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 London-based screenwriter and producer Sheila Nortley. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself to the world.
My name is Sheila Nortley. I’m a soul. I’m also currently a screenwriter, producer, mother, wife and Cadbury’s chocolate-finger monster, but I’m sure for the purpose of this interview you’d want to know about my film work.
I started around 2008 with my first short The Hydra. In 2013, I shot the independent hit Sable Fable which went on to win Best Film at the American Black Film Festival Awards in Miami, Florida. In 2016, I won the Woman of the Future award in Arts & Culture for my work in film and was invited to Buckingham Palace. In 2017, my film Limbo was shot in Norfolk, Virginia, and was selected at various international festivals including the Cannes Pan-African Film Festival, and I was invited to meet the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street for my commitment to filmmaking as a means of social change. I’ve recently been invited to be an Associate Fellow at the Royal Commonwealth Society where I hope to use my position to create new initiatives with my network across the African continent, and today, we wrap my feature film, The Strangers.
Provide us with vitals on your feature film (title, story, genre).
The Strangers is a beautiful story set in an interesting and inventive dystopian world, reflecting upon relevant current societal issues and themes. With relatable and dynamic characters it explores issues of faith and culture through the exciting genre of the conspiracy thriller.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
We literally wrap today, July 18, 2018.
When did this specific journey begin?
This story was born way back in 2011. It’s gone through so much development over the years: The terrible twos. The awkward adolescence. And now I can say I feel it’s reached maturity and developed into a really beautiful script. That doesn’t mean that I’m not still rewriting and tweaking, but this film is an entity of its own, and I’m just letting it continue to breathe and grow organically.
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’m not directing the film. I’m honored to be working with an amazing director by the name of Bernard Kordieh. I’m producing and writing.
Is film ever about balance? I find myself pouring myself into every role and overflowing in every role, and I’m enjoying it. Filmmaking is a very collaborative process so, with the support of our line producer, production manager, co-producers and my writing team, I’m good. Really enjoying it all. Without Abdul Hakeem, Phil Romanos, Mathias Falcone and Bernard Kordieh, I’d be wearing many more hats. I couldn’t have asked for a better team. Thank you, guys.
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?
Isn’t budget always the issue? I’d love to have a bigger budget because the ideas I have are so grand, and ideas are not supposed to be limited by fear or restriction or funding, or anything really – that’s what makes them so beautiful. So, I guess this relates to your earlier question, the conflict between the producer in me and the writer in me would probably be budget. But it’s not that big a deal, because we’re creatives, and we’re resourceful, and we’re passionate, and when you have small budgets these characteristics are very useful.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
It’s always scary putting your work out there, for fear of people hating it. The truth is, people will hate it. Some will anyway. I don’t know how many. Could just be a few. Could be several. The fact is that I think as writers, as filmmakers, you invest so much time and energy and sacrifice, and you just have to accept that people will hate it. They’ll watch the trailer and say, “what a load of …” BUT there are also people who will love it and who will enjoy it. And so, as long as it’s something you can watch and see the beauty in, and be proud of, that’s what matters.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
There was a point when, after about six years of writing, my writing partner made a suggestion that would improve the story, but it meant rewriting the whole script pretty much from scratch. So I tore it apart and started over. That was hard. But I’d like to think I made the right decision. And, for that, it’s a much stronger story. It was worth the time I spent rewriting it. And that was a lot of time, and time is very very valuable.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
The toughest challenge for me, if I’m to be completely honest, was having to deal with the micro-aggressions of a particular individual on set which I feel had racial motivations. I do not want to go into too much detail, but it was clear that he would never respect me as an executive producer or treat me in the same way that he would treat a white male producer. And though I know it’s “best to rise above it,” I can’t dismiss my feelings; I’m not a robot. And did it hurt a little bit? Yes. Was it frustrating? Yes. Because I think I’d been naive to think that my race and gender, as well as how I dress, would have no impact on the way I’d be perceived. But my ancestors went through too much to let the micro-aggressions of one individual set me back in any significant way. And I’d be ungrateful if I let those small moments color my memories of this truly incredible experience because everyone else was so wonderful, and I’ve made friends I hope to speak to and work with for a very long time.
