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Behind The Camera: A Two Part Series Featuring BlackStar Filmmakers – Jatovia Gary

I must begin this post with apologizing for my lack of posting. In addition to the awesome advances in my writing career, I have been experiencing bouts of depression and stress that resulted from a number of things including class registration, (daytime) job hunting, and the death of my Uncle Trent. Things have seemed to settle down and I will continue to provide you with the insightful and compelling stories that you are used to.


Behind The Camera: A Two Part Series Featuring BlackStar Filmmakers. 

July 31st – August 3 BlackStar Film Festival. The festival, in its third year has gained international recognition though showcasing some one the brightest new and seasoned Black Cinema. This year’s festival was home to features such as Till Infinity: Souls of Mischief, Little White Lie, They Die By Dawn, and Time Is Ilmatic, in addition to a host of other films, documentaries, and shorts. 

When I wasn’t completely engrossed in a movies had the privilege of interviewing Terence Nance and Jatovia Gary. We talked growing up in Texas, creative process, and how honest you can be when a camera is staring you in the face. 


Jatovia Gary is a young filmmaker finishing up her Masters in NYC. Her documentary on queer MC Cakes Da Killa was featured in the 2014  BlackStar Film Festival. I thoroughly appreciate the unyielding dedication that her has for herself and creative visions. 

Jatovia Gary


Jatovia on Texas:

I am originally from Dallas, Texas – I was raised in a small suburb called Cedar Hill. It’s predominantly white. It was a very interesting upbringing that kind of radicalized me in a way. I had a very artistic childhood. I am also the daughter of preachers – a very religious background and upbringing. As a form of escape, but also as a form of expression, I was an actor at a very young age. I would act in plays, I would act at the church, – I went to a performing arts high school. There is a really great one in Dallas called The Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. It was wonderful. That is how I started expressing myself through storytelling. I had some amazing teachers there, lots of black folks there. It kind of radicalized me, it put me on to African-American literature and African-American Performers. It was a great experience because the school is very serious about getting kids into college. They would have these showcases where colleges would come from all over the country and you would audition for them.  That’s how I got to New York. I moved to New York when I was 18 and studied theater. I loved theater so much and I wanted to be a star. I started auditioning in commercials and became disenchanted with it. I have a background as an actor and then I switched to movie making. I was disenchanted because I felt like I didn’t have agency and control. The roles I was being offered were a drug dealer’s girlfriend or a sassy black sidekick. After a while I felt like this wasn’t awesome anymore. I stopped acting for a while and began to study filmmaking and documentary production. I went back to school for African Studies and Documentary Film Production.

Jatovia on challenging social norms:

In my personal life I feel like I challenge social norms just by existing as a black woman; a black woman who wants to be in control of her own trajectory. I am all about agency. I am not going to let you as an outsider name me, you as an outsider dictate my destiny and how I choose to live my life. I feel like I am pretty non-normative be it relationships or how I choose to present myself. How many radical black feminist filmmakers do you know? Just being myself, being authentic is the way I challenge norms.

Jatovia on avant garde:

In my film work, I consider myself an avant garde filmmaker. The Cakes film is not very experimental, but its experimental in its structuring, and its experimental in its subject matter. We see a black man performing masculinity in a way that we rarely see it. We see a resilient story from a queer person. Its not a tragic story. Its all overcoming. Its a story of resiliency and creativity and expression. In my work I try to find subject matter and characters that are living a life that is ballsy, like a blues person. I feel like my work is kind of centered around black people. Black people who are doing something off the beaten path. Black people who are doing something else; something different. My whole point is to show these three dimensional representations. How often do you see a black gay man – like his inner life – his inner workings. He is not someone’s sassy sidekick who is  giving advice on dressing. It is centered on him and his life. Kind of giving a really intense look into the interior lives of black people that you rarely see. Not necessarily sub-culture but our culture.

Jatovia on working with Cakes Da Killa:

This was a school project. It was like my second semester assignment. In school they teach you a very traditional documentary non-fiction form and convention. Usually your voice is silent. Documentaries are supposed to present “truth”. I remember wrestling with that while I was in school  because I know the history of documentary film. It was largely white, male, and elite. These guys would go out and shoot “others”. I am going to “objectify another.” Someone who is outside of me, Someone who is outside of my community. I wrestled with that concept constantly in school. Back and forth with my teachers – reading independently about non-fiction film and about voice. When I was cutting cake I left my voice out, initially, because that’s what they teach you. I was lucky to have a really awesome teacher who was kind of different from the other professors. Who studies experimental films and makes experimental films and he makes a lot of personal films where he includes himself – he inserts himself into the narrative often. I thought it was very interesting. He advised me after seeing a really rough cut, without my voice, to look at the footage and try cutting it with my voice. He saw rough footage of us, he saw us interacting, he saw the banter between us. He said, “ This is a part of this. Its not even just about his answer, its about your questions and how you are interacting with each other.” I experimented with that and it began to work. It breathed a whole new voice into the project. It was whack when I was cutting it at first. It was just him. Cakes is responsive, Cakes is reactionary and so am I. We are very similar. So to see us and to hear, it made the project completely different. So the whole idea of subjectivity and objectivity: I have a subject and I don’t want him to be an object. I have subjectivity. I’m honoring my character’s subjectivity and I am honoring my subjectivity by not pretending I am a fly on the wall. I am not a fly on the wall, I am a human being with a camera in your face and that has power. When I put my camera in your face I am changing everything. In the film we are negotiating this power constantly. I am asking him “Can you do this?”, and he says, “No.” “Can you sing right now?” “Absolutely not. I am not going to perform for you on command.” We are negotiating this in real time. To me that feels truthful. That feels more truthful to cutting out my voice.

Jatovia on her next project:

My next film is an autobiographical film. Not only am I including my voice, but I am including my family’s voice. I am looking at my family. I am looking at the generational patterns, the generational trauma and the relation patterns – how we handle one another. It’s really a meditation on love, and forgiveness, and compassion. We are going to be exploring issues like of mental health, abuse, and addiction. That is really how the patterns continue, because we are not looking at them.

Jatovia on her filmmaking style:

Putting my voice in the film is very important to me. I am a performer at heart. I feel like I have something very important to say. Work work is not journalism. My works are works of art. I have pretty distinct points of view and I am not shy about that.

Jatovia on being honest when a camera is in your face:

Some people are completely comfortable with the camera only after time. When you initially set it up, they are freaking out a little bit: the are fidgeting and anxious. Once you begin to talk to them, once you begin to get into whatever you are doing or get engrossed in the conversation, they sometimes forget. That is the beauty of documentary. Once you start following someone around for several days, which turns into weeks, they might start getting pissed off at you. There are so many varied reactions. They might completely forget you are there and start acting normally. Or they completely stay frozen. It changes with each person. Its so different. Its really weird. In my experiences I can’t determine. Like my mother, she is so over it. “I don’t wanna answer no more questions. I don’t want no more.” with some people, I find with just recording voice, you do get a more truthful experience. Also, getting those people and sitting them down for the regular master interview shot that comes with  documentaries, for me, is paramount. I love an interview. I feel like even if they clam up, even if they don’t answer your question, there is something in them not answering – there is still something there: You see an eyebrow flutter, you see something tense here, sometimes that is ten times better than them stammering through an answer. Sometime its “Well, I don’t want to answer that.” – that says so much. I am all for any technique that you need to do. I think that is what school taught me. These fast and hard rules, this dogmatic use of convention – I can’t live with it, which is why I consider myself and avant garde filmmaker. I find all of the rules restricting. If you want to record with a recorder than recorder with a recorder. If you want to strap a GoPro to your head and walk around and film everybody then do that, Whatever you need to do to bring your dream into fruition, to manifest your project whatever you need to do to do that, I feel like you should so it. That is the beauty of documentary film: it’s elastic, it’s unfixed.  


Jatovia on cultural appropriation: 

I think Hip-Hop is a great culture and I think it is great to be inclusive. If you are about that life, If you are really about that culture you can tell. Take for example Eminem: Don’t nobody got no problem with Eminem. In fact we recognize him as one of the most talented MC’s that have ever existed. However, when you begin to use someone’s culture and someone’s expressions as a costume, I find it to be incredibly offensive. There is a very fine distinction between appreciation and appropriation. I wish the dominant culture would appropriate compassion, appropriate love – use that in your life. I think that it is dangerous. I think that culture is, something that we as black people forget because it is not solid – it is not something that you can touch. Culture is wealth. Culture is your memory – something that you are going to pass down to the other human beings that come after you. So to give that away so freely and allow it to be infiltrated so freely, is a dangerous thing. I think that music and Hip-Hop – all of these things are wonderful. We do borrow from one another, but it s the power structure is what’s determining how the borrowing plays out. The power structure dictates what’s really going on.

Filed under: Interview, Series

About the Author

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Melissa "Lissa Alicia" Simpson is a 23-year-old freelance journalist, media & marketing specialist, event curator and amateur model. Her interest include binge watching Dr. Who, writing creative nonfiction, street art, and sleep. Lissa currently lives in West Philly and can often be found at some sort of art show or independent music event. If you she her, say hi!

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