04 Sep Lynn Shelton’s Of A Certain Age Grant Nominees: 25 Women & Non-Binary Filmmakers Over 39 to Watch
As Shelton recalls during a 2019 podcast episode on Your Last Meal with Rachel Belle, “Northwest Film Forum brought [French director Claire Denis] and did a retrospective of her work. In this on-stage interview she did, she revealed that she hadn’t even started her career as a filmmaker until she was 40. I was like, ‘Oh my God! I’m a lady too, and I’m not quite 40, and I can still have a career!’”
“She truly was a huge inspiration for me to just dive in and get going,” Shelton continues. “Honestly, we bring so much more to the table because we’ve actually lived life a little bit. So I felt like I could bring more perception and sensitivity and experience to my stories.”
This year’s Of a Certain Age grant nominees are a truly talented collection of filmmakers from around the United States — and like Shelton, they have singular, powerful voices the world needs to hear. Though this list does not encompass every nominee, read on to meet 25 of them and watch samples of their work. And make sure you scroll to the bottom, where they each offer inspiring words of advice to up-and-coming filmmakers.
A. SAYEEDA MORENO – New York, NY
Director, screenwriter, and proud New Yorker A. Sayeeda Moreno makes films that are “character driven, utilizing genre, infused with black and brown bodies of the diaspora, specifically those who are Latinx, illuminating our (human) experiences; how we survive, what is in opposition to us, what our mind grapples with, and how we love.”
Her award-winning short film, WHITE (2011), screened at notable festivals across the country, including SXSW, Tribeca, and BAMcinemaFest; it takes place on a sweltering 120-degree day after global warming has devastated Earth, and an expecting father is forced to save his family by making drastic personal sacrifices. Moreno’s award-winning short, Sin Salida (2006) aired on HBO and HBOLatino, and explores an old woman’s understanding of reality and memory.
“I want to make sense of this life,” says Moreno. “Tinker with the laws of the universe. Challenge and expand the narrative. Show love in all it’s iterations. There is so much humanity; so many details that are waiting to be collected and recorded. Film ignites all of the senses and makes us feel alive. Such a disappointing thing how many have been left out. I create worlds that insert us into existence. And because of my blackness, brown skin, flesh and body, my sex, my desires, my femininity, my queerness, my motherhood, my age, it is inevitable that just my being and presence will chip away and further dismantle a system of relentless, exhaustive, limited imagery that leaves out most of us.”
AUDREY EWELL – Brooklyn, NY
When it comes to what motivates her to be a filmmaker, Audrey Ewell hypothesizes, “We’re all just trying to figure out what it is to be human, right? Whether it’s paintings on cave walls or chapel ceilings, we tell stories to know ourselves. To see ourselves from different angles. And just like we recognize our own pain in others’, we recognize our most core humanity in the stories of others, and they connect us. And if those stories can have evocative images, and textural soundscapes, humor and tears, beauty and terror and truth, then why the hell wouldn’t you want to do this work? It’s an absolute privilege, even if it often feels like exquisite torture.”
Ewell’s poetic description encapsulates the dynamic way in which Ewell interacts with the world through film. Three of her notable works were created in collaboration with her fiancé, life, and filmmaking partner, Aaron Aites, who passed from cancer in April 2016 — including a 2009 documentary about Norwegian Black Metal, a 2013 collaborative film around Occupy Wall St., and finally, the 2016 erotic drama, Memory Box.
Later this year, Ewell will be taking the completed script for her first narrative feature to IFP Week. And You As Well Must Die is a supernatural horror film about grief, written following Aites’ death. “I’ve battled through heartbreak and trauma to get here,” says Ewell. “This is what I have to offer the world, and I’m ready.”
CHRISTINE SUN KIM
Christine Sun Kim explores the conceptual aspect of sound by connecting it to acts of drawing, painting and performance. By combining aspects of musical notation, body language and American Sign Language (ASL) she expands the communicative potential of such information systems and in turn invents a grammatical structure for her own compositions. Kim uses a variety of media to provide critical commentary on translations between ASL and English, to deconstruct preconceived ideas around sound and language and interrogate how linguistic authority influences perception.
The interdisciplinary artist has shown work all along the world, at reputable institutions and museums including but not limited to the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; Berlin and Shanghai Biennials, Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 in New York.
DARESHA KYI – Atlanta, GA
“When I was a little girl, it was such a big deal for us to see Black people positively portrayed on television that we would call each other and yell excitedly, ‘Hurry and turn on channel XYZ! So and so’s on TV!'” recalls Atlanta-based director, writer, and producer Daresha Kyi. “The next day, it was all we talked about. After years of invisibility and soul-searing negative and stereotypical portrayals, we knew the power and importance of representation, but it would be years before I understood that I could actually create the kinds of stories I longed to see.”
