see all this. The public policy major in me is like let’s go up river, let’s work this at the screenplay level before it goes further. And that’s where we can give women better dialogue.”

MARTIN: I love that, and all the work you’ve been doing over the years with The Bitch List. Moving on to #StartWith8Hollywood, you were you the one that started the hashtag?

NGUYEN: Yes, I actually tried to do it by myself a couple times on Twitter, but nobody bit. Then the third time I got a big fish right off the bat with Cassian Elwes. When he reached out, I realized I needed help. Then I reached out to Cheryl Bedford, (founder of Women of Color Unite & The JTC List) with Women of Color Unite. That’s when we got real organized to service more and more people.

MARTIN: What is the concept of #StartWith8Hollywood?

NGUYEN: Actually the hashtag was a springboard from when I worked in the tech world with #StartWith8 in Silicon Beach. And it was started by a Venture Capitalist firm called Alpha Edison. I was one of the 8, I spoke with venture capital companies through that program. I thought ‘why can’t we do this through another industry?’ And we did.

MARTIN: What are the dynamics between mentors and mentees?

NYGUYEN: In our mentor league we have several VPs from film studios, VPs of animation, etc. Then we have a bunch of A-List Showrunners, and even a casting agent and a DP. So we’ve gotten mentors from all different areas in film, but they all have been super-top notch. I’m really blown away by them. First we start with a general conversation between a mentor and a mentee, or a general meeting, or a get to know you. The conversation expands from 15-minute phone calls to one-hour zoom, to a life-long mentorship. Mentors are doing their homework, and choosing from a pool of mentees, that was purely organic, that wasn’t the original set up at all. 

MARTIN: Where do these mentees come from?

NGUYEN: There is a base of 1600 women in Women of Color Unite, the non-profit who I partnered with for the initiative. Then we go and connect them to a mentor from there. I began personally with Women of Color that I knew, whether if it was habituate, or someone who I admired online, or people who I’ve kept in touch with over the years.

MARTIN: Is #StartWith8Hollywood now an organization, and is there a hub where mentors can go to seek out their mentees?

NGUYEN: Yes, we’re just about to come up to Round 2. Round 1 was a huge success with about 600 meetings. You can find more details at startwith8hollywood.com.

MARTIN: That is amazing!

NGUYEN: Not to toot my own horn, but with these inclusion initiatives at these studios or production companies, they maybe get 20 people in a year to participate. But we got 300 women of color into the program in just a few months. 

MARTIN: Have you been seeing these women getting jobs from these mentorships?

NGUYEN: Right now we’re at the beginning stages. Scripts are being read, so it takes a few months to see. We had one woman tweet that her mentor liked her script so much that he sent it to a production company, and they asked to have a meeting with her. It was a super fast process, and he was the producer of “Peanut Butter Falcon”. 

MARTIN: I see a program like this making a dramatic positive shift in the industry. It’s so exciting. Do you feel the same way? Do you see a little hope through this process? 

NGUYEN: A little more because the feedback has been so great from the mentees. I never dreamed in my lifetime that I could talk to all of these people who are top-level in the industry. It’s really hard if you’re not born into it honestly, to be able to get time from these VIPs. You can’t just call their offices and say, “hi, can I have a meeting?” But through the program you can.

MARTIN: With the pandemic, do you feel that it’s been easier for these VIPs to be more accessible?

NGUYEN: Yes, it’s been easier with everyone being at home, they’re not stuck in traffic or anything like that (laughing), so I feel that has been a tremendous influence to the initiative.

MARTIN: Also, #BlackLivesMatter, has really alerted the industry about their lack of diversity and inclusivity. Do you think the movement has also shined more of a light on #StartWith8Hollywood?

NGUYEN: I’ve seen the hashtag #BlackStoriesMatter online too. I think a lot of our society reflects on what is portrayed in the media, and not seen. With #BlackLivesMatter it has shined a light on the stories that are not represented onscreen.

MARTIN: For screenwriting, any new projects?

NGUYEN: During the pandemic, I actually wrote another screenplay, a genre screenplay about a vampire and werewolf It was a lot of fun to write.

A conversation with YELLOW BIRD author Sierra Crane Murdoch about real-life hero and anti-hero Lissa Yellow Bird

This year, two people from True Crime novels came to our Cinema Femme pages because of the way their story struck me. Earlier this year, I spoke with Nancy Miller about Michelle McNamara, author of the book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which followed her investigation on finding The Golden State Killer. I was inspired by her drive, and the impact her research and book had on closing the case. Before I knew about her book, I saw the documentary created by Liz Garbus and Elizabeth Wolff.

The other person that caught my interest and my heart is Lissa Yellow Bird from Sierra’s book appropriately titled Yellow Bird. The woman’s drive and complexity and no nonsense attitude brought me deeper into the story. The premise of the book circles around Lissa. In 2009 she is released from prison, and now living in sobriety, as she was a meth addict prior to her arrest. Upon release she sees that her home, the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, has become engulfed by the Bakken Oil Boom. The oil boom has altered the people on the reservation through a newfound wealth and the construction of the land with the surge of the white population coming to work, creating these camps on the reservation. Within this new landscape, Lissa finds a new purpose when she hears that a white oil worker, KC Clarke, has gone missing, and she makes it her quest to find him.

Lissa’s story rippled in me an awareness of what I was not seeing onscreen. Where are the indigenous stories and indigenous female stories? The book inspired me to take a deeper look into the indigenous female filmmaker community who are telling these stories. Read my profile with these filmmakers, and coming soon is my interview with indigenous filmmaker Erica Tremblay.

I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Sierra about Lissa. I learned that Lissa has an extreme empathy for people who are discarded in society. Lissa’s story is complicated, but it also reflects the experiences of many people in her community. Sierra linked up with Lissa because of her unique perspective on the oil boom, along with her statuses as an outsider not living on the reservation and an insider who grew up in the reservation’s community. Simultaneously Sierra reported on the investigation of KC within the politics of the reservation, and the crimes related to the oil boom. She also did a deep dive into the history of the reservation. When I asked her about how she pieced the book together, she responded, “It was an interesting project where it required these very different forms of reporting, kind of wrapped up into one. And it required some kind of compartmentalization in that sense. This is the part where I’m totally in Lissa’s life, this is the part where I’m doing all of this historical and archival research, and this is the part where I’m investigating how this really happened. And I like all of those things.”

We talked mostly about Lissa, as this is what drew me to the book. And it was great to hear from Sierra that there are plans to bring Lissa’s story to the screen. I am so happy that Sierra covered Lissa’s story, otherwise I would have not been as aware of what has been missing on the screen. I’m excited for more people to read this book and eventually see her represented onscreen.

Author Sierra Crane Murdoch poses for a portrait on Sunday, July 14, 2019, in Hood River, Oregon, United States.

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to Lissa and this project?

SIERRA CRANE MURDOCH: I met Lissa in 2014. I had already been going to her reservation for about three years reporting on the oil boom. I was drawn to this story about the murder because I had been reporting on crime on the reservation, and I was reporting on the lack of criminal jurisdiction over non-native people who had flooded there to work with the oil boom. 

I was reporting this story, but more in a scattered journalistic fashion, and I knew that at some point I wanted to write something bigger. I wasn’t sure yet what I wanted my focus to be, because I had observed this radical transformation of this community for some years, and I knew that transformation was going to continue. When I met Lissa I was first of all immediately taken with her because she is dynamic, and she is brilliant. She’s surprising, you know? She has all of these interesting qualities to her character that you don’t expect to find in one person. I write at the end of the book she is kind of iconoclastic, you cannot fit her in a box. 

MARTIN: And I love that.

CRANE MURDOCH: Agreed. And yet at the same time she has lived this life where she has had many experiences that a lot of people, particularly women from her community, have had as well. I found her story to be both representative and non-representive at all at the same time. But mostly I think what initially I saw in my conversations with her in the time I spent with her in the very beginning, as she was trying to find out what happened to this young oil worker KC Clarke, and as I was beginning to follow along with her and her journey, I realized that the way that she saw the oil boom was far more interesting than the way that I could see the oil boom. 

I also felt that as a member of the tribe, she also had a particular, interesting perspective on the boom because she was someone who had left the reservation. She lived off the reservation for a lot of her life, then she had gone to prison when the oil boom was beginning. When she got out of prison, the reservation had been leased to oil companies, and the boom had already begun. She was coming home and she was seeing it with fresh eyes. So she had that really interesting position in this story as someone who was both an insider, and an outsider. And that gave her a perspective on this crime and this oil boom that I felt like no one else I met had.

MARTIN: I loved how you used Lissa’s story and relationships as a window into the history of the tribe. I also love how you walk us through the multi-generational stories of the women connected to Lissa’s life, like her Grandmother, Mother, and even her daughter Shauna. Can you talk about that?

CRANE MURDOCH: Four generations, and even five, because I talk about Shauna’s daughter in the book, and you also meet Lissa’s Great Grandmother Nellie, which makes six. That layering of generations was really important to me when I was writing the book. It became just as you implied, it wasn’t something I initially set out to do, but it became important as I was reporting the book for several reasons. I think first from the beginning, I understood this book as a history and a commentary on white violence, a legacy of white violence throughout generations. This boom was a culmination of that legacy in many ways, and one more stop in this long pattern of exploitation of these resources from the reservation. So I was interested in that, and I was interested in that interplay of violence towards the land and violence towards people, and the way that the violence ripples through and across communities and generations.

The theme of inter-generational violence and inter-generational trauma was something that came up a lot in my conversations with Lissa and her family members. I wanted to be very cautious that I wasn’t taking a frame and placing it on their family. But it was something that her family talked about a lot. Lissa’s mother is a social worker and a professor. Her uncle, who helped raise her, is one of the foremost scholars on decolonization theory. 

MARTIN: They’re smart!

CRANE MURDOCH: They’re smart and they also have their own frames for their own stories and on their own histories. It was really exciting to talk to them about that and their way to put their own stories in their own contexts. It felt really meaningful, I felt really comfortable integrating their thinking into the book. And then when it comes to the women in Lissa’s family, I write a lot about this tremendous violence that they’ve all experienced. And that felt important to be able to trace the intergenerational trauma, to really understand Lissa and where she’s come from. But then when I thought about the tremendous violence that she experienced, that she had inflicted herself, and what she had survived, I found myself very often thinking why? Why did Lissa survive?

MARTIN: She’s a superhero. 

