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.
If you’re just joining us, you can catch up on these previous profiles:
The series continues today with New York-based Venise Stephenson. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project.
I’m a self-taught aspiring auteur. As a cinephile, teacher and lover of photography, I’ve always had an interest in filmmaking. In the last few years, I’ve turned my interest into writing and directing, and I’ve fallen in love with the medium.
I’ve made experimental works and two short films. The Waves and Leave Remain have screened at several festivals. For my short films, I wrote, directed, produced, edited and designed each film’s imagery. I enjoy the process.
My feature film is titled White Car and follows a troubled artist who meets her younger self and travels through her memories and the American West to find the truth behind her lost love.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
I’m several drafts in and packaging the film to submit to producers, investors and for a possible crowdfunding campaign. I also plan to submit to grants, IFP Film Week and the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab next year while continuing to work on short film projects.
When did this specific journey begin?
Several years ago, I poured out a first draft of a fever dream road trip that I dismissed as too strange. The more I worked on it, the more the story revealed itself, and I’ve been committed to making it. It’s taken time, and now the film is becoming more real, concrete and ready.
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?
I am the writer/director and as of now the producer. I need balance; the weight of the project is on my shoulders alone.
As you work on your first feature, 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?
I need a committed producer and a lead actress attached to help bring the project to life. I’ve been researching producers of comparable films and established actresses who may be right for the part.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
Having the proper budget to execute my vision is a concern. Having to raise funds gives me anxiety. Being raised to be self-sufficient flies in the face of having to ask, cajole and invite others to invest in my passion project. I need to remind myself there are executive producers and investors that love cinema and want interesting films made and are willing to fund them.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
Finding positive collaborators who share similar artistic sensibilities has been a challenge, and I am loyal to a fault. Deciding to forgo people such as replacing a DP and cutting ties with a toxic producer was empowering but difficult. I’ve heard from many women directors of sexism and blatant disrespect from male crew above and below the line. The tendency to be nice and placate is a hard habit to break, but insisting that my creative team be uplifting and talented is a must.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything’s been done before, and we’ve seen it all. Agree/disagree? How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?
Many things have been said before, but they haven’t been said by me in my way with my vision and voice. My film will distinguish itself from other work in that it will be told with my worldview, and I haven’t seen that view represented in art cinema.
Hopes for what kind of life you want the film to have after it’s made? And realities (as you see it) of what kind of life the film will have after it’s made?
I would like a theatrical release followed by VOD options and the eyes and esteem of a diverse audience. I want my films to linger and have meaning for audiences in the way many films have touched me spiritually, emotionally and intellectually.
Ever been discouraged (whether on this specific project, or at any other time)? How do you keep your head up when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges?
Self-doubt, the enormity of filmmaking and the constant search for copacetic collaborators is a drag, but I remind myself that art and self-expression is a luxury and a pleasure. Any challenges to making art pale in comparison to the trials and tribulations many face.
Do you have a support system? Family, friends, fellow filmmakers…? 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)?
Family and friends, of course, champion my creative endeavors. I am also a part of several filmmaking collectives, and I find support and camaraderie through my associations. Honestly, I seek closer creative connections and partnerships for long-term collaboration.
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 it?
It is necessary, and I need to embrace it. I’m not as active or strategic as I should be. I do follow several people, blogs and organizations that are supportive, inspirational and great sources of information. Ted Hope is an unofficial mentor. He has great advice.
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.?
Despite the recent surge in new black directors and projects, I still feel there is a dearth of complex, nuanced, modern black films. There needs to be more of a renaissance in subject matter and narratives.
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion? Are you encouraged by what might be a changing landscape that may be more welcoming of you and your voice?
I’m hoping these new initiatives lead to new investment and funding. I want the industry to put its money where its mouth is and fund diverse projects where black people are more than stereotypes and the subject matter isn’t strictly racial strife.
More personal, humanistic and experimental stories of black life need funding and support.
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?
These new platforms will need new content by any means necessary, and the quality of the work and the handling of its release won’t really be a factor. I can see films getting lost in the sea of constant content. I think cultivating an audience that will seek out your work theatrically and on VOD is key.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
Let go of things that are not working or working for your needs whether it’s a scene, a person or a preconceived idea. Be adaptable.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
I tend toward surrealism and films that move me emotionally and shift my worldview. Wings of Desire, The Holy Mountain, Chameleon Street and Black Orpheus are artistic touch stones, as well as the work of most well-known auteurs. There are many great films, but what speaks to an audience is personal and a matter of taste. As a viewer, I want to be moved and challenged, not just entertained.
Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that, as a black woman filmmaker, being a creative person requires that you “give back,” or tell a particular story, or not do something specific? Why or why not?
Filmmakers and artists are only required to express themselves. The act of creating something singular and unique is revolutionary enough. Very often, black women are tasked with being pillars of strength, wise and all-knowing, the advocates for everyone’s struggles. Being selfish and focusing on oneself and craft is fine. The culture will survive.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have, What does success look like for you?
Making all the films I’ve conceived in my mind’s eye with positive, talented collaborators and cultivating an audience for my work is my Nirvana.
How can we see your past work, and how can you be contacted?
My website: https://venisestephenson.com
My Vimeo page: https://vimeo.com/venisestephenson
My IMDB page: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm5090466/
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/VeniseLoves
And my email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Anything else you’d like to say that I didn’t ask? You have the floor, so feel free to dig in here.
It has been a pleasure to be a part of this series. We have such varied stories and perspectives to share. I’m excited for our films to be made and seen. Your support, Tambay, and that of Shadow and Act is necessary and appreciated. There is much more work to be done.