HISTORYWhere I first fell in love with storytelling, imagery and cinema was inside of my mother’s beauty parlour where shapely hand mirrors rest on large mahogany furniture pieces that hold tools of the beauty trade and where women conversed, publicly dreamed, complained about injustices, admonished, whispered, guffawed, cried, and consoled each other.I was also mesmerized by the images surrounding me in church while sitting on the bench in a wooden pew surrounded by massive statues wrapped in purple cloth while the priest read from the bible in Latin to the congregation. My mother purchased my first film camera and off I went to study filmmaking at New York University (NYU) in the 70s. I became well versed in the major film genres; I could critique French, German, Italian, Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, Brazilian, and Japanese cinemas, and could analyze the canon of film literature that one was expected to know. I concluded that the stories heard in my mother’s beauty parlour were a rich resource from which to draw stories for film. These stories were every bit as compelling as what I was seeing in world cinema. However, the popular film stories about African Americans of the day were those that focused largely on urban criminal plotlines and featured poorly developed characters and sophomoric story arcs. They were inspired by the early novels of Iceberg Slim, particularly “Pimp”. Though marketed as stories about “real Black people”,they did not reflect the people or the parlour women that I knew. As one of four Black students in the NYU film program, and one of two African American womenI realized that our lives were totally foreign to our classmates and apparently too foreign to even register as a foreign film.When I expressed an interest in cinematography and directing to the head of the film program, he strongly suggested that I become an editor since “women are so good with their hands.” Fortunately, the pioneering documentary filmmaker, activist and early thought leader for public access television was myteacher and mentor. George Stoney was rethinking documentary filmmaking andinterested in grassroots filmmaking — giving voice to the voiceless through media. He encouraged me to find my voice outside of NYU. Post graduation, I became more committed to making my own films even though I didn’t know where to begin. For a while I edited the news at CBS for the Walter Cronkite show. Little did I know that I was hired only temporarily because I was a two-for (African American and female). I learned later that once the company was able to renew its license two-fors were released.
So I found a way not to be “let go”. With a $5,000 grant from the American Film Institute, I completed my first film, Syvilla: They Dance to Her Drum, and stayed on the road showing it at colleges and universities for almost five years while also working on my other films. This was a good start. I learned a lot about local, national and international audiences, about the kinds of conversations that they wanted to have around ideas that were important to people of color and I became clearer that I did not want to work in Hollywood convincing executives about the value of stories centered in the lives of people that they had little contact with. I wanted to make films, experiment with films and be the boss of me as much as possible. That’s what I’ve done.No, filmmaking is not just about entertainment. It’s also about serious and important work. It’s about ideas, technology, money and power structures. It’s also a visual record of what it means to be in the world (dreams, facts, fantasies and delusions). So, if you don’t have a wide range of people (race, class, gender) with varying viewpoints in a culture making and exhibiting films, you’re left with a limited view of what it means to be in the world and where the edges of our humanity reside – at least from the standpoint of the moving image. In many ways I have a typical American independent filmmaker’s background (pre YouTube): I am formally trained, my productions have been funded by what I call a patchwork quilt of funding opportunities, my work has screened at international, national, regional and local festivals as well as appearing on television internationally, in community centers, houses of worship, colleges and universities, and the living rooms of new acquaintances. I live to tell about it. Where I differ from many of my colleagues is that I am among the first generation of African Americans filmmakers who were formally trained in addition to the self-training and street training that we received. It is the generation that pioneered a genre of filmmaking (post Oscar Micheaux and Melvin Van Peebles) that became identified as Black independent cinema. I am also a woman. There are not many African American women filmmakers with a long history of making films or who write about their experiences.
“Working across a wide-range of genres, forms and exhibition platforms, Ayoka Chenzira is perhaps the most prolific African American women media-maker of our time. Throughout her career Chenzira’s time-based art focus has allowed her to embrace rapidly changing technical and creative advances resulting in a body of work that is unlike any other in the artistic landscape of American media production. “ -Yvonne Welbon Filmmaker & Film Historian