CRANE MURDOCH: It seemed like luck in a lot of ways. At one point her daughter Shauna says, “My mom is like a cat who has nine lives, but her lives do not run out.” I do think there was a lot of luck, but also Lissa is a very tenacious person. She has a lot of resilience herself. I also thought a lot about the idea of intergenerational love. The reason why Lissa survived, to me at least from what I’d gathered from spending all of those years with her and her family, was that she had this family, this network of relatives all around her of all generations that supported her and taught her, and felt sad when she was going off the rails and suffered along with her. They went through a lot of the same things she was going through too, or had gone through them, and were able to kind of understand that from their own perspective. It was that intergenerational love as an antidote to intergenerational shame or trauma that really allowed her to survive.

MARTIN: Can you talk to me about the “why?” You ask this question in the book: why is Lissa so driven to find these lost people that don’t have anything to do with her?

CRANE MURDOCH: That’s the question I open up the book with, right? I don’t know if I want to spoil it for all of your readers. I’m happy to comment on it though. Not to disappoint people, but I realize the answer is both so many things and is also incredibly simple. There are all of these theories that come out through the course of the book. Like Lissa’s daughter Shauna says, “She’s just an addict, she’s trading one addiction for another.” I think and Lissa thinks there is some truth to that. She was trying to fill this time and try to find a distraction for herself that was healthy. Over the course of searching for KC Clarke, she found so many reasons for why she was doing it. 

I do write about how she has this unbelievable deep well of empathy, which is really rare. Lissa has this empathy for people who go missing whom no one else looks for. She is an advocate for the kinds of people who are discarded by society. And she is also someone who has felt that she could be discarded by society at points in her life. 

There are so many personal and not personal reasons. At one point I ask her and she says, “it just makes me happy. It makes me happy to help all of these people.” So there were all of these simple reasons. I think people will have to read the book to come around to their own conclusion and feel the full force of all of those reasons, and how they are all connected in this really essential way. 

An important aspect of that too is that those reasons evolved. She went from searching for KC Clarke to now searching for indigenous women all over the country. Her search for KC became something bigger. And there are all kinds of reasons why she searches for indigenous women with it being a really massive issue in this country, and she feels she has the skills and the drive.

MARTIN: You spent a lot of time with Lissa. Was there anything you learned or gained during your time with her?

CRANE MURDOCH: I don’t even know where to begin with that question [laughing]. Going to this reservation first of all has defined my adult life. I was 22 years old when I started going there writing about the oil boom. The people I’ve gotten to know there have completely influenced the person who I’ve become. And Lissa more than anyone. At this point I probably know Lissa more than any person in my life. I’m incredibly close with my family, but you don’t ask your family the kind of questions I ask Lissa. 

MARTIN: She’ll give you a straight answer. [laughing]

CRANE MURDOCH: She has no shame. I think so many things. I think that the time I’ve spent with Lissa has really made clear to me what’s important in the world. I was drawn to her initially because I felt this deep level of empathy from her, and this ability that she has to really connect on an intimate level with almost any person, probably any person. And I found that connectivity to be almost intoxicating to be around, when you’re with someone who is that willing to tell the truth. She’s a very complicated person, but also just unbelievably loving.

MARTIN: She’s a lot of things. 

CRANE MURDOCH: At this point in our relationship we still talk, all of the time. It’s not so much a journalist relationship as I’m the person with whom she’s willing to share almost anything. And she also knows quite a bit about my life. I think it’s her deep well of empathy and her ability to feel empathy for literally anyone in the world. That has been the most important lesson for me.

MARTIN: What do you hope readers will see in this book and what do you hope they will take with them?

CRANE MURDOCH: I love that you reached out to me because like you, what really drew me to this story was what you described to me in the very beginning, having a woman protagonist who’s so dynamic and so complex and who could be this hero and this anti hero at the same time. Lissa was so willing to do this with me. I was drawn to Lissa because she had so little shame — she understood how valuable the complexities of her story could be, and she shared those with me knowing people will read it. That’s probably been the most exciting thing about this process, knowing that there are readers who have experiences like she has, and who are reaching out to her. She is constantly getting letters from people in prison, or people from her own tribe are showing up at her door asking her to sign the book. The book really has resonated with people I hoped to reach, and that she would hope it would reach. And that’s really exciting. 

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

More on Lissa!

This American Life “A Mess to Be Reckoned With”

Lissa Yellow Bird searches for missing people. Cold cases, mostly. People no one else is looking for. It’s not her job, but a lot of Native Americans go missing and their cases remain unsolved, so families often ask Lissa for help. But then, Lissa’s own niece goes missing.

Zeina Durra delves into her dreamy Sundance film ‘Luxor’

NOW STREAMING

Sundance Interview from February 4, 2020.

What I love the most about dreams is that they can take you into worlds that you’ve never visited, introduce you to people you’d normally never meet, and make you feel at home in an unfamiliar world. In a dream, there are pieces of a world that is slightly connected to your own, which makes it familiar, although not recognizable. The film “Luxor” was birthed from filmmaker Zeina Durra’s dream. Pregnant at the time, the Egyptian city Luxor took a prominent place in the director’s psyche.

In Egypt, the idea of birth and rebirth is symbolic and significant. As you walk through the ancient city, you see this cycle reflected through the tombs, the hieroglyphics, and the stories of the past. The main character in “Luxor” is Hana [Andrea Riseborough], a British aide worker taking leave from her work at a borderland war zone. She returns to a familiar place of her past, Luxor. Upon her return, Hana runs into a past love. The set-up creates a fertile ground and an atmospheric space of Egyptian tombs, sandy landscapes, the romantic Nile, and the beautiful skies lingering on our psyches. I enjoyed speaking with Zeina Durra, learning more about her process and how she was so uncompromising in her work. A vivid dream can create a beautiful piece of art.

Zeina Durra, director of Luxor, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Billal Taright.

REBECCA MARTIN: What drew you to this project?

ZEINA DURRA: This film I was working on was kind of falling apart. I was super-depressed, and then I had a dream. In that dream, I dreamt about a woman who was in Luxor. I told my friend about the dream, and I was trying to work out the strong emotions that I felt in it. That was the basis of the story. 

MARTIN: How did you bring Andrea [Riseborough] into the role?

DURRA: The casting director, Kate Ringsell, connected us. Andrea read the script, and we spoke over the phone. She was in Senegal, I was in this small British town called Cotswolds, which was kind of funny, and then she said “yes” to doing the film.

MARTIN: What I love about her character is that we don’t know everything going on there. Her character is subtle in her emotions, yet you can read so much about her, even though we don’t know all of her backstory. 

DURRA: She was really good with an existential crisis. She could really act that. There’s a lot of space in the script to give her room to do that. 

MARTIN: I love the script and the dialogue. There were so many lines I had to write down, especially the ones that circled around the words “pregnancy”, and “birth”. One of the lines that stood out to me was “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born.” 

DURRA: That’s Antonio Gramsci, not me, he’s an Italian writer. She quotes him. In the screenplay she says that it’s Gramsci, but we thought it was a bit pretentious, so she says she’s forgotten it, where the quote has come from. 

MARTIN: There did seem to be a theme around children, pregnancy, and birth.

DURRA: I was pregnant when I wrote it. But the film is more about birth than rebirth, really. Egyptians are obsessed with that idea of birth and rebirth. It was actually an archeologist that basically helped me make the film. I asked her whether it be blasphemous if I was breastfeeding my son in the heart of Thebes tomb. I had to breastfeed him down there, because he’s a tiny baby. But she said, “No, Thebes would be so happy, because it’s life being given in her tomb.” And that’s what it’s all about. 

MARTIN: I loved those parts when Hana was walking around the tomb. And there was moment I noticed where she has this quick flashback. It’s only a moment, but I noticed it. She seemed to be rediscovering herself in those tombs. Could you comment on that?

DURRA: The walls speak. These places are pregnant, as Salina (Salima Ikram) says in the movie. When we were discussing the film, she told me that when a pagan has been worshiped for thousands of years, the walls cannot help. The place cannot help because it has this energy in the divine. Even an archeologist, who’s an academic, is aware of that.

MARTIN: I love that. Now I have to tell you about my favorite scene, where Hana is in the hotel bar, and she is dancing. It’s so uncomfortable, but so brilliant.

DURRA: I laugh and I cry every time I watch that scene. 

MARTIN: It starts and you’re laughing at the uncomfortableness, and then you see such a range of emotion. 

DURRA: Often when someone is releasing something, it’s really funny at first, and then it gets quite dark. She wants to laugh, she wants to live, she’s so lost. She’s not supposed to drink, because it’s not really doing her any favors. 

MARTIN: That’s so right.

DURRA: You know when someone’s drunk and there’s been something going on, and they’re being really funny, but then you’re like, ‘Oh no, this is getting messy, it’s getting dark.’ That’s kind of what I wanted to touch on.

MARTIN: Can you talk to me about your cinematographer? She did an amazing job in capturing your story.

DURRA: I’m very hands on. I frame everything, and I choose the lens. I’m very hands on. What Zel [Zelmira Gainza] did was amazing. She was amazing at getting into my head. I frame everything, I set up the composition, and I do all of that. Zel basically gets into my head, and then manages to do it the way I want. It’s really hard to find someone who can actually do that. We discussed the lighting. She was able to get these beautiful soft lights throughout and got what I wanted. She was so good at doing that. That’s what she really focused on. I was good at doing the set-up. 

MARTIN: What made you choose that place Luxor?

DURRA: It was in my dream.

MARTIN: So you had been there before?

DURRA: Yes. The reason why it worked so well is because you got the ancient, with the birth and the rebirth theme, you’ve got the colonialists’ structure with the Windsor Palace Hotel, and then you have an old Middle Eastern city. I feel like that’s kind of great, you know? Then there’s the countryside. There’s the backdrop with all of these different layers. 

MARTIN: I love that you don’t know the whole story, which is suggested primarily through the atmosphere.

DURRA: Yeah, you’re getting it, and that’s why the film is so great. People seem to not have faith in film anymore–well, not all people, but some people. You can read what I’m saying, but it’s just done through images. The language of images is so universal that you get it without me spelling it out. That’s why I am not writing a novel, and I’m making a movie. 

MARTIN: What advice would you have for emerging female filmmakers?

DURRA: Basically I’ve learned to do what I did then: stick to your guns, but be flexible. Here’s the thing, I really stick to my guns. But if something is not working, and I have to change locations, I’m very happy to change it. I feel like you have to be flexible as a filmmaker. You’re not giving up your vision. Look at the scene, learn what the scene is really about, and see if you have to produce it in another way if it’s too expensive. If it’s not working out on the day, because there’s a problem with a location, just stay with the essence of the story. Don’t be too crazy, it’s okay. Don’t paralyze yourself.

