Brigitta Wagner, photo by Isadora Pennington, 2015

New Maverick: Brigitta Wagner

Brigitta Wagner, photo by Isadora Pennington, 2015

Brigitta Wagner, photo by Isadora Pennington, 2015

The damsel in distress. The doting wife reliant on her strong husband. The man who saves the woman he loves. These are the romance stories that are told with great frequency in our society. Brigitta Wagner, who wrote, directed, co-edited and co-produced the film Rosehill, wanted to know why there wasn’t as much coverage of the kind of experiences that women in their 30s have while trying to establish healthy life and work boundaries in modern day America.

“Why are we always seeing women saved by men?”

Brigitta is animated and passionate about her film, and we spoke for a while over coffee in between her screenings and meetings during the 2015 Atlanta Film Festival. She told me that the concept came together based on conversations with her friends and her own personal experiences. “I wanted to explore ways that real women deal with real problems,” she said.

Rosehill is a film about two women who are old friends but haven’t seen each other in a long time. Katriona, the main character, distressed about her relationship with her boyfriend, decides to visit her best friend Alice in Indiana. The rekindling of their friendship leads to a road trip and blissful disregard for the responsibilities of their day-to-day lives. The journey isn’t always a happy one, however, but in the end both women gain perspective on their lives from the experience.

Though Brigitta did compose a preliminary script for the film, she also left plenty of room for improvisation.

“I like it when something happens that I don’t actually control on the screen,” she explained. The two main characters, played by actresses Josephine Decker and Kate Chamuris, maintain a voice of their own and “created a friendship that you can see on the screen.” Brigitta allowed space for the two to bring their own ideas and influence to their roles and to the film, making it something altogether new.

“It makes films more interesting and more alive,” Brigitta said. “We just had a porous boundary.”

Brigitta’s history as an academic also influences her perspective on her film work, stating that she believes strongly in the importance of including film education when making new films. “There are a lot of academic questions you can ask about the world with the camera,” she continued, elaborating more on her improvisational style. “If you’re an artist or if you’re a humanity scholar of some kind you can go out with a camera and ask questions, it’s very liberating to work that way.”

Rosehill was included in the competition and New Mavericks programming at the festival, and Brigitta also came to the New Mavericks lunch at Parish where she met with other female filmmakers and honorees. I asked her about her experience as part of the program.

“It has been amazing,” she said. “I’ve only been here for a couple of days in Atlanta but I’ve met some really amazing women producers, filmmakers, and actors.” The New Maverick program provided an opportunity for Brigitta to network and brainstorm with others who share her dedication to bringing real women’s stories to the big screen.

“It’s really brave of the Atlanta Film Festival to have a series like this,” she told me, indicating that from her experience it’s mostly on the indie side of the filmmaking spectrum where women are seen in the higher positions of film production. “It’s important to support these young women who are out there making films,” she said.

I do believe that’s something that we can agree on.

To see stills and learn more about Rosehill, go online to the Facebook page.

-Isadora

Angel Kristi Williams, photo by Isadora Pennington, 2015

New Maverick: Angel Kristi Williams

Angel Kristi Williams, photo by Isadora Pennington, 2015

Angel Kristi Williams, photo by Isadora Pennington, 2015

Popularity, influence, and sexuality come to a head in Charlotte, a coming-of-age story about two young women. I spoke with writer and director Angel Kristi Williams to discuss the short film which showed during the New Mavericks shorts block of the 2015 Atlanta Film Festival. In the film, the 13 year old protagonist, Alex, becomes friends with the more popular and feminine Charlotte. “It’s such an impressionable time that shapes who we become as women,” Angel said.

Over the course of a weekend, the two girls bond and explore the limits of their friendship. Desperate for acceptance, Alex finds herself playing house and touching upon feelings of intimacy that she doesn’t quite understand. “I wrote the story based on my what I remember about being a young girl,” Angel told me, “I had friends like these characters.​” This quiet, thoughtful film tells their story without pretense, allowing the girls to express their emotions in moments of silence, long looks, and unspoken words. The bathroom scene in particular stands out to Angel as being one of her favorites. “That was the scene that I saw in my head very early in the writing process,” she explained.

