Ya’Ke Smith Filmmaker Phenomenon

Pride On Film: The Black Harvest Film Festival Part 2 of 8

Ya’Ke Smith Photo by Derrick T. Williams.  Movie Photos courtesy of Melendrez Entertainment

Influenced by John Singleton, Spike Lee and Fernando Meirelles, Texas native Ya’Ke Smith is carving a name for himself as an exceptional filmmaker. Smith first became intrigued in the films at an early age after seeing “Boyz N’ The Hood.” His short movies have been screened both  domestically and internationally at the Cannes International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Short Film Festival and BET/Urban World Film Festival.

Smith has received more than his share of accolades and awards for his work.  In 2005 his short film “Hope’s War “ about a U.S. soldier who struggles to adapt back to everyday life after witnessing the horrors of war in Iraq won the Director’s Guild of America Student Film Award.  Smith later went on to make “The Second Coming” (2007) for which he received the American Black Film Festival Short Film Award and “Katrina’s Son“ (2010) which won the Urbanworld Film Festival Best Short Film Jury Prize.

Smith’s first feature length flick, “WOLF” played at the 2012 Dallas International Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize. “WOLF” tells the story about a family that is shaken to the core when they discover that their son has been molested. As they struggle to deal with the betrayal, their son heads towards a total mental collapse because of his love for his abuser.

During the month of August “WOLF” will be screened at multiple festivals across the country including the Black Harvest Film Fest in Chicago on Tuesday August 14 and Wednesday August 15.

Smith, an Assistant Professor of Film, talked with PrideIndex about the effects that sexual abuse has on the community, the struggles of producing an independent movie and the reaction of the LGBT community to this film.

PRIDEINDEX (PI): Why did you become a filmmaker?

YA’KE SMITH (YS): I grew up watching movies, loving movies, being intrigued by movies. Everything from the set design, acting, camera work and more importantly the different worlds that you could visit, really had an impact on me. However, I didn’t really understand how films were made: the idea of a director overseeing a production was foreign to me. But when I was eleven, I saw “Boyz N’ The Hood and really started to study film. I would go to the library and read books on film, and because of that started to grasp the concept of how films were actually produced. From that moment on, I was hooked – I knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker. Another thing that really intrigued me about Boyz n The Hood is the humanity that John Singleton gave to people who had been constantly stereotyped and generalized by the media. Growing up in similar neighborhoods myself, I knew Dough Boy and his crew. They were my god-brothers. I appreciated that John showed the world that these guys were not just villains (as the media would have you believe) but that they were products of their environment. I remember the impact the film had on the guys in my hood and I wanted to make films that had that same impact, films that made people re-evaluate their lives and hopefully strive to become better people.

PI: Tell us about some of your influences.

YS: This is the hardest question for a filmmaker to answer. Of course I love John Singleton for the reason stated above. Spike Lee, for the bold and in-your-face quality of his work. I loved Spike of the early-mid 90’s, he was fearless and didn’t care about making you uncomfortable with the truth. I love Fernando Meirelles. “City of God” is probably one of my favorite films of all time. The camera work, the performances of the non-actors and the visceral tone of that film really inspire me to this day. A few of the other films/filmmakers that really were at the core of my film education and whose work I admire are: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Amores Perros), Haile Gerima (Bush Mama), Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), Charles Burnett (To Sleep with Anger, Killer of Sheep), Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows)Federico Fellini (Amacord). I could go on and on.

PI: Why did you start Exodus Films?

YS: Exodus Filmworks was started when I was in High School. I wanted to create a company that focused on films that dealt with socially conscious subjects. Exodus’s goal has always been to challenge people’s mindsets on certain issues and to hopefully spark thought-provoking discussions on topics that we may not want to discuss.

PI: What is the most provocative subject you covered in your films?

YS: “WOLF” probably has the most provocative and polarizing topic to date. When you’re dealing with sexual abuse, especially in the African-American church, people shy away or just shut down completely. We’ve had some really great responses to the film, yet some people are just not into it, but I knew that going in. I knew that this film would make people uncomfortable, but I also knew it was necessary.

PI: What do you want audiences to take away from “WOLF?”

YS: I want audiences to really think about the effects that sexual abuse has on the community. Many times when a child is sexually abused, they struggle to shake the psychological and physical damage for a good portion of their life and in some cases even become abusers themselves. In order to stop the cycle of abuse we have to stop the silence of abuse. Children are afraid to come forth for fear that they’ll be ostracized and no one will believe them. It’s our responsibility to create an environment where our children feel comfortable with coming to us with anything and that when we hear about abuse we don’t just say “get over it.” We can’t afford to sweep these things under the rug anymore, because if we do, they will continue to happen.

PI: Talk about some of the struggles that occurred during the filming of “WOLF” and tell us what you did to overcome them.

YS: One of the main struggles, as with most independent films, was money. When you’re shooting on such a tight budget, there are so many things that can go wrong. I’m not saying you need a ton of money to make a good film, but having a budget that affords you the luxuries to have a longer shoot and be able to really take your time is always helpful. I hear people say that they shot on a shoestring budget, but what we shot on was not even that. I think what we did for the amount of money that we had was nothing short of a miracle from above. Overcoming those budget constraints takes a lot of creativity on all parts. My producers (Ralph Lopez and Derek Nixon) were finding deals left and right. Ralph was working his butt off, doing not only his job, but helping out anywhere he was needed. Having a team that believed in me, that wanted this film to succeed and that refused to take no for an answer was a vital part of “WOLF’s” success. The wolf pack brought their A-game.

