Through the Lens of a Visionary
Through the Lens of a Visionary: Kiri Laurelle Davis Interview
by Evan Jackson
Is it Justice or Just Us? This is the question proposed not only to me by award winning filmmaker Kiri Luarelle Davis but to everyone at large. Kiri is the creator of the JUST US PROJECT, a multimedia platform addressing social justice issues through media, art, and community outreach. Through the JUST US PROJECT she has released the powerful Our Lives Matter PSA about young black boys being racially profiled. Since Kiri was young she knew she was a filmmaker. She has produced and directed several projects most notably A Girl Like Me, her first documentary which she directed at the age of sixteen, that discusses perception of beauty and colorism as it relates to black girls. Since 2005 A Girl Like Me has reached over 40 million viewers as well as earning many awards, including being screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and worldwide. Kiri reminds me that the essence of being a great filmmaker is being a great storyteller. She tells those untold stories so those who don’t have a voice can be finally heard. Come look through the lens of a visionary to see how she embarked on her journey and to revel in her discoveries as a filmmaker.
What inspired you to become a director?
I think it’s something that’s been in me since I was a little girl, I just didn’t know it was called directing. Originally I wanted to be an actress when I was young, but I rarely saw roles available for girls that looked like me so I came to the conclusion that I would have to write and create my own roles. As a filmmaker, I can create roles for girls like me and for girls all over. I like the idea that as a filmmaker, I can tell the stories important to me. I can tell the stories that aren’t being told and I can tell them through my lens. These kind of stories can touch people’s minds and hearts and that’s a powerful tool to have. That’s something that’s always been really appealing to me because it allows me to address issues that might feel taboo, while pushing people to talk about issues they might otherwise shove under the table. It’s a really special position to be in.
Ever since I was a little girl I’ve been a storyteller. I would dictate stories to my mom and grandma and draw pictures to go along with them. Now I’ve just grown to use film as a medium to tell stories. I’ve known since I was thirteen that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was really focused on it. I told my family I wanted to be a filmmaker and became involved with different film programs where I could learn more about the craft. I saved up to buy my own camera and got my friends appear in different film projects. It’s just something that everyone around me knew I took very seriously. I was a total film geek - I had to see every film and I had to know the process behind it. Also when I was younger, I never said I wanted to be a filmmaker I said, “I am a filmmaker”. I made the career I wanted to have. You don’t have to wait to become something like a filmmaker. You become a filmmaker by doing and creating.
What compelled you touch on the subject of the perception of beauty as it relates to black girls for your first film project the 2005 documentary A Girl Like Me?
I really wanted to focus on some of the issues of beauty and the standards of beauty that are imposed, particularly on girls of color because it was what me and my friends were going through and at the time there didn’t seem to be much dialogue around these issues. We were in high school and this was way before Chris Rock came out with his Good Hair film and its way before Tyra Banks did specials on colorism. At the time we weren’t talking about good hair vs. bad hair or the dark skin vs. light skin topics. This was before the film Dark Girls and at the time I couldn’t find anything to directly connect to on this subject matter. And so I started interviewing girls I knew who were going through lots of different things surrounding the pressures of European standards of beauty, what that felt like and the insecurities it created. I really wanted to focus on this subject because I felt it was a topic people kept pushing under the table and not really talking about. It felt like the dirty laundry that no one wanted to address. Therefore it was really powerful to be able to discuss these issues with other young girls at the time and just learn from each other. Many young girls learned they weren’t the only ones going through these issues and problems. Also the girls featured in A Girl Like Me, were my friends, but it was still alarming to me that some of them were dealing with issues involving skin bleaching and all sorts of related things. That’s why it was really an empowering project at the time and I think it was a wake up call for us all. People had even told me not to make a film about this topic, that no one wanted to hear about it and that’s just the way things were. This made me a little nervous about taking on this subject. However, in the end it was really cool to get such amazing feedback and to see people, not even just girls like me, but people from different backgrounds all across the country utilize the film and connect with the film, the girls, and the children in it. We all have standards that are imposed upon us and people from around the world really understood and could relate to this message. Years later I still get emails and other feedback about this project. Even during my freshman year of college, in one of my very first classes they used the film, it was right on my syllabus.
You said that giving the girls in the documentary A Girl Like Me an opportunity to talk about issues and experiences help look at deeper things in society that affect and shape us. In what ways did the documentary help you?
