Breaking Through the (Sugar) Glass Ceiling, One Film at a Time
Interview conducted by Christina Schultz
Christina Schultz: Hi Alicia! You’re from Toronto. What was it like growing up there?
Alicia K. Harris: I grew up in Scarborough, the greenest part of Toronto, so my childhood was mostly spent outdoors. As I got older and I became interested in the arts, I went to downtown Toronto to attend concerts - I’ve been to over 100! - and arts events. There’s a lot of cool things happening here. So I had the best of both worlds: my childhood in East Toronto gave me the freedom you wouldn’t have downtown to explore and be imaginative, which helped developed my sensibilities as a person and as an artist, yet I still had an access to so many events all over Toronto.
CS: With this exposure to the arts, at what point did you realize film was your calling?
AKH: It took me while! As a kid, I was really interested in art. I went to art camp, took painting classes, learned how to papier-mâché, etc. Then I became interested in music. I bought a piano, was in the school band and even wrote my own music. But none of it felt right.
I started making films for fun but never thought of it as a career. My sister and I would recreate SNL videos and since nobody our age watched the show we would just pretend they were our own [laughs]. But we also had our own original sketches and I would do the editing-technical work. And then I would make montage videos with my friends. Before Snapchat existed, I was the original Snapchat. I had my digital camera and everyone would be annoyed that I was doing it but then they would see the finished product and say oh my gosh, thank you for creating this beautiful time capsule of our friendship! In high school I also directed plays which I loved because it combined all the things I like in one: music, visual art, being a leader. And film encompasses all of them. When I finally had to choose what I should do for school, I realized I had been a filmmaker all along.
CS: Why did you found Sugar Glass Films?
AKH: When I started film school to develop my skills as a director, I wasn’t aware about the unevenness in the film industry. It wasn’t until later on that I learned the truth when I attended a panel with female filmmakers discussing the struggles they’ve faced and the overall lack of women in film. They stated that only 3% of cinematographers and 5% of directors are women. But I thought: Wait a minute! Half of my program is made up of women!
Yet somehow the numbers made sense. Every movie I had seen in film school featured white guys. All of my teachers were white guys. I had written films about white guys. I had been conditioned to think the default story was about white guys. It made more sense to me to write a film about white guys than it did to write about my own experiences.
So once I learned about the inequity, my entire life changed. At the end of film school, you have to pitch your film to producers. Rebeca Ortiz, a feminist who also wanted to make films about women and marginalized people, decided to work with me on Love Stinks. Our collaboration was very successful but it was initially met with resistance because it’s about girls looking at porn. We’ve seen this story with guys a million times. Our film is very PG but people didn’t want to audition for it. Girls talking about boobs and periods is completely normal but not seeing this in film, you feel unimportant or unworthy of representation. So Rebeca and I were dedicated. She’s Latinx, I’m a black woman. We want to uplift our voices and the voices of women and marginalized people. Yet these are stories that everyone can relate to. So, Sugar Glass Films is all about breaking the glass ceiling and closing the gap. That’s what we’re trying to do with the company.
It made more sense to me to write a film about white guys than it did to write about my own experiences.
CS: That’s amazing you had this enlightenment! Thinking about your short film PICK, did you face any discrimination or racism growing up?
AKH: Yes, thanks for asking this question. PICK is about my childhood experiences. When you have afro-textured hair, people make comments about it and reach out to touch your hair. Just today, someone reached out and touched my hair. I always think I wouldn’t reach out and touch your face but it happens every day. These repeated experiences growing up, whether it was outward comments or subliminal messages, stay with you forever. This combines with not fitting into Eurocentric beauty standards. All my Barbies, the “pretty” people in the movies, everyone in commercials on TV had white with blonde hair - I don’t see me there.
When I was 11, I chemically straightened my hair and I continued to do so for 12 years. I stopped once I started making this film. I thought I wasn’t beautiful with the hair that I had because my look wasn’t accepted. But I’m tired of feeling like I don’t fit into a space. I’m tired of reading about a black girl with an afro being told her hair isn’t “professional.” I’m tired of having my hair touched. I’m tired of the ignorance. With PICK I’m educating people about how their “little” comments and behavior can affect people, especially little children, over time. I’m also hoping people will empathize - it’s just hair.
