What inspired you to make this piece?
MISS RUBY'S HOUSE was made at a time in life when I was heavily concerned with issues of representation of "black folk" in cinema. I had felt, back then, there weren't enough instances to see a balanced and fully fleshed-out variety of black characters in films -- particularly in the case of seeing black female characters. Sure, there's a great history of black presence and/or black filmmaking not only in America -- but worldwide. And today, there's a growing reflection of this -- but for a time, the late eighties/early nineties left us with few choices -- thankfully those few existed. But it wasn't enough.
It's just that it seemed to me that the characters which would frequently appear in movie after movie would be too iconographic -- symbols of "badness" or "virtual decency." Few attempts were being made at this time to use cinema to extend the "black persona" beyond two-dimensional boundaries -- perhaps because these extreme images were the only ones that paying audiences were willing to see. Either there were "heroes" or "gangsters," "upstanding citizens" or "pimps and hos" -- and I felt that there was a missing population somewhere in between -- ever-growing in size. In the name of representation, I really wanted to see more -- black individuals who could be flawed and fabulous all at once, who could be neurotic yet level-headed, selfish yet giving, constantly wrestling within their identities -- I suppose I wanted to prove that African-Americans were not just static emblems, but multifaceted humans -- just like their white counterparts.
In effect, I became inspired from the scarcity of black images in cinema. Firstly, there weren't enough movies being made centering around the "black experience" to even cover the spectrum of "African-American life"; and secondly, when movies were made with and/or by black talent, "black characters" seem stilted -- particularly women. I'm sure most black filmmakers at this time were all wrestling with these very issues. Somehow I knew I needed to try to make something that people -- black and white -- could relate to: not just plain cliches, icons, or emblems, but characters with many levels of conflict.
I knew one thing for sure: I wanted to present a fully fleshed-out portrait of "black American female life" without being too narrow or too precious about the subject matter. I needed to discuss issues of work, entertainment, education, occupation, gender, etc. I also wanted to show, through presenting several different personalities, the complexity of our beings -- show that we exist, often fragmented and largely in part a result of the environment in which we were born/raised and the mess we have to deal with along the way.
I figured, what better way to show this than by presenting several characters at once who all shared something in common in addition to their blackness -- a babysitter. To me, the role of nurturer, caretaker, and provider is one of the unsung and uncelebrated hero(ine). For that very reason, I chose to center the narrative around the fictionalized anti-heroine babysitter "Miss Ruby." I felt this character was based on thousands of women who throughout our history have been the under-appreciated carriers of culture, protection, strength, and love. I can't quite say it's based on one (black) woman's story -- the job has been shared by millions of women -- and particularly black women to an extensive degree in America. The hard part was trying to show the complexity of an unseen archetype character. Miss Ruby was to serve as an embodiment -- a sort of prism -- of these five women (four women and a "former" man to be exact) -- through them her many "faces" could be shown. The only way to do so was to present a myriad of characters who all "resemble" different aspects of Miss Ruby in a way -- characters different yet similar, righteous and rough all at once. Miss Ruby would be that bridge to show the complex similarities and relative differences among her troops -- and hopefully black women at large.
Tell us a little about the process involved in making this work.
| From MISS RUBY'S HOUSE.
[This was] my first attempt at filming anything -- the process was a lot longer, more stressful, and cost more money than I had initially anticipated. All that said, it was an uphill battle all the way. The first and most obvious thing to overcome was the lack of finances, and how that affected the shoot. A combination of taking out student loans and working at several jobs while learning about the process at school was the only way. Basically, at some point I realized that I had only enough money to buy the raw materials, rent the necessary items, and pay for some of the post-production services. However, this has nothing to do with the labor involved!
So, basically I spent the next two years relying on the "kindness of strangers" (a talented lot of friends and family) and truly committed industry professionals to help this project move along the way inch by inch. Suffice to say, I spent a lot of time courting folk, asking for and cashing in on favors, and perhaps overstepping the boundaries of friendship(s). The emotional side of low-budget filmmaking can be severely destructive and extremely rewarding all at once. When you're working with peers, schoolmates, friends, and family, you begin to realize that all aspects of your life must overlap -- there's no more separation between your professional and personal life, it all merges. And while this is often under-examined in discussions of filmmaking, I think the hardest and most trying part of the process is learning how to ask for help and accept it wisely, respectfully, and, hopefully, graciously. So I guess I would say, a necessary part of the process is learning how to be a diplomatic beggar, and a dependable collaborator to others -- that's where it begins. Don't fool yourself that you can do it "on your own" -- there's no such thing . . . for when you embark upon the wonderful world of no-money filmmaking, you're gonna need to have a well-oiled support structure. And so begins the back and forth of the process.
Do you have any interesting and/or amusing behind-the-scenes stories about the making of this particular work?
| From MISS RUBY'S HOUSE.
One day we were filming in Fort Greene at my friend Bernhard's house, which had been converted into "Miss Ruby's House" for the duration of the shoot. (Bernhard, who is African-American, is the film's super-talented art director, who worked with a schoolmate of mine, Allison Brandin. She is white and is the film's production designer -- I add all this color stuff because it is relevant to the tale.) Anyway, being that the film was put together on a shoestring, it marked the combined efforts of many of my dearest friends, who were willing to give their time and talent to see the project through . . . One film takes the effort of many hands.
