Looking up Ava DuVernay on the Internet Movie Database, the most recognizable titles are Spider-Man 2, Collateral and I, Robot. These are quite unlike the two features she’s written and directed: Last year’s I Will Follow and the new Middle of Nowhere are small, intimate, character-driven pieces not high on action. I Will Follow concerns grief. True to its title, Middle of Nowhere—which made DuVernay the first black woman to win Best Director at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—captures an in-between period, as a woman waits for the return of her beloved husband, who’s serving an eight-year prison sentence.
DuVernay belongs to the group of filmmakers who once did something else. For her, it was as a big-time publicist for major motion pictures. “I’ve always loved American independent cinema,” she says during a phoner. “Beautiful films like Ruby in Paradise, Wendy and Lucy, Winter’s Bone—these small films where a woman-centric story really excels in a small narrative format, where you can actually drill down and get some nuance and character. Certainly the opposite of what I worked on as a publicist.”
When she got an itch to do her own work, she naturally gravitated towards small, woman-centered narratives. “As a black woman who’s involved in film, I can count on one or two hands the number of films with multi-dimensional, nuanced, emotionally-layered portrayals of black women in dramatic situations in the modern day,” she says. “You see a lot of historical drama, you see a lot of comedies set in the modern day. But contemporary dramas with black people, they’re a rarity.”
On a recent press tour for Middle of Nowhere, she said a woman came up to her after a screening and said how refreshing it was to see black people thinking on screen. “It really hit me,” she recalls. “It seems ridiculous that that’s a radical image, but it is.”
Both I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere are about loss: In the former, it’s about death; the latter, incarceration. “I’ve always been very interested in what it’s like to be incarcerated. I grew up in Compton, California, living among women who were in waiting—a secret society. It’s very out in the open in the black and brown communities because it is still prevalent. There are many mothers, daughters, sisters, wives who are 34, and their loved ones are behind bars.”
But Middle of Nowhere never succumbs to fireworks. Minus a couple shouting scenes, it’s a subtle, quiet film. “It’s about finding the tension and drama in the everyday. I’m kind of allergic to the on-the-nose, drama-for-drama’s-sake filmmaking.”
Though Middle of Nowhere is being distributed in part by big-hitter Participant Media, it’s also the fourth release of AFFRM, the black independent label created by DuVernay. (The acronym stands for African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.) The group makes sure the films it picks up play in chain theaters rather than only art houses or on VOD.
I Will Follow was AFFRM’s first release, followed by the Rwandan saga Kinyarwanda and Restless City–three different films, subject-wise and stylistically. “What we’re looking for are distinctive black independent voices,” she says. “All these films push the boundaries of what it means to be a black independent filmmaker.”
While DuVernay is at work on her own films—including a third feature ready to shoot in February and an entry on Venus Williams for ESPN’s terrific 30 for 30 series—she’s also looking at the future of AFFRM. She’ll settle for “there being more than three people doing it.” But AFFRM aims to inspire fellow indie filmmakers to think beyond the production phase.
“It’s an amazing time to be an independent filmmaker, period. I was really influenced by my white male counterparts who were doing this whole DIY thing a couple years back,” she points out, referring to the so-called mumblecore movement. Independent black filmmakers in their 30s and their 40s haven’t exactly formed a movement, she says, but they all talk to each other.
“I’m more into DIT: doing it together rather than by yourself,” says DuVernay. “More and more people are going to start collaborating. Do your own stuff and become entrepreneurial in order to ensure the integrity of your work. Make sure it has a life. You cannot call yourself a filmmaker if you don’t know what happens after you lock picture. It’s not going to work.”