The documentary helped me in many ways. As a filmmaker the documentary helped me understand the power of film. How it can change perspective and really open people’s minds and create an awareness that wasn’t there before. It helped me find my voice as a filmmaker and deal with issues that I was going through. I also felt like it gave me a new strength and courage. It empowered me because now I was able to communicate through film with so many girls going through similar issues. I think for many it provided a sense of support, knowing ‘Oh, I went through this too’ or ‘This is what I’m going through now’ was great. The documentary made me realize I have the power to change things. Telling our stories has such an impact on the lives of people. I think it was so cool to listen to girls and people from all over the world talk about how it inspired them. How they feel more comfortable with themselves and how it helped them address serious issues they might have ignored. To go sit in the theaters and witness people crying after viewing something I created just brought this whole new understanding of how film can impact people and how it can change things. Even in the schools I filmed in, they changed their policies to create more diversity initiatives. I just saw so many ways people used the film, whether it was a program getting more black dolls for children or providing a platform to discuss the issues in home, schools and community based organizations word-wide.
I think as a filmmaker it’s important to be honest and put it all out there. You can’t preach as a filmmaker; you let people come to their own conclusions by simply showing them how it is. I feel like that’s more powerful than hitting people over the head with things. Like with the children and the doll test, you can tell a person all you want about how things are affecting us or impacting self-image, but until people actually see it with their own eyes, that’s when they really get it. When people saw these young black children 50 years, after the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case, choosing white dolls as being good and the black dolls as bad, I think that’s when things really registered. That’s when people said ok this is a problem.
What was the experience like when A Girl Like Me was featured in film festivals worldwide?
It was awesome, as a young filmmaker you rarely know how far your film is going to go. I thought it might screen at a couple of schools or organizations, but to see it reach film festivals world-wide, was a really phenomenal experience. It was fun to go to some of the events and stand side by side with accomplished filmmakers who have been doing it as long as I’ve been alive. It was a good experience to share the stage with them, to have my film screened along with theirs. Also for them to be so supportive and welcoming to me in this industry, I thought was really awesome. It really made me feel accepted as a professional filmmaker. Originally I thought I would get into some youth film festivals. I didn’t know it would be accepted into the main film festival division. Therefore it was really nice to know that the film went so far without even being quote on quote viral originally. I work organically, I don’t push any gimmicks, I just push to showcase the story and let people experience it for themselves. If they connect to the story and understand its message, I feel like I’ve done my job.
What is the most challenging part of being a director? What is the most rewarding part of being a director?
The most challenging part is always trusting your gut. You have to work with a lot of different people and everyone has their own ideas, everyone thinks you should do it this way or that way. Everyone has an opinion, but at the end of the day you have to do what serves the story justice, no matter what that takes. It’s a matter of trusting your gut and following your heart. The other difficult part of being a director is making sure you have the funds to create what you want. As an independent filmmaker, it’s challenging. I’m not backed by a huge studio so sometimes as a director I just have to sacrifice a lot to bring my vision to life and sometimes pay out of pocket if I want to see my project completed.
One the other hand the most rewarding part, well there are two parts. One is when you are finally done and you actually like what you see. So many times you’ll have a vision in your head and you don’t always know if the final product is going to look the way you envisioned it in your head. When you’ve finally created something that looks really similar to what you first dreamed about or the idea you had stuck in your head, it’s extremely gratifying. Especially after you’ve edited all the pieces, after you’ve worked night and day to see it all come together in the final stages and to be satisfied, is an amazing feeling. A part of you is now out there. It’s really scary and thrilling at the same time. The second part is when you finally get to see the people who are watching the project and you get feedback that is hopefully positive and people are moved or inspired by what you created, is a wonderful feeling, along with seeing the impact it has on people. Also for people to say they feel some type of way and that your project might have made a change in their life is an amazing feeling.
How does your work with youth and non-profit organizations influence your work?
Working with youth and non-profit organizations pushes me to want my work to have a purpose. I’m not interested in just creating fluff. I really like that when I’m working with non-profits and children it really shows me how important it is to have a real mission and to create media that can truly be utilized and have an impact. Working with youth is awesome because they tell it like it is. I feel like working with them and listening to them helps me to grow as a filmmaker. It makes me want to develop more projects that embraces who they are and help to uplift them. Overall with kids, they are just themselves, they don’t put on an act, and they have such honesty about them. I just love interviewing them because it’s refreshing to talk to individuals like that.
What drove you to create the multimedia series the Just Us Project?
Around the time Trayvon Martin was murdered, I began to interview mainly young black men about what it felt like to be targeted and their responses were extremely thought provoking. I started doing more research. I traveled to different parts of the country. I filmed rallies and marches. I spoke with experts, mothers who lost kids to police brutality and young people of color who were being targeted. Through it all I listened to so many unbelievable stories. It was overwhelming at times. Though I had originally wanted to create a documentary that embodied these themes, I realized I couldn’t fit all these stories and experiences into a singular project. From the murder of Jordan Davis’ to Mike Brown, the body count just kept adding up. I felt that by creating a media series I could focus on different topics, different people and their different stories within a series of unique segments. Some segments are going to be in-depth interviews, some will cover different events and some of them are going to be PSAs like the first one, Our Lives Matter.