An uplifting figure working in narrative and documentary film in both English and Spanish, Kyi is a queer Black filmmaker whose most notable projects include Trans in America (2018), a documentary series for the ACLU which earned her an Emmy and two Webby awards, and the award-winning feature film, Chavela (2017), about the queer Mexican singer and actress, Chavela Vargas.
“Those that spark my curiosity and refuse to let me go are laser focused on outsiders, outliers and revolutionaries — badass women, queer folks, and people of color who push boundaries, overthrow the status quo and challenge viewers to shift, change and grow,” explains Kyi. The Mama Bears, her current documentary project, follows a network of “mama bears” — folks who grew up as fundamentalist, evangelical Christians who are now fighting for the civil rights of their children and the LGBTQ+ community.
“These authentic, warrior women inspire me, and my heart’s desire is to share their journeys so they can do the same for others,” Kyi says.
DARIA MARTIN – San Francisco, CA + London, UK
Interdisciplinary artist and filmmaker Daria Martin explains in her biography that her “films create continuity between disparate artistic media (such as painting and performance), between people and objects, and between internal and social worlds. Human gesture meets mannered artifice to pry loose viewers’ learned habits of perception.”
This holistic and fluid worldview can also be observed throughout Martin’s prolific output, which includes gallery exhibitions and published written works that have spanned the world — but it is film that Martin believes can truly open and shape the imagination.
“I believe that our imaginations should be as free as possible – but, of course, they are subject to many shocks and pressures,” she explains. “The feature films I’ve written deal with a certain kind of psychological impact — trauma transmission: the ways that unspoken upheavals shape the next generation’s perceptions of the world. Writing these films is a way to free up what has been frozen, to allow a new life to flourish. It’s a way to set the imagination into motion.”
Shot on 16mm film, for instance, Martin’s highly-stylized Tonight the World (2019) is an exploration of dreams and memories from her personal family history, utilizing abstractions and symbols to create a vivid and complex portrait of migration, loss, and resilience.
DAWN JONES REDSTONE – Portland, OR
“I’m a cinephile who frequently gets images and ideas in my head, and the only way to get them out is to MAKE THE FILM. To be out in the trenches, surrounded by a trusted crew of collaborators: it’s the best thing in the world,” says Portland-based Dawn Jones Redstone, in a manner that concisely summarizes her go-getting and community-focused attitude. “What motivates me is that I love everything about this form of expression.”
Jones Redstone’s films center women, people of color, and those in the trades. These include the short films Magnificent (2019), a queer road movie of dating and connection, and We Have Our Ways (2017), a dystopian sci-fi short about the pursuit of a doctor who can perform an abortion.
“Cinema can have this huge impact on our collective psyche. It’s truly a representation of our hopes and fears; our dreams as a people, which is why we need to make sure that there are a multitude of voices telling our stories,” explains Jones Redstone, who is a queer Latinx. “From what I can tell, mine is desperately needed.”
As a former union carpenter, Jones Redstone hints at her experiences through her award-winning debut short, Sista in the Brotherhood (2016), which is about the struggle of a female carpenter working in a male dominant space. The film will soon be distributed through Collective Eye, and ties in directly with the type of feature film Jones Redstone hopes to someday make: one with drama mixed with magical realism.
DEBORAH RILEY DRAPER – Atlanta, GA
“I hold myself accountable and responsible for creating work that reflects the stories, lives and communities that poured into me,” explains Savannah-born Deborah Riley Draper. An accomplished filmmaker and advertising agency executive, Draper is the Atlanta chapter leader of Film Fatales and also runs the independent film venture, Coffee Bluff Pictures, which develops, produces, and distributes compelling stories that cater to African American sensibilities.
“Seeing all aspects of the African American experience on screen expands the aperture of the American narrative and increases everyone’s awareness, understanding and empathy for 400+ years of our history on American soil,” Draper explains. “The progress and the future of marginalized voices and communities are inextricably linked to the sharing of their stories and the transfer of knowledge to all.”
One can find this ethos at work through Olympic Pride, American Prejudice (2016), a feature documentary which tells the story of the eighteen, mostly-forgotten African-American competitors who participated in the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany. Her short film, Illegal Rose (2019), is currently on the film festival circuit; it is inspired by Langston Hughes’ short story, “Thank you, ma’am,” which explores themes of immigration through an unlikely, intergenerational friendship. Draper also has several other additional projects in the works.
“I am filled with gratitude to be a woman of a certain age,” adds Draper. “Women of all ages contribute to the betterment of our world every day. RGB became a Supreme Court Justice 25 years ago at 60.”
JEANNETTE GODOY – Los Angeles, CA
As a dancer, choreographer, and former wardrobe stylist who later transitioned into film, LA-based filmmaker Jeannette Godoy brings her wide breadth of experience into her current narrative and documentary work — and does so with a genuine desire to communicate her multicultural upbringing.
