Filmmaker Q&A: Zeinabu Irene Davis

The 22nd Annual Black Harvest Film Festival (BHFF), which takes place at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, Illinois, celebrates the history and heritage of black people, worldwide, through indie films and shorts.  

While the focus is Black culture, there are several female directors and screenwriters at the festival this year, including Jerico 2016, Walk All Night: A Drum Beat Journey 2016, Compensation 1999 and Agents of Change.

Interview: Zeinabu Irene Davis, Director of Spirits of Rebellion: Black Film From UCLA (2016)

After interviewing Kate Benzchawal, Co-Director of the Walk All Night: A Drum Beat Journey, at the 22nd Annual Black Harvest Film Festival, I sat down with filmmaker and BHFF founding committee member, Zeinabu Irene Davis. We discussed her new, award-winning documentary, Spirits of Rebellion: Black Film From UCLA (2016).

Q: Tell me how the concept of Spirits of Rebellion came about exactly.

In order to do that, I actually have to tell you what the L.A. Rebellion is first. The L.A. Rebellion film movement is a collection of students, primarily Black, who went to UCLA Film School between the ‘60s and the ‘90s. It’s kind of bookended by the aftermath of the Watts Riots which happened in 1965, and loosely going up to the Rodney King uprisings in 1992.  

I had been making documentary films probably for the last 10 or 15 years and I was really hoping to make another dramatic fiction film or some other type of filmmaking. But our beloved professor, whose name was Teshome Gabriel, was the thread to so many of us, those of us who were there in the late ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. He was the inspiration for the film.

A few of us wanted to do a retirement party for him. And he was like, “What I want you to do is make this film.” Sadly, I had gotten the first part of money to make the film three weeks before he died. So, he knew I was going to make the film. My intentions were to interview him as part of the film, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

Q: How long did the movie take to make?

{Chuckles Heartily} Unfortunately, I do not make money as a filmmaker. I have another career as a film professor. It took six years to make the film. Part of that was because I’m not working on the film full-time. A large part of the film process happens in the summers when I’m not teaching or when I can incorporate it with my teaching experiences. It’s very important for me to have my students also work on my films so they can see what the process of making a film is really like.

Q: As a woman and an African-American, do you unnamed (1)consider yourself a minority in the industry?

Based on my own experiences, I’ve received more discrimination based on the fact that I’m a woman. And that’s not to say you don’t get it because you’re Black too, you do. But I think that there is a little more bias when there is a woman involved in a project in a leading role—in a leading position.

Q: I understand the documentary won an award for Best Feature Documentary at the BlackStar Film Festival.

We won Best Documentary Film Feature and I also just found out yesterday that we co-won—it was a tie– an audience award for documentary film feature as well. So that meant the audience voted for it.

Q: Were there any particular thoughts that popped out when you won those awards?

Yes. For me, it was particularly gratifying that the award happened in Philadelphia because that’s my hometown. And my first experiences of going to see films that were independent films were with my dad. It was actually in the same theatre space that we screened the film. One of the films that was part of the L.A. Rebellion was a film by one of the L.A. Rebellion women filmmakers, Rain (1978) by Melvonna Ballenger. I saw her film. It was one of the first films I’d seen by a Black woman filmmaker. I saw that film in a black film festival in Philly in 1980 and I thought it was amazing. My dad took me to that festival. If you had said to me as a young teenager that,‘you were going to make a film about these filmmakers’ back then I would’ve said ‘What?! Get out of here!’ So it was nice to come full circle and have the award in Philadelphia. I was very excited and happy for that to happen. Unfortunately, my father has passed away, but my brother and family were there. So, it was really gratifying to be able to have that award given in a place that introduced me to media.

Q: What would you have done if you hadn’t gone into teaching, art or film?

Well, with working class parents, the way your community wants you to get ahead is to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher. I did the teaching part. But initially when I was in high school and starting college, I thought that I wanted to be a lawyer. I took an Economics class the first time and failed it. I took it the second time and got a C. And I was like a little nerdy Black girl who always got As and Bs. I got a C and that wasn’t good enough. So, I was like ‘I’m not doing this anymore. It’s time to do something else.’

Q: What’s your advice for aspiring indie Black women filmmakers?

I think my advice would be to be open and flexible as much as possible. I will always take the quote of another sister filmmaker Kasi Lemmons. And she’s the one who did Eve’s Bayou 1997 with Samuel L. Jackson and Talk to Me 2007 with Don Cheadle. One of the things she said that always stuck with me is that ‘You have to have a necklace of pearls of rejection before you get the yes.’ And so that’s one thing I try to pass on to people. If you’re a filmmaker you’re going to have to get used to people saying no to you. You have to really be strong and confident with your vision. But it’s worth it in the end.

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© 08/30/16

Top & Bottom Photos: Women Makers Now

Middle Photos: Spirits of Rebellion, Zeinabu Irene Davis

Photo Credit: Gene Siskel Film Center


Tags: FF2 Media

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Stephanie A. Taylor is a multi-award-winning journalist whose accolades span three publications including FF2. Some of her favorite articles she's written are Emma Cooper’s ‘The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Lost Tapes, FACETS Honors Chaz Ebert F2F at Screen Gems 2022 Benefit, and Dorothy Arzner’s ‘Merrily We Go to Hell’ Discusses Modern Day Problems. She currently lives in Chicago. Reading, writing, and watching old films are some of her many passions.
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