Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Dawn Jones Redstone Is Helping To Change Our World
I believe that how we make movies is as important as the story we are telling, I tend to have mostly women/nonbinary people of color behind the camera as well. When we started hiring crew with this intention, we had to work harder sometimes to fill certain positions. This meant sometimes identifying folks that had the right experience to be able to step up into a role maybe that hadn’t held before. We set them up with mentors and additional resources to be successful on set. It’s part of the film’s overall goal of helping to create change. We actually tracked our hiring and put out data of who we hired on our website.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dawn Jones Redstone.
Dawn Jones Redstone (she/her) is an award-winning queer, Mexican American writer/director whose short films have screened around the globe including the acclaimed Sista in the Brotherhood. Her work often features women of color (cast and crew) and explores themes of resistance, feminism and the internal machinations that help us transform into the people we want to become. She believes in using her hiring decisions to help create an inclusive filmmaking community that reflects and brings needed perspective to the world we live in.
She resides with her wife and daughter in Portland, Oregon and is currently on the festival circuit with her feature film debut, Mother of Color.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
I’ve had an unusual path in that I’ve had a couple of different careers before coming to filmmaking, but making movies has always been a part of my life, even if I wasn’t being paid to do it. I bought a camera, I made lots of little videos, and took occasional glasses. At the same time, I worked as a union carpenter, then at a non-profit that helped prepare women for living wage careers in construction. The irony is that I spent my days there telling women that if they wanted something different for themselves, they would need to take the leap of faith into a new career. So many of them did, but at some point, I realized I too, needed to do that if I ever wanted to realize my dream of being a filmmaker.
In 2012, I quit my job to start a video production business, primarily making short, online content for nonprofits and government. It took some time to build out my business, but by 2016, I could see how my skills had grown as well as my confidence. My dear friend Dr. Roberta Hunte and I decided to make a short film, partly inspired by my experience as a carpenter as well as her doctoral thesis about the experience of Black tradeswomen. That film, Sista in the Brotherhood, went on to win multiple awards and screen all around the world! It was mind-blowing to me what we could do with film and it made me want more.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I suppose the funny part can come with time, but some of the beginner mistakes I made were painful! I’m a self-taught filmmaker who came up as a one woman band who did it all: shooting, directing, recording sound, editing, etc. There were lots of foibles with the gear. Everything from somehow recording the display screen instead of what you were trying to film, forgetting to hit record on audio, etc. The good news is that learning the gear takes practice, but is probably on the easier side of all the skills it takes to become a director. I figured all that out in time, but now I am able to hire folks who are professionals in their craft. That experience, I gained doing it all myself early, makes me a better collaborator and communicator with my crew.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I got to shadow Debra Granik on the set of Leave No Trace in 2017. It was the experience of a lifetime in terms of getting to see up close how a director of her caliber works with actors, leads crew, and just tells stories on film. Both her and Producer Anne Rosselini were incredibly generous with me. I wasn’t sure what it would be like, but they were quite welcoming. I remember when I attended the first production meeting and somebody sat me in the back instead of at the table where everyone else in the room was. Anne and Debra walked in, immediately introduced themselves, and pulled up a chair so that I could sit right next to them. I’ll never forget that moment of literally being given a seat at the table. It was amazing.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Gloria Anzaldúa was a queer Latina scholar who lived her life with deep thought and compassion. Her concept of spiritual activism, which ties together our relationship with our inner selves to the human experience of the material world, is a guiding principle. How could these things not be connected? It’s unfortunate that her thinking was not as recognized while she was alive, but others have carried forth her original writing. Look her up!
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
I’m a Director who uses film to tell stories about women of color on the cusp of change. My debut feature film, Mother of Color, is currently on the festival circuit. It’s about a single mother who begins receiving messages from her ancestors as she sets out to make it to a life changing job interview. I don’t want this to be true, but when someone like me takes up space in the film industry, that feels like a kind of activism on its own. With diversity among narrative filmmakers so dismal despite lots of talk of change, simply by existing, I am holding up that beacon for others to come up behind me. That’s one of the reasons I mention being queer and Latina when I talk about my work. I want to make clear that I’m out here representing!
But also, to tell a story like Mother of Color and send it out into the world, raises the visibility of single mothers like the lead character Noelia. She wants to create change in our world, but constantly has to make hard choices between her career and her family. Without subsidized child care, or universal pre-k, these are the kinds of hard decisions many parents with less resources are forced to make and it shouldn’t be this way. Traveling with the film right now, I’ve had a number of people approach me after and say, “That’s my story.” It’s a powerful, healing interaction for both of us that fortifies us to carry on. That’s why I make movies and seeing how audiences are resonating, makes me continue to spend countless hours as basically a volunteer on the film.