“As a Mexican American woman, I don’t see stories about people like me being told on the big screen,” she explains. “My father is from Mexico and my mother is American, and while I grew up in Southern California, my Mexican culture was at the forefront of my life. The U.S. born, Latina story is sorely missing from almost all narratives, whether film or television. I’m passionate about telling these kinds of stories and exposing people to other perspectives of the Latinx experience.”
Godoy is also the mother of twin girls — and one can perhaps see some of that influence in her female-centered narrative short films. These include The Audition (2016), a homage to the last scene in Flashdance, and Disconnected (2018), about cellphone, social media, and their negative impact family interactions.
KARLA LEGASPY – Los Angeles, CA
“The beauty and complexities of my communities motivate and inspire my work,” explains Xicana activist and content creator, Karla Legaspy. “As a queer, two-spirit migrant, my experiences and those of my communities continue to shape my work and challenges mainstream perspectives. It’s rare for stories to be told from my unique lens.”
A well-rounded artist whose film work is deeply intertwined with her work in community, Legaspy has experience in many aspects of the filmmaking process and through her work, aims to honor the authentic voices of those often underrepresented in mainstream media. Whether as a writer and director on Gold Star, a queer Latinx youth love story, or as a producer on Undocumented Tales, a YouTube webseries that follows the journey of an undocumented queer immigrant from Mexico living in U.S., Legaspy does her work in service of finding sacred stories.
Legaspy is also the Founder and Creative director of Kitzo Productions, a creative team that works in film and media production.
KASE PENA – Los Angeles, CA
“What motivates me to be a filmmaker is my extremely unique artistic voice, which is loud, powerful, beautiful, poetic, and yet so glaringly lacking from the entire industry,” explains Kase Pena, a Transgender Latinx woman who has been a filmmaker for over fifteen years. “Most know very little about ‘my’ world.'”
Pena wrote, directed, and played the lead role in ¿FAMILIA? (2017), a Spanish language tale about a Transgender woman who is pressured to return to sex work in order to financially provide for her family in their native country. In the silent experimental short, LOCO AMOR (2017), Pena explores themes of a woman falling in love with another woman, after freeing herself from an abusive relationship with a man.
“Through my work, I bring those authentic stories to life, in a manner no one else can,” says Pena. “My fragile Trans community is continually held under siege. With that perspective in mind, I feel it is my duty to do us justice. My stories (by and about Trans) entertain, educate, humanize and normalize the life experiences of Trans Women of Color.”
Pena is currently in the midst of raising funds for her first independent feature, Trans Los Angeles, which is an anthology of four short films. Her team will soon be launching a campaign on Seed & Spark, and Pena hopes the crowdfunding campaign will help her become one of the first Transgender Latinx women to direct a feature film in history.
KEISHA RAE WITHERSPOON – Los Angeles, CA
“Strangely, I think I’ve arrived at likening my life as a filmmaker to that of a community gardener or farmer,” muses Keisha Rae Witherspoon. “A path chosen because it brings personal joy, but that now also comes with embedded circumstantial pressures that translate the work into activism? Knowing that the seeds you’re planting are somehow ‘working against’ deforestation, which is a systematic feature of The State.”
Self-described as “driven by interests in science, speculative fiction and fantasy, as well as documenting the unseen and unheralded nuances of Diasporic peoples,” Witherspoon is currently in early development on Untitled Opa-locka Project, a post-alien-abduction black sci-fi drama set in Opa-locka, Florida, set for completion around March 2022.
“I know that the films I create are in direct resistance to depleted portrayals of people of color and women,” Witherspoon continues. Limiting perspectives that engender limited existence and low self-esteem, which means you ask less of life. Being 40 grounds me in this effort. I want to make big what has been maddeningly small for us. Perhaps undo some of the psychic wreckage. And for me specifically as a science geek, what better way to design a limitless world than sci-fi?”
Her latest piece, 1968 < 2018 > 2068, draws on literary excerpts from the book Black Quantum Futurism: Theory and Practice, and is a meditation on cyclical and linear time theory, memory and trauma. It is set to screen virtually this winter. Her short film T (2019) was a highlight of the 2020 Sundance Festival Short Film Tour and won the Golden Bear at Berlinale 2020; it follows three grieving participants of Miami’s annual T Ball, where folks assemble to model R.I.P. T-shirts and innovative costumes designed in honor of their dead.
KELLY SEARS – Denver, CO
“I animate appropriated images from print or moving image media, cutting out figures and recasting them into alternative social and political histories,” explains Kelly Sears, an experimental animator and filmmaker whose works speak to global concerns of the moment. “This form of filmmaking allows me to rewrite and remake power systems and ideology around us that can seem immovable. The combination of methodical and repetitive work to create speculative worlds makes me think that other futures are possible with sustained commitment to change and revolution.”