“I’ve always been a storyteller,” said Angel. In 2014 Angel was listed as one of ten Black directors to watch by Paste Magazine and her films have been shown both nationally and internationally, bringing praise and attention to the subjects she features. It all started with a genuine love for narrative film and television. “When my Dad bought a VHS camcorder I never put it down,” she said. Later, Angel attended the University of Maryland where she pursued her Bachelor’s of Art in Visual Arts, and upon graduation she began working in television for a company called Discovery Communications. She was then awarded the Lumiere Scholarship which allowed Angel to attend the Columbia College of Chicago to obtain her Master’s of Fine Art degree in Cinema Directing.

“I’ve loved watching films for as long as I can remember,” said Angel. It was after watching the film Battle of Algiers that her affinity for film came to the forefront of her mind as a young woman. Angel writes about real-world experiences, pulling from her own life to bring complex issues to the big screen. During the process of working on Charlotte, Angel grew as a filmmaker. “I learned that building your audience starts before the film is seen,” she said, implicating the importance of networking and promotion for her work.

The film was selected for the Atlanta Film Festival and Angel made the trip to be a part of the festivities. “It was a great experience,” she said. “I was really pleased with the reception the audience and the festival brought, and the amount of attention short filmmakers like myself could benefit from.” Being a part of the New Mavericks program added another level of success to the film and connections with other female filmmakers. “It was really lovely to have that kind of support for my work.”

Next up, Angel is developing and writing a love story for her first feature length film. Though she’s not revealing any details yet, there’s little doubt that the project will be just as well received as Charlotte and her previous shorts. “I’m looking forward to an opportunity to play at Atlanta with future feature projects,” she told me.

To learn more about Angel and see behind the scenes photos from Charlotte, go online to the Seed & Spark website or watch the trailer on vimeo.

– Isadora

Jen West, photo by Isadora Pennington, 2015

New Maverick: Jen West

Jen West, photo by Isadora Pennington, 2015

Jen West, photo by Isadora Pennington, 2015

Jen West is an Atlanta filmmaker, designer, and blogger whose short film, Little Cabbage, had its world premiere at the 2015 Atlanta Film Festival and was featured as part of the New Mavericks program. We sat down together to discuss the film in the Filmmaker’s Lounge at the Highland Ballroom during the fest. “Little Cabbage is a story about a female composer in the 1950s who was given a musical instrument, and when she plays it distorts her perception of reality and her relationships,” Jen told me.

In the days before the deinstitutionalization movement sparked by the introduction of Medicaid and the implementation of the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, asylums in America often held not only mentally ill patients but also people who were sick or otherwise considered difficult to care for in everyday life. Women especially would sometimes find themselves in a mental hospital for reasons that today would be considered commonplace or even expected, like postpartum depression and anxiety. “A lot of women during that time were hospitalized and they weren’t even actually crazy, just because they didn’t have men to take care of them.”

Jen’s inspiration for writing this plot came from thinking of the time that led to involuntary commitment for those women. She began “exploring the story of a women before she goes into one of those facilities,” inspired by a book called Letters of a Victorian Madwoman. The book is a compilation of letters from Andrewsic Moore Sheffield who was incarcerated in an asylum against her will for 30 years after setting a building on fire. Andrewsic was under the influence of opiates at the time but otherwise sane, and painstakingly documented her experiences while institutionalized.

Madeline, the film’s main character, is a passionate but eccentric musician living in relative isolation in the deep south during the 1950s. Making a living by teaching music lessons out of her home and working towards a grand opus masterpiece, Madeline begins to lose touch with reality. The reasons for her dysfunction are more fantasy than reality in Little Cabbage, as Jen explained “instead of her being on drugs, she’s under a magical spell from a harmonica.”

