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!