Lastly, because I believe that how we make movies is as important as the story we are telling, I tend to have mostly women/nonbinary people of color behind the camera as well. When we started hiring crew with this intention, we had to work harder sometimes to fill certain positions. This meant sometimes identifying folks that had the right experience to be able to step up into a role maybe that hadn’t held before. We set them up with mentors and additional resources to be successful on set. It’s part of the film’s overall goal of helping to create change. We actually tracked our hiring and put out data of who we hired on our website.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
All of my films have been about lifting voices, increasing reputation on set and connecting to real world change. What was different about Mother of Color is that it was my first feature-length film. It meant that I was going to have to make a film many times more ambitious and expensive than anything I had ever made, and it was terrifying. I was motivated by my desire to continue to grow in my work and to see the team of people who came on board who believed in both me and the project. That included my producers Tara Johnson-Medinger and Ashley Song who headed up the logistics that made the whole film possible. With so many actors and locations, plus COVID, this was no small task. The star, Ana del Rocío, whose life in the political realm working as a single mom was an inspiration for the film, helped me with some of the fundraising and spent hours talking and sharing her experiences with me to help create a foundation for the fictional story I shaped into the screenplay. The love they put into the project, led me to believe it was possible.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of my favorite things about the project is seeing how many of the women on our crew that stepped up during the course of the film, have gone on to take on bigger roles and bigger projects. We may have been the ones to give them an opportunity where they could get experience and have mentorship, but they then took that and ran with it, driving their own success. I consider them my peers now.
Also, Ana del Rocío, the star of the film, is now running for a Portland County Commissioner position. She is the only person of color in the race. We intend to use the film and its audience to support her candidacy!
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Visit motherofcolorfilm.com to learn about the film, see upcoming screenings, and watch the trailer.
Visit the donate page and chip in to help us cover costs for distribution and publicity for the film.
Help us get the word out about the film by sharing the trailer, following us on social media or connecting us with potential press.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
By taking the time to know and focus on your inner self, you can silence the negative and external voices that have nothing to do with your success. I spent too much time listening to others. During the pandemic, I really had gotten more insular, and I found that to be helpful for my writing and ability to convince myself what was possible.
Maybe someone already told you, but you gotta believe: you don’t need fancy gear to make a movie! That shouldn’t be the thing that holds you back. I spent years developing my storytelling with low-end gear, and that’s helped me develop at a pace that’s right for me.
Half of indie filmmaking is fundraising and marketing. People make films because they are artists with something to say, and it can take years to finally produce. But then, if you don’t have the skill set or the ability to hire someone with the skill set of marketing or fundraising, it’s entirely possible that very few people will see your film. I know folks like this who have made beautiful, beautiful films that are just sitting there. I wish this weren’t true, but it is. Watch those YouTube videos on marketing and festivals, take those Kickstarter webinars, work your network to learn. So much of this information is online, and it’s really a big part of seeing the thing you made out in the world.
This is related to the above, but when it comes to marketing, so much of a movie is making people want to see your film, more than the film itself. Spend time and energy on those marketing materials! With Mother of Color, an incredibly skilled graphic designer named Kyle Pero happened to be looking for projects to volunteer on because he wanted to transition to making movie posters for a living. We went through a series of drafts, and he made a stunning poster for us that made people want to click through to visit our website and then come out and see the film. We were incredibly lucky that he shared his gift because we couldn’t have afforded him otherwise, and now his work of art will live with the film forever.
Be generous. As an indie filmmaker, you may not have money, but there are other things you can offer the folks who come on board to help you make the movie. What’s the work environment like? Can you help them advance in their careers or connect them with more work? Can you be flexible with scheduling? For example, we were able to work with colorist Jasmine Vazquez whose day job is working at an international ad agency here in Portland. We agreed that since we were paying less, one thing I could offer was time. She worked on it when she could and the result was the icing on Cinematographer Sean Conley’s imagery. She brought a level of color grade that I hadn’t quite experienced as we developed the palette further and got to really focus in on the details of how color can help tell the story. It’s beautiful and worth the wait.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
As a filmmaker, you have to tell the stories that you are drawn to, but I think it’s worth it to spend some time thinking about what you are offering the world when you invite them into your gaze. What does the world need right now and how does your voice help us elevate the human experience?
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Can someone get me connected to Ava Duvernay? I want to be considered for directing any upcoming tv projects, similar to what she did on Queen Sugar!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Okay, here I am quoting Oprah: “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.” This is a guiding quote to remember to dream big.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m @dawnjonesredstone on Instagram and @dawnamo on Twitter!
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!