The film is a period piece, a distinction that requires special forethought to execute on a small budget. “One of the hardest parts of Little Cabbage was making it look authentic,” Jen explained. The reason for the film’s success was the collaboration of her art department and support team during the extensive pre-production phase. Working with a solid, committed team is the key to produce a high quality and solid finished product. “You need to have people who are very good at their craft,” she said. Overall, production went smoothly. “The whole shoot was really magical and it worked really well,” said Jen, “the movie has an aspect of magic to it.”

Little Cabbage is Jen’s fourth short film and is a prologue for a feature length film that is currently in development and slated for sometime later this year. “I kind of fell into film in a nontraditional way,” Jen told me. It wasn’t until after graduating from college that she came to know about independent films. At that time she was working at a small boutique advertising firm and the owner was an avid fan of indie films and wanted to make one. The idea hit home with Jen and a new passion was born. “It was like an instant connection.”

Outside of working on indie films, Jen makes a living as a freelance graphic designer for local organizations such as the Zoo Atlanta and various nonprofits. One of her biggest clients, the Historic Oakland Cemetery, employs Jen for her filmmaking talents as well. “I do some video work for Oakland Cemetery in more of a producer role,” she explained. For example, last fall Jen interviewed Lillian Deakins Timberlake, the first cousin of Margaret Mitchell, for the cemetery’s Living Links film series.

Jen has been instrumental in developing the New Mavericks program, a concept born from a brainstorming session with fellow Atlanta creatives Lane Skye, Robyn Rebecca Hicks, and Brantly Jackson Watts. After discussing the idea of forming a collaborative group here in the city Brantly made the connection with Kristy Breneman and Christina Humphrey to bring New Mavericks to the 2015 Atlanta Film Festival.

“It’s really exciting to think that we are going to have a group here in town that is not just female directors or writers, but also editors and cinematographers and all these other equally important roles,” Jen said. “I’m looking forward to it so much.”

Being a woman working in the film industry, Jen said her experiences have been purely positive. “As a matter of fact, people tend to celebrate what I do more because I’m a woman,” she explained, citing the absence of female directors in larger-scale productions as a reason for that added support. When you look at the metrics, only 5% of for-hire directors in mainstream cinema are women. “That’s why it’s so important for women to do their own projects and make them happen,” she said, “the more work you do the more likely you are to get hired.”

Jen recently toured with Little Cabbage to the Ozark Foothills Film Festival in Arkansas, the Chattanooga Film Festival, and Indie Grits in Columbia, South Carolina. The pre-production of her upcoming feature length film, Electric Bleau, is also well underway with the script currently in the review and editing stage. This film will again tie to the magical, cursed harmonica theme, this time taking place in one of Jen’s favorite cities, New Orleans. The film follows an African-American punk rocker in the late 1970’s as she inherits the cursed musical instrument that’s been wreaking havoc on her family for generations.

As always, Jen has her hands in a variety of projects and endeavors at any given time. Driven and passionate, her plans and ideas continue to evolve and push her to create even beyond the plans she has now. Her commitment to the craft and perseverance in her work rings true. When it comes to working in film, Jen said it best- “you can’t just half ass it, you have to go all the way.”

To read more about Jen, see behind-the-scenes shots from Little Cabbage, and stay updated on future films such as Electric Bleau, go online to her website.

-Isadora

Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli

New Mavericks: Alexandria Bombach + Mo Scarpelli

Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli

Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, photo by Isadora Pennington 2015

Frame by Frame is a feature length documentary detailing the daily challenges and the persistent passions of photojournalists in Afghanistan. The film follows four photographers as they traverse the relatively unexplored professional landscape of media in Afghanistan following the end of Taliban rule. The country has undergone a variety radical changes, transitions, chaos and destruction throughout the last 30 years. A casualty, among many, is the profession of the photojournalist.

