Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.
Avril Z. Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and eductaor with over seventeen years experience making films and helping other filmmakers figure out which films to make. As she says in the first article in this series, "while it is good to critique films from a theological perspective, it is equally important that we think about artists who are creating the work," so we're excited to feature Avril's proposal for what filmmakers who are Christians should consider as they decide which stories to devote large portions of the time and talents to. Avril's entire series is archived here. - Editor
A couple weeks ago, I attended a forum for independent filmmakers where Effie Brown, the woman who produced films such as Dear White People, Real Women Have Curves, and who squared off with Matt Damon last year about diversity on Project Greenlight, gave the keynote address. Her speech was inspiring to the group of independent creators who sat in the room before her, as she “kept it real” about the trials and tribulations that come with being a producer. One thing she said during her speech has stayed with me since that day: “We are artists. We are stewards of the business. We are storytellers. The ones who make dreams manifest.” Stewards of the business. As I sat in the audience, those words left a weighty impression on me, and I haven’t been able to shake them since.
By default, whenever I hear someone talk about being a steward, I think about my dad. My dad has been a steward in the AME church for as long as I can remember, and he has always taken that job very seriously, almost as if that were part of his calling in life. For several years, I watched him serve the church with diligence as though it were his own, helping to manage the church’s affairs and stand alongside the pastor, helping make important decisions to make sure that everything was done in decency and in order for the larger good of the church.
But I also think of stewardship in terms of God’s commands about stewarding our gifts and resources. For those of us working in or aspiring to work in the film/tv industry, we are managing the gift of an art form that has the potential to entertain and maybe even to change lives. And yet, as important as I believe that is, I think it is just as important to remember that managers are not owners. We do not own this gift, it's something that we share with others in various ways, and I believe that as Christians who are telling stories, we should manage it well.
So how do we do that? How do we manage an industry that can be fickle, unpredictable, and often vain? Undoubtedly, this past year has left me thinking about these questions a lot as I have undergone some major transitions in my career. I count it a blessing to make a living doing what I truly love and to entertain and inform audiences who watch the programs we create. Yet, I have also come to learn that stewardship in this business means guarding and protecting the real things that have value, in order to maintain perspective about what we're even doing in this business in the first place.
This month, I would like to share five things that I have learned to value in my pursuit of this craft, which has helped me to manage my position in this industry.
Several years ago I remember reading a story in the news about a woman who had been brutally raped. The woman was taken to the hospital and the nurse would not give her the morning after pill to prevent pregnancy from this horrible act, due to her religious beliefs. It became a story that drew much conversation from my coworkers at that time. Most of my colleagues were enraged with the nurse, that she did not give the woman who was violated an opportunity to choose her own fate that she would have to live with for the rest of her life. I was angry as well, but whether I agreed with them or not, I found it interesting that no one was willing to hear the side of the nurse and why she felt the way she did. I wanted to write about that story because I was hoping to see what it would look like to give both points of view equal space. I love to show multiple dimensions of a character, which is why the mission statement of my production company is: to diversify the film market by As a Black, Christian, female filmmaker, I see stories through three different lenses, which I believe makes my perspective unique. What is your unique perspective and how does it lend itself to fair storytelling? People are complex, and everyone has a full story that goes beyond sound-bites, including both those women in the news article. One of the ways that I manage my position in this industry is to remember that as a filmmaker I am telling somebody else's story. Whether I agree with their decisions or behaviors or not, it is my business to honor their story with dignity.
Balancing My Values
Fall of 2001 was an interesting time for me. Right on the heels of 9/11, I received what to some people would have been a dream opportunity. I had acquired an internship at an art-house film studio in New York working in their development department, which meant I would have the opportunity to read a lot of scripts and see some great films come to fruition from the ground level. I loved my job and the people I worked with were great. But the hours and culture there did not fit in with what I valued at the time. During that time of my life, I was an active member of my church and community, and I was trying to start my own small business. I often had to make decisions about whether to work late and miss those opportunities and social interactions that fed my soul or to stay awake and work all night, every night like everyone else in order to prove myself. I took a risk and made it a point to work as hard as I could throughout the day and to create a boundary for myself to go home at night to rest and honor those people and commitments that I loved. On occasion, when necessary, I would put in the extra hours, but I decided at that early point in my career that I would not sacrifice those people and practices that made me a whole person. Those types of decisions helped me remember that even as exciting as my job was, no job was worth selling my soul. I have maintained that belief ever since that internship, and it has not only helped me keep both feet on the ground, but it has even helped me during times when I had to make decisions about which jobs to take and which ones to turn down. Whether you decide to work the hours or not, find out early on what you value that helps you make it through the day and through life. For you, it might not be church, but find whatever it is that provides that balance for you.