People ask me how do I maintain the integrity of the work? Well I work with different budgets, and you work with actors that give you final cut. Do you want to have a film that’s really amazing, that’s true to you? Or do you want to make films with famous people, and then you might not be able to do what you want? If you do a studio movie, know that it’s not going be all yours. You can try your best, don’t try to take on something that you won’t be able to control. Being in control is so key to your existence. So you do things for less money, and you find actors that are willing to work with you. 

MARTIN: Well I can’t wait to see what you do next. I love the transformation of Hana in this film. I also wanted to mention Karim Saleh, who played Sultan, and is fantastic. He had such great chemistry with Hana.

DURRA: He was there in Hana’s life to remind her what she was like during that time. She is really funny with him, in their dynamic. He kind of reminded her, he didn’t show her, but because of his presence, he reminded her of how it used to be, what she was, and how she lost herself and became melancholy. 

You know sometimes when you hang out with people that you knew from a long time ago? And you kind of revert to that time?

MARTIN: Yes I do.

DURRA: My husband always says that he prefers me with my childhood friends. You can’t help it when you’re with a certain group of people where you just had fun, and you weren’t serious with them. You’re very relaxed with them. It’s kind of different. 

MARTIN: Because they know you-

DURRA: That part of you that feels so relaxed. 

MARTIN: Last question. What was your motivation for doing the titles, kind of like preview titles, throughout the film?

DURRA: It was a decision I made with my gut, to kind of bring in the meta narrative, because all that stuff was there and very relevant. It was just kind of another situation, a philosophy of life, you know? 

MARTIN: Any last thoughts you’d like to add?

DURRA: When you’re a young female filmmaker, the ones that stick around, the ones that actually make films, those are the ones you’re going to know now. And just meet as many people as possible. Keep in touch with people, be kind, it’ll happen, you know? Because you will find your people.  

MARTIN: I love that.

Kyra Jones’ directorial debut sheds new light on sexual assault in “Go to the Body”

Kyra Jones is a force bubbling up in the industry. Her directorial debut “Go to the Body” (which is aiming for a 2023 release), has been winning pitch after pitch contest (Chicago International Film Festival, Screencraft), along with raising over $20K on its GoFundMe page. Kyra’s trio of producers, Angellic Ross, Aimy Tien, and Taylor Wisham, are the force behind the project and are equally passionate about getting this story onscreen. Head producer Angellic Ross took Kyra’s script into the Full Spectrum Features Independent Producers Lab, which gave the film the momentum it needed to succeed.

Kyra Jones

The 2014 graduate of Northwestern University, who now holds a position there as Assistant Director of Sexual Violence Response Services and Advocacy, has been working as an advocate and educator for quite some time. Her work in Sexual Violence Advocacy has been infused in her creativity and writing. “Go to the Body” is born from that and sheds new light on it by exploring, as Kyra puts it, “the ripple effect of sexual violence” in the Chicago Black community. Kyra said, “it’s not so Chicago that people can’t relate to it from other cities,” and likened her film to Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”. Both films have personal stories, which have led to Kyra’s success in pitching a film that is personal to her. Her advice for emerging filmmakers who are starting the pitch process is, “There is going to have to be some kernel of you in the story, somewhere. Find that, lead with that, lead with what inspires you to write the story, and why it is important.”

“Go to the Body” follows Sanaa, a rising racial justice organizer who is sexually assaulted by a fellow activist and tries to push past her trauma and return to her normal life. The only thing standing in the way is her fiancé, Kendrick, an overprotective boxer who has his own idea of justice.

“Go to the Body” Production Still, cinematographer, Hannah Welever

REBECCA MARTIN: What was your journey in making “Go to the Body”?

KYRA JONES: In addition to being an artist, I do work as a Sexual Violence Advocate, and a Sexual Violence Educator. I’ve been doing that even before the Assistant Director position at Northwestern. I did that during college while I was an undergrad at Northwestern, where I was a Peer Educator.

I ended up doing a double major in theater and gender studies and had an independent study in sexual violence in the Black Community. That was really inspired by the volunteer work I did at a Chicago-based anti-rape organization called Resilience. I was training to be a volunteer medical advocate, to go to the hospital to meet with survivors with an evidence collection kit. We had to go through a 60-hour training session. One of the first trainings that we had was about the history of sexual violence. The person that did that presentation was fantastic. They talked a lot about the history of sexual violence in the United States really being racialized sexual violence, and how white men had the impunity for raping black women for a really long time.

Mrs. Recy Taylor, 1944, credit: “The Rape of Recy Taylor” Courtesy of The People’s World/Daily Worker and Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

They talked about this woman named Recy Taylor who was gang raped. This was in the pre-Civil Rights era, during the 1940s. She was gang raped by six white men, and there was a lot of organizing happening. Her case got seen in front of two grand juries. They were ultimately all never indicted, but the fact that they made it to the grand jury was a big deal at that time. What really struck me was the fact that the main organizer that was doing all the work to get this to happen was Rosa Parks. And this was a decade before “the bus”. I was astounded that I not heard about this story. It just brought to light how much Black women’s experience with sexual violence has been downplayed or even erased from our historical narratives. That prompted me to do my independent research and to continue working specifically with sexual assault survivors. That’s where a lot of the inspiration for “Go to the Body” came from.

“Go to the Body” Production Still, “Kendrick” (Brian Keys), cinematographer, Hannah Welever

There was a mix of things I wanted to explore in “Go to the Body” with sexual violence in the Black community. First, the experience of secondary survivors who are friends and loved ones of people who’ve experienced sexual violence. A lot of people don’t know that’s a trauma in itself to witness a loved one go through that, the psychological impacts. I wanted to explore that through Kendrick’s character. The story follows a couple, Sanaa and Kendrick, in the aftermath of sexual assault. Addressing sexual violence and preventing sexual violence should not just be seen as a women’s issue, we need to think about how men fit in here. That is also something that is explored through Kendrick’s character.

The character Sanaa is an activist. There’s been a long history of men in the movement who are in positions of power, abusing that, and using a Black woman’s silence as a way to help move along the movement. And to use Black women’s silence not to perpetuate stereotypes of Black men being rapists.

BTS of “Go to the Body”, Kyra Jones and team, cinematographer, Hannah Welever

MARTIN: How did your team come together for this project?

JONES: My team is super-passionate. They are so on it, and so innovative, and dedicated. They are all my friends, which is really lovely, and they are all the producers. The head producer is Angellic Ross, and then there is Aimy Tien, and Taylor Wisham.

I wrote the first draft of the script two years ago. I wanted to hear it out loud, which helped me as a writer. I had a little table read with some of my actor friends and both Aimy and Angellic were there. They loved the script and they immediately were like “this is amazing”, and “is really impactful.” But then I got swept up with other projects and convinced myself that this would never get made. I put it aside for over a year. Angellic was applying to this program that Full Spectrum Features has for producers, the Independent Producers Lab, and she posted on social media, “hey, does anyone have a full feature script?” To apply to the program you need to apply with a full-feature script. And I was like, “I have one.” And she asked, “Is it ‘Go to the Body’?” I totally forgot she went to the reading. She assumed I already had a producer because it was so good. So she took my script and she ended up getting into the program, which launched the process. I did not have a clue of what to expect. Then she brought Aimy on, and subsequently brought Taylor on as the impact producer. That’s all how it came about.

Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave) written by Leelee Jackson. Image for virtual Juneteenth performance directed by Kyra Jones

MARTIN: Is this your first directing project?

JONES: Yes, this is my first feature effort as a director, but I also directed a Zoom play during quarantine. It was a virtual production of Leelee Jackson’s play Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave). This was a way for me to cut my teeth on directing, so I could see that I could do it and that I’m not biting off more than I can chew.

MARTIN: When will the trailer for “Go to the Body” be out?

JONES: It will be out in January. We shot five scenes from the full script. And we are cutting them all together so we can show them to potential stakeholders, and for all the people who donated to our crowdfunding, we want to show them what is happening in the process.

“Go to the Body” Production Still, “Sanaa” (Al Kelly), cinematographer, Hannah Welever

MARTIN: How’s it been going filming during the quarantine?

JONES: It was not as bad as I thought it would be. We just filmed during three days in October. We all had to get tested 3 or 4 times. Everyone on set, except the actors, had to wear masks, and we had to all be socially distanced. All drinks had to be individually bottled. It was just small things like that. We were waiting to hear what the protocol was going to be. There are a lot of scenes that require contact, like boxing, and there’s also romance, so they’ve got to kiss. But as long as the actors got tested and they were comfortable with it, it was fine. For a smaller production it’s not so bad, but I’m sure for these big motion pictures, it’s a pain in the ass, like hundreds of people will need to be tested regularly.

Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”

MARTIN: I wanted to read you a quote from Anthony Kaufman, programmer of the Chicago International Film Festival, which he made in response to your win of their pitch competition: “‘Go to the Body’ is a sensitive look at the complex dynamics of race and sexuality within a Chicago Black community that is both emotionally resonant and completely of-the-moment.” What are your thoughts on that quote?

JONES: I cringe because I think about how I had to turn in an early version of the script, but I’m flattered by Kaufman’s thoughts about the film. This movie is very Chicago. I can’t imagine setting it anywhere else. But it’s not so Chicago that people can’t relate to it from other cities.

I was watching an interview with Barry Jenkins about “Moonlight” and he was saying that even though the film is very Miami, people across the seas in Europe felt it, and could really relate to the film. I think it’s that same situation where it’s Chicago, but it’s also everywhere. The film is timely now, but also was timely when I wrote it two years ago. When it’s finally released in 2023, it will still be timely. Sexual violence and racism will still be an issue.

Michaela Coel in “I May Destroy You”

MARTIN: What filmmakers and creators really excite you?

JONES: I love Michaela Coel and I May Destroy You, that finale I feel is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television. I wrote my script before the series came out, but there are some similarities in tone, which kind of moves in and out of comedy, that I feel people don’t anticipate. I feel I need to talk more about the tone of “Go to the Body” because I think a lot of people will see the film as super heavy and depressing. I’m like, “actually, some parts of the film are funny.”

“Go to the Body” Production Still, “The Opponent” (Jalen Gilbert), cinematographer, Hannah Welever

MARTIN: Do you have a timeline for production for the film?

JONES: Sort of. The biggest thing is raising the money. The film is going to very expensive, especially because it involves boxing. The stunts make it pretty expensive. The film is going to be close to a million dollars. It’s going to be a lot of pitching to investors.

Kyra Jones on a set pre-quarantine

MARTIN: You are really good at pitching. What advice do you have for emerging filmmakers who are pitching to investors?

