Feature: Thais Francis

I first learned about Thais Francis through Chaédria LaBouvier, another amazing filmmaker I had the opportunity to highlight during Twenties Unscripted Takeover. When Thais reached out, we had the chance to have a phone conversation where her light, intelligence and beauty all resonated with me in a really lasting way. She is certainly a woman who knows her purpose and is chasing that purpose with everything she has. Thais, who has previously been featured by The Root as one of its Top 25 under 25 Innovators, is currently working on her short film “Late Expectations”, a piece that tackles the intersection of adulthood, identity, social media and sexuality in a relevant and meaningful way for twenty-somethings. The “Late Expectations” team is raising money through Indiegogo for the post production of the film until Wednesday, Sept. 24. You can donate here

Meet Thais.

Thais Francis
Thais Francis

Tell us a little more about yourself, your life and how you got started in theater and film.
I live for the moments on stage, when the spot light burns, and all eyes are on me. I feel incredible, that is where I belong. My first encounter with the performing arts came at the age of 10. I had just moved to Maryland from Trinidad and Tobago and discovered dance. It began at church, and as I progressed, I studied ballet and modern. I then moved to New York to pursue acting at New York University. After graduating I did theater, but discovered film would give my work more visibility. Film didn’t come as easily and I knew nothing about it. I went to the Brooklyn Public Library for months and spent hours reading, teaching myself how to write a screen play. A year later, we have shot my first short film.

You talked about your work being born out of “a place of necessity” and having to teach yourself about film in order to seize certain opportunities. How has that approach to your work empowered you as an artist?
Maybe on the outside looking in, creating a product is empowering. However, when you’re in the process of creating said project, it can be overwhelming and intense. I’m in a vulnerable space right now. Maybe after it is finished, and I sit back and watch it on screen, then I’d feel empowered. To that end, I do know that seeing it on screen will be one of the most humbling and beautiful experiences. To know that I put so much work into the film, withstood people’s judgments, disinterest and rejection, and persevered… now that is empowering.

One of the main messages in “Late Expectations” is that of not believing the illusion people portray on social media and not being afraid to be who you truly are. How do you think social media inhibits twenty-somethings from exploring and expressing their true selves?
We are so caught up. Caught up in the witty tweet, the filter that flatters the most, the status that reveals our accomplishments. I do it. We all do it. This story is about a girl who likes girls, but dates boys. She’s pretending. I think a lot of us in our 20’s pretend, and social media allows us to do that.

“Late Expectations” has been created by a team of women. Tell us more about that team and how these women have contributed to the success of the project thus far.
It’s important to me to work with women, we exist, let’s show the world what we do. My director executive producer, music supervisor, casting director to name a few, are all talented women.

What role does music play in the film?
I love music! I have many musician friends, and as an artist it’s really important for me to build with other emerging artists. You’ll be hearing songs from artists who are definitely on the rise, some are current NYU students, recent Alums of NYU, people that I knew growing up in Maryland and so forth.

What advice would you give to aspiring creators?
I once had an acting teacher who always said “Do the work.” It really is that simple.

What inspires you?
I am inspired by Bob Marley and unicorns. Bob, because he wasn’t chasing fame (that was simply a by product of his hard work) rather he was chasing art.  He loved what he did and it was not a walk in the park for him. Yet he did it. He made music, he broke barriers, his music was heard from Trenchtown, to… Croatia. I know what it’s like to fight for what I want, and get rejected time after time, but I also hope to be impactful like he is. I’m inspired by unicorns because they represent an ethereal entity that I can’t quite comprehend; they are mysterious and intriguing, elusive, similar to my career. I’ll always be chasing my art, just like I’ll always chase understanding the unicorn.

Remind us where we can we go to contribute to the “Late Expectations” Indiegogo campaign.

Here!

Thais is an artist, living in Brooklyn. You can follow her on twitter @shebethais. Her next venture is a feature film, and an EP.

Feature: Amberly Alene Ellis

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.

Amberly Alene Ellis
Amberly Alene Ellis

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

Instagram: amberly_alene

Email: amberlyalene@gmail.com

Twenties Unscripted Takeover: Chaédria LaBouvier

Twenties Unscripted Takeover is a special week-long feature series highlighting twenty-somethings who are “taking over the world” in music, art, film, social activism and business. Today’s feature chronicles Chaédria LaBouvier’s journey through the world of film. When I mentioned Twenties Unscripted Takeover a few weeks ago on Twitter, Chaédria expressed interest in participating. I had the chance to chat with her on the phone and learn about the extensive history, thought and passion she brings to her projects, including a pilot presentation she’s working on. Meet Chaédria.

Tell us a bit more about what attracted you to the world of film.
Well, I really wanted to be a novelist. I read a Tale of Two Cities when I was eight and knew that telling stories was what I wanted to do. And I loved movies. I was the kid that could re-watch a movie over and over again. I spent a lot of time as a child writing plays for my cousins, directing neighborhood kids, that sort of thing. When I got to college, traditional publishing was dying and journalism options weren’t there, but film was. And if you grow up never feeling that you fit in, you’re fiercely loyal to the things that help you pull through and that give you inspiration.

