Filmmakers have banded together to form filmmaker collectives throughout history, from Dogme 95 to Borderline Films. This year’s Sundance Film Festival screened the results of another promising new collective.
The short film “As Told to G/D Thyself” comes from The Ummah Chroma, which consists of cinematographer Bradford Young (the first African-American cinematographer to be nominated for an Academy Award, for “Arrival”), directors Terence Nance (HBO’s “Random Acts of Flyness”), Jenn Nkiru (Beyoncé and Jay Z’s “APESHIT”), editor Marc Thomas (Michael & Javier) and Kamasi Washington (an award-winning, multi-instrumentalist and producer).
The name of the group was conceived by Nance — Ummah is an Arabic word meaning “community,” and Chroma is the Greek word for “color” — but the idea of a collective first came to Washington in 2017, during the recording of his second studio album “Heaven and Earth,” which was released in 2018. “When I was making that record, the music felt so visual, and so I wanted to create a visual representation of what I felt with the music,” he said.
Kamasi admired Young’s work and approached the cinematographer with his ideas, as the pair fleshed out some possibilities. “We basically started talking about what the songs meant, what the album meant, and really just coming to an understanding of the feeling that we were trying to create and convey,” Washington said.
Their conversations would lead to the decision to recruit other artists, including Terence Nance, who Washington had also previously been discussing a collaboration. Nkiru and Thomas would soon follow; Young, served as the lynchpin.
“It was one of those things where Bradford and I had an idea of something we knew we wanted to create,” Washington said. “We were just searching for the right people who we felt would bring something of value to the table that neither of us had, and then allow whatever it was to grow.”
Thomas and his wife, producer Erin Wile, had a working history with Young, including the cinematographer’s directorial debut, “Black America Again” (2016), a visual celebration of the varied black communal experience, inspired by rapper-actor Common’s 2016 studio album of the same name.
Having established a comfortable working relationship with Young, getting involved with the collective was a no-brainer for Thomas. “Ours was a really inspired collaborative process, for me at least,” the editor said. “And as soon as I heard about the idea of Ummah Chroma, I became super excited, and we all just started exchanging ideas, as each of our roles evolved over the course of the process, and continue to do so.”
Washington said that the collective was driven by a shared vision rooted in the music that brought them together. “The album had a feel to it, and there was a visual story that it was telling, and everyone that was working on the project could kind of see that,” he said. “The first thing we did together was try to figure out what that vision was, which led to discussions about story, emotions, the progressive nature of the ideas the album had, and then Terence came and really cultivated it all into a treatment.”
That treatment was given its first visual cues by Nkiru, a British-Nigerian filmmaker, and the only member of the collective not based in the States. Early on, she would set the tone for the form the musical short film would eventually take: a 24-minute variable series of sequences — including a fantastical, if foreboding, forest ritual, and a floating monolith evocative of that to be found in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — that could exist as narratives on their own, all linked by a blend of Washington’s improvisational score.
Washington credits Thomas, the editor in the group, for collecting all the disparate elements created by each member, and putting the pieces together. “He created cohesion in a way that I don’t think the rest of us really knew exactly how to do,” said Washington. “The work became an entirely new thing on its own, once it got in Marc’s hands, with the rest of us kind of chiming in with reactions and thoughts that he would then consider.”
And this is how they envision the collective working going forward — no mandated direction; no obvious strategy; no driving objective; and certainly no manifesto akin to Dogme 95. “I’m not sure our ultimate purpose is knowable, but I think our utility – our usefulness – is that we hold vibrations of and through each other,” Nance said. “We project and reflect on and through each other aesthetically and spiritually, and the utility of calling ourselves a collective, and seeing if we could do this together, was maybe to pattern a process for our futures.”
For Thomas, “It’s been a real exercise in discovery and trying to tap into the feeling of things, and for each of us, kind of a journey of ideas. We don’t have a set plan for upcoming projects, but if something presents itself and makes sense, we will figure it out in the same organic way.”
They remain confident about their future collaborations. “We now know we have this – five people who have discovered that they can really work well together, something that can be very difficult to find and organize,” Washington said. “And I feel like on the next thing we do, the work itself will dictate how it’s done.”