JONES: It is so funny that I keep winning these pitching competitions, because I hate pitching. But it’s a necessary evil. My biggest advice is to find your personal connection to the story. Not that the story has to be autobiographical. “Go to the Body” is not autobiographical, I’ve never dated a boxer. But whatever it is, there is going to have to be some kernel of you in the story, somewhere. Find that, lead with that, lead with what inspires you to write the story, why it is important. Answer the questions, like “why you? Why are you the best person to tell the story and why now? Is it timely?”

Pitches vary in the time you’re allowed to do it, and they vary in what you’re pitching. If you are pitching the story and you’re just pitching the script, that’s going to look different. My pitch for Screencraft was just the script, and I had only three minutes. When I pitched for the Chicago International Film Festival competition, you were also pitching the whole production. We had to talk about where we were in the timeline and what our budget was, and how we were going to make that happen. Also, if you can have some kind of pitch deck that you can share with some kind of promotional materials that will be very helpful, especially for stories like “Go to the Body” that are very unique. We got a lot of feedback that people couldn’t even imagine what the film looks like.

It was really nice to have photos to share for the proof of concept. You don’t have to shoot a whole proof of concept, you can just stage photos, or make a look book and find images from other films that are similar. Comps are also really good. Find a couple other films or television shows that you can say, “this film is a mix of this and this”, that will give people a really good reference. For one of our pitches, we got feedback that there was no comps for our film. But I call it a mix between “Creed” and I May Destroy You and “If Beale Street Could Talk”. That may not be super accurate, but it elevates the tone and visualization of the film.

“Go to the Body” Production Still, “Kendrick and Sanaa”, (Brian Keys and Al Kelly) cinematographer, Hannah Welever

MARTIN: What do you hope people will see in this film?

JONES: What I’d like people to see in this film is first, the ripple effect of sexual violence. I feel like when I have watched the limited television and film about sexual violence, it’s really focused on the survivor and their internal struggle. But also it’s just about one type of emotional reaction, one type of trauma reaction. I want people to see that you can have a varied array of reactions to sexual trauma, and none of them are wrong. Everyone knows a survivor, whether they know it or not. Somebody could be acting completely fine, or maybe a little closed off, and maybe that’s because they’ve experienced something traumatic that they have not disclosed to you.

Two, I want people to see, as I mentioned, the ways in which Black women are silenced even more than survivors of other races. I’ve said in my pitch the central thesis question, “What do we really mean when we say protect Black women, and what happens when physical protection is not enough?” Boxing kind of comes in with the idea of fighting back physically. We talk about protection and we automatically jump to physical defense, especially for men, “I need to protect my girlfriend, or my partner.” In the matter of sexual violence, no one else is usually there, which makes it difficult for a survivor to physically fight back. I really wanted to dive into the messiness of that question.

Those are some of the big things I hope people get from the film.

BTS “Go to the Body” “Sanaa and The Opponent” (Al Kelly and Jalen Gilbert) cinematographer, Hannah Welever

MARTIN: Final thoughts?

JONES: I wanted “Go to the Body” to be really purposeful in that it was not treated as a crime drama. I think I almost never see shows that had some sexual violence that didn’t have some reporting to police or a court storyline. The vast amount of people do not report it, especially Black women. There’s so many reasons why women don’t report sexual violence. The system is not set up to give survivors justice, it’s set up to protect men from being accused of sexual violence. It’s even worse for Black women. And the police are not safe for a lot of us. That was something that was really important for me to portray in this film, one of the many reasons why Black women do not feel safe reporting to police and what it looks like to heal outside of the criminal justice system, and to look at other types of accountability.

Dawn Porter captures an awe-inspiring legacy in “John Lewis: Good Trouble”

We featured this interview on July 1st, 2020 before John Lewis passed. Dawn Porter won Mind the Gap (California Film Institute and Mill Valley Film Festival) Documentarian of the Year on 11/25/20.

Black Lives Matter. There is a man named John Lewis, who has fought for that for over 60 years, and is still fighting for that in a way that creates results. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, should watch Dawn Porter’s documentary, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and learn from this man. John Lewis started out as an activist in the 1960s leading Non-Violent Protests through sit-ins, freedom rides and walking side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr. across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. He has been beaten, he has been verbally abused, he’s been thrown in jail, and his response takes the form of peaceful protesting. Then he went on to become an impactful congressmen in 1987, and he continues to serve in that role to this day.

The legacy that John Lewis has built is impacting the younger generations by showing what peaceful protesting and good government looks like. Through John Lewis’ story, we can see that it’s possible to reach across the aisle and make REAL change. Some of the younger members of congress that Lewis has taken under his wing include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Antonio Delgado, and Cory Booker, all of whom give me hope for this government. And that is why we must come back to what John Lewis almost lost his life for many times: the right to vote.

I was honored to talk to Dawn about how she came to this doc following the completion of her “Bobby Kennedy for President” Netflix series, the achievements of John Lewis as both an activist and a congressman, and the legacy she hopes to leave through her filmmaking. “John Lewis: Good Trouble” will be available on demand and in select theaters starting on Friday, July 3rd.

John Lewis

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?

DAWN PORTER: I had just finished a series for Netflix called “Bobby Kennedy for President”, and I was still mulling over these questions of how you make social change. I was also really thinking about what it was like during that era. How did we accomplish so much during that time period? John Lewis was in the Bobby Kennedy series, he worked for Bobby Kennedy. Lewis set up the rally for the Black community in Indianapolis, and the rally was supposed to take place on the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Many of Kennedy’s aids said, “This is too dangerous, you should not speak to this audience.” And John Lewis said, “You should absolutely speak to them. They’re going to be upset, and they need to hear from you.” Bobby Kennedy spoke that day and he gave what some people consider his best speech. It’s one of the only times where he had spoken about his brother being murdered. And Indianapolis was a city that did not have rioting and looting that night.

Their relationship was really interesting to me, as was how they both approached change–Kennedy from within the government and Lewis outside of it. So when CNN came to me and asked if I’d be interested in doing a documentary on John Lewis, I just jumped at the chance to continue thinking about those ideas. How do you make social change? What is the role of an activist?  What does it take to get some real things done? That’s how it started, and we went on from there.

John Lewis, Selma, crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge

MARTIN: This film is so relevant, all the time, but especially now in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the protesting, and the upcoming elections. From your point of view, what do you hope people will take the most out of this film, and put into action?

PORTER: Obviously we could not have imagined that this film would strike such a chord in the way it has. For me working on this film has been a very positive experience of history, knowing that there is a long story tradition of protests in this country and that history has been successful. There was meaningful change that was introduced directly as a result of this citizen pressure. As we think now about that similar kind of citizen pressure, I think that it’s important for us to remember that this is not a light thing that we do. This is the most critical important thing we can do. To participate is to make our voices heard, both by protest but also by voting. 

When we started out, I wanted people to remember that John Lewis is still a working legislator and is still crafting legislation for social change. But I also wanted to remind people of what it took to assure voting rights, and how those rights are still in danger. I think today, it is absolutely imperative that people think about how they live their lives, and how they can assure that some of the structural barriers to advancement for so many people will fall. Not all of us are going to march in the streets, but there is something that each of us can do.

It’s as small as beginning with yourself. Why do you hold certain attitudes? Do you cross the street when you see a black man coming towards you? Do you get nervous in an elevator? We must really challenge ourselves about how we make stereotypes about African Americans and really think about how we live our lives. 

I do think we are seeing how our democracy really needs care. It is a participatory democracy, and if we value that, we must participate. So I hope this film encourages that type of participation, but also reminds us that you do have power as a citizen, you just have to choose to exercise it.

John Lewis, Selma 1965

MARTIN: The film was very educational for me. It highlighted things that I feel I’d love to adopt or that our country should adopt in practice, such as the Non-Violent Protest workshops. I was so impressed by John Lewis and how peaceful he was as a protester, even with everything that was coming at him. He did not react in a violent way. I feel I would need a lot of workshops to deal with all of the things that were thrown at John.

PORTER: I’m glad that you brought that up. I was struck the same way by that. We all know how brave John Lewis and the other Civil Rights participants were, but I wanted to highlight that they were also really strategic. They studied and prepared these civil actions, and I think that’s really an important lesson for us. If you want to make lasting change, you need to organize and prepare. I was so moved by what Bernard Lafayette, who is one of John’s contemporaries, says in the movie, “We couldn’t go back, because we had changed.” Studying and really thinking and contemplating about what they believed in changed them. They couldn’t accept segregation anymore. They just couldn’t accept it. There wasn’t a choice for those students. I was really struck by how this was so fundamental to their character.  They couldn’t stop breathing nor more than they could stop protesting. 

This is what archival footage does for you. You see how resolute the students were. There’s the footage of the students when they’ve all been arrested and the narrator says, “They were given a choice, pay a fine or go to jail. Each of them chose jail.”

Most of us avoid jail at all costs. But what these students did was so powerful, that idea that there was this strength of purpose in the planning. We know that Nashville was integrated as the result of direct student action. They focused on these facets of life that impact everyday people, like where you eat, where you shop, and how you travel. What they were asking for was so modest. They simply wanted to be able to order a hamburger and a coke, or travel by bus. 

When you think of it that way, you realize that it was those behaviors that they identified as being fundamental to American society. Because these activities are where people can interact. They knew if they could integrate those places, segregation would fall. And that is exactly what happened. 

John Lewis, the activist and the congressmen

MARTIN: I was also struck by how John Lewis could reach across the aisle and get things done with the Republican Party. That was shocking to me, and gives me a little hope for our government.

PORTER: If a person is as strong in his convictions as John Lewis, and can reach across the aisle, then I think the rest of us can too. No one can accuse him of being a sell-out, or not being strong enough. When you’re on the outside and asking for change, you see how you can afford to be fixed in your opinion. But when you are a legislator, it’s a different skill set, it’s a different kind of work. Compromise should not be a dirty word if it leads you on the correct path. I think seeing his maturity and how his career evolved over time was really interesting to me. It was interesting to me, as a person on the other side of their career, to explore how people continue to change, evolve and grow? And then in doing so, how do you make room for the next generation? That’s what I see him doing, making that room and creating that space by saying, “This is what we’ve done, this is where we’ve came from.” He makes space for people to do things their way. 

I have a lot of respect for him. He reached out to new members of congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Antonio Delgado and Cory Booker. He is supporting them not as a photo op, but because he believes in good government. They are our next generation of leaders. We have to tell these stories, and we have to pass down this knowledge. That was really interesting to me. I was a PolySci major. I am interested in the mechanics of things and it helped me understand that.

MISCELLANEOUS PHOTOS/DAWN PORTER DOCUMENTARY, ON CONGRESSMAN JOHN ROBERT LEWIS . MAY 30, 2019

MARTIN: You’re great at capturing onscreen the legacies of very important people in history. What legacy are you trying to leave through your work?

