Black Women Filmmakers Speak is a series curated by Shadow and Act that spotlights women visionaries in film and their inspiring body of work. For the full introduction to this series and an overview of the filmmakers featured, head here.
Hollywood’s story has long been a white, heterosexual male-dominated narrative, and a key goal for #BlackWomenFilmmakersSpeak is to celebrate up-and-coming black women filmmakers who are taking the simple, seemingly radical step of telling their stories. Working across all genres, these filmmakers all share a love of cinema and an appreciation for the power it wields, engaging what the status quo might see as a kind of new cinema language to not only entertain but also enlighten.
For the series, 33 black women filmmakers from around the world completed a survey Shadow And Act issued in response to a call made earlier this year aiming to highlight black women filmmakers at some stage of development on their first feature films. We then packaged each reply into individual features highlighting these filmmakers and their feature film projects, their fears and hopes as first-time feature directors and their thoughts on a variety of topical matters. That includes what some are calling a new renaissance in black cinema today, the disruption of content production and distribution by streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon and more. Their survey profiles will be published daily (one per day) on Shadow and Act over the next month.
Ultimately, we hope these stories bring new awareness and admiration around these relatively unknown visionaries.
New York City-based filmmaker Cathleen Campbell kicked off our series on Wednesday, July 11. Los Angeles-based filmmaker Martine Jean continues the series today. Read more about her life, her career, her film projects and more below.
Introduce yourself to the world.
I’m an attorney turned filmmaker. I come from a family of frustrated artists who chose their perceived responsibility to their families as immigrants over their artistic aspirations. After a slight deviation, I took a different path. I started in theater, acting in plays as a teen. My enthusiasm for films started in childhood with mostly French films of Gérard Oury, films starring Louis de Funès and Alain Delon, even the American movies with bad French dubbing. But it was a combination of Haitian storyteller Maurice Sixto and the film Gouverneurs de la Rosée that planted the seeds of filmmaking in my young brain. The former was a master raconteur; the latter was an extraordinary film.
The working title of my feature film is Extra Candles on a Birthday Cake. It’s about a career-obsessed single woman who drives herself to madness as she races the clock to preserve her fertility on the eve of her 40th birthday, all while navigating a situationship with a lover who’s on the brink of deportation. I’m deep in the throes of rewriting. I’m hoping to secure financing to shoot on a micro-budget this year.
When did this specific journey begin?
September 2017 for this specific script.
How many roles are you having to play beyond directing? Are you also the writer? Producer? Editor? DP? Production Designer? Maybe even the star? And if wearing multiple hats, how are you achieving balance?
Writer/director, but, of course, when working with micro-budgets, you end up wearing nearly every hat. I’ll likely have a hand in producing and production design because I have a clear vision of the film’s tone and mood, but it’s essential to find a small group of dedicated filmmakers to lean on. The key to achieving balance for me is to start early, especially when working with limited resources. Even though I am still rewriting, I’ve narrowed down potential locations and actors already.
What would be of most help to you right now? What do you need at this moment to get over a hurdle or to move you forward onto whatever your next step is? And how are you working to get what you need?
Financing is of most importance. I’ve crafted the film to cost very little without compromising the story. I’ve looked into private equity, reaching out to investors that I know personally, with no success. Once I am happy with the script, I will be applying for grants and screenplay competitions. The last resort is crowdfunding. While I support other filmmakers’ crowdfunding campaigns often, I dread this fundraising method because it takes a lot for me to “put myself out there.”
What worries you most (if anything) as you embark on your first feature?
It’s my feature directorial debut. As a filmmaker who did not attend film school, I’ve learned the trade through workshops, film classes and practical experience. I worry about messing up. I also worry about how the film will be received in this day and age where projects can sink with a tweet or hashtag.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
Coming to terms with two things: 1. Knowing I can’t afford my dream cast; and 2. Realizing that I may have to go elsewhere to shoot the film because it makes financial sense, and I am finding a lot more support elsewhere.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
Nothing too challenging quite yet, but I know the challenges will come. I did have a bit of disappointment when one of the main locations I chose for the film fell through, but I’m still very much in the early stages.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said there are only so many variations of stories, and thus everything’s been done before; that we’ve seen it all. Do you agree or disagree? How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?
I try not to worry about that. I’m hopeful that my authenticity and honesty onscreen are sufficient to differentiate my work from others. Extra Candles on a Birthday Cake centers on black immigrants dealing with life crises but also navigating the eccentricities of Lalaland. The story comes from an honest place. While I agree that no emotions/feelings are new, every one of us sees the world a little differently. This allows for an infinite number of stories to be told on any subject and for a subject to be treated in an infinite number of ways. Not to mention all the views, opinions and voices that have been silenced over the years and are just recently being explored on the big screen.
Your hopes for what kind of life you want your film to have after it’s made? And the realities (as you see it) of what kind of life the film will have?