Sears’ DIY approach “transforms an extensive trove of source materials, such as first aid handbooks, chronicles of space exploration, presidential and military newsreels, 35 millimeter photography manuals, aerobic and yoga guides, archival films, high school yearbooks, and disaster survival guidebooks, into new instructional and advisory texts that may lead the viewer astray and disoriented.”
“Through these animations,” she states, “we glean bits of history that are recognizable but unsteady.”
But not all is necessarily lost.
“The Of a Certain Age Filmmaking Grant honors Lynn life – finding her voice as a feature filmmaker nearing 40, creating intimate narratives shaped by lived experiences, and showing up in your local film community,” says Sears. “Empathy and generosity are some of the most critical filmmaking tools at this moment.”
“As a storyteller, I am driven by the extremes of human experience I witness in the world around me. I am an Amerasian filmmaker from the mountains of West Virginia,” explains Kim Spurlock. “Straddling these two strikingly disparate cultures — Vietnamese and rural Appalachian — taught me that despite our many differences we all want the same things. I also developed an overwhelming desire to tell humanistic stories that grip the heart.”
Working closely with her sister Mai, who is a co-writer and “lifelong partner-in-crime,” The Spurlock Sisters have several projects in development, including a feminist thriller set in coal country called The Breakline, a neo-gothic sister horror called HG Forever, and the microbudget THAO, a supernatural story of possession and revenge set in the Vietnamese expat community.
“I dig deep to create richly layered characters who reflect the complexity of who we are and then pit them against the challenges and horrors that reflect the world we are living in,” says Spurlock.
JEN WEST – Atlanta, GA
Self-described as a “unique combination of Southern mixed with magic,” Jen West has been an artist for as long as she can remember, and prides herself on her ability to experiment with different artistic mediums.
“I first learned about independent film in my early 20’s, and it was nothing short of a revelation in purpose,” West shares. “Most of my work explores untraditional spirituality that oftentimes is expressed through fantasy. How our energies exist both outside and inside the body is of particular interest. I do this through tools like the tarot, the hauntings of past traumas, and the expression of love that knows no barriers.”
Together with James Martin, West also runs Four x Productions, a creative vehicle for projects they produce, write, or direct.
“The Lynn [Shelton]’s and the Ava [DuVernay]’s have pushed the door open for the rest of us to be perceived differently, allowing for fresh points of views to enter the scene,” says West, regarding the Of the Certain Age grant. “I’m ready for the work of these new voices to shake up the world. Grants like this one shed light on the content creators who are worthy and worthwhile.”
MARÍA AGUI CARTER – Boston, MA
Multi-racial Chinese, South American native, and Latinx filmmaker María Agui Carter draws from a family history of being an undocumented immigrant and a “rich cosmos of multiple literary traditions, fables, cultures, stories, that bring fresh perspectives to American storytelling.”
As a documentary writer and director who also produces, Carter knows first-hand that the industry calls for people with her history to work extra hard in order to succeed. Her first independent film, REBEL, is about a Civil War soldier and spy named Loreta Velazquez, recalling the politics of national memory and the erasure of a Latinx woman in one of the most pivotal moments of American history.
“[It] took over thirteen years to make,” she says. “I wasn’t getting funded because no one believed I could pull it off, so I had to believe in me.”
“The international painter, Carmen Herrera, did not sell her first artwork until 89 and was not recognized by the art-world before that. Julia Child first took her first French cooking course in her forties, and hosted her first cooking show at fifty. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her popular Little House on the Prairie books in her ’60s. There are so many reasons women’s work is not always recognized until later. So many are never recognized. For me the question is less about recognition, and more about whether I get to tell stories that I think desperately need to be told, centering BIPOC, by people from our communities. Things such as that we are human, that our lives matter, that our children should not sit in cages because of an accident of birth.”
MELISSA MARLETTE – Los Angeles, CA
As a writer-director with a number of short films under her belt, Melissa Marlette was born and raised in St. Louis, but really jumpstarted her career after moving to Los Angeles in 2012 with her writing partner. Her short films Mike India Alpha (2013) and The Hammond Brothers (2017) serving as prime examples of her ability to create tense dramatic works; Mike India Alpha follows an American soldier in Afghanistan who has a small window to escape capture, and The Hammond Brothers explores an accidental murder and attempted cover-up.
“Part of what I love about being a filmmaker is diving into the life or story of someone or something outside of our world and having a chance to show a side of someone that the viewer doesn’t expect,” says Marlette. “Our life experiences influence how we perceive others, so I enjoy the ability to flip pre-conceived notions on their head and to maybe change someone’s mind about something or someone they know — or just to encourage them to think differently because of a character or story.”
Change is also important to Marlette’s perception of the Of a Certain Age Grant. “I know from personal experience: life looks very different at 39 than it did at 25,” Marlette shares. “It’s not just about the lack of representation of female and non binary filmmakers and their perspective; it’s also about how you change as an adult and how that changes your views and the types of stories you want to tell or the characters you want to explore.”