CS: It boggles my mind that people think it’s ok and I’m sorry you had to deal with it. Your other short film, Maybe if it were a nice room, is about another difficult topic: rape. Yet the aesthetic is so beautiful and the shots are reminiscent of still lifes. You have a simple poetic voice over accompanying the images. Why did you make the film this way?
AKH: Depictions of rape created by male directors are graphic, disturbing, horrible images of women being violated. To me, those images are for men but they are not necessary. We never need to see rape or violence toward women. My film, however, is specifically for survivors, giving a voice to our pain in an artistic, non-graphic way. It might still be triggering but not as triggering as images of violence.
CS: Absolutely. I was raped and know firsthand how difficult it is to discuss. Did you seek out therapy or was the film your therapy?
AKH: First of all, thank you for sharing that with me. It’s obviously very difficult to talk about these experiences. The weird thing about me is that my identity as an artist and a filmmaker sometimes makes me forget that I’m a human being who needs additional support. When I made this film, I had a contest deadline to meet. I had two weeks to come up with a topic I cared about and I thought I could make a film about rape. I started to make it objective but it wasn’t good enough; I had to make it about myself. But it was also the first time I acknowledged something bad had happened to me after becoming a feminist and learning about consent. I had only told three friends about it. But the film happened so fast and there was no turning back. After it was done I found it was healing because I gave myself a voice in a situation in which I had no power. Once I shared my story publicly with others, I got an outpouring of support. I had people saying thank you for making this film, this is my story, too.
The film was just the first step of therapy though. I had to seek out other support to ensure my mental health was not suffering. I learned about self care and to protect myself from my own emotions and trauma as a filmmaker. It was so healing and so empowering to make this film.
CS: What women inspire you and your work as a filmmaker?
AKH: Beyonce inspires me. Lemonade is everything I want to do with film. It’s uses personal, political, beautiful images to tell a story of pain. It’s music, poetry, documentary, fantasy, experimental film all in one. The cinematography is stunning. We see black women being portrayed as queens, royalty, ballerinas. This was the first time I got to see myself portrayed in such a positive way - I’ve never seen so many afros in a shot!
Another woman I really admire is Ava DuVernay. She’s the first black woman to do so many things we’ve never done before. She may not achieve everything she deserves in her career, like winning best director, but she’s paving the way for me and the next generation.
I also should add Issa Rae. She started out making the web series Awkward Black Girl which got super popular and bam! She got her own show on HBO, making her the first black woman to star in and to create a premium cable TV series. Insecure features completely normal black characters without stereotypes; they deal with normal issues (including racism). It’s super inspirational and super relatable. She’s another woman paving the way for me.
CS: If you could work on a film with anyone, who would it be and why?
AKH: I’m also going to say Beyonce. She is a passionate perfectionist to the core, which is my exact personality. And she’s not the Queen for no reason. What she does is groundbreaking. If I could collaborate with her, it would be magical.
CS: What projects do you have coming up?
AKH: I’m working on two stories that haven’t been seen. The first, PICK, will be done in August and then released into the festival world in 2019. The second, Abuela, directed by Rebeca Ortiz, is about a young girl visiting her grandmother from Chile for first time. They have to communicate non-verbally because they don’t speak the same language.
CS: Well best of luck to you. We look forward to seeing more of your work in the future!
Interview conducted by Christina Schultz
Christina Schultz: Ji, your short film Nune, a tastefully done LGBTQ young adult romance, and the young adult graphic novel Red as Blue are thematically closely related, with the film appearing to be your inspiration for the graphic novel. Why did you choose to work with a similar set up?
Ji Strangeway: Many artists go through phases or themes in their lives. Picasso went through his “blue” period where he only worked with blue and green colors. For me, I am obsessed with the coming-of-age experience of teens because of my experience growing up in middle-America while never fitting in with American culture. The prejudice and oppression I experienced created a deep void that I want to fill--not only for myself but for the kids who may also experience this. This caused me to closely identify with the unfulfilled potential that many youths continue to face. So my work will continue to focus on similar themes of LGBTQ love with a female-focus bent until I feel I’ve successfully exhausted and completed my job.