I had a makeup artist, Allison Edwards, who actually cried yesterday when she saw some of her work on the screen because she felt so happy and proud of herself. I had a wardrobe stylist, Maria Pearl, who was pushed to her limits on her first feature, but she made it to the end, and she’s learned a lot along the way. I had a director, Bernard Kordieh, who worked against the odds to get the money shots in. I had a producer, Abdul Hashi, whose negotiation and managerial skills got us through even the most tricky of situations. I had Mathias Falcone, Phil Romanos, Cathie Yeats, Saf Cornelious, Chris Hornsey, Roshni Patel, Radu Stefan and Joao whose positivity and warmth was infectious. And I can’t even start on the cast and what they did for this production; otherwise, we’d be here all day. So many messages of love and kindness as each of them.
So the micro-aggressions were tough for me, but within two minutes each time, I’d nip it in the bud, be over it and would focus on the bigger picture.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything’s been done before, and we’ve seen it all. Agree/disagree?
I disagree. Stories are as diverse and unique as human beings are because they reflect our individual lives and experiences, and therefore there are so many different combinations. There are so many different ways to tell a story about love; so many different ways to express pain, feel pain and deal with pain. And when you put it all together, you have a kaleidoscope of different tales just waiting to manifest on the big screen.
Hopes for what kind of life you want the film to have after it’s made?
Honestly, I don’t know. I just want to let it live its journey and support it. It’s really like a child that I’m guiding along, and if I’ve done my job well, it will have a positive and productive life and fulfill its purpose. I unapologetically believe in God, and because of that, I have peace of mind. Whoever is meant to see it will see it; whoever is meant to benefit from it will.
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?
This is the thing: I have the most incredible support system around me. If I ever do anything even remotely inspiring or successful, it is because I’ve been blessed with incredible people. Without them, I would not have been able to do anything. I have cousins who will proofread scripts for me because my eyes are tired. I have a mother who will dedicate her free time to looking after my son and daughter when I need to write. I have a son and a daughter whose very existence inspires me to just want to be better so that I can raise and guide them to the best of my ability. They are the most beautiful people to me on this earth. I have an aunt who will call me after watching the Oscars and say, “Sheila, please just let me know what I can do to help you get to the Oscars.” I have other cousins who will rush to set to help me if I need something. Sisters who have given up their time, their homes for me to shoot in. I have a husband who sees in me that which I’m still yet to see and who encourages and inspires me. I have a father who has always – and still always – reminds me never to be afraid of my potential. I have a Lord who parted the sea for one of those He loved. Love and gratitude keep my head up. I don’t deserve a thing, but I’ve been given everything I need and more, and I’m determined to use love and art, as well as these exceptional circumstances, to help others keep their heads up. And if I can do this with my films, I pray I’m even more grateful.
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?
I have a weird relationship with social media. I’m not on Instagram; I’m not on Twitter. I can’t stand Messenger. But I’m on Facebook. When I post on Facebook, it’s always so lovely. People I haven’t even seen in years, support and show love and are so consistent and so kind to me. I find that beautiful. At the same time, I do like my space, time and privacy, so I’m staying off Instagram and Twitter for now. I’ve always felt that Twitter is just one big conversation that I don’t want to be a part of. Maybe in the future, I don’t know, but not for now.
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.?
I love Black Panther. I love Ava DuVernay. I am inspired, and it’s great to see. I remember a friend of mine asking me if I’d watched Black Panther and I replied, “Yes, OMG, Wakanda Forever” and all of that, and then he asked me what my favorite part was. I said: “The skin.” Do you get what I mean? It was more than a film for a lot of people; it was an experience.
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion (I know that similar initiatives have been announced in other parts of the world; in the UK notably). 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?