PI: Early buzz surrounding “WOLF” has it being compared to Dee Rees’ “PARIAH” with regards to accolades, what do you have to say about that?

YS: I had been following “Pariah” since it was a short and was excited when the feature finally came to fruition. Rees is bold and transparent in her filmmaking and I really respect that.  I could only hope that “WOLF” could reach the heights that Dee’s film reached and continue to garner the public excitement that “Pariah” did.

PI: WOLF will be screening at three film festivals during the month of August (Martha Vineyard African American Film Fest, Black Harvest Film Fest in Chicago and at the San Antonio Film Fest); why are you showing it in so many places at the same time?

YS: WOLF will be screening at five film festivals in August: The Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, The Rhode Island Film Festival, The Black Harvest Film Festival, The New York Latino International Film Festival and the Alabama Sidewalk Film Festival. The screening in San Antonio is not a festival, but just the San Antonio premiere of the film, which we’re excited about since we shot the film there. It’s important for filmmakers to screen their work in as many venues as possible so that people don’t lose interest in the project. As we search for a distribution deal, we have to continue to tour with the work so that the momentum doesn’t die out. It’s also important to get people talking about WOLF, so that distribution companies see that audiences are hungry for this kind of work.

PI:  Do you plan on making an appearance in any of these cities?

YS: I will be at Black Harvest, Martha’s Vineyard, Sidewalk, New York Latino and of course the San Antonio premiere.  Cast and crew will also be present at a few of these stops.

PI: If you answered “Yes” to two or more cities in the question above, do you mind lending me a few of your frequent flyer’s miles?

YS: It’s sad to say that I don’t even clock the miles. If I did, I would have a trip to outer space by now…(LAUGHS)

PI: Where did you find the inspiration for “WOLF?”

YS: I have friends and family that have been sexually abused. I know so many people who have suffered in silence for years, battling their demons in all the wrong ways, because they had no refuge. I wanted to tell a story for them. One that would allow them to see a reflection of themselves and hopefully get the help they need. The interesting thing is that although their stories inspired me, I was also inspired by the documentary Deliver us from Evil. That film brought back all the memories of the people I knew and in many ways made me want to tell this story. The film is so powerful in its depiction of clergy-abuse, church cover-up and the long-lasting effects that child sexual abuse has on a person.

PI: Were you conscious that the subject matter of this film would be considered too risqué for some audiences? Was that intentional?

YS: I was very aware of that, but in many ways didn’t care. We have the tendency to want fantasy in film and I understand that. Film can be an escape from the hardships of everyday life, taking you to faraway places and helping to ease your mind. However films like WOLF are necessary as well. I wanted to make people uncomfortable, to force them to have to stare in the face of something that we gossip about in the dark, but refuse to discuss openly in the light. Is it a difficult film to watch: Yes, but that discomfort comes from the fact that we know this is happening, we know people are suffering, but we turn our backs to them. My hope is that the film will arrest us and no longer allow us to turn our backs to sexual abuse victims or victimizers.

PI: How has LGBT audiences reacted to “WOLF?”

YS: The few responses that I have had from the LGBT community have been really positive. One critic said that the film was honest and that it didn’t go into the cliché of pedophilia =homosexuality. He thought it was a well-rounded depiction of sexual abuse and didn’t delve into the “all gay men, were once sexually abused” stereotype. We’ve also been approached by some LGBT film festivals regarding possible screenings of the film.

PI: What have your students had to say about your film?

YS: The students love the film. Several of my students interned on “WOLF”and the ones that didn’t were so excited to see it when it came to the Dallas IFF’. My students really respect me as an artist, even if they don’t like all of my films, because I’m still working as a professional and teaching at the same time.  Students like to feel that their professors are working in the field and not just teaching rhetoric from a book. My constant on-set work, gives my students the chance to learn from someone who has real-world experience and it allows me to learn from them when they work on my films.

PI: Where else you plan on showing it?

YS: WOLF will continue touring the festival circuit until a distribution deal is reached. We hope to have one locked down in the next few months, but with the ever-changing world of film, you just never know. We have some prospects for distribution and are hopeful that one will come to fruition. But for now, look out for the film at a festival near you!

PI: What advice would you offer to aspiring filmmakers?

YS: My advice is always to learn your craft. So many people just decide one day that they’re going to be filmmakers and don’t take time to study the craft. I’m constantly on my students about doing things with excellence and not just throwing things together last minute. If film is your calling and passion, learn all you can about it, so you can be the best as it. Also, don’t give up. This is such a difficult profession and in some ways can be discouraging and at times can knock the wind right out of you. If you’re knocked down, get up and keep pressing forward.

PI: Next year I …

YS: I am already writing my next screenplay entitled, HEAVEN,which deals with domestic child sex trafficking. The plan is to shoot that film next summer.

WOLF screens at the 18th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival on Tuesday August 14 and Wednesday August 15 at 8:15PM filmmaker Ya’Ke Smith will be present for both screenings.  For more information on Smith visit Exodusfilmworks.com