MYLISSA FITZSIMMONS – Los Angeles, CA
With roots in band photography and skate videos, Los Angeles by-way-of Utah and Oregon filmmaker Mylissa Fitzsimmons spent fifteen years making documentary films before transitioning into narrative films and writing.
“I’m in constant awe and inspired by other people and what they’re bringing into those world,” says Fitzsimmons. “Being engaged with the lives of others and how people navigate in this world is a huge motivation.”
Whether it is Who Decides (2017), which portrays a conversation about death between a child and an elderly woman, or That Party That One Night (2016) about a socially and sexually awkward teenager who finds herself alone with her crush, Fitzsimmons’ short films span moods and styles. What they share, however, is an ability to observe the nuances of human interaction, through expansive and colorful portrayals of intimate experiences.
NANCY BANNON – Los Angeles, CA
“My trajectory is unusual but cumulative,” says performer, writer, director and teacher Nancy Bannon. “After working in dance, I’m connected to abstraction, poetics, momentum and physicality. After working as an actor, I’m not afraid of emotion or being vulnerable, and after being a mother, my heart is cracked so wide open that I’m constantly vulnerable.”
Bannon comes from humble and blue collar beginnings in Youngstown, Ohio, which deeply informs her work in the present day, as she looks for “hope and beauty in the banal,” both onstage and on-screen. Many of her short films follow everyday people as they navigate daily struggles and complex familial ties.
“When I see and experience images of behavior, relationships and emotions, I’m filled with questions. So I recreate them in order to linger with them; turning these found moments over and over to examine why and how and what happens next,” Bannon says. “Passion fuels me. I love story, photography, poetry and metaphor. I love people’s faces and bodies and the way they laugh. I love subtext. I love grit and resilience.”
PAULA WALKER – Los Angeles, CA
“My work is a blend of world cultural influences – Brazil, The Americas, Haiti, Europe, and the Far East,” says Paula Walker, who also runs the production company Strato Films, which she co-founded with her husband, a director of photography, Rolf Kestermann. “I seek the interface of where cultures both meet and clash. As a writer and director, I have set my work in the spaces usually unseen and unheard.”
Walker’s recent projects include The Citadel, about the historical architectural site in Haiti, and The Space in Between, a documentary about a Brazilian dance which evokes the spiritual heritage of the Orichas, African gods and goddesses, in Selma, Alabama. Currently, she is preparing for her feature film, Lush Life, which is a love story set against the complex realities of race, class, and identity in 1970’s Los Angeles.
“I became a filmmaker because I wanted tell stories about vulnerable brown girls facing fantastical situations that often are a metaphor for a deeper trauma,” says Walker. “These stories are influenced by the white, brown, and black women in my childhood who shared a distinct sensibility and voice that has too often been ignored. My hope is to bring their voices to light.”
As an instructor at USC, Walker also thinks deeply of intergenerational legacy. Regarding the Of a Certain Age grant and its important in this moment, she says, “There is a pressure to replace one woman with another, in rapid succession. Women are often pitted against each other, instead of working as a community. For me, it has always been a challenge to the status quo to just exist. In this moment, we must be able to use our talents and energies in a creative manner, more than ever to create a future that honors us. The time is now to pass the legacy onward and forward and upward.”
PRINCESS A. HAIRSTON – New York, NY
A creative director, producer, cinematographer, and Emmy-nominated editor based in New York City, Princess A. Hairston has vast experience in the film industry. Through her production company, Straight Path Pictures, she directs and produces documentary and narrative films, shorts, branded content, and much more.
“I am consistently motivated by documentaries. I love the rawness of everyday people sharing their stories. I am especially inspired by documentaries where Black people get a chance to tell their story,” says Hairston. “When you think about the history of this country, one can only imagine how many Black people have lived in this country and never got a chance to tell their story. I feel it’s my legacy to help Black people leave their legacy through film. I grew up watching a lot of film and television. Despite watching so much content I rarely saw people who looked like my family. That bothered me.”
Making her own way is part of what Hairston has done successfully throughout her entire career. As she concludes on the biography of her website, “NOTHING’S WRITTEN UNTIL YOU WRITE IT.”
RACHEL MYERS – Los Angeles, CA
“Filmmakers and artists metabolize and translate,” says Rachel Myers, a director, designer, and actor with over twenty years of experience in the industry. “I’ve always felt that responsibility in making work as a storyteller, to find the outliers, the untold and unspoken, to shine a light.”
Myers is prolific in her output; she runs an award-winning experiential company, 3 PENNY DESIGN, which produces live events and brand activations for large companies; she also works on production design for a number of projects. Her recent director credits include Kim Possible for Disney Channel TV, a short film and mock beauty campaign entitled CONFIDENCE, and the short film, 2 Black Boys (2019), based on Giovanni Adams’ poetry about blackness and queer identity. Spanning from joyously playful to deeply poetic, all of Myers’ work speaks to the expansive way in which she takes in all that is around her.