CS: You didn’t illustrate the graphic novel yourself, so what made you transition from film to graphic novel?
JS: I actually enjoy both the filmmaking and writing medium so it wasn’t exactly a departure from filmmaking when I created Red as Blue. The graphic novel format is a cathartic expression that allows me to tell a story in the most imaginative way I can as a writer. The book has mixed storytelling formats so it is not a traditional graphic novel. It’s designed to feel like a movie when you read it. The short answer is I haven’t stopped making films and will probably continue to work with mediums that I feel are the best format for telling a particular story.
CS: Nune opens with a Carl Sagan quote: “We are made of starstuff.” The opening sequence then continues on with images of outer space, nature, the elements, smoke and even highways and eponymous character Nune’s eyes. The sequence is quite artistic and surreal, if I may say so. Why did you open the film this way? Can you tell us about the symbolism behind the opening imagery?
JS: Yes. The galaxy intro sequence was a cinematic and metaphoric way of showing Nune’s POV of her “soul” coming to earth and the freedom that she felt before being born into this world, as well as the galaxy she escapes to when her world is too hard to handle. The planets become less etheric and more “concrete” when we merge through clouds to experience destructive aspects of earth elements. This part represents Nune’s descent into the brutal world she would encounter daily at school. In many ways, Nune is “coming down” from her high of escaping the world.
CS: Did you edit the sequence yourself?
JS: Yes, I’m actually an editor. Not by trade, but this is my god-given talent alongside with writing and being a visual artist.
CS: This is a film nerd observation, but there is a cut in Nune from a planet in Nune’s hand which then becomes an egg as it is smashed. Dare I make a comparison to Kubrick? What or who inspired your style of editing and cinematography?
JS: LOL. I would say the smashing egg transforming into a crushed planet is a style that is closer to Jean Cocteau’s filmmaking sensibilities; particularly the creative ways “special effects” were created before digital VFX came around. Cocteau’s 1950s film La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) was fun to watch because the special effects were mechanical and super creative. Although I did not directly borrow from Cocteau, I tend to gravitate toward mechanical and creative effects without dependency on CGI. This is because it stimulates childlike wonder and creativity. The egg scene in Nune was simply a matter of making sure the close-ups of the egg and planet matched and the effect was achieved by a precise edit--a cut.
CS: The character Nune, played by Brianna Joy Chomer, has a distinct background: she is half-Mexican, half-Armenian with two moms at home. Is she inspired by someone you know?
JS: Nune has several elements that are borrowed from my life experiences, yet she is not autobiographical. I grew up as a Vietnamese in a Chicano neighborhood and in many ways, I was caught between two identities while trying to fit into American culture. After I moved to LA, I had a lot of Armenian friends and learned about how being gay is absolutely taboo in their culture. I felt that this needed to be brought out in some way.
CS: Brianna, the popular cheerleader is cheerful and represents the light, metaphorically, but also literally. She has a much lighter complexion than Nune. How do their personalities line up with their favorites colors - Brianna, blue and Nune, red? Can you explain the significance of the main character’s favorite colors?
JS: Yes, the colors are used archetypically and represent their personality and moods. Briana (the cheerleader) likes blue because it is an optimistic color and red is Nune’s color because it represents death. She is a cutter (she harms herself). The deeper implication of both colors reappears in Red as Blue (the adaptation and long-form novel). I’d hate to overtheorize, but subconsciously, the colors also represent the political divide in America between the “red” and “blue” states--and how this creates a cultural war and sense of separation. Love, in my stories, is an integration process that must happen to help us unite as people, this is why Red as Blue is entitled with an “as” rather than “and.”
Love, in my stories, is an integration process that must happen to help us unite as people, this is why Red as Blue is entitled with an “as” rather than “and.”
CS: You work with archetypal characters - the cool guy (or more precisely: the douche), the popular girl, the weird girl, the rich kids, the poor kid from the other side of the tracks. I sense some John Hughes influences...what were your favorite movies and whose work left the biggest impression on you?
