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 Silvano Griffith-Francis. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project.
My name is Silvano Griffith-Francis, and I’m a playwright and screenwriter who has been writing Christian-themed plays since the age of 17. I am also an actress.
My decision to pursue filmmaking progressed from my stage shows. To be honest, it’s not something I gave a lot of thought to. It was like “Hey, shall we turn this theatre production into a film?” and we did.
My feature film, titled Family Secrets, centers on a Christian family who, despite loving each other dearly, are going through individual struggles they can’t share with each other. John and Shirley have been married for 38 years and have raised three God-fearing, intelligent and respectful children. Ruth, the oldest, is a happily married and successful career woman. Naomi, the second-born, is about to be married to the man of her dreams, and wedding plans are coming together nicely. Zach, the youngest, has just graduated from university with first-class honors. But there’s a lot more to this family than meets the eye. The storyline explores a range of social issues that affect audiences from all walks of life.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
It’s finished! It’s taken two years of a lot of sweat and a lot of tears, but it’s complete, and it will have a local premiere next month, followed by another two screenings in other parts of the country.
When did this specific journey begin?
It began with the script being written in 2015, followed by the journey of seeking funding but not finding any and then giving up. I then made the decision to self-finance, and two months after that, the cameras rolling.
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, producer and actor. Things got really crazy once the cameras started rolling, and on some days, I was also chef, taxi driver and errand girl, as well. We managed to stick to a schedule and complete the shoot, but I didn’t sleep much during the two weeks of filming. If I were to do it again, I would definitely want to have at least two other producers, so when I arrive on set, all I need to worry about is my role.
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?
Right now, I need someone to take charge of the distribution side of things. That would be most helpful. We have a few screenings lined up. And then what? I still don’t have much of an idea about the distribution side of things.
I’m also seeking funding for my second feature. Having shot the first with virtually no budget, I know the strains and compromises that brings, so I would really love to have decent funding for my next project.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
That it won’t be received well. You’re vulnerable when you put your work on display for the entire world to see. The finished product is a lot different from what I imagined it would be when I embarked on this. While there were several amazingly talented people working on the project, budget restraints meant we made some huge sacrifices in many areas, and that has been reflected in the final product.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
To cut bits of the film I felt were crucial but were poorly delivered and would harm rather than help the overall piece.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
Achieving everything we have with the budget we had was a miracle, but it was tough. I’m also very impatient, so I found having to wait so long a real challenge. The editor, sound designer and composer all have day jobs and could only work on this in their spare time, so it was a huge challenge. Previously, I was on stage, so a show was over in two hours. This has been two years! I could feel God stretching me in this area.
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?
To some degree this is true; however, something that has been done before can be done again with a new spin. My film is Christian-based, and yes, while there are thousands of other Christian films on the market, mine is a lot more edgy. It doesn’t scream “Repent, or you’re going straight to hell,” nor does it say “Hey, once you say yes to Jesus, it’s all happy days.” Instead, it shows the real challenge of loving God but having to deal with everyday struggles in this flesh. It’s about messing up. And nothing is tied up neatly at the end, either, because it’s not always that way in real life.
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?
The vision I initially had was that I wanted the film to take wings, fly and take on a life of its own. The final product, I just want it to be seen. I’d love it to screen on the church circuit and in Christian homes where people will watch it and hopefully feel that it’s okay to be imperfect, have struggles and know God is still looking out for me.
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?
Ultimately, I love what I do. And I’m in the privileged position of being able to do what I love. So yes, it can be difficult at times, and yes, some challenges seem insurmountable, but my only other alternative is to go back to a 9-5 desk job, and I’m not doing that! So I keep pushing forward, reminding myself of how far God has brought me, and I keep trusting him to make a way when there seems to be none.
Do you have a support system? 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)?
I am blessed beyond belief in this area. My husband, my family and my closest friends are people of prayer, so I’m completely covered in prayer. I also know a couple of other people starting out in this area so we have a good chin wag (British term for chat) from time to time, to blow steam off and encourage each other. My husband is one of my biggest cheerleaders. When it looked like the film wouldn’t happen, I remember there was one day when I was just filling out applications for 9-5 jobs. He walked in and said, “Crazy woman, what are you doing? You’re meant to be making a film. Now stop this job hunting nonsense and get on with the film you should be making.”
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?
If used correctly, it can be brilliant. I’m still finding my feet. My Facebook page does well for casting calls and selling show tickets. I still haven’t done much on Twitter and Instagram. I’ve just set up my first Eventbrite page for ticket sales to the premiere, and I’m loving it!
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 always good to see the underdog succeed especially for many young black aspiring actors, filmmakers, etc. It’s also great to see females being recognized in a market that has been so male-dominated over the years and offers hope to other women.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
That a screenplay should be nowhere as wordy as a stage play. I look back at some of my character’s conversations in my film and think a look or a piece of music would have conveyed the essence of that 15-minute conversation a lot better. So when I wrote my second screenplay, I had that in mind. I also now know that there are people out there willing to help in all sorts of ways, and I don’t have to do everything myself.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
These days, a great film for me is one that doesn’t have characters that resort to an expletive for every other word to get a point across. I also love cultural diversity in films, a great mix of character backgrounds and heritages.
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 a filmmaker, writer, storyteller should tell the stories they want to, whether it represents their culture or not. I know how hard this process has been for me, so, of course, if I could offer opportunities to others, then I would.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
Success, for me, would be getting to the place where I could write a script, have a sponsor or donor give me a large wad of cash to produce it, hire a few co-producers, take a role in the film and have it shot, edited and ready to go in under six months. But ultimately, I’d love the success of one project to be able to fund the next project and so on.
How can you be contacted?
Anything else you’d like to say that I didn’t ask? You have the floor, so feel free to dig in here.
This was by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but I’m glad that I didn’t know just how difficult it would have been from the outset because I never would have started! That said, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with some amazing people. I had to beg and borrow, but I drew the line at stealing. If anyone is reading this who has helped along the way, THANK YOU; I LOVE YOU.
I fell into this whole area of filming. My second film is currently in pre-production, and I’ve already applied so many of the lessons I’ve learned from the first. By the end of this one, I’ll make the decision as to whether I continue with this filmmaking malarkey or if I’ll stick to the theatre!
If you’re based in London, you can book tickets to our premiere at https://familysecrets.eventbrite.co.uk.