“The world is very inspiring for me,” she explains. “I see magic in it everywhere, and I find people fascinating and strange. I love dancing the line between the poignant and humorous, disarming and revealing with vulnerability — because life is hard and sad and amazing. The potential of imagination is transporting, and my favorite work floats between the liminal spaces of dream and reality.”
ROBIN CLOUD – Los Angeles, CA
“I am motivated to be a filmmaker because I want to share stories about Black, Brown, and Queer people. Growing up there were not and still aren’t enough examples of us on screen,” says writer, director, and comedian Robin Cloud. “We also have journeys and adventures and find love, but looking at the film cannon, one wouldn’t think so.”
Indeed, many of Cloud’s works speak to this underrepresented reality, whether it be in her latest, 2 Dollars (2019), a queer workplace comedy about a frustrated artist, in the Passing: A Family in Black & White docuseries (2019), or in her first narrative short, Out Again (2017), which was executive produced by Refinery29 and received over 2 million views.
“We live full rich, exciting lives and we deserve the same amount of space and time dedicated to them as do white-centered stories,” continues Cloud. “This is important not only for BIPOC people, but for White folks as well. White children grow up seeing themselves in everything… how radical would it be if they also grew up seeing BIPOC people as heroes, legends, and people to look up to. It’s my work to do that. My perspective is one of lived experience and observation. That is where I draw all of my stories from, and I believe my perspective is unique simply because I am human and the only version of myself.”
Cloud does much of this work under the banner of her production company, Cloud Creative Media, which produces and directs independent films, as well as works with non-profit organizations, agencies, and companies to create unique content for use in educational, broadcast, and theatrical release.
SUDESHNA SEN – Seattle, WA
“I immigrated to America as a conscious choice; I wanted to experience for myself the freedom of words and action, and to make my own life — the American dream that I had heard of growing up in India,” explains Seattle-based writer, director, and producer Sudeshna Sen.
Self-described as “a filmmaker of quiet moments, small interludes of meaning and emotion that are unforgettable for those in it, and unknown to others,” Sen clearly illustrates these interests in her 2018 short film, Mehndi, a vibrant, playful piece that catches two young women exchanging a secret amidst an Indian bridal shower.
“I did a Ph.D in Japanese literature and film, and in my first career as a professor, I greatly enjoyed sharing my perspectives with my students. But teaching film is not the same as making a film,” she says. “The joy of collaboration and thrill of completing a film from idea to premiere is unmatched, in my opinion. I love telling stories about immigrants, about women who don’t conform, and social misfits and miscreants. Life is short and must be lived. Film to me is the most satisfying conduit for enjoying every minute.”
Sen is currently in development on Finding Bapu, about a young girl who is visited by her grandfather’s ghost and realizes there must be a way to bring him back to life.
THUC NGUYEN – Los Angeles, CA
Writer and director Thuc Nguyen’s approach to her creative work can perhaps be best illustrated by her work in activism around representation. She founded of #Startwith8Hollywood, which gives Women of Color more opportunities in the entertainment industry, as well as #TheBitchList, to help diverse voices get more attention in screenwriting.
“I’m really motivated to show characters that aren’t the status quo. I’m Southeast Asian-American — Vietnamese-American to be precise. While the Hollywood film industry has accepted “crazy rich” East Asians, it has not done so for a minority-within a minority. It’s important to me to bust yet another layer of stereotypes,” says Nguyen, regarding her motivation for creating films.
“Hollywood’s shown us Vietnamese women as prostitutes, wives and nail techs. I can show characters other than that: a Vietnamese-American woman start-up founder, a Vietnamese vampire, and a Vietnamese-American woman from The American South.”
Recently, her feature screenplay, Scent of the Delta, progressed to Round 2 of Sundance Institute Development Labs, and 1886, her project about the Haymarket bombing, was listed as #1 in the Indiewire article, “Not All Stories Are About Straight White Men.”
“I think it’s important for this grant to show the world that stories from mature real women are important in order to cultivate empathy,” says Nguyen.
STEPHANIE WANG-BREAL – New York, NY
“We come into this life pure, unfiltered and truly wholesome beings,” says Stephanie Wang-Breal, an award-winning filmmaker, commercial director and co-founder of the independent production company, Once in a Blue Films. “Over time, the home and/or shelter we grow up in, the smells and sounds of the streets around us, and most importantly, the actions and language of the adults guiding us, all create layers of conditioning and bias that nestles into our consciousness. For me, immersive cinema is an art form that can pause these normal thought processes and allow our consciousness to feel, see, and experience other kinds of people and places in a more open and less judgmental way. As a filmmaker, I seek to consume and make films that challenge normative narratives and broadens our ideas and understanding of humanity.”