Since I've always hung out with folks from all different walks of life, the crew was a racially mixed one. There were all sorts of folk, running on and off the set acting as cast and/or crew. It was a flurry of black, Latin, white and Asian-American team players in the mix. And believe you me, I was appreciating every last one of them for being there.
Now, since I actually acted in RUBY'S HOUSE, I was always on-set in costume giving direction. Often the twisted vision would throw people. Anyway, on this afternoon, I was playing my homegirl part as "Shaquelle Fenestra Fields." So I was dressed a la baaing-girl -- and perhaps didn't give that "I am the director" look upon first sighting. Well, some kids from across the street, who couldn't possibly see what was going on from a ways away, started shouted "GO HOME WHITE FOLK -- MAKE BLACK FILMS!" again and again and so loudly it turned into an insurmountable chant. Needless to say, they hadn't entertained the thought that I was the filmmaker, all they could see was the white cinematographer holding the camera -- and that was it! They focused all their attention on the man.
And although I've been black since the day I was born, none seemed to notice that the person "in command" was neither male nor white. It was like I was invisible. I tried to appeal to the kids in all my homegirl-gear that I was the director -- the one guiding the piece. But they weren't having it. Even when I pleaded at the top of voice for them to be quiet, so we could go on with filming -- it was to no avail . . . And I just freaked thinking how many crew members were gonna walk from this uncomfortable situation. Wow, it was all in reverse, sexism, racism, and all its opposites were all in play.
In a way I understood why these kids were filled with a sort of resentment -- they wanted to see their "own kind" making films about "their own kind" -- "represent" if I may use an early-nineties phrase . . . And hey, it wasn't too often back then that you'd see a black female directing instead of being directed . . . So they made up their own assumptions. But little did they know that low-budget filmmaking requires labor and commitment from co-collaborators who come in all shapes, sizes, colors -- whatever -- it's all about being lucky enough get that support no matter what the package comes in.
Admittedly, although I was freaked out amidst all the commotion, but I still found myself laughing quite a bit at the irony of the situation. The crew just took it in stride. And finally, when I calmed down, crossed the street and explained to the teens -- dressed in my "street girl" gear -- that I in fact was the director, they finally dealt with the situation. Actually they more than dealt, most of them volunteered to be extras, and in the end it was all good in "Miss Ruby's Hood!"
Is there a relationship between your work as a video/filmmaker and life in the New York metropolitan area?
New York is a great place to pursue filmmaking -- particularly if you're on a shoestring budget. Plenty of resources can be found here, as well as hard-working, really talented folk who may be in the same circumstance as you -- with desires to do a project, be it theater/dance/costume design/legal work, whatever. You can always find someone here wanting to work on a project either out of sheer desire, or they'll do so, knowing in good faith that the favor will be returned. Out in "Studioland," it doesn't go like that, and most everything must be done for pay. It has gotten increasingly more so here, where renegade "no budget" filmmaking has been replaced with "low budget." Primarily because the independent cinema that New York is famous for inspiring has turned into a rather large, money-making industry -- everybody wants a piece of the pie. But we truly have a grip on the fact that the pie is finite. But with imagination, collaboration and innovation, it's still possible to eke out a project if you have the will and support to do so.
Lastly, I should mention, New York locations provide such wonderful backdrops; you can actually design the look and or feel of your film around a number of "worlds" which exist in our metropolitan area. Within your reach you can find parks, dance classes, old barges, abandoned buildings, amazing temples and churches, vastly different ethnic neighborhoods booming with business and teeming with activity, social clubs, freaky outdoor festivals, club life, old-world architecture, futuristic mosques, places that seem as if time has frozen -- you name it. Practically whatever look you desire or setting you need, you can find it here. And dare I say this doesn't even include "upstate" New York (with which I'm not really familiar). So whenever I'm in the process of writing, and I'm at a loss on where to place scenes or how to cover certain material, I know that inspiration is usually just a train ride away.
How has the burgeoning independent movement affected your life and work as a video/filmmaker?
The concept of "independent filmmaking," as everyone already knows, is a rather tricky one to discuss. Being independent immediately suggests being able to proceed with projects with a lack of financial support from outside forces. The filmmaker(s) must learn to understand the limited resources they have, and come up with a game plan for what to do, i.e. hustle. Being part of this "burgeoning independent" movement therefore has forced me to become more and more resourceful, without having to feel helpless and/or apologize for cutting corners during production. It is expected that you're in a bind. Projects do not flow easily when there is no/little money to be had. Especially if you're not working with a production company and you're on your own (you are gathering as many friends, favors and family members you can to help see the project through), you can find comfort in knowing you're not alone. Most everyone in this "scene," or part of this movement, is having to hustle -- therefore there's a mutual understanding among filmmakers now more so than ever.
There are many more helmers, like myself, who must proceed forward with their dreams on a hard-earned shoe-string budget. And seeing that all this still hasn't discouraged many from at least embarking on their dream, I am more encouraged to continue in my path.