PORTER: Oh wow. What I’m really trying to do is help fill in some of the details of history, and allow people to think about things that they thought they knew, maybe in a new way. I really am curious about people. I do tend to be of an optimistic faith. I’m curious about what makes a good leader, what pushes somebody to speak up. I’m curious about people that we think we know but there are things in their lives that are so important that we may not realize that those are the things that are pushing and motivating them. My first film was about public defenders, which I think are so misunderstood. I would always ask people, ‘What’s the one job that’s guaranteed in the constitution of the United States?’ The thing that you wave that flag about is the 6th Amendment, the right to a lawyer. And that says something about what we all commonly believe, supposedly is that we don’t lock people up without a fair process. I’ve always been interested in how we live up to and how we go about enacting rules that lead us to the civilization that we want.

I think all of my films are an examination of what it means to be a good citizen, and how to improve life not just for ourselves but for other people. I’m also a big proponent of the small film. I feel like you learn so much by giving people their best opportunity to explain themselves by respecting what they want to say rather than what you want to say. I’m a big believer in that. I hope that people will see that connection in my work, even through the different styles, like archival and vérité. Right now I’m doing a film about Pete Souza, Obama’s White House photographer. It’s very different from other films that I’ve made. I just love that there are so many different ways to come at filmmaking. It’s just this endless opportunity, and I love it. 

Sacha Polak’s beautiful and raw “Dirty God” places us in the skin of a burn victim

Sacha Polak

“Dirty God” is an incredibly beautiful film. It contains moments that are gut-wrenching, but also heartwarming at the same time. This dichotomy drew me deeper into the character of Jade, who became a burn victim after her ex-boyfriend threw acid in her face. As I learned from my interview with the Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak, this is a common act committed against women in the UK. In 2017, the number jumped to 465 attacks against women.

Set in London, Sacha’s first English film features Vicky Knight in an impactful performance as Jade. Vicky is a burn victim in real life. Sacha was looking for a burn victim to play this character, and having Vicky play Jade was important to her. “I wanted the audience to feel the skin Jade lives in,” she noted.

“Dirty God” comes to select theaters on 11/13, and on demand 12/15.

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?

SACHA POLAK: Newspaper articles came out about girls committing suicide after nude photos had been put online. One stood out to me about a Norwegian girl who took revenge after her ex had put nude photos of her online by putting even more nude photos online herself. Other articles were related to the different acid attacks that have taken place in England. Katie Piper’s attack is one of the more infamous cases. And on the other side, a girl threw acid into her best friend’s face out of jealousy. Another story in 2013 was of two English girls who went to Zanzibar to do voluntary work and they got acid thrown into their faces by men passing them by on a moped. All of these stories inspired the story of “Dirty God”, along with my collaboration with my co-writer Susanne Farrell.

Vicky Knight in “Dirty God”

MARTIN: How did you find Vicky Knight for the role as Jade?

POLAK: We approached Lucy Pardee for the casting. She also did the casting for “American Honey”, and she is a star when it comes to finding the right non-actors. Through ASTI, Lucy and I met several different girls with burns, along with connecting with Katie Piper and Changing Faces.

Vicky’s background is very similar to Jade’s; she comes from the same neighbourhood and she too lacks a father figure in her life. She was in a fire, and two of her cousins died in that fire. Vicky was the sole survivor. The trauma and the incident is different, but “a burn is a burn,” as she says.

Vicky has television experience. She appeared in a program called ‘Too ugly for love’, some kind of dating show. They hadn’t told Vicky the title of the programme in advance. Afterwards she received horrible emails, and nasty things were written about her online. Even with all of that, it didn’t keep her from being very enthusiastic about participating in our film. While casting, she turned out to possess an incredibly natural way of acting and a fantastic charisma on screen.

The rehearsal process was a long process. We started taking dancing lessons together because she needed to dance. This helped in opening her up. I also taught her how to swim. Every week we went swimming. We became very close and still are.

Vicky Knight in “Dirty God”

MARTIN: I think now more than ever we need films like “Dirty God” that normalize stigmatized conditions. How important was it for you to find an actor who is a burn survivor for this role?

POLAK: Very important. I wanted the audience to feel the skin Jade lives in. I’ve considered Jade a heroine right from the start. She is someone who has an emboldened attitude to life. She has no option but to accept what is in front of the mirror. She regards her situation with humour and an armour of aggression.

“Dirty God” is a film about a young mother who lost herself in a terrible accident, but who eventually in the search of her identity learns to accept herself.

What sticks in my mind is that all the women I’ve met who got burned were forced to find a way to come to terms with their new appearance. Whichever path they chose and however they did or did not manage, it was their path. What is universal about it, is that for each and every one of us it is challenging to be confronted with feelings of external beauty versus internal dignity. A challenge for every woman in the world.

Vicky Knight and Bluey Robinson in “Dirty God”

MARTIN: What’s the meaning behind the film’s title, “Dirty God”?

POLAK: The idea is that everybody deserves a good God. Jade has the feeling that her God is punishing her. I think people can sometimes relate to that feeling.

“American Honey”

MARTIN: Watching the film, I could see influences from filmmakers like Andrea Arnold (“Fish Tank”, “American Honey”), and Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher”, “Morvern Callar”), because of the rawness of the characters. To what extent would you consider these filmmakers an inspiration?

POLAK: I am a huge admirer of Lynne Ramsey and Andrea Arnold.

MARTIN: Our readers are mostly emerging female filmmakers. What advice would you give female filmmakers just starting out?

POLAK: The advice I would have for all filmmakers is try to be yourself, follow your heart, and be brave!

Shalini Kantayya shows how sci-fi is becoming reality in her AI doc “Coded Bias”

I have found myself in the midst of discovering another hero of mine. Shalini Kanyayya is my hero because she elevates, through her own work, trailblazing womxn in the AI industry. “Coded Bias” follows Joy Buolamwini through her investigation of implicit bias in face recognition technology. Joy has a PhD from the MIT Media Lab and has pioneered techniques that are now leading to increased transparency in the use of facial analysis technology globally. Through her journey and research, we connect with different experts in the field, such as Cathy O’Neil, who wrote Weapons of Math Destruction, a book that sounds the alarm on the danger of the math behind algorithms that are widening the inequality gap and undermining democracy. We also become acquainted with Silkie Carlo, the UK director of Big Brother Watch, which is monitoring the trial use of facial recognition technology by the UK police.

Shalini and I discussed how she got to this project, her passion for science-fiction and how it is reflected in her documentary choices, and how her activist approach to filmmaking was influenced by her experiences with the independent film community in New York. Starting on November 11th, you can watch “Coded Bias” virtually at the Metrograph (NYC), and watch the panel at 8 PM ET with Shalini, Joy and Cathy. For information about all upcoming virtual screenings, visit codedbias.com/virtualcinema.

Shalini Katayya

REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: I’m a science and science-fiction fanatic. A lot of my work deals with disruptive technologies and how they impact the marginalized. My last film was about small-scale residential solar power, and how it could be helpful to the environment while uplifting working people. With this film, I stumbled upon the work of Joy Buolamwini by watching her TED Talk. I also read Cathy O’Neal’s book, Weapons of Math Destruction, and I saw her TED Talk. Then I stumbled down the rabbit hole of these scholars, journalists, and activists who have been riding on the dark side of Artificial Intelligence. I interviewed Joy and the rest is history.

Joy Buolamwini

MARTIN: How did it come to be that Joy would be the focus of the documentary?

KANTAYYA: I interviewed several people and it organically unfolded. I also saw her as someone that was pushing from scientific research, and she was making connections to communities that could be harmed by this technology. That’s where I saw the potential for a story. 

Joy Buolamwini during interview with South African journalist

MARTIN: Was it a choice to have mostly women as your subjects for the film?

KANTAYYA: It’s actually women who are leading the industry for AI, and leading the fight for ethical uses of AI. I found this to be true through my research. I didn’t set out to make a film that was all women, but then it sort of emerged that way. I only started realizing it after many people began commented on it, like after we screened at Sundance. Everyone asks about it. And I think people are astounded that women talk about the technologies for the future, which should not be a surprise. [laughs] I didn’t realize how honestly revolutionary the idea was to people. 

Silkie Carlo during interview

MARTIN: Something I appreciated was that you also took the film out of the US. You brought the subject to a global scale. Can you talk about that?

KANTAYYA: I think the experts, the locations, and who I am as a filmmaker inspire how the film develops. I tend to think very globally, and think very deliberately about who I think of as experts. In this case, I thought it was important because I actually could not capture some of the vérité sequences in the US, where there are no laws. In the UK, there is a more transparent process. They have police who were actually informing human rights observers of their trial of facial recognition. It was a much more transparent process that we could observe as journalists. 

I thought China was an important parallel because it felt like a Black Mirror episode with just that: a mirror, a reflection of where we could be in five minutes with no laws. To me, this film provides three perspectives on approaching the data. In China, you have unfettered use of data by a highly authoritarian regime. Then you have the UK, where Europe has taken their own paths to putting data rights into a human rights framework. Although now it’s currently unknown what the data protections will be in the UK since they are leaving Europe, which happened after “Coded Bias” was made. In the US, it is essentially the wild wild west. It is so confusing when our democracy is so fragile, as we’ve seen in the last election. Realizing the amount of power that Artificial Intelligence will have, and how it will basically transform every sector of society in the next few decades, I really hope we have the legislation to protect us.

“Minority Report”

MARTIN: Do you feel your passion for science-fiction brings a different lens in how you tell your stories?

KANTAYYA: One of the challenges I had as a filmmaker was trying to make something, which is opaque and invisible to us, cinematic, or at least try to at least. I think I pull my subjects from science-fiction. I feel everything that I know about artificial intelligence before making this film came from the mind of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick and others. I think I try to pull from those tropes of science-fiction that are known to us to help us understand AI in the now. Shockingly, and stirringly, and frustratingly as we see in things like “Minority Report,” there are some remarkable reflections. 

Cathy O’Neal profile

MARTIN: What do you hope the audience will grasp most of all after watching this film? 

KANTAYYA: I hope it will be a game changer in how people think about artificial intelligence now, and think about the power of big tech, like the silent hand of algorithms and how they can encroach on our civil rights. I hope that this is a film that people can engage with, and cause them not to feel like, “Oh my god, this is magic,” or, “This is math, I can’t talk about this.” Technology influences our lives and we’ve seen with the current crisis that we actually need to understand science to meet the problems of the next century. It’s very key. My hope is that the film will also be a tool for science communication. 

Joy Buolamwini profile

MARTIN: I see that you are bridging a theme in your documentaries through global stories and science. Can you talk about that?

