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 Miami, Florida-based April Dobbins. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project to the world.
I am a filmmaker, photographer and writer based in Miami, Florida. I was a 2017 Sundance Institute Knight Fellow, and I'm currently a Firelight Media Documentary fellow. My work has been published in many places, including Calyx Journal, Cimarron Review, Philadelphia City Paper and Transition magazine – a publication of the Hutchins Institute at Harvard. My films have screened at festivals across the country.
I was one of 15 artists invited by renowned photographer Alec Soth to attend his inaugural Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers at his studio in St. Paul, Minnesota. I am a recipient of the WaveMaker Grant and the S.J. Weiler Fund Award, given in recognition of exemplary artistic achievement and creativity in the visual arts as well as significant contributions to the arts community.
I have always wanted to be a filmmaker, but I did not have access since I grew up in a poor, rural area. It's only when I started working at a university with a tuition benefit that I was able to enroll part-time in a film program in 2013 and start making movies. Otherwise, I'd still be dreaming about it.
Alabamaland is the story of my family's 688-acre farm in rural Alabama and the black women whose identities are inextricably tied to this place. Through the film, I examine black farms and black land ownership in the American South.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-?)
I am in early production. I fundraise as I go, and when I get enough money for another shoot, I shoot.
When did this specific journey begin?
This film started out as a documentary photography project in 2007. I followed my granddad around, who at the time was in his late 80s, and documented his life as a farmer. I knew that farmers were dying out without a younger generation of farmers to replace them, so I felt it was important to capture this endangered way of life. After years of photographing and publishing photos, people pushed me to make the doc.
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 and director. I am a producer, and before bringing others on to produce, I produced everything myself. I am a grant writer and fundraiser and have raised much of the money for the film by applying for grants. I also am the person who has to report back to all those granting institutions.
I think having to play all these roles combined with the fact that this is a personal documentary burned me out really fast. I'm recovering from that. You lose your enthusiasm after years of this. Then, you have to find your love of the story again and push through. One of the MOST frustrating things is that everyone you talk to wants to know when the film is going to be done. Most of them have no idea what it takes to finish a film properly. It can get in your head and make you feel like you aren't succeeding.
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?
More than anything, I need a reliable editor who understands the story that I'm trying to tell and who understands the black Southern experience or is sensitive to it.
TIME. You can't make a movie without setting aside the time to make it. I need to take time away from my real life to focus on my film and to rest. I never get to rest. I am constantly eyeing artist residencies. It's a dream of mine to have the luxury of going away for two or three months and focus solely on my work. I wish there were more grants for residencies. Even if they are free, I can't afford to not work for three months. Recently, I've taken on some side jobs for extra income in addition to school and work. I screen films for festivals, and I teach at the university level, so spare time is a rare commodity in my life.
Funding is always a hurdle. You can't move forward, pay crewmembers or make any progress without funding. I spend more time writing grants and applying for awards than I care to divulge. I also work full time, and I wish I could take a break so that I could finish this film. Sadly, my life doesn't work that way.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
I am always battling with imposter syndrome--that feeling that I am not good enough to do this, especially since it's my first feature. I ONLY persevere because I know that this industry is not set up to be supportive of stories from people like me--a black woman from the rural South. I push through because I think about how many doors I'm opening for other women like me who want to make movies. And, of course, there is always that looming fear that I will never finish, or that I will disappoint all the people who've supported me over the years. The film has its heat. People from all over seem to be excited about it. This helps me get funding, but with funding comes all these voices and opinions. Suddenly, there are five or six people with very different objectives telling you what your movie should be. For a good year, all the noise discouraged me, but to be successful in this business, you have to learn to disagree respectfully with people and stay focused. I worry about losing focus and getting lost in all the noise. I wish people were more respectful of the creative process, but this is a business, so I can't blame them.
Toughest decision(s) you've had to make so far?
I briefly severed ties with a close collaborator because it felt like he was taking the whole thing for granted. I love working with him and feel like he gets the vision. He's vital to the film's cinematic look, and I love him to pieces, but, sometimes, ego gets in the way of the work. It was really tough coming to terms with the fact that he wasn't going to be on the film anymore. After some time, we reconciled, so we are back at it.
