Ava DuVernay became the first African-American to win the Best Director award at Sundance this year for her indie drama, "Middle of Nowhere." Although "Middle of Nowhere" is only DuVernay's second full-length feature film, she's no newcomer to the industry. In fact, she's already made a name for herself as one of the preeminent figures in modern African-American cinema, even before her history-making win at Sundance.
In addition to running her renowned marketing firm, The DuVernay Agency (later DV Marketing + Media), where she worked with directors like Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Smith, and Robert Rodriguez, DuVernay won the Best Screenplay Award from the African-American Film Critics Association for her first feature film, "I Will Follow." She also launched an ambitious, groundbreaking film distribution movement in 2010 called AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement), which organizes film festivals and theatrical releases for black indepedent films.
I know that you first entered the film industry on the marketing end.
Yeah, I was a publicist – I did what these guys are doing for a long time – at an agency that specialized in film. I represented some big films like "Dream Girls" and "Invictus." The last film I represented before I shut down my agency to become a filmmaker full-time was "The Help." So it was really very recent, just last summer. And, yeah, it gave me a good understanding of the business of filmmaking, which I think has been really helpful to me.
Did you always want to be a filmmaker, or did you just see yourself sticking to the publicity side?
Well, I think it was just the proximity to filmmakers over the years working as a publicist, kind of gave me the bug. I always loved film, so I always knew I wanted to work around it. I thought being a publicist was as close as I was going to be, and I loved being a publicist. But somewhere down the line I started writing my own scripts, making shorts on the weekend while I was running my business. Just one thing led to another.
So you made shorts and documentaries first. What made you decide to transition to feature filmmaking?
For me, I don't really see it as a transition. It's all storytelling. So it's just a question of what's the most effective way to tell a story I want to tell. Some you can just get more truth out of narratively, and others are just, you know, more documentary style. It's just different tools to me, as opposed to a transition from one to the other. I really love docs, I'm making one now about Venus Williams. I like the idea of going back and forth. I really admire Werner Herzog and Spike Lee. They're amazing documentarians. If you took away all the narratives, they'd just be amazing documentarians. I hope I can continue to do both.
Which do you find to be more challenging?
Definitely the narratives. In documentaries there's a truth that unfolds unnaturally, and you get to chronicle it. In narratives, you have to create the situations so that the truth will come out. You know, and with a documentary you're following something, and with a narrative you're collaborating with people to create something. So, you know, they're both amazing experiences. But I'd say, if I was just having a bad year and wanted to make something that was a little bit easier, probably would choose a doc. That's the great thing about being able to make a documentary – if there was ever a situation where I can't get all the money together for one of my scripts, I could always take my camera out and follow an interesting story. Just still tell a story without a lot of money.
You promoted both "I Will Follow" and "Middle of Nowhere" through the organization you founded, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement? How much progress have you made since launching AFFRM?
AFFRM was an idea that really asked the question, could we create something that's like a farmer's market to the Hollywood supermarket. Could we create something that was really focused on grassroots, hand-grown films that were really put out with love by local organizations. Really, that comparison is so true to what we do. And, the answer has been yes. We launched in January of last year, our mandate was to release two films a year. We've done that. The first year was "I Will Follow" and "Kinyarwanda" which won Sundance, an Audience Award at Sundance. Second year, this year, was "Restless City" in the spring and "Middle of Nowhere" in the fall. So, what I wanted to do was just to really handpick films that we all felt were really beautiful and to give them a chance at a theatrical release. And it's been working nicely.