KANTAYYA: My expression in films as an artist is always a way that I engage in the world, in a form of my activism. I feel there has been education and campaigns around my films. I am of the belief that films can help us empathize with people, desensitize us, and engage us with issues that we wouldn’t normally engage in. This engagement can help us be the spark for social change. This has been a principle that guides my work. 

“El Pueblo se Levanta” Third World Newsreel

MARTIN: I watched your TED Talk, and you spoke about how coming to New York really shaped your filmmaking. Can you talk about that? 

KANTAYYA: I feel so grateful to the independent film community in New York. I came to New York to intern at an institution called Third World Newsreel, and I watched films by and about people of color who used cinema as a form of activism, which spawned from a movement called “The Third Cinema”. The Third Cinema was coined by two Latin American filmmakers who believed that all films are political. They were also rebelling against this idea that cinema was just to be used as a spectator sport. They were making films to engage. During that first summer, I watched everything in their collection that was made by and about people of color who were using film to engage with an audience about social issues. 

Shalini Kantayya on set

MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?

KANTAYYA: I feel that the time is now for women and non-conforming filmmakers. It’s a powerful time for us to tell our own stories. In my films I feel like my voice as a filmmaker shifted in whose story got told. It’s my belief that if we have more women storytellers, it will change our culture. And when we master gender parity, it will be because there are more stories by and written about women. 

The other thing I would say is…damn, this is not easy, or for the meek of heart. Making films is really hard. It’s challenging to make an independent film to assert your vision to try to wrestle with the elements of happenstance. But to me, it’s also a great honor and I’m perpetually humbled by people who share their stories with me, and I’m grateful for the practice of my craft. 

Shalini Kantayya at Sundance Community Screening

MARTIN: What’s coming up for the film?

KANTAYYA: The film will be available virtually in theaters, so you can support two of my favorite things, independent cinemas in theaters across the country and films that further the conversation on racial and gender bias, as well as the inequality in the use of technologies in the future. 

MARTIN: What’s coming up for you?

KANTAYYA: I am currently working on a documentary series, and writing a script for a sci-fi film.

“Stand and Deliver”, “Thirteen”, “Down in the Delta” editor Nancy Richardson shares her stories from the cutting room

Header photo:

Directing Fellow Kibwe Tavares meets with Creative Advisor, editor Nancy Richardson, about his project “The Kitchen.”
© 2016 Sundance Institute, Photograph By Brandon Cruz

Feature film editor Nancy Richardson has been a professor and head of post-production at UCLA TFT [Theater, Film, and Television] for 19 years. She began her career with the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver”, which won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Picture and received a Best Actor nomination for Edward James Olmos. Her credits include “Thirteen”,”’Lords of Dogtown” and “Twilight”, directed by Catherine Hardwicke; “To Sleep With Anger”, “Selma, Lord, Selma” and “Annihilation of Fish”, directed by Charles Burnett; and “Mi Familia”, “Selena” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”, directed by Gregory Nava. She also edited Maya Angelou’s directorial debut, “Down in the Delta”.

“Stand and Deliver”

Other credits include director Anne Fletcher’s “Step Up”, starring Channing Tatum; director Tim Disney’s “American Violet”, starring Alfre Woodard, which screened at the Telluride Film Festival in 2008; director David Slade’s “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” (shared credit); director Michael Sucsy’s “The Vow” (shared credit), starring Channing Tatum; director Jonathan Levine’s “Warm Bodies”, starring Nicholas Hoult; “Divergent” and “Insurgent” (shared credits), starring Shailene Woodley; “Everything, Everything”, starring Amandla Stenberg and directed by Stella Meghie; and director Stephen Merchant’s “Fighting With My Family”, which screened in the coveted Sundance Surprise slot at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019.

“Fighting with My Family”

She was an additional editor on Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” and the Transformers origin story “Bumblebee”, directed by Travis Knight. Her latest project, Paramount’s thriller “Monster Problems”, starring Dylan O’Brien, was filmed in Australia and was just released in the very few open theaters, and on PVOD. It is a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.

“Thirteen”

Richardson received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for her work on the 2001 Showtime film “Hendrix”. She was invited into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2005, and now serves on the Executive Committee of the Editors Branch. She is also a member of American Cinema Editors and has been on the Editors Guild Board of Directors for more than 15 years. She has been a creative advisor for the Sundance Labs several times and helps in a similar capacity at Film Independent.

Richardson received her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley and her M.F.A. from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

Nancy Richardson

PATRICIA VIDAL DELGADO: Do you feel, at any point in your career, that you suffered gender discrimination in the film industry?

NANCY RICHARDSON: I have to say, yes and no. I think there are times when I have been hired because I’m a woman, and they are looking for a woman to edit a female story. Or I’ve been hired because of problems with the editor having a male perspective, for example if the main character is a teenage girl. 

The gender discrimination is really regarding pay. For my level of films that I’ve cut, and the level of success that these films have achieved, versus my peers who might be male and have edited the same level of films that are as successful as mine, there are times that I learn that I make about half of what they make. That’s really irritating. It’s irritating because there’s union scale and then there’s everything over scale. Your rate becomes based on what your last rate was, so sometimes if you accept a film because you just love the script and they say “sorry we can’t pay very much” and you say “that’s okay”, that now becomes your rate. Then you do a contract that you call a ‘no quote deal’, which means no one is supposed to see how little you made on the last project, but I’m sure everybody does. 

And then finally, like two years ago, a law passed that you couldn’t ask about people’s rates, because they were finding this kind of discrimination against women’s salaries. Now they can’t ask for your rate and your agent quotes the rate that they think you should be making, which usually comes down to the budget of the film itself. But it’s still really unfair. 

There’s a huge inequity and it can’t be corrected by the unions, because the unions only negotiate basic scale salaries. And I’m not sure what to do about it. There’s a lot of big action editors that make a whole lot of money. There are certainly women who are breaking into that, and that’s fantastic, but it still seems as if men are paid more than women. I hope that is gradually changing, but I have certainly noticed it in my career. 

Nancy Richardson with Koala bear

DELGADO: What are the three things you would like a director to know, if they want to be an ideal creative collaborator to their editor?

RICHARDSON: I want them to know that they need to give themselves choices in the editing room so that we have options and not lock ourselves into “this is all going to play in one” or, “they should both talk at the same time”.

I really want them to know they should be doing coverage and they should be doing multiple takes so that they have variations in performance. That way, we can then massage the scenes instead of being locked in. That’s number one. That’s really the main one. I want them to know basic technical aspects, like making sure the sound is good. 

So many times, people say, “we can loop it later”. But the film really has to play well, for a lot of people, earlier than they might think. So they need to have a solid understanding of their post schedule and what their delivery needs to be. We have to show a cut to the producers and studio before we actually can mix the sound and color and compose the music and all of those things. We also usually have to schedule an audience preview. So a certain level of technical competence is necessary. These days that includes a certain understanding of visual effects. 

Very often, particularly with new directors’ sets, they have a lot of voices on their crew. The crew will say, “oh you can fix that later in visual effects”, or “it’ll take too long for us to change that curtain color, you can change that later in visual effects”. The fact is for the thirty minutes it would take them to swap out curtains, that could cost ten thousand dollars in post-production. I have been on films where a simple thing such as a better makeup job caused a million dollars in visual effects, where they could have taken more time on set for makeup and hair or a better wig. They need to know that that’s not always the right solution to just say, “we’ll fix it in visual effects”. Often the DP or Production Designer are saying those things, people who are not around in post production. 

The film has to be able to play for the studio, and play for an audience. The film has to play as well as it possibly can before you spend all that money, do your visual effects, compose the music, mix the sound, final the color. I want them to know that before they get themselves into big trouble.

To recap, first is coverage, second is a certain level of technical expertise with sound, image, visual effects and what’s possible in those technical areas. And third, I want them to know they can communicate with me – as well as probably any of their collaborators by talking about emotion, mood, and tone as opposed to talking to me technically. Instead of saying “trim there” or “cut there” or “do this visual effect there”, I want them to give me an overview of what they’re looking for. I think directors should talk to all their collaborators as if we’re all actors. I want them to know the technical stuff, but I still want them to speak to me in terms of vision. 

“Down in the Delta”

DELGADO: You have 37 credits as an editor. Is there a project that is especially close to your heart and why?

RICHARDSON: I had an incredible experience on ‘Down In the Delta’, which I edited for Maya Angelou. Just the fact I was working with Maya Angelou was pretty much life-changing. She is just amazing. Instead of working in an editing suite, I actually was working in her house in Winston-Salem North Carolina. I was in Los Angeles and she wanted to work from her house. My assistant and I got on a plane and went there. And that was an incredible experience.

Maya Angelou was just a wise, observant, amazing person. She had several houses in Winston-Salem and the house that my assistant and I were staying in was also her office. Every day all of her staff would drive up at 9 in the morning and we would go down to our editing room. Dr. Angelou would come to the editing room and we would work on the film. That was just another great experience. She was this incredible cook and she cooked for us. She took us everywhere with her, when she would speak at events. She let us come along in her limousine to Duke when she was giving an orientation speech. It’s another thing that I’m very grateful for in my career.

Nancy Richardson working on an editing project.

DELGADO: What advice do you have for womxn who are starting out in the film industry and would like to work as editors?

RICHARDSON: Edit as much as you can, edit student shorts, and edit commercials. The bottom line is you have to get as much creative editing work as possible so you can get that experience under your belt. Some people go the route of taking a PA job, which is also a great thing to do. You learn how everything works when you’re a PA and hopefully move up to being an assistant editor, which is also a great thing to do. 

But you’re not going to automatically move into being an editor after being an assistant editor. It’s a different job. Being an assistant is technical and it’s about organization. Being an editor is creative. So as an assistant, you should be trying to work nights editing somebody’s short. There’s always people looking. I’ve had plenty of assistants say “can I stay late and edit this other person’s short?”. I say yes because it’s the best way for them to learn. 

I do sometimes give my assistants scenes to cut. But I have to know they can do good work, because not every assistant is necessarily a good editor. When I come across a student in film school who says, “I think I want to move into editing” I am immediately like, “you should try editing this film or this film, or an undergraduate film”. The more shorts they get under their belt, the better.

Joi McMillon, co-editor of “Moonlight,” is the first black woman to be nominated for the editing Oscar.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

I had an assistant on a film who I recommended she cut a couple of Thesis Films at UCLA. She did a good job and bonded with those directors. She worked not just with me, but also for years for another editor. Because she had enough editing experience under her belt, through cutting these shorts, she cut a feature that was ‘Moonlight’ as a co-editor, and she got nominated for an Oscar. And yes, she had a relationship with the director because she’d gone to film school with him. Before doing “Moonlight” she needed to learn the traps in narrative editing before doing that. And so she had these shorts that she’d worked on that were Thesis Films at UCLA. 