Wang-Breal has three documentary feature films under her belt, including Blowin’ Up (2018), about a Queens courtroom which seeks to create community-based alternative sentencing for women are prosecuted for prostitution. Her first film, Wo Ai Ni Mommy (I Love You, Mommy) (2011), documented how American families have adopted over 70,000 children from China since 1992, and many of her other films focus on humanizing portraits of diverse populations.
“At this present moment, there is so much uncertainty around the future of independent filmmaking. The Lynn Shelton Of a Certain Age Grant gives women like me, who are single mothers and filmmakers, options,” says Wang-Breal. “As we all know, when we have more options, we have more real choices. It’s choices like being able to shoot a proof of concept or take the time to write one more draft that can make the difference between a visionary and a vision.”
VERA MIAO – Los Angeles, CA
“Stories are how humans make meaning. Film is a visual art form. That’s what motivates me,” expresses Taiwanese American writer, director, former actor, and activist Vera Miao. “Every time someone says, ‘I’m just a storyteller,’ I’m honestly confused. It’s one of the most important roles anyone can take on, and while it is a joy and privilege to tell stories for a living, it bears enormous responsibility. I want to engage people’s hearts and minds, and to do it all while centering people of color in my stories.”
With an interest in film as art, not just entertainment, Miao stars memorable people of color as leads and pursues character-driven horror, sci-fi, and action thrillers which allow viewers to confront their deepest fears and social ills. Her bilingual short film, MA (2017), pulls together all of those components by way of a haunting tale that hovers around claustrophobic spaces and dysfunctional relationship dynamics.
“I feel like we are all in the urgent fight for something much larger — democracy, humanity, the natural world,” says Miao, of creating art in this current moment. “I am not being dramatic or hyperbolic, I’m just not afraid to say what this moment actually is. In a recent Vanity Fair interview by Ava Duvernay, Angela Davis said, ‘(I)t’s art that can begin to make us feel what we don’t necessarily yet understand.'”
What is one piece of advice you would give to an emerging woman or nonbinary filmmaker who was interested in pursuing a film career?
“Don’t wait for permission. You probably won’t get it.” – Vera Miao
“My advice to an emerging woman or nonbinary filmmaker is to be specific and to remember filmmaking is a long game. Every detail, every crumb you observe from your life experience can inform the way you construct and build the narratives you seek to share. Trust your instincts and know rejection is part of the game, but it is not the end of the game. Resiliency and thick skin will serve you well as you begin each new project and build your body of work.” – Stephanie Wang-Breal
“My advice would be to not bow to gatekeepers and even gatekeepers in so-called minority advocacy groups. There are so many people out there holding up white supremacy or white adjacent tendencies. Rise above. Be your own person and don’t rely on others to carry you. Do not play into the stereotypes to ‘fit in’, thus perpetuating them. I’d also advise people to follow hashtags like #WritingCommunity #WRAC and those that really encourage storytellers.” – Thuc Nguyen
“Never give up. Persistence is key, whether it be a script that is not shaping up the way you want, funding that never seems to flow or distribution that is elusive, the filmmaker’s best resource is to be relentless. Constant effort gains the attention and support of people who can and do help.” – Sudeshna Sen
“Make work. Write it, gather your friends, and make it. Do not wait for someone to give you an opportunity. Filmmaking is so much more accessible now, so there’s really no reason why you couldn’t shoot something on the weekends. Tell your stories, because you are the only person that can. I would also say: watch as much as you can and discover what you like and why. When it comes time to make decisions as a director, you will need to know not only what story you what to tell, but how you want it to look and feel.” – Robin Cloud
“The rules don’t matter. Foundations and education will definitely help your journey, but anyone can tell a story, and there are so many tools available to do it. Stay out of your own way and dream and build the work you imagine into being. No one can tell your story better than you, and your voice matters. Seeing ourselves reflected in narratives on-screen — particularly for women and people of color — changes the world and how we see our lives, our potential and what new generations believe is possible. Just go make it or you’ll never know what might happen next.” – Rachel Myers
“If you want to be a filmmaker, don’t let anyone stop you. When people shut you down, tell you your idea is not strong enough, your script is no good; stay confident in your vision. I have noticed when women share their ideas or goals, men will tell women everything under the sun to deter them from achieving what they set out to accomplish. Ignore those fools. Have a vision and pursue it. Make your film.” – Princess A. Hairston
“I teach film at USC and I have mentored many women. The most useful piece of advice I give now is to know your voice. This is not easy. Know your creative ancestors, what attracts you, and what is attracted to you, your triggers, and your trauma. To be authentic and direct, to create material that is deeply heartfelt and human, you need to be able to connect to your deep self.” – Paula Walker
