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Elisabeth Bartlett is blogging the festival scene from Cannes to Los Angeles.
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Film Independent Forum Keynote Ava DuVernay: Filmmakers, Take Off the Coat of Desperation!


Last summer I saw Middle of Nowhere and was introduced to Sundance "Best Director" award winner Ava DuVernay at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. Since then DuVernay has directed a 30 for 30 ESPN documentary about Venus Williams, a few delicious kicka** shorts, network series TV, and was recently named director for the upcoming MLK biopic “Selma, among other things. Her keynote speech at Film Independent Forum was an empowering call to action! ...It centered on a metaphor about an old, smelly coat.

DuVernay's talk would not be newsworthy or controversial like Ted Sarando's Netflix talk the day before. However, “This is a tweet-friendly talk,” DuVernay, a longtime grassroots marketer stated up front. “It’s important to share what happens in rooms like these, beyond rooms like these.”

"The cool thing about being in LA is there's so much to get your hands on," says DuVernay. She praised the Film Independent Forum, Film Independent's annual film nerd's dream weekend of panels, screenings, and networking, for the “inquisitive energy that comes when you’re in a room of like-minded people” for that precious period in creativity when you are in "info-gathering mode."

DuVernay's first tip: pay attention to your director's uniform: a thermal, because your shoot always ends up on the coldest day of the year; glasses, for emphasis, and to avoid dry eyes; a hipster t-shirt, film nerd camouflage; and comfortable shoes -- "These shoes are from Rite-Aid." When she's wearing this, DuVernay explained, "I am who I feel I should be, and I’m only able to be that because I took off something three years ago in 2010 that was inhibiting me from being that. And that was my desperation. I wore my desperation like a coat... It was definitely the first thing you saw when you met me.” Duvernay described her desperation coat as an "emotional pain" that was not coming from a place of empowerment.

How does Ava DuVernay know how to identify the coat of desperation? Because she sees it on people she meets every day. “I often meet people who ask,

‘Can you help me?’

‘Can you read my script?’

'Can I take you to coffee?'

...I rarely meet people who tell me what they’re doing. All of that focus on trying to extract from other people is taking away from what you’re doing,” she said. “When I figured that out, things started to change for me.”

…"Guilty," I thought to myself, sitting front row center. After I saw her speak in 2012, I wrote to Ava asking if I could have coffee with her. It was an act of desperation. When she wrote back that she’d love to but was pushing many projects along and didn't have time for everyone who asked for coffee, I realized I would have to create a project of my own so that I had a reason to reach out to her in the first place! DuVernay is a comforting beacon, here to assure us we don't need her for anything.

“All of the time you’re spending trying to get someone to mentor you, trying to have a coffee, trying to-- all of the things that we try to do to move ahead in the industry, is time that you’re not working on your screenplay, strengthening your character arcs, thinking about your rehearsal techniques, setting up a table read to hear the words, thinking about symbolism in your production design, your color palette…Desperation is not active…because all of the so-called action is hinging on someone doing something for you. Does that make sense?” Yes. Audience applause.

Comparison is the worst; an amazing procrastination device. It's easy to look around and think there's always one thing you are lacking and if only you had that you could achieve success. That mindset is desperation."The odds were so against me, doubly so. Being black, being a woman, never having gone to film school...The biggest weapon you have in this new content revolution is what you wear. Are you wearing this coat of desperation or are you wearing your passion on your sleeve? Because one is a repellent, and one is a magnet. One makes you a shadow of yourself, and one enlarges you. Waiting is not doing. So you gotta knock it off...There’s a big difference between being hungry and passionate, and being desperate and depressing."

So, are you wearing a desperation coat? Here’s a test to know: Do you spend more time in the day thinking about how to get what you don’t have, rather than looking at what you have and working with that?

Once DuVernay got active things changed for her. “By not pursuing the other it left me hours and hours and hours to actually create work. This time and energy spent on things you think are going to move you forward when the only thing that moves you forward is your work...I wasn’t desperate anymore because I was making movies. All of a sudden I was on the 'Yo I'm making films' train...If you channel your desperation towards things that you have, it’s passion. Otherwise it’s stagnation, and it stinks. People don’t want to be around it. Work over other chatter, and leave the nasty coat behind. The desperation reeks off of you, why? Because it’s not a part of you. It’s like a smelly coat you put on yourself. Until you take it off and free yourself it’s going to be very difficult to move forward…. And some of us don’t even know we’re wearing it..."

“For a long time I thought people were laughing at me when I said I was a filmmaker. Or, I was kind of laughing at myself... Today, I can say I’m a filmmaker. Without being shy about it," DuVernay says. When asked what else she wants to do that she hasn't done yet, she said, "I wanna be a senior citizen. I wanna be Werner Herzog. I just want consistency and longevity.” DuVernay has many more movies to direct.

With that, I'm gonna get to work.


Ava Tips in Summary:

It's okay if you didn’t go to film school. "You just gotta keep educating yourself in other ways." (panels, videos, books...)

Stop asking and start doing. “I have more mentors now since I stopped asking for them. A mentor is someone who cares for you – and you can’t go up to someone and ask them to care for you.”

Failure is awesome. Failure drives change.

Savor every minute of her speech here.

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About Elisabeth

Bartlett Elisabeth
Blogging about the festival scene from Los Angeles

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