I first met Amberly during my senior year of undegrad when we worked on a group project together in one of our comms classes. At the time, we did what people usually did in 2011–became Facebook friends. While we didn’t keep in close contact after the project, I noticed updates following graduation of her traveling, shooting documentaries and changing the world through film. Who knew Facebook could actually provide a benefit in life? I’m excited to feature this revolutionary woman in today’s post. Meet Amberly Alene Ellis.
You just finished researching cinema and policy in Cuba. What was that experience like for you?
My experience in Cuba is hard to put into words. It was an adventure, and it was my first real taste of what it means to conduct your own field research abroad. There is an extremely rich film history in Cuba, and I was very grateful to be able to have the opportunity to explore this history. It is difficult to get access to Cuba’s wide range of films while in the United States, so to be able to have the chance to see and interview filmmakers in Cuba felt like a once in a lifetime chance for me.
What have you learned about yourself both as a documentarian and a woman in your travels?
I would say that through my travels and my documentary work, one thing that I have discovered is the great diversity and capacity of the human spirit. It amazes me sometimes, the variety of ways that the human mind can see the world. There are so many philosophies, lifestyles, religions, and beliefs in the world. I have learned that I have a deep curiosity for learning more about all of these different paths that we can take as human beings, and this is why I believe I have such a strong desire to make documentaries, to tell stories. I have learned that at the root of me, I love storytelling.
What is your mission?
My mission is to capture life through film in ways that force audiences to think about something in a way that they did not think about before, and to do this in a manner that is as true as possible.
How important is it to be trained in film versus being someone who learns through experience and doing? How do these two balance one another out?
I think that film, as with any kind of art, requires practice. I think it is not important, where you learn film, it is important how often you apply and practice what you learn. You can learn in a university, with a mentor, or from the Internet, but practice is what makes all the difference. I think that hands-on experience is key. There are many people who have studied film for years in classrooms but have never actually had their hands on a camera to make a film. Film is something that you have to do over and over again, and learn from trial and error. And believe, me, there will be many errors! It is all part of the process. I am also still learning too, everyday.
How difficult is it to document, photograph and film places such as Haiti, meaning how do you balance seeing destruction and poverty in such places while still documenting them and remaining true to your objective?
This question is something that I confront everyday. Unfortunately when it comes to some countries, some neighborhoods, regions or groups of people, you will have to deal with the presence of a legacy of abuse and misrepresentation. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where I was filming this summer, there is much distrust for filmmakers and photographers. This distrust is a result of the replication of negative imagery of Haitian people in film, photography and the use of the Haitian image in advertisements for foreign aid organizations, non profits, etc. Because of such legacies, it important to me that I stay as true as possible to the people in my films, and to me that it is my responsibility. This requires me to spend a lot of time with my subjects. I also spend a lot of time being a “fly on the wall” and observing. Other times I am actively participating in the cultures around me. It is important to me that I always reveal another layer to something, no matter how much poverty, destruction, or political turmoil that exists where I am filming- because these things are just the surface, my objective is to find what’s underneath.
What has been the highlight of your film experience so far?
The highlight of my film experience so far has been successfully raising more than $5,000 in 25 days to fund my studies in one of the world’s top film schools FAMU, in Prague, Czech Republic. More than 100 contributors helped sponsor my studies in Prague, and the production of my short film, Shadow which is now one of the official selections in this year’s D.C. Shorts Festival. So many strangers contributed to making my dreams in Prague possible. So many people believed in me more than I believed in myself at the time! I learned so many valuable experiences in Prague. I truly believe that this experience completely changed the way that I look at film.
What advice would you give to aspiring documentarians?
My advice for aspiring documentarians is to observe the world around you with a critical eye. There are stories everywhere. Some of the major inspirations for my projects have come from my conversations with strangers. The work of others can also be very inspirational. Fortunately we live in a time when we have more access to films than ever before. Vimeo, Short of the Week, Snag Films, and Netfilx are all sources of so much of my inspiration. Films are at your fingertips. Use these resources to get in contact with the filmmakers of the films that you like; if you see a film that you really enjoy, search for the contact info of the filmmaker and tell them you like their film. Ask them questions, ask for mentorship, ask for an internship. Shadowing a filmmaker you admire is one of the best way to get hands-on experience. My best advice is to be the one who makes your own opportunities, don’t be the one waiting for them.
What is next for you?
I am currently working on a short documentary film that was shot in Dominican Republic this summer. The film examines issues of immigration policy in a rural community outside of the capital Santo Domingo. I am hoping to have the film completed and screening by this summer!
Amberly Ellis is an independent filmmaker and photographer from Baltimore, Maryland. Currently based in Washington D.C, Amberly Ellis is an M.F.A candidate in Film at American University.
Lifestyle and travel blog: www.amberinthesky.com