Being True to Self
When I first started out in film, I wanted to do it all. If you would have seen my business cards back when I graduated from film school, I described myself as a Producer/Director/Writer/Editor/Director of Photography. People would tell me that I needed to start narrowing down what I do so that I could target my skills, but I always regarded that as bad advice. In the independent film world, I needed to know it all in order to remain relevant, in order to keep working, and in order to get any of my own projects off the ground. While there is some truth to that, I am discovering more and more that I am wired to be better at some jobs than others. Of course, there have been seasons where I have been competent at all of those jobs. For example, during my first year of film school, I was pretty good at shooting. More than once, I was asked to be the cinematographer on some of my classmates’ films. When I graduated, I was even able to book a couple of gigs as a cinematographer. However, once I learned more about the craft, I realized that in order to be one of the best at shooting video, it would involve skills that I did not have nor intend to have, like lighting, for example. I believe a good cinematographer knows how to light as well as shoot, even if they have a gaffer (person who is the chief electrician for a film or tv show) on set. There are tons of people who take pleasure in learning the art of cinematography, so why not let them bring that gift while I focus on being the best producer I can be? Of course, there are exceptions. Some people are able to do multiple jobs for a set. But the older I get, the more I see that stewardship in this area looks like valuing what I bring to the table as a producer that is unique, and then encouraging others on set to excel at their gifts. It takes a village to make a movie.
Letting God be God
In my church growing up, the choir used to sing a song called “What God Has for Me, it is For Me.” Letting God be God is sometimes hard for me because my own insecurities often get in the way, and whenever that happens I can see myself trying to control the outcomes of my actions. Let’s face it, it can be very difficult to remain level-headed in an industry where people get ahead by telling everyone how great they are or how many followers they have. Often when self-doubt creeps in, the temptation becomes to try and prove my own greatness in order to seem valuable or to try and force my way into certain jobs. But Galatians 1:10 asks the questions, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people?” Those words are a reminder that we don’t have to be boastful or brag or be someone we are not. We simply need to let God work through us as we are, and allow the doors to open up for us as they will. I have learned that if I stay true to fair storytelling, balance my values, and stay true to myself, God finds a way to guide the journey. In the example of my internship, when it was time for me to leave that job at the studio in New York, I worried about what I would do next. I felt I had worked hard, but I struggled with whether or not I should pursue a job with that company or move on to find something else. I made the decision to move on to try and find a job in my field that would allow for better balance. I soon found a new internship at a film non-profit, where I was able to comfortably maintain a much better work/life balance, and in the process learn a wealth of information about independent filmmaking, which was exactly what I needed at the time. That internship actually turned into a job once I graduated from film school and it became a great way to introduce me to the film scene in New York and start my career as a filmmaker.
Remain a Student
On a practical level, I have realized that being a steward of this business also means always learning. The media landscape changes so rapidly that it is important to stay abreast of the latest trends in terms of technology as well as trends in the culture itself. I used to teach a Film & TV Business class, and one of my assignments for the students was to have them read the major trade magazines--The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and Deadline--everyday. Those magazines give an inside scoop as to what television shows are coming down the line and might need staffing in the near future. But on a broader level, they simply keep you informed about what is going on in this industry. Being a good steward also means attending as many film festivals as you can so that you can see what the newest films are about and find out who is making them. It means joining your local film group or organization (every state has one somewhere) and meeting like-minded people that you can learn from and create with. And best of all, it means always creating content. Whether you are a producer, director, or writer, you should always be creating something. And if you embrace the art of collaboration with those people around you, you’ll find that you can be a lot more productive than trying to a producer/writer/director/editor/DP on your own.
As I continue to think about my dad’s example of stewardship, I remember that he never gave up, even when times were hard and even when people in the congregation didn’t like his decisions. That comes with the territory of being a good steward. Similarly, if we want to be good stewards of this business, we must go into it knowing that the path is not easy. But through the grace of God, our efforts will not be in vain and we will have created beautiful art in the process. That alone makes it all seem worth it.
Avril Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and educator who teaches cinema courses at University of La Verne and Azusa Pacific University. She recently earned her second master's degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, and she continues to produce, write and direct film and new media. Her ultimate goal is to diversify the film market by educating and empowering aspiring artists; thereby creating a movement of media that represents the true, multi-dimensional qualities of people and speaks to the world. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or at her website.