A.V. Rockwell celebrates NYC’s many colors in black and white

The packed structure and chaotic culture of New York make it a million-story machine. Beneath the rich soil of car horns, stacked layers of apartments, and tight spaces we share with so many, there’s an underbelly of human beings just trying to live their lives. New Yorkers face a ton of daily challenges, which is why you may find that they are both their own toughest protectors and energetic cheerleaders. Native New Yorker A.V. Rockwell’s films are about that unique process — getting through the day when you share a concrete maze with a teeming jungle of people.

Her series “Open City Mixtape” shines a streetlight on youth in NYC, where innocence may be fleeting, but a childlike sense of wonder will serve them well. Her newest Staff Picked piece, “The Gospel,” was a collaboration with fellow native Alicia Keys, to accompany music and words written by the world-renowned artist. It’s a beautiful ode to the diversity of New York’s hard-working, hard-loving inhabitants — especially its strong women, who must constantly wear a protective shield to deal with catcalls and lingering looks, all while never feeling completely safe.

Making a piece about growing up in New York City must cover a lot of emotional ground, and A.V. accomplishes this gracefully with her signature grainy black-and-white film aesthetic and soundtracks featuring classic pieces from artists such as Ludwig van Beethoven to Hector Lavoe. Although all of her characters encounter volatile situations, their quick-thinking, sharp-tongued, unwavering responses to their circumstances are as diverse and captivating as the city they reside in.

To celebrate the distinct and undeniable talent that she shares with us on Vimeo, we asked A.V. Rockwell a few questions about her work.

Vimeo: What first inspired you to get involved in filmmaking?

A.V. Rockwell: I always had an interest in film, but I never took it seriously because I didn’t have proximity to anyone who made movies. I was an underachieving, C- student, but early experiences with the form sparked a level of ambition I’d never felt below. And then later, discovering European cinema and experimental films, during a period in which I felt very uncertain about my future, had a huge impact on me. It expanded my view of what could be done with the medium and allowed me to connect to a part of myself I had previously buried. Once I learned that one could base an entire career and livelihood around filmmaking, I took a leap of faith and decided to pursue it. I delved into pretty much every art form as a kid and film combines all of those things, so it’s really like the ultimate playground.

Who do you admire in the industry?

Right now, I have the work of Barry Jenkins, Donald Glover and the cinematographer Bradford Young to look up to because they’re each breaking ground in their own way. I’ve recently revisited the work of Julie Dash. Daughters of the Dust was an important story to share on many levels and I love her short film Illusions as well. I’m enjoying the work of Terrence Malick on a much deeper level these days too. Seeing the world through his eyes feels like a dream.

What do you hope to accomplish with your videos?

I look forward to telling many different kinds of stories over of the course my career, but at the heart of it all is just a desire to make people feel a little bit better about moving through this big, complicated world we live in. I feel obligated to specifically make sure that people of color and the underprivileged are being acknowledged and that the tales I’m sharing provide hope and empowerment for those groups.

Can you talk about any challenges you’ve faced as a person of color in the industry, and how you’ve handled them?

My journey as a filmmaker has definitely been sprinkled with many race-related challenges. At this point, how I’ve handled it doesn’t matter as much as what the industry is doing to change things. Filmmakers of color are asked this question all the time but the responsibility of breaking the cycle of racism doesn’t fall on us alone. How often are white filmmakers asked what they are doing about it? I appreciate those who are doing what they can to make a difference, but it has to be addressed at every level. For instance, are young people leaving film schools with a well-versed knowledge of what filmmakers of all races have contributed to the medium? If not, this potentially means that new generations are entering the business doubting the value of what underrepresented storytellers can bring. These are the small things that prevent the industry’s attitude from changing.

What advice would you give to black filmmakers who are just starting out?

We’re not defined by where we start, what’s happening in our lives currently, or what obstacles we have to overcome. Whenever I’ve been disappointed by people or opportunities that didn’t pan out as expected, I just kept moving and will continue to do so. The best thing you can do, if you trust that there is purpose in this path that you’ve chosen, is to just keep going.

Can you talk about your grainy black-and-white aesthetic, as well as your use of music in “Open City Mixtape”, which are doc-like narratives of New York’s children?

People often ask why I choose to work in black and white. It comes so naturally to me, given the world and subject matters I’ve captured. I really couldn’t see it working any other way, for these particular films. Of course, as my work evolves, so will my approach to aesthetics. However, I will say that “Open City Mixtape” and “The Gospel” are both nostalgic New York City pieces, so that plays a role for sure.

I grew up listening to mixtapes and observing how hip hop artists used them to spread their music at a grassroots level. When I made “Open City Mixtape,” I just adapted that model to a film setting. Music has always been a big source of inspiration, so marrying the two worlds in this way was a fun experiment.

Your recent Staff Pick, “The Gospel” is a powerful and energizing tribute to New York City. I also *loved* how this film is an empowering love letter to the strength and inner beauty of women of all shapes and sizes. Where did the idea for this multi-layered piece come about, and how did you come to work with Alicia? What were your influences, artistically and musically?

Alicia discovered “Open City Mixtape,” which she really loved, so that lead to her approaching me to create a New York-centric piece for her album. My ideas came from listening to the music, discussions with Alicia about her upbringing, and learning what her outlook was on the world now. I also tried to somewhat mirror her process of making the album, which involved conversations with people in her life and letting those thoughts carry over into the music.

The “Sweet Girl” chapter of “The Gospel” was especially fulfilling. Alicia and I wanted to celebrate the transition into womanhood, but also show how uncomfortable the opposite sex can make you feel as you start to bloom. In the film she talks about how the uninvited advances of men on the street made her want to hide and that is something I experienced growing up as well.

What is next for you, A.V.? Are you working on anything at the moment?

Yes, if I’m not shooting then I’m writing and developing new ideas. I’m working on a new short film that’s being supported by Tribeca Film Institute and Chanel, but I know at this point, many people are waiting for my move into long-form projects. I’m excited to begin making features, but also feel okay with waiting for the right story to come along and grip me.

Thank you so much for your time, A.V. — we can’t wait to see what you make next!

Get to know more talented creators and stunning videos in our Black History Month series. Looking to get featured yourself? Snap a behind-the-scenes pic, and tell us about your filmmaking journey with the tag #vimeofilmmaker on Instagram.