There’s plenty of people working as big-time editors now whose first projects they cut were shorts. Shorts that were either for AFI or UCLA or just individual independent films. So that’s my main advice, you have to edit as much as you can, and practice it. And you have to do it for free at the beginning.

Interview conducted by Patricia Vidal Delgado

Patricia Vidal Delgado is the writer and director of short films ‘Bué Sabi’, ‘Isa’, ‘Ico’, ’88’, ‘The Hood’ and ‘Caroline’. Her work has screened at both national and international film festivals including the Raindance Film Festival, Crown Heights Film Festival, Curtas Vila do Conde International Short Film Festival and the IndieLisboa International Film Festival. Delgado’s films have garnered a total of 8 wins and 32 nominations. ‘La Leyenda Negra’, her feature film debut, premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT category. As of March 2020, Patricia is a Sundance Institute FilmTwo Fellow and is represented by the talent agency Luber Roklin. Visit her site to learn more: www.pvdelgado.com

Riveting thriller “Of Fish and Men” brings healing to Swiss filmmaker Stefanie Klemm

“Of Fish and Men” is a transformative film that is part thriller, part drama. In some cases, the film is not easy to watch with its traumatic moments, but there is so much beauty we see in the setting of the Swiss countryside. The basic plot is about a mother, Judith, and daughter, Milla, whose solitary and peaceful existence gets interrupted when a stranger, Gabriel, comes to work at the fish farm with Judith. Soon after his arrival, there is an accident when Gabriel is trying to rob a gas station, and accidentally kills Milla. Judith does not know that Gabriel is the one who killed her daughter, as he was wearing a helmet during the incident. She turns to Gabriel during her grief, and he agonizes over how to tell her. This film is riveting and you will be at the edge of your seat.

I had the pleasure of not only watching the film for the Chicago International Film Festival, but also speaking with the filmmaker Stefanie Klemm. English is Klemm’s second language, and her first is German. Because of the language barrier, for clarity I have abbreviated some of her answers.

“Of Fish and Men” had its world premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival, and is expected to have the US release next year. Visit Bluebox Film site for up to date information about the film and Stefanie Klemm’s work.

Stefanie Klemm
(Headshot by Marianne Eggenberger)

“It’s quite a tragic thing,” Stefanie Klemm said, while recalling how she came to her film. “Once I was attacked and I was a victim of a robbery at the petrol station.” Klemm then opened up about the details of this tragic experience. She and a friend were there to get gas for their vehicle. It was nighttime, and the surveillance camera was not in their view. Two or three guys came at them, knocked them out, and took everything from their car. The journey to “Of Fish and Men” would start there, at a place of tragedy.

Klemm said, “I suffered from PTSD. It was 10 years ago, and I decided to not let the situation take me down.” As a creative, writer, and filmmaker she channeled her pain into the story. It was difficult for her because she explained that usually you bring your characters into terrible situations, but because of her own, she was also struggling. “During this time, I wrote a diary, and I was full of these thoughts of revenge,” she said. “I was really torn apart, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my revenge, so all of these experiences went into my script.”

“Of Fish and Men” bts photo with Stefanie Klemm and Lia Wagner, photo by Robin Schüpbach

The script started out with a woman who is attacked by a man. She later falls in love with that man. Then she finds out the truth about him. “I realized it’s too close and I have to make a shift,” she noted. The shift was for the woman to lose a child in a tragedy. “All of these experiences went into the script, and my experience as a mother,” she continued. “My son is an adult already, but I am familiar with that feeling to have a child and to always be a little bit afraid of what could happen to them. This is how the project began.”

Reading the statement of producer Sereina Gabathuler in the press notes, I was curious why there was a few years gap from the creation of the script to the beginning of production. I wanted to hear more about why she transitioned out of this project. “There were a few reasons for that,” Klemm said. She had to overcome doubt in herself for the project, as she was too close to it. Also, she had to take the time to trust her intuition and follow her heart in her development of the two main characters.

The two main characters of the film are Judith, played by Sarah Spale, the mother who loses her daughter in a robbery gone wrong, and Gabriel, played by Matthias Britschgi, the robber, who is also her friend, lover, and co-worker. Both characters have to deal with the death in different ways. They are tied together by this moment. I am so glad she followed her intuition, because she had received feedback that Gabriel’s story was much more interesting and that she should transition to him as the main character. Klemm said, “Both of these characters are the main characters, but Judith is a little bit more in my heart. I love Gabriel very much, but she is my main character too.”

Also during this time, Klemm switched to another project and it was quite successful. She received an award for this project, and she had to put all of her energy in to it. After this three-year period, she returned to working on “Of Fish and Men”.

Judith [Sarah Spale] – still by DoP Kacper Czubak

Now Klemm had the script, and she had to fill those roles with actors who could embody these passionate characters. “Yes, they all were terrific,” Klemm said, “I’m so lucky. Sarah’s a brilliant actress.” She had Sarah Spale in mind for the role of Judith from the beginning. She had admired her from her work on television. She had the main role in a series where she was a police woman. “Of Fish and Men” would be Spale’s first major onscreen role in a film. Klemm was so happy she could find Spale for the role, as Switzerland does not have a wide selection of actors. Klemm sent her the script, they met for coffee, and Spale said, “Let’s go for it.”

Gabriel [Matthias Britschgi], still by DoP Kacper Czubak

It took a longer time for Klemm to find the right actor for Gabriel. It was important that she found Matthias Britschgi. He stood out to Klemm because, “he is a bit younger. Also, he’s not the typical ‘older strong guy.'” I mentioned that he had a great chemistry with the actor who played Milla [Lia Wagner]. She said that it was natural for him to connect with her because he also is a father, and has two young children, one at that time.

“Of Fish and Men” still by DoP Kacper Czubak
Judith [Sarah Spale], “Of Fish and Men” still by DoP Kacper Czubak

Nature is another character in Klemm’s film. The story takes place in the mountains in a northern region of Switzerland. She describes it as, “a small valley, a one-way valley, with a one-way road. You have to take the same road to go in and out of the region.” The main character Judith works at a fish farm in this remote region. I thought that was a fascinating choice within the climate and the landscape of the film. “One thing I really like watching in a film is characters in real professions,” she observed. “I enjoy learning more about something that I didn’t know before.”

“Of Fish and Men” still by DoP Kacper Czubak

Another reason for having Judith work at a fish farm is the metaphor of the work she does with fish. The metaphor plays on the title of the film, “Of Fish and Men”. Klemm explains, “Fish can’t speak. They have no words, and I think that it’s a metaphor for what happens to my main characters. What happens in the film is so tragic and there are no words that can express that.” She went on to explain Judith’s transformation from being like a fish and then coming to a place where she can really be a full human being again. “Judith’s feelings are so enclosed in her, they are so locked within her,” she said.

Following the tragic death of her daughter, Judith’s feelings carry on through the stage of shock and paralysis. We talked about some of the research Klemm did on the subject with Death Researcher Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Klemm’s reason for focusing most on shock and paralysis, and not going through the rest of the stages, was because, “I thought the stage of shock and paralysis is what is very visible to the viewer. We can see her reacting and we can understand her more. She is remaining in this state of anger. In this anger, come thoughts of revenge.”

Gabriel [Matthias Britschgi] and Judith [Sarah Spale], still by DoP Kacper Czubak

As Judith is on the side of anger and revenge, we see that Gabriel is also going through his own stages as he is the reason for her daughter’s death. Klemm says that the film’s story is only functional because we have both characters, Gabriel and Judith, “knit together.” And it was important to Klemm to add a thriller element to the film, to keep people guessing, “It’s not only a film about mourning or overcoming this type of horrible situation, but also a film that will keep you at the edge of your seats.”

Judith [Sarah Spale] and Milla [Lia Wagner], still by DoP Kacper Czubak

Though the film was based on a real life tragic situation, Klemm brings an element of hope and fantasy into the film. Early in the film, the character Milla keeps talking about this bird, a heron, that keeps visiting her at night. Judith dismisses the heron as a dream. After the tragedy, the heron represents Milla and her spirit. “When you get to the end, and the heron visits Judith, it’s little bit like Milla coming back, like a metaphor,” said Klemm. “Judith can have Milla come back through this heron, let go, and move on in some way.”

“Of Fish and Men” bts photo with Stefanie Klemm and Lia Wagner, photo by Robin Schüpbach

Closing the interview, I asked Klemm about her advice for emerging female filmmakers. “One of the most important things is not to give up,” she said, “along with the importance of breathing, making small breaths.” She also encouraged emerging filmmakers to try new things, and to not feel like you have to wait for money in order for your vision to be realized on screen.

Luchina Fisher’s “Mama Gloria” brings a hopeful outlook to the young trans community

This is a time when we all need a Mama Gloria in our lives. Gloria Allen, also known as “Mama Gloria”, is a 70-something transgender woman who’s paved and is paving the way for the younger trans generation. Her story links to a history that has been forgotten, connecting to the trans community that was out and proud in the 1940s and 1950s on Chicago’s South Side. Gloria’s story was brought to the attention of journalist and filmmaker Luchina Fisher through an article shared by a friend about a charm school that Gloria had started in the Center on Halsted in Chicago. Luchina was struck by Gloria and her story by learning that she had a mother and grandmother who supported her transition, which preceded Stonewall. The fact that Luchina has a daughter who identifies herself as transgender made Gloria’s story resonate on an even deeper level.

I was honored to speak with Luchina during the Chicago International Film Festival about her directorial debut centering on the story of Gloria Allen, the impact Gloria is making for the younger trans community, and how her journey demonstrates the importance of being seen and heard onscreen. Gloria’s story is timely in light of this year, which had the highest reported number of trans people being murdered. 2020 has been a dark year. Gloria’s story brings a little light into this darkness, and we’re grateful that through watching “Mama Gloria,” we can be in the presence of her light. I leave you with Gloria’s words, “I’m a good person. I am a trans person. And I have a beautiful spirit.”

Visit the film’s site to keep up to date about upcoming screenings and releases.

Luchina Fisher

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?

LUCHINA FISHER: It started with my dear friend E. Patrick Johnson, who is the Dean of the School of Communications at Northwestern. He has a film that is out right now called “Making Sweet Tea” about Black gay men in the south. Patrick reached out to me with this very interesting text that said, “I’ve found your next project.” I was intrigued immediately. And then he sent me a Chicago Tribune story about Gloria and her charm school. I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is incredible.’ What particularly struck me was that she had the support from her mother and grandmother, knowing that she grew up in the ’40s and the ’50s, and she transitioned before Stonewall. I thought that was amazing. 