How did the Our Lives Matter PSA come about?
When I was interviewing young men of color about what it felt like to be targeted they talked about how about how running down the street would cause alarm, how they would always have to think about their outfit and if it might make them “look suspicious”. I took those original interviews filmed about two years back and reworked them into a PSA, rewording their statements into questions. I also combined statements I had heard from young boys, regarding their experiences of feeling targeted. I feel like we’re used to those statements being made from men maybe in their 20’s or late teens, but I feel like it has a different effect when you hear it coming from kids. Like when you hear an eight-year-old ask, “Why do you think I’m dangerous?” or “Why do you think I’m suspicious?” or “Why are you targeting me?” I feel like it impacts people in a whole new way. It’s almost like someone hits you in the stomach when these little kids are asking these unfortunate questions. That’s why I released it as a short PSA, so that people if for just two minutes, could walk in their shoes. Before directing the project, I remember asking the question, “how many unarmed youth of color have to be killed, before it’s seen, not as an isolated incident but a national crisis? I made the PSA with that question in mind. I also examined the question, is it Justice or Just Us? This is where the name for the series came from.
Tell us more about your work with photography and your production company Kreative Attractions Media?
I do photography and all types of work through Kreative Attractions Media. I want to continue to work with different mediums. Photography is also something I’m really passionate about which I’ve been doing since I was a little girl. I don’t think a day doesn’t goes by where I don’t take a photograph. I want to continue to grow as an artist, whether that means traveling more, trying new genres I’m not familiar with and just challenging myself in creative ways. Overall I want to expand as a filmmaker. Photography or even painting helps to refine my eye.
What is the boldest thing you’ve ever done?
The boldest thing I’ve ever done most recently was going to Ferguson. Just because I understand the seriousness of the situation I was going into. Many people didn’t understand why I felt the need to go. They told me not to go, that is wasn’t safe. I wanted to go though because I felt I was getting such a distorted view of what was happening from the media. I felt like I really needed to see it for myself to really understand the reality of what was occurring and the best way to do that was to be right on the frontlines. Going out there was a serious learning experience. You don’t expect to be in America and have a tank roll up on you or to have lines of police march towards you with batons when you’re doing nothing wrong. It was sometimes a really scary situation. I didn’t really know what I was walking into, but I knew I was bringing my camera and going to film and do what I could to help organize, while capturing the truth. There were young people there as young as 7 and 8, who told me what it was like to have rubber bullets flying towards them and having tear gas thrown at them. The injustice I witnessed made me determined to provide an outlet for people to share their stories. I remember while filming I would see mainstream media cameras literally turn their backs on some intense situations and simply not a film. It was just so crazy to me, here you are; you see what’s going on and you’re not even capturing it so that the public can see the truth! Therefore it was extremely important to me that I along with other independent media-makers were out there shining a light on what was really occurring. Therefore I felt obligated to document as much as possible. Already there was so much going on that wasn’t being portrayed accurately in mainstream media. I wanted to expose the unjust treatment of innocent people by those in power. I wanted to capture how peaceful protests were being met with aggression and police brutality. I never thought in a million years in 2015 we would have to face something like this.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to continue to build my production company and continue to create films and media projects for the small and big screen. I’ve rebooted Kreative Attractions Media and I feel that in 2015, I’m definitely taking it to the next level and expanding it. I want to use it as a platform not just for myself, but for other young media-makers to build on and help to produce and promote their work as well. I also hope that the Just Us Project series continues for years to come and highlights the many stories that are being ignored. At the end of the day I really want to create a media empire. I don’t want to feel like I have to go to “the studio” to get the backing needed to create my projects. I want to be my own studio at some point. That’s what my dream is; producing, directing, and being an overall filmmaker that can create some powerful pieces. I hope to create media projects that are outside the box. I also want to take new risks and trust my own vision more. I feel like there have been times in the past where I’ve let others influence me too much or moments where I’ve been hesitant about taking the full leap on my own, but I’m at that stage of my life where I just want to be me as an artist. I’m at the point where I have to trust the path I’m on and encourage others to do the same.
Where can people reach you?
You can find the Just Us Project series at www.JustUsProject.org. My twitter and instagram are @KiriLaurelle and we’re re-launching the Kreative Attractions Media site (KreativeAttractions.com) this April.