Yes. I think it’s great that the establishments that already exist are realizing the inequalities and lack of diversity in the film industry. I think it’s great. I also think that we, as content-makers, need to own our voice and position ourselves as decision-makers, not just content-makers but decision-makers, in order for diversity to really penetrate and flourish. We need to be decision-makers and money-makers. Not just people who make content while the decisions and the money are being made elsewhere. And I’d like to think that’s what is starting to happen. It’s about art and culture and also about the economy.
If you’re not in the USA, describe what the film and TV environment is like in the city/country where you live and work. How do the trials (and triumphs) of black women filmmakers in your location differ from those in the USA, if at all? Any desire to move to the USA to pursue your filmmaker dreams?
The UK film industry is an array of colorful characters and people. It’s a really interesting dynamic; you’ve got the old school traditional filmmakers and those with new, innovative approaches to creating content; there are the film school graduates and those who are self-taught; the rich, elitist filmmakers and those from less well-off backgrounds. But across the board, all are driven and are passionate about film; they all love film and have the right to be where they are in that creative space. So it’s great to see people interacting, creating and coming together; it’s just a really exciting time. I love Miami, Virginia and New York, but I’m a London girl and don’t see myself relocating at all. I nearly did move to the USA back in 2013. I was making plans to relocate to Virginia permanently, but I ended up staying here in London and going on sabbatical for three years.
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?
Netflix has really changed the game when it comes to distribution. I’ll leave it at that!
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
I guess it took me a long time to confess to myself that I was a writer. I was afraid because I thought that a writer had to go through some kind of initiation to be able to say, “Hey look. Now I’m a writer,” you know? So I would run around doing everything else but actually writing. I’ve worked as a producer, production manager and more, when perhaps if I’d accepted that I was a writer, I would’ve focused more on the craft and the business of being a writer. That said, I’ve learned a lot from my time producing – a whole lot – so I wouldn’t really change that.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
I think story is the most important thing and obviously great actors. People who can really bring the truth out of the words and make people relate make the world of the film real. That’s what everyone is trying to do. The crew. The cast. Creating this world. For me, a great film is one where all of the different elements come together seamlessly: dialogue, delivery, editing, direction, cinematography, score, silence if/when necessary, wardrobe, set design. If you get all these departments and compartments working together well, you’ve cracked it.
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?
I think so. I think, as a filmmaker, you’ve been given a gift. And I think if you have the means and resources to create a world for people to experience, to create people for an audience to journey with, then I think we have to understand the potential we’ve been given to foster dialogue beyond the dialogue in the script; to create dialogue in society and discussion and ultimately contribute, in some way, to change. This doesn’t have to be a huge endeavor. We may not aim to change the world with one film. However, to ignore the potential and the power of storytelling would be incredibly naive. I think you have to be true to your art because the truth of it is what speaks to people – particularly on lower budget films where you can’t distract with massive VFX or impressive equipment. You’re stripping that away so that the truth of it comes out. Now it’s art, and it’s fun, but even in a comedy, there’s still truth in it, so you have to root yourself in that truth and then use your skill as a filmmaker to make it entertaining and decorate it. As Tim Reid always says to his students, “This is the propaganda industry. All media is propaganda.”
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
I would want always to have a sense of integrity and dignity when it comes to my career and to be someone who makes great films. Success to me is a spiritual thing; it’s purification of the soul; it’s having a big heart; it’s love; it’s character; it’s truth. It’s a very internal matter without which I think contentment with external matters such as home, relationships, careers, friendships would be very difficult to attain.
How can others reach out to you and/or stay informed about your feature?
My email address is email@example.com. I’m also on Facebook at facebook.com/naimahnortley. You can stay up-to-date on the progress of my feature, “The Strangers”, on Facebook: facebook.com/TheStrangersLDN/; Twitter: @TheStrangersLDN; and on Instagram also at @TheStrangersLDN.
Anything else you’d like to say that I didn’t ask? You have the floor, so feel free to dig in here.
Nothing more to add really except to thank you for Shadow and Act and for all you’ve done and are continuing to do for the international film community. It’s appreciated, Tambay. I’d like to use this opportunity to thank my soulmate for his love and support of my vision and to give a massive shout-out to all the sisters featured in this project.