It was especially striking for me because I am the mother of a daughter who identifies as transgender. My daughter Gia was fifteen at the time, and she and I were on our way to Chicago because Gia is a Champion. She is the member of The GenderCool Project, which is Chicago-based. It’s a non-profit storytelling campaign that talks about who transgender people are, not what they are. It is a fabulous organization, and we were one of the first families to be a part of it. That was our big trip to Chicago for Coming Out Day. It was two years ago around this time and we headed there to have Gia speak. She spoke at three companies, Citibank, Conagra, and All State along with other Champions to tell their stories. 

I got word to Gloria that I would be in Chicago that weekend, and asked if it was possible to try and meet her. As it turned out, we were going to visit the Center on Halsted, and Gloria’s residence is literally on the same block in the senior building, the Town Hall apartments. It was totally serendipity that our universes aligned. I believe that it was just meant to be. We had an instant connection. After that initial meeting, I felt like Gloria was going to be in our life. I think she felt the same way. She has so many kids that she’s adopted. I count myself among them, although she sometimes calls me her lovely younger sister. [laughs]

A month later I was back filming in Chicago, and Gloria just opened her life up to me. Because of her openness, I feel the film feels so honest and real. She didn’t hold anything back.

Gloria Allen “Mama Gloria”

MARTIN: The history you piece together around Mama Gloria’s story is fascinating to me, with the Drag Balls, and the trans community in the ‘40s and ‘50s. That part of history, or at least Chicago history, I’ve never seen before, or even knew it existed. How was it digging deep like that?

FISHER: I knew that Gloria had lived this particular history, and I knew that she was probably the best person to tell her history. We see that she is an amazing storyteller. I really wanted to put her front and center, and almost make it feel like we, the viewers, the audience, were in her charm school. Because that is how she related often to her kids by sharing her life and her stories. And she listened to them as well.

I thought it’s so important for people to know Gloria’s story. I was just thinking about my daughter being one of the most important audiences. I wanted Gia to know that there were people before her who identified as trans or queer or unusual, and were open about it, and lived openly. I wanted her to know that history. 

When I lived in Chicago I don’t think I knew about the balls, because the ball scene had kind of gone away by the 80s. These balls are what you may think of as the same scene that Pose shows, the New York scene that grew out of Harlem, or from the 1990 film “Paris is Burning”. But Chicago was doing things well before. 

MARTIN: I had no idea.

FISHER: Chicago has a long history of these clubs on the South Side where there were female impersonators. That’s how they identified themselves then. A number of them probably were trans or would have identified that way if given the chance. And some do tell their stories later. You can find those stories in the archives in the Chicago libraries.

Gay Disc Jockey Eddie Phlique with two female impersonators during a Drag Ball in 1940 (OutHistory)

When I started digging about the balls in Chicago, I was just like, ‘I need to find this information and I need to find these images.’ There’s this one website online called OutHistory. The site has really sought out to preserve some of this history in the US from Black LGBTQ communities in particular. They did have a section on Bronzeville, so I knew there were images. I just didn’t know how to find them. 

So I was digging and digging, tracking people who had posted in this OutHistory site. Ultimately I struck gold. I forget what led me to the Chicago Public Library, but it’s the location on the South Side, the Woodson library. I struck gold when I visited The Vivian Harsh collection at the Woodson library.

I just happened to get the right researcher on the phone, and they said, “we do have something like what you’re looking for here. And it’s not listed under LGBTQ, and not listed under trans.” They said, “I think it’s listed under “Finnie’s Ball”, which dates back to the ‘30s.”

They had images that were taken by a photographer who worked for the Chicago Defender, Tony Rhoden. When I got into that library, opened these folders and started looking through these photos, I was just ready to scream. It was like finding treasure. It was so exciting to see, just in black and white, and in sepia. They were beautiful images of people in their wonderful ball gowns, posing, smiling, and being very proud. There was just this sense of being out and open which is amazing because we often think of that period being a closeted time. 

And the fact that the Black press were covering those balls is amazing, and were covering those clubs, and those night club fares. Petite Swanson recorded a song about all of this. And I wanted that song. I want people to hear those folks, to see them, and see that they existed. That is part of my daughter’s history, part of the South Side history, part of the Black trans and the LGBTQ community history, and it’s part of American history. I just felt that was very important to be able to show it so people can believe it. Because if you see it, you can believe it. I was so grateful that was preserved.

MARTIN: How special for Mama Gloria to see those pictures, and to have her history represented.

FISHER: It was so special. When she looked at the photos, she was like “everyone was so beautiful.” It was especially special for her to see pictures of her mother. She had not seen those outtakes of her mother posing for Jet when she did her centerfold picture in 1958. She was just blown away by that. Her mother was just gorgeous. Gloria said that she was the “Black Marilyn Monroe”, and she really was, just gorgeous. 

You could see that maybe in another time Gloria’s mother could have had a dancing and an acting career. She did classes with the Katherine Dunham dance company and another company on the South Side of Chicago. Her mother was also in beauty pageants, and I looked through archives, something like “Miss Black America”. I found some images of her pageant in Philadelphia. All of those things Gloria treasured, and she was so grateful.

Gloria Allen at About Face Theater

MARTIN: We touched a little on this in the beginning, but I’d like to talk more about the impact that Mama Gloria has on the younger trans community.

FISHER: Like you said earlier, Mama Gloria has this grandmotherly presence. Young people just take to her. They just do. That was apparent to me from the moment I met her and when she sat down and talked to our young people with the GenderCool project. It’s that way every time she enters the room with young folks, and it’s so beautiful. I think that’s what we need, we need that kind of cross-generation conversation. And that’s certainly what I hope will continue to take place with the film. 

For young people who are just now starting to discover her story as we launch the film, the response on social media has been incredible. A lot of it is driven by young folks who are like, ‘wow, thank you Mama Gloria’. Some of them are trying to push for her to get a cameo on Pose

MARTIN: That would be amazing!

FISHER: Now there are these beautiful and amazing “out” actors and young folks. But she’s the one that really paved the way for them. Ultimately her message to them is that you can grow old too. To feel that you have a future. 

Too often right now, Black trans women especially are aware of how they are under attack and how likely they are to be discriminated against. They have higher suicide rates. They have higher homicide rates. This year particularly we have surpassed the worst year for homicides. The Human Rights campaign started keeping track of transgender killings, and it’s already been the deadliest year. There is this belief within the Black transgender community, especially Black Trans women, that they will not live past 40. And it’s terrifying how this belief is so strong. It’s a shadow hanging over our community. Even my daughter is aware of it. And that troubles me. 

So I really wanted Gloria to speak to that generation, and say that you can have a long and meaningful life. It does start with support, honestly. Support is crucial. If anything, I hope the parents and other family members will see how important it is to support our trans family members. That support starts at home. Because that’s the support I believe carried Gloria through her life. It’s what she is giving to her “chosen” children. Some of them are not getting that from home. Support is very important. And it’s not just that you have a long life, but you deserve to have a long life, you deserve to be here. As Gloria said, “I’m a good person. I am a trans person. And I have a beautiful spirit.” I feel that is the ultimate message that she leaves with the audience to remember.

Gloria Allen with friends in Town Hall Apartments, “Mama Gloria”

MARTIN: Looking at the organizations that have supported the film, it’s impressive! Can you talk about groups that have stood behind this film?

FISHER: Absolutely.  A film does not get made by one person. It’s such a team endeavor. And I’m very grateful. Originally I wanted to start out very small, very intimate. I thought it was just going to be a short. But as Stephen [Stephen J. Lewis, Director of Photography] and I were filming it, it became apparent that the story was so huge. Stephen kept saying to me, “I don’t know how you’re going to cut this film down.”

One of the first things I did was put together a little sizzle reel and I sent it to Yvonne Welbon, who is one of the producers. She made this film called “Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @100”, about a Black lesbian she interviewed in her late nineties. Yvonne also took this very long historical approach to telling Ruth Ellis’ life. So I knew she would get Gloria, and she did. She has this organization called Sisters in Cinema, which is Chicago-based. Yvonne told me, “We’re about to do an inaugural documentary fellowship, and I’d like to have you apply for that.” I was delighted to be chosen as a documentary fellow.

Luchina Fisher and Gloria Allen “Mama Gloria”

MARTIN: That’s amazing.

FISHER: That was really the first support. It was so important. Always outside of the industry, you have to find those ways to get people within the industry into what you’re doing. She got me that attention. She also got me my editor, Caroline Berler, who directed and edited the film, “Dykes, Camera, Action!” (2018). Caroline was looking for a film to edit to get to that next level. She also got Gloria. She saw her in the same light that she saw her own Grandmother. So she came aboard.

From there getting into the Athena Film Festival, Works in Progress Program, was probably when things started to really take off. Early on I did have some interest from a major studio. They ultimately passed and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what do I do? How do I re-work the film?’

But sometimes you just need to sit and let things simmer. And that was hard for me. I’ve done television documentaries, and those projects get done in three months. I’m used to doing things on a deadline. And sometimes in independent film you just have to give it time to work its way out. So getting into Athena in March was when things really started to snowball. I pitched the film as part of the works in progress program to a room of potential funders and people within the industry. Black Public Media happened to be there. I had already been in touch with them. But now we were meeting in person, just before everything shut down.

It was perfect timing, and they were like, “I really want to encourage you to apply for some funding.” And they gave me the first major support. And that gave us the permission to say, “now we can finish this film. We know what to do.”

Around the time I was editing the film came the reckoning with the protests and outcry around George Floyd. People were reaching out from the industry and offering to help. One of those people is Isidore Bethel, who is an experienced editor. He offered to take a look at the cut and really gave us some feedback. That was so helpful and again got us to that next level. Suddenly all of the pieces came into place.

We’ve also had support from Women Make Movies as a fiscal sponsor from the beginning. They’ve also given great feedback on the film. It’s really just been a wonderful process. We’re still getting some support coming on board.

What’s wonderful about Black Public Media is that it has enabled the film to make its broadcast debut on PBS next year.

“Mama Gloria”

MARTIN: Congratulations!

FISHER: Thank you, yeah for me that was a goal. I really wanted the film to be available to the trans community. I knew that for a lot of folks, streaming could be expensive, and out of reach. Public television is accessible to everyone. I really want this film to be seen, first and foremost. 

MARTIN: Anything else?

FISHER: One more thing I wanted to add. I’m pushing for our original song, “Presence of a Legend,” sung by Shea Diamond, to be considered for the Oscars. Shea wrote the song with Justin Tranter.