In 1996, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan, photography became a punishable offense. Not only did photography through public media suffer in this major shift, there was also widespread destruction of family and historic photographs, leaving an entire culture bereft of visual depictions of their personal history. It is small, defiant groups like the one depicted in Frame by Frame which strive to reset the standard of photojournalism and photography to their rightful place in society. They seek to provide an outlet for showcasing the reality of life in modern day Afghanistan, both the good and the bad, in essence to be the voice of their people.

The other day I had the chance to sit down and speak with co-directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli about this film and their process. “We thought this was going to be a short, but it smacked us in the face and we knew it had to be a feature,” Alexandria said, telling me that it was after she had been given some b-roll footage depicting daily life in Afghanistan that she became intrigued with the culture, country and history. In Alexandria’s words, this film explores “a whole new era for Afghanistan, as they are reclaiming their identity” after years of conflict. The pair finds it important to revisit Afghanistan and its people from a new perspective “after many years of being defined by the west,” Alexandria said, indicating that often all of Afghanistan is portrayed in American mainstream media with negative connections to terrorist organizations. “Instead of always hearing it through an outsider’s perspective,” Alexandria explained, they chose to feature photographers already operating within the community because “they are shaping a narrative themselves.”

Alexandria had worked with Mo on projects before Frame by Frame, and at first Mo came on board strictly as a shooter. However, during the course of the initial filming it became apparent that the duo were both committed to the outcome of this piece. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, in her own words, Mo “joined as co-director, co-producer… co-everything.” Alexandria laughed, “Co-co-co, I like coco.” The two are obviously well matched, and have shared and experienced quite a bit in the production of this film.

In addition to the physical challenges posed by the traveling and filming within Afghanistan, the exhaustion of long hours shooting depleted their energy. Yet beyond any illness or fatigue, they carried on knowing that their message was important enough to the subjects of the film were willing to risk their own well-being. Though the tides have been steadily shifting in favor of free press, there are still many very real dangers involved with publicly stating one’s affiliation with photography or photojournalism within the culture.

“One thing that was important for us to include in this film is that this is such a special unprecedented time in Afghanistan- they have never had this much time to build up an independent press,” Mo noted. This tenuous position in history leads many citizens to feel at the same time hopeful and anxious about the future. “You can feel among the Afghans the tension of what could happen, the uncertainty,” said Mo, clearly concerned with the circumstances she encountered.

During the course of this project, the cultural differences and their outsider status provided a few challenges to Alexandria and Mo. It was with thanks to their fixers, two gentlemen who aided with translation, access, and generally kept an eye on the pair during their time abroad that they were able to gain valuable connections and immerse themselves in local culture. Working through a translator whose explanation of conversations could often be quite glib did not impede their ability to feel deeply and emotionally connected to those with whom they interacted. It was not always the spoken words that touched the pair, instead “it’s more the feeling in the room and the trust that’s formed,” Alexandria said. They both described many tearful and joyful experiences with the photojournalists and fixers they encountered during the process.

Alexandria and Mo carry the responsibility of their subjects’ safety during the production and, now, the showings of this film. “I’ve never worked on a film where inadvertantly someone could get killed just for appearing on camera,” Mo told me. And yet, despite the dangers, the subjects agreed to participate in this project because they understood and embraced the message of the film. “I feel really, really lucky to know them at all,” Alexandria said, telling me that she finds herself continually concerned for them and thinking of their well-being every day, “it has changed my life for sure.” Mo nodded and agreed. “Yeah, me too.”

In terms of what’s to come for Alexandria and Mo, it will certainly involve fostering the success of Frame by Frame, at least for the immediate future. As explained by Andrea, presenting this film is in some ways the beginning of the process, “the child is born and now we’ve got to raise it,” she said. Ultimately the pair is most eagerly anticipating the chance to show the film in Afghanistan with the subjects, their now friends, watching alongside them.

To learn more about Frame by Frame and to see a short clip, visit their website and facebook.

-Isadora