“Pay extreme attention. Don’t talk too much. Finish every project. Be kind.” – Nancy Bannon
“Really immerse yourself in filmmaking. Watch everything you can, watch behind the scenes extras or clips, read about the shows and movies you like. Filmmaking is hard and a lot of times, you are the only person carrying your idea and your passion so knowing what that can mean if you get the chance to make something or find success, and being prepared for it, is key.” – Melissa Marlette
“Seek out a support system of people that will be honest with you. If you are not being challenged you are not growing as a filmmaker.” – Mylissa Fitzsimmons
“Don’t try to fit in and emulate — originate! Dive deep into your excellence, your unique voice, and develop your skills so that you are ready to execute when the time comes.” – María Agui Carter
“The most challenging, yet telling, obstacle is standing the test of time. For the vast majority of us, we will have to reposition, reimagine, and pivot countless times before that first big project lands. While often frustrating, a positive way to view the process is that we perhaps ripen creatively with experience and age. Resilience emerges and we can use that for future mountains to climb in the industry. You are allowed to mourn from the inevitable rejections, but it’s how you bounce back that really counts.” – Jen West
“Find your allies… try to embrace the difficulty of this business because it will always be tough no matter how far you get. Consider carefully if it’s something you truly want to do with your life, then work your ass off for it.” – Kim Spurlock
“There are so many kinds of film worlds and filmmaking practices. Reach out to a filmmaking community that coincides with your politics, sensibilities, offers comradeship, and supports and nurtures your filmmaking. Try to have a daily practice, whether that means doing a little writing, shooting, sketching, listening, editing, shooting some frames of animation; whatever your project needs, make it part of your everyday.” – Kelly Sears
“Destroy imposter syndrome at the onset. It’s an illusion that those who have dominated the spaces and positions of power you will occupy are naturally confident and somehow belong more than you. That they’re more deserving of the bigger budget, and are the only ones allowed to make mistakes. If you are creating from a place of authenticity, you belong.” – Keisha Rae Witherspoon
“Take yourself and your craft seriously. Don’t be a lazy filmmaker and do not expect handouts from others. Study and read daily. When I first started, I would ask myself a question every night before I went to bed: What did I do today to help further my filmmaking goals? And I always had an answer. That was how I tracked my progress. Do what’s in your power because you control the things that are within. However, determination and tenacity only get you so far, so in addition, make sure you build connections that could help you succeed.” – Kase Pena
“Do it! You have a unique perspective to telling a story and it can save lives.” – Karla Legaspy
“With so many online tutorials and classes out there, you can absolutely learn about the craft of filmmaking, even if you don’t go to film school. But if you’re truly passionate about becoming a director, start with telling a story that’s close to your heart. One that resonates with you so deeply that it will absolutely come forth on the big screen. Women’s stories are told with so much depth; start with something you know personally.” – Jeannette Godoy
“Greenlight yourself. And remember to let the work speak for itself. Bonus: Stay hydrated.” – Deborah Riley Draper
“Spend time with your own thoughts. Make sure you know yourself so that when you hear your voice inside, you can trust and love it.” – Dawn Jones Redstone
“Don’t allow what’s come before to limit you. Think of the history of film as an invitation.” – Daria Martin
“You need three Ps to succeed in this business: patience, persistence and passion cause filmmaking is NOT for the weak! Also, open yourself to receive the stories that want to be told through you and then fight like hell to be a good conduit for them and whenever you’re confused about a character, scene, idea or fillin the blank ask yourself, ‘Does it serve the story?’ If not, then it’s deuces, baby!” – Daresha Kyi
“Know your stuff, speak your truth, and let your vulnerability be your strength. Assume the best intentions of people. This can be hard if you’ve experienced personal or cultural trauma (sexism, racism), and do take care of yourself, always, but stay open to whatever kernel of truth others offer you. Offer them yours. Let them see you. The real you. Find the ones who do, with whom you feel whole, and never let them go. I’m talking real death grip stuff here. If you need to use rope, that’s fine.” – Audrey Ewell
“Trust your gut and find your allies. Don’t take on other peoples’ fears. Question the word, ‘no.’ Ask questions. Everyone started out not knowing. Never stop learning. Be true to yourself and your vision. Remember you have a story that no else can tell.” – A. Sayeeda Moreno
The following individuals comprised the nominating committee for this year’s festival: Beth Barrett (Seattle International Film Festival), Emily Best (Seed & Spark), Virginia Bogert (WIF/Seattle), Linda Bove (actor), Effie Brown (Gamechanger Films), Kat Candler (filmmaker), Amy Dotson (Northwest Film Center), Claudette Godfrey (SXSW), Miranda July (filmmaker), Mynette Louie (The Population), Leah Meyerhoff (Film Fatales), Lucy Mukerjee (Tribeca Film Festival), Janet Pierson (SXSW Film Festival), Mike Plante (Sundance Film Festival), Rishi Rajani (Hillman Grad), Tracy Rector (filmmaker/activist), and Ligiah Villalobos (writer/producer).