Film got me through an, at times, very difficult college experience. That’s how I knew. My first job out of college was working on the set of Law and Order and working in downtown theaters across New York. Film was still viable and you could get opportunities and I had dreams of being the female Francis Ford Coppola. (laughs.) Then the Golden Age of Television happened and I  knew that I had to get to the West Coast. That’s how I ended up at UCLA’s film school, from which I just graduated. It had the best screenwriting program, it was in LA and Coppola had gone there. Done and done.

Chaédria on set of The Maroon Colony
Chaédria on set of the Maroon Colony

You recently finished shooting The Maroon Colony and have opted to make it a pilot presentation instead of a web series. What sparked your change of heart?
No one tells you how ridiculously difficult and grueling it is to write and produce a web series. And you have to have a lot of stamina. I’ve written two at this point and just to get the script right, it takes months. Coordinating shoots, talent, favors all takes months. And the web world is become increasingly more crowded. I had to get back to what was important to me – which was to tell this story of this mixed race family of former child prodigies – and hopefully sell it to a network so that we can tell it fully. I feel that a pilot would accomplish that the most efficiently, leaving me more energy and resources to focus on shooting the pilot, releasing the short stories the family is based on and really creating a community around the Maroon family.

What are some of the messages you hope to portray in The Maroon Colony? How has your own family influenced those messages?
I draw a huge amount of inspiration from my family. My family is mixed; my parents are biracial and multiracial and I have family everywhere from the Cuban communities in Coral Gables, the Creole communities in Dallas and South Texas to the native reservations in East Tennessee. I have family that has never gone to college to graduates of the Ivy League, the Catholics to the Baptists, the snobs, etc. and I wanted to create something that looked like me and reflected what it’s like to have that many influences to process through.

I would sometimes just leave parts out. It was a lot, even for me, to understand. It wasn’t until recently that I felt that I knew how to express that or talk about it all in a cohesive way that didn’t take away from my identification and pride in being Black. Visually, I had to make one parent Black and one parent White (Jewish), because it’s easier than writing parents that are Black/Cuban Jew/Creole/Native American. Last year for Hanukkah, my mother called me while she was driving around Dallas to ask, “Where in the hell can I find some Hanukkah candles?” I died laughing. She was serious; my grandfather was a Cuban Jew and we celebrate some of the high Holy days (heavy emphasis on some). I felt like I had to create something that made that kind of experience “normal”.

You’ve had the opportunity to work with many film giants, including Tracy Oliver, the

The family living room on the set of The Maroon Colony
The family living room on the set of The Maroon Colony

producer of Awkward Black Girl. What role are web series playing in the overall trajectory of what we consider television? What is the biggest misconception people have about producing a web series?
Tracy is a great writer and I think she’d say that ABG helped launch her current career as a television writer. I know a lot of great writers, including my friend and classmate Amy Aniobi who created a web series and is now a writer on Silicon Valley. For a television writer, it’s a great way to get started, in addition to being a good writer and networking.

A lot of execs are looking at the web world to inform what people want to see and what people are watching. There are a lot of shows being bought or pitched that came from the web. The same goes for pilot presentations.

The biggest misconception about producing a web series is that it’s easy or “cheap”. Cheap for a web series with six episodes is still going to be about $5,000 – and that’s with a lot of favors. No, you can’t produce it all on your own. Find a friend who is the savviest, most capable and organized person that you know to produce for you.

You mentioned that there is a “YouTube culture”, particularly when it comes to web series. How would you describe that culture? People have a tendency to be absolutely savage online. Internet trolls made Robin Williams’s daughter walk away indefinitely from social media. People forget that there’s a human being on the other side of that content, no matter how bad the production quality is. Someone’s putting their dream out there, which is far more than you, the anonymous commenter, are doing. It’s almost as if people expect that they need to be ruthless to have an opinion or to be thought of as intelligent. I think it’s far more sophisticated and more of a challenge to give constructive yet compassionate feedback, if there’s any to give.

What advice would you offer to up-and-coming filmmakers?
Am I the right person for this question? I’d say network, write – the power is really in the script – and read. Do anything that you can to really sharpen your tastes. A lot of filmmaking and writing is about taste. The technical and the heart of the craft. Read Lolita. Read White Teeth. Watch The Godfather with director’s commentary. Be able to talk about the intellectual brilliance of Clueless. Practice looking at paintings and imagine that it’s a scene in a movie and create what’s next for the subjects. Try your hand at theatre – writing, acting, stage managing, directing. Disconnect the Internet when writing at all costs.

What is coming up next for you?
Well, first, we’re going to edit what we’ve shot so far for the web series, so that it can be a reference and a playbook.  I’m working with my team on our next shoot, which will hopefully be late October, early November for Maroon Colony and working on resurrecting a t-shirt line that I had when I lived in New York. I also work a lot with my mother’s organization, Mothers Against Police Brutality and a lot of the coalition building there, especially in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. I’ll be busy telling stories, to say the very least.

Chaédria LaBouvier is a recent Screenwriting MFA graduate of UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is re-writing the Maroon family’s chronicles, launching her t-shirt line, Roebexar LaBouvier and contesting parking tickets. She previously co-created the YouTube webseries, The Valley. You can find her closely following the situation in Ferguson @chaedria.