Also, firing people is never easy. Especially when you are on a tight budget.
Toughest challenge(s) you've faced so far?
The weight of everything on my shoulders. Sometimes, I feel very much alone in pushing this train. As my career takes off, I am struggling with having to work full-time while single-parenting my daughter AND going to school part-time (because that's the only way I have access to equipment and facilities). I can't stop working. I don't really sleep, and I know that it is killing me, but I have to keep at it. In addition to all of that, I am very much involved in my community, so I am always presenting at schools or giving film talks in underrepresented communities. I could have more time if I stopped the community involvement, but that's not an option for me. That's my charge and my calling--to inspire others to tell their stories.
Also, as a female filmmaker, if you aren't a bully on set or if you aren't pushy, people take that for weakness. They want to see you come in and boss people around. In their minds, that's the only way to lead. It's not the way that I work, so I always get people coming to me worried that I'm not bossy enough. Honestly, there is always so much emotional noise on every set, and you have to learn to be productive despite all of that noise.
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?
Of course, all stories have been told. For me, it's about perspective and representation. We've seen a ton of Southern stories and a ton African stories, but how many of them have we seen where those communities have ownership of their stories, where they lead the narrative, where they are behind the camera? My work is all about telling stories from inside marginalized communities. We have our version to tell, and it's amazing to helm that telling.
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?
Honestly, I want it to touch black Southerners and let them see the value of their way of life. I want it to open discussions about black family farms and our elderly farmers. It's a beautiful thing to see yourself represented onscreen by someone from your community. I want to do that for kids who are growing up in far-flung rural areas like the one in which I grew up. Also, my family often passes history down orally. We lose a lot when our storytellers pass away, so this is my way of preserving our history for future generations in a Zora Neale Hurston-type way.
In reality, all of what I hope for is possible. I'm pretty realistic about the money aspect, so I know I'm not going to be rolling in profits, but that's not why I'm making the film anyway.
Ever been discouraged (whether on this specific project, or at any other time during this journey)? How do you keep your head up when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges?
Just last week I was thinking that I was stupid for ever thinking such an endeavor was feasible for someone like me. So, yes! All the time. It's hard to navigate an industry where people assume you are privileged in so many ways. Every day, someone is pushing me to make progress on the film, but you need money and time to do that. I don't have the leisure of not working full time, and I generally don't have all this disposable income, so I have had to learn to move when I can move and to work slowly and steadily to get funding. My family's story inspires me to keep pushing. I am doing it for all of us, and I can already see the benefits of my documentation. My granddad passed away in August 2017, and I am so glad I interviewed him before he died. I have that forever: him telling his story in his own words. That is priceless. He's the man who fought segregation and Jim Crow. The KKK tried to kill him, but he pressed on. Because of him, we have 688 acres that belong to us. If he can do all that, I can surely make this film.
Do you have a support system? Family, friends, fellow filmmakers... alcohol (#Jokes... kind of)? 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 have supportive family and filmmaker friends. Cultivating a community of strong, sympathetic filmmakers and artists is key for me. I can always lean on them or talk to them, and they are helpful when I am looking for crew, etc. I have two close friends that I talk to all the time on the phone. They have saved me in times of despair. I can't say enough about fellowships like Firelight Media's Documentary Fellowship and the Sundance Knight Fellowship. They both put me in these very elite, professional circles and reinforced the fact that I BELONGED in these circles. It seems like a small thing, but something like that is life-changing for a relative unknown like myself. It teaches you to see your worth and to talk about your work in a confident way. Suddenly, I go from working on my own to having to navigate a room full of studio executives, stars and award-winning filmmakers. It made me think of "greatness" as a legacy. I want to leave this story behind for others, make good work and be proud of it.
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?
Social media is the reason why I have such a dedicated following for the film. My followers have been watching me build this project for over a decade. They've seen my commitment and my missteps, my doubts and my successes. They're fully invested because they've been along for the whole ride--since this was just a photography project.
