There’s something powerful about seeing yourself in a story. Whether the likeness is physical or emotional, extraordinary or mundane, representation can be both affirming and inspiring. Especially if it’s representation that’s underrepresented in our current canon, the way women of color’s stories often are.
Enter Caribbean-American writer, director, and filmmaker Sontenish Myers, whose work is both a response and a remedy to that void. “My brain is always documenting the holes and trends,” she says. “I want to tell heroic journeys because there are so many heroic journeys I love. I was a Star Wars kid; I was a Harry Potter Geek, but those characters did not resemble my likeness at all.”
We sat down with the NYU Graduate Film program alumni/adjunct professor to learn more about her inspiration and process — and to get her advice for aspiring filmmakers. Here’s what she had to say.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Technically I’ve been doing it all my life, but I always talk about becoming a filmmaker as an accident. I did a lot of diversity and inclusion work in high school and college. My undergrad thesis was on media representation, which meant I was constantly thinking about images: what influences the way we see ourselves, and what influences the way we see each other. I was living in China when the George Zimmerman trial happened, which was a really interesting place to be. I experienced everything going on in America virtually, and I watched the trial online as it was happening. When the verdict was announced, this feeling of invisibility washed over me, and I was like, Bump this, I need to make media and create images instead of critiquing them. So I moved to New York right away and started interning, getting on set. Then I made my first short film, “Standstill,” which I used to apply to film school.
What themes are you interested in exploring as an artist?
The common thread in my work is having women of color heroes. I think a lot of times people want people of disadvantaged identities to only talk about their humanness, but not the things that affect us every day or the things that make other people uncomfortable. I want my work to give people an opportunity to explore their everyday experiences and to be honest. I want my films to be purely human, and to deal with the systems of oppression that we face every day without being completely on the nose or pointing the finger.
Tell us about your creative process.
Honestly, my current process is about figuring out my process. For 2019, I’m trying to commit to creating impulsively and compulsively, doing work when the intensity is there and being okay with not telling anyone about it for a little while. I want to build my creative relationship with myself. I think that brings more passion. It keeps all of the excitement and the curiosity bottled up in a way that’s fruitful.
What’s your favorite part of making a film?
My favorite part is building the visual language with the production designer and DP. It’s a time of sharing images, exchanging ideas, and being on the same page about the vision. When somebody sends you something that’s so on point, it’s just like, Yes, let’s build around this.
What are your biggest challenges as a filmmaker?
I know there are conversations about how hard it is to be a woman in the industry or a woman of color in the industry, but honestly, there are so many incredible people who have looked out for me. And not just because they believe in me, but because they believe in looking out for each other. I’m totally where I am because of my mentors; I think my biggest challenge is myself. So much of becoming an artist is getting out of your own way, frankly.
Can you say more?
I think as artists we’re all wrestling with doubt, we’re all wrestling with figuring out our process, we’re all wrestling with discipline. Working on yourself is an act of working on your art, because for most people, your art is an extension of yourself. When you’re working on one, you’re working on the other. At least I am.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
Pay attention to what you like. If you gravitate towards what you like, the staircase is going to unfold in front of you. You don’t need to see the entire thing. Just know the next couple of steps, and validate yourself and your taste. And remember, what’s a classic for you might not be a classic for someone else, but that’s okay. Ask yourself: Why is it a classic for you? The answer is a guiding light to your work, your taste, and what you’re interested in making.
How has Vimeo helped you?
Winning a Staff Pick for “Cross My Heart” took my experience to the next level. After that, the amount of women and women of color who got to see the film rose exponentially. There’s no better feeling than getting a notification on Twitter and it’s just this one black girl tweeting another black girl, like Girl, you need to watch this. Whenever someone tweets me to say Thank you for making this film, I’m just like, I made it for you, because that’s the truth.
Video by Ashley Maas.