JS: Yes, like many teens, I was influenced by the iconic Hollywood teen films from the 1980s and The Breakfast Club as well as many of the Hughes films have become part of my coming-of-age experience. I love coming-of-age films and the one that influenced me the most is unfortunately out-of-print and obscure which is, Times Square (starring Robin Johnson and features Tim Curry). It was an attempt by the director Alan Moyle (Pump up the Volume, Empire Records) to tell a raw and lesbian love story. However, the studios heavily butchered the film and took out a lot of the girl/girl coming-of-age elements. It is still a fun and inspiring film for me to watch (I have a pirated version LOL). Classics like Rebel Without a Cause and Fast Times at Ridgemont High are my favorite coming-of-age films and who could not love Back to the Future? From an art film perspective, I’m influenced by almost everything from the French New Wave movement. The female filmmakers I respect are Catherine Breillat, Celine Sciamma and documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield (check out her work Generation Wealth). My guilty pleasure for the moment is Netflix’s teen episodic, Riverdale.*
CS: Why high school? Did you have a similar experience (or witness something like it) in school yourself? You said in an interview you never had to come out. Tell our readers what that means or what that looks like.
JS: High School is like the template for what you will see in the adult world. It’s a pressure cooker for what is going to become of human potential and the entertainment arts are in the best position to act as a “release valve” to properly shape the lives of youths and even transform them. This is mainly why I have an obsession with high school themes, to tell stories for kids who may feel underrepresented or misunderstood. I was not only witness but was also subjected to being mistreated and misunderstood as a teen.
As for not coming out as a teen, I never felt that it was up to society to tell me whether being “gay” was right or wrong. As a child, I had no labels or sense of separation from others. So as I got older, I refused the idea that I was separate, gay or that there was a name to it. So I never “came out.” I just tried to be true to myself. I was in a survival state of protecting my individuality. At the same time, I was sensitive to the discrimination and how a large number of people in society didn’t share that attitude. For those who needed to know, they had to deserve to know. It was not something I would foolishly volunteer so people could beat up on me.
CS: The coming-out story is obviously very important to you. Will you work with similar stories or themes going forward? What projects are coming up next for you?
JS: Although the work I do may include the coming out process, I would say the aspect of “coming-of-age” is more important to me. I view “coming out” to be a plea for social acceptance, but the coming-of-age process is the deeper part that affects all of us, not just gays. It’s about socially coming into being and staying intact as the beautiful children we came into the world as. Coming out is focused on the need for social acceptance, which is not a bad thing. But it is a debilitating position. It would be like begging a man’s world to accept us as females. It is better to just be a female “mensch” who accepts herself first. By focusing my work on coming of age stories, I can help teens focus more on self-love and self-acceptance.
CS: Do you have advice for those who have to face coming out?
JS: It would be dangerous for me to speak for everyone because coming out is unique to the individual; their circumstances and culture, the political climate and environment. There are countries that are violent towards gays and persecute or criminalize them. In some pockets of the earth, including America, you also have religious or conservative cultures that oppose a person’s coming-out process to a degree of being detrimental to their safety and mental health (suicide). For those who say everyone should come out, they aren’t using discernment whatsoever and that statement only worsens the self-worth of a gay person who can’t and probably shouldn’t come out. If none of that is the case, the best way to come out is to not come out and to just be yourself. If you are honest with yourself, people have to meet you with where you are.
CS: What are some of the hardest situations you have had to face in your personal or public life as a film director, author and poet?
JS: I would say the hardest part is the decision to commit to doing any of those things. Any art related career that has no direct path is terrifying because it’s closer to being a healer or pioneer because much of it solely relies on belief in your vision. Many people don’t follow their dreams or “vision” because it appears way beyond their reach and I would say that for me, this remains to be the case. I am always trying to do things that have never been done. This can be uncomfortable but is also what drives me.
CS: Thanks, Ji!
JS: You’re welcome. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me!
Now that you've read the interview, follow Ji on her social media channels and pay her site a visit!
Instagram: @jistrangeway @nunethemovie @redasblue
Facebook: @jistrangeway.official @nunemovie @redasblue
*Thanks to Ji, I am hooked on the show!