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'm encouraged to see more films out by black filmmakers. I think what it shows right now is that we are demanding representation AND supporting that representation with our money. That is the most encouraging part. That we, as a community, are making efforts to get out and spend our money on everything--black docs, narrative films, independent films. It's like we're acknowledging that our money talks, too, and we're using it. Hollywood is Hollywood. It's money over everything.
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion. Do you think all of this 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?
It's hard to be encouraged in the current political climate. I take all of these "changes" with a grain of salt. I mean, I'm sure some doors will be opened, but I think the more sustainable change is coming from places like Array and other movements to take charge of the industry in our ways.
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?
I was at Sundance in 2017, and Netflix was just as big of a player as the major studios. That blew me away. I found that many filmmakers prefer the flexibility and accessibility of working with a Netflix or Amazon. Accessibility is huge, and Netflix can promise access to more audiences than most studios can. If you're working in the documentary field, access is especially important. Many times, you don't have the same box-office appeal as narrative films. I would love to see my work on Netflix one day.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
Make contracts with every single person who comes onto your film. We barter a lot and volunteer our time for other filmmakers, so it seems like it's not a business transaction, but it is.
Don't work with people who are good at what they do if they are jerks. No one wants to be stuck on set all day with jerks.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
Story and character. I can forgive everything else, but if the story doesn't work or if the characters aren't compelling, you have lost.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Ava DuVernay. I grew up 30 minutes from Selma, so to see her put that place on the map in the industry was amazing. Also, the fact that she too started her film career late is inspiring for someone like me.
Black Panther changed my life. The energy at every screening made me so emotional.
I'm a huge sci-fi nerd, so I've always loved Star Trek. It was great to see black people in a fantasy production with all the production value. Not a single corner was cut.
I'm a big fan of Werner Herzog's films, as well.
I love independent films and personal documentaries: Christine Turner's Homegoings; The House on Coco Road; Strong Island. Short docs like Garrett Bradley's Alone and Papa Machete by Jason Jeffers and Jonathan David Kane are giving me life right now.
I live in Miami, so the film community is pretty amazing and fairly close-knit. Moonlight was a movement here, but it's not the only movement.
I'm a writer, so writers inspire me more than anything. Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nam Le, Arundhati Roy, Ottessa Mashfegh. I read The Paris Review religiously. You can't be a good storyteller if you don't study good stories.
Right now, I am most inspired by my peers. Independent filmmakers are magicians. We do so much with so little. I find that more impressive than any industry product. We do it because we love 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?
Personally, being a black woman filmmaker makes me more thoughtful about images and ways to balance out prominent stereotypical narratives. Sometimes it's overwhelming, and other times, it's empowering. I don't want to have to always think about race and portrayals of black characters, but I have to do so. I am ALWAYS in conversation with other black filmmakers about our black characters' moments in our scripts. It helps to have a creative team's input, but it never goes away, that feeling of worrying about the story you're telling.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you'd like to have. What does success look like for you?
I would love the luxury of focusing entirely on filmmaking and storytelling. It would be great to get to a point where people give me money to make the films I want to make, instead of me having to piece together funding. At some point, I'd like not to have a day job. I'm 40, so I think a lot about how finite time is, and I'd rather spend my years telling stories about the African diaspora. And I really, really, really would love an Emmy of my own. As I kid, my favorite TV show was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with Robin Leach. I've always fantasized about a life with insane resources, but I don't dream that so much anymore. (It would be cool to buy a new car since mine is 15 years old and falling apart.)
Where can I (and others) watch your past work, if available, and how can you be reached?
The Facebook page for Alabamaland: https://www.facebook.com
And my email is 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.
I would say to support your local, independent filmmakers. We can't do it without our communities. This support doesn't have to be monetary. I've had people provide food for my shoots; loan me spaces to use as sets; put in a good word for me with industry folks. Every little bit helps.
Be mindful of the fact that some of us aren't as flexible as you are. I have had to turn down so many opportunities because I have a child. I can't just run away to a festival or a fellowship retreat for a week in the middle of the school year. If I do, I have to find a sitter for the whole week and take off work for a whole week. I don't have vacation time because I use all that time for movie stuff. It's exhausting and unhealthy, but I don't know another way around it.
Watch a trailer for Alabamaland: