Last year Creative Director Amberly Ellis launched Film For The People Productions with one objective in mind: “…to capture life through film in ways that force audiences to think about something in a way that they did not think about before, and to do this in a manner that is as true as possible.” With a razor sharp focus and a commitment to her purpose, this Baltimore, MD native has set out on a path to bring awareness to the social issues that plague various people. In doing so, Amberly has traveled to many countries to capture these stories first-hand. Amberly’s way of bringing different people’s stories to life was celebrated when she told the story of “A young man’s journey through recovery and personal loss after a traumatic gunshot wound.” Bullets Without Names went on to be selected for Best Documentary Short at the 2014 American Visions Awards. After being awarded a grant that same year, Amberly set her sights on Cuba and the great women Filmmakers that the country has produced. Currently on location in Cuba, Amberly took time away from her busy shooting schedule to talk about Nuestra Cuba, the challenges she faces as a Filmmaker, and her passion for telling untold stories.
Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
I actually always thought that I was going to be a writer. At a very young age, I started journaling. I have kept a journal for every year of my life since the age of eight! It was really my father who helped me discover filmmaking. He is also a documentarian and photographer. Growing up, I always saw him with a camera, but as a girl, you don’t often see women behind the camera lens, and I always associated filmmaking with men. When my dad bought me my first professional camera for Christmas one year, that all changed for me. My dad always supported me as a woman behind the camera lens, and his support taught me that my gender didn’t matter. It gave me confidence to venture into an industry that in many areas is still very male dominated.
Why did you start Film For The People Productions?
I find that now, more than ever, so many stories are being told around the world through documentary films. Often the subjects of these films don’t have a more active part in doing the storytelling. In most cases, when it comes to marginalized communities, the images and experiences are misrepresented. I wanted to create a film production company that tries to change this narrative about documentary filmmaking. For these reasons, I created Film For The People Productions.
What is Nuestra Cuba? Where did this idea come from?
Nuestra Cuba is a two part documentary series that follows the stories of Afro-Cuban women filmmakers at the Institute of Cuban Cinema (ICAIC) in Havana. The idea for this film came from my discovery of the work of Sara Gomez. Gomez was the first woman to direct films in the Caribbean. I will never forget when I first went to ICAIC and I saw her photograph among a sea of male faces. Something about her photograph spoke to me. I connected to her spirit. I knew then that I had to tell her story. When I began research for the film, I quickly realized how little was known about her life. Many people in Havana were unfamiliar with her work and her legacy in cinema. When I later discovered that over thirty years would pass before ICAIC would produce another film director that was both woman and Afro-Cuban, I was even more convinced that there was a story here that needed to be told. Gloria Rolando is currently the only working Afro-Cuban woman film director at ICIAC.
I decided to call the documentary Nuestra Cuba or Our Cuba as a way to invite the audience to see Cuba through the perspective of Afro-Cuban women. The work of both of these women focuses on little known histories in Cuba, and I believe the world should know about their contributions to Cuban cinema.
Where does your passion to tell these untold stories come from?
I think my passion to tell untold stories of people from different countries comes from a curiosity that I’ve had about the world from a young age. My parents always encouraged my curiosity and imagination. I’ve always had the desire to seek answers about things. My mother taught me that if I want to find the answers to my questions then I should read. In elementary and middle school sometimes I would read through one book in a day. Before I could travel, books were my ticket to learning about the world. As I grew to be a teenager, I began to see more clearly. I learned that not everyone has the same opportunity to have freedom or equality. I remember first reading about the struggles of Gandhi in India, or Steve Biko in South Africa, and Marcus Garvey in Jamaica. I began to see inequalities in the world and in my own environment. When you grow up and see people that look like you constantly misrepresented in art, in media, and in history, you start wanting to figure out why things are the way they are. You start wanting to see an outlet for the stories of the underrepresented. You start wanting to do something to see change. I began to search for my own way to confront these social issues. That is why I turned to film.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced as an independent filmmaker? And how have you overcome them?
Some of the biggest challenges I have faced as an independent documentary filmmaker are how to balance between my own personal truths, and the truths of others. How can I be objective? Am I being just? Filmmaking has taught me how to be a better listener. Photography has taught me to be a better observer. I like for my camera to be a fly on the wall. I like to capture people living their life as if I wasn’t there.
To overcome this challenge, I have learned that the best thing that I can do is really get to know my subjects and their environments. I don’t want to just make assumptions or generalizations about people in communities and cultures that are very different from my own. There is a tradition in journalism, anthropology, and sociology-all fields of which are related to documentary, that dictates a separation of the observer from the subject. I think that this separation is exactly why we have so much misrepresentation and underrepresentation in all of these fields! I believe that when we relate on a human level to the people in our stories we are better storytellers. Then people are not just “subjects” they are human beings, just like us.
Besides filmmaking, what are some of your other interests?
One of my huge interests is music. I am a huge lover of soul music, funk, jazz, and rhythm and blues. I love old school hip-hop. I used to make mixtape CDs for all of my friends before everyone had MP3 players! I really would like to pick up the skill of DJing, because I love music so much. Other hobbies of mine are writing poetry, yoga, traveling, and I love the outdoors.
What book(s) are you currently reading? What book would you recommend for others to read?
I am currently reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is really hard for me to pick one book to recommend because I am a bookworm. But I can share three books that I read over and over again. The first book is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. This book is such a treasure. It is like every time you read it, something is hidden from you to be discovered the next time you pick up the book. The second book is Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. The wisdom in Eat Pray Love is like a blue print for my life. The last book is Their Eyes Are Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Whenever I need courage, I look to this book. Janie is such a brave character.
To see more of Amberly follow her on social media:
Nuestra Cuba Twitter: @NuestraCubaFilm