The hope is that it is seen as widely as possible; that as many women (and men) as possible connect with it; that women going through a similar phase know they are not alone. As filmmakers, we tend to pine for the big festivals. They are wonderful because that’s how you get the eyes on your project, but I also love when a film quietly goes through the tiny but mighty film festivals, arthouse theaters and museums where the artist is as welcomed as the art, and where you forge relationships with curators who, in turn, look forward to your future work. The reality is that this film may screen at a few festivals and end up on Vimeo or YouTube. That’s not bad, but it requires more marketing work for the art to find its audience.
Ever been discouraged (whether on this specific project or at any other time during this journey)? How do you keep your head up when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges?
Discouragement and constant rejection come with the territory. There is no clear answer for climbing out of it, except dusting yourself off and trying again, as cliché as that may sound. I travel sometimes to recharge and tame the anxiety that sometimes can be overwhelming. Unplugging from social media and reading a good book help, as well. This is all a part of a long journey; enjoy it. At the end of the day, be kind, good and gentle to yourself. You’re all you’ve got.
Do you have a support system? Family, friends, fellow filmmakers, etc., and what does that system look like, and how much of a role does it play in your life as you strive for greatness (whatever “greatness” is to you)?
A tribe is where you go to give and get nourishment, and I had a support system of close friends who became family in Los Angeles, but much to my dismay, one by one they’ve left Los Angeles. It can be a challenge to find the right tribe, but I am slowly rebuilding.
How active are you with your use of social media as a tool for any part of the process? Do you think it’s necessary? Do you embrace or shun it?
I tend to be an introvert, so I limit my use of social media, but I’m becoming more and more open to it. I think it’s not only useful but essential. I force myself to post at least once per day on one social media platform.
Are you inspired by what many are calling a “black film renaissance” (in the USA specifically)? Do you buy it? Are you encouraged by the success of films like Black Panther or the success of specifically black women filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, etc.?
It’s amazing what’s happening right now. I don’t know that it’s a renaissance as much as a constant fight for inclusion that is starting to bear fruit. I’m in awe of the work Ava is doing to make sure that diverse voices are represented. It’s exciting and inspiring to see my peers’ careers take off. Most compelling is that the ones who are higher are reaching back and pulling up the rest. What a time!
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion. Do you think all of this (the few successes we’ve seen thus far, the various initiatives announced to diversify the industry behind and in front of the camera, etc.) will lead to something sustained that will assist up-and-comers like yourself? Are you encouraged by what might be a changing landscape that may be more welcoming of you and your voice?
We’re starting to see the effects of some of those changes, though I’d argue they don’t go far enough. Years ago, South Africa had an initiative specifically designed to fund and support black South African filmmakers. The government recognized that blacks had been excluded from the industry because of apartheid, and so it invested in black filmmakers and helped not just fund their films but also supported bringing those films to different markets across the globe. That initiative seems to be bearing fruit slowly but surely. From my outsider perspective, we are seeing more and more black South African films elevated, screening at major festivals, getting distribution on major platforms. That’s the kind of change Hollywood needs. Real, sustained, monetary and tangible support for black filmmakers.
Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, Facebook, Apple and others like them, are all now competing with the big studios and TV networks. Thoughts on the emergence of these “new media” platforms, and how (if at all) this new reality factors into the business, creative, career choices you make, or plans you have for yourself? Are you targeting any specifically?
Some of those platforms can be exploitative and capitalistic, but at the end of the day, it means there are more outlets for my art, and that’s exciting. I have not approached any of them for the feature film, but I have for other projects. For instance, I have a television pilot titled Basket of DepLAWrables that’d be a good fit for Netflix or Amazon. I’ve tried pitching, to no avail.
What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
I’m learning to enjoy the journey instead of obsessing over the end goal. I’ve accepted that networking is key. Not that I didn’t know, but I have and continue to struggle with this.
What makes a film great for you? Do you look for any particular qualities?
A terrific plot, interesting “world” and characters make a film great to me. If you have those, the rest will come, in my humble opinion.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Abderrahmane Sissako, Coen Brothers, Wong Kar Wai, more recently Terence Nance, Barry Jenkins and Dee Rees. They all make quiet films that creep up on you at the most unexpected time. They know how to create interesting characters and how to craft a world for their characters that is “moody,” visually unique and stunning.
Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that, as a black woman filmmaker, being a filmmaker requires that you tell a particular kind of story or populate your film with specific kinds of characters, for example?
If we remain authentic, it will happen anyway. I’ve felt that responsibility at times, and while I don’t think an artist should create art just to jump on issues making the headlines, I do think that art that comes from a genuine place will “reflect the time,” to quote Nina Simone.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
I’ve been able to transition from a career in law to filmmaking, and, to me, that is success already. I produce now and make a living in the industry. Success means making a living from my work, happily making art and not worrying about making a living.
Where can we watch your past work, if available?
Go to: https://vimeo.com/70389471.
Finally, any words of wisdom to fellow up-and-coming women filmmakers around the world?
I have filmmaker friends in the Caribbean and on the African continent. I tell them to stay where they are and make their movies. Don’t come to the U.S.; the world will come to you because of your content, your uniqueness and your authentic voice.
Watch Martine’s short film The Silent Treatment (starring Emayatzy Corinealdi) below: