Scars Become Badges of Honor in Talibah Newman’s Children-Centered Films

Editor's Note: Behind the Lens is a digital video series featuring bold California indie filmmakers pushing the boundaries of their craft. Each episode captures the personal experiences that inform a filmmaker's work and the risks they take to bring stories to the screen.

Talibah Newman doesn’t back down from a challenge. In her 14-year career as a writer, director and producer, she’s worked predominantly with children (no easy task), to tell stories about their innocence and resilience.

“I’m trying to be Peter Pan, in a way,” says the Oakland-based filmmaker, “trying to recreate children who are fierce no matter what they've experienced in life.” Instead of Neverland, those efforts have landed her films at American Black Film Festival and Los Angeles Film Festival, and with distribution by HBO and Film School Shorts.

The oldest of five, Newman grew up in South Dallas and often draws from her family’s experiences in the stories she creates. In Busted on Brigham Lane, two sisters have very different relationships with their estranged father. (While Newman is close with her father, she watched her half-siblings struggle with their father’s absence at birthdays and school recitals.)

In her 18-minute short, Sweet Honey Chile', a boy explores his gender identity while searching for meaning after his gay grandfather’s death. It’s Newman’s way of honoring her own brother, who experienced hardship when he came out as a teenager. “I want to show how that which you feel might have been a permanent scar, can be your own blessing or your own badge of honor,” she says.

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More recently, Newman directed an episode of Greenwood Avenue: A Virtual Reality Project, revisiting the destruction of a thriving black community in 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, through the eyes of a young girl. The series, created by Ayana Baraka, will be distributed on Youtube’s VR180 platform next year.

Newman believes filmmaking provides her with a space to share a sense of hope—in the possibility of growth, understanding and healing—for the black community, for women and within families.

KQED sat down with Newman to talk about the value of film school, balancing filmmaking with motherhood, and the gap between creative talent and financiers she hopes will one day be bridged.  -- Introductory Text by Sarah Hotchkiss

Still from Sweet Honey Chile, courtesy of Talibah Newman

How did you get your start in writing and directing film?

I come from a family of artists. So I think my intuitive desire to be a filmmaker comes from being raised in a family that sees the world through art. Growing up, I was always the child in the corner writing a poem or my own plays. Then in high school, I had a teacher who introduced me to screenwriting as a profession, and I ended up going to Columbia University to study film.

I also interned for a lot of different production companies, and through a friend of my late grandfather, I connected with Malcolm Lee, who hired me as a post-production assistant on Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, then on Soul Men, as Malcolm’s assistant. Working on Soul Men from start to finish was a great way for me to be able to see all of the moving parts involved in making a feature-length film. Afterwards, I knew I wanted to follow the same path as Malcolm and ended up choosing Columbia for graduate school. The price tag for an M.F.A. in film is exorbitant, but that traditional route, studying the craft of filmmaking, being amongst a class of only 60 people, and the structure, where we were constantly creating, was really beneficial for me. I wouldn't trade it for the world.  

After studying and working in New York for 15 years, how are you adjusting to life in Oakland?

When moving to Oakland, I didn't know what creative community I would encounter. To my surprise, I've found that there is a thriving creative community here, rooted in activism and around community work. I'm very grateful for the spirit of Oakland. The people are extremely strong and driven, and they're proud of their community and their city, and that's been something that's really beautiful to witness.

How do you define success for yourself?

I define success by being able to work on projects I'm passionate about, and also by contributing something to my community, and to the people that I'm working with at this stage in my career. I can’t offer a lot of money, but it's important to me to help teach others some of the things that I might have learned in film school. So I consider mentorship a huge part of what it is that I do as a filmmaker.

Initially when wanting to become a filmmaker I had thought that becoming a parent would inhibit some of the things that I was trying to do creatively. But now that I’m a mother, success for me is finding the balance of flow, and integrating all of those things, because I think that every piece of my life, every facet, should inform each other.

Talibah Newman with daughter Samba (Kelly Whalen)

What's something you wish you could say to your younger self?

Don’t be hard on yourself for making mistakes. Mistakes are important to learn from and grow.  Also, never shrink yourself to accommodate those around you. In grad school, I was one of maybe three or four black people in a class of 60. And it was majority male. Sometimes, to be a female filmmaker of color in this atmosphere can be daunting--enough to make you give up. I remind myself that there aren't necessarily only a few slots for women of color filmmakers. But it’s important to take action and create your own agency and create these spaces where you can make your own work, without having to be chosen by someone to make work.

What is a source of inspiration to you that might be surprising to other people?

Water--whether it's in a shower or going to the ocean to say a small prayer, or just sitting, allowing nature to unfold around me--helps to inspire my flow of ideas as a filmmaker. I think it’s something my mother instilled in me. My mother is an Ifa priestess, part of a West African tradition, and water rituals, water cleansings, have been a huge part of my life.

I think about the significance of ancestors traversing water, and the numerous rituals that those ancestors held onto when they got to America. There are so many ways that water can be transformed. And I think that, as a filmmaker, it's important to be malleable like water. Sometimes you need to move fast, like boiling water, and sometimes you need to be still in certain parts of your process.

What does the future of filmmaking look like in your ideal world?

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It would be a space where women and people of color, in particular, had direct access to the network of people financing films. There are a lot of programs that promote the craft, but there aren't a lot of programs that promote how to finance your films. So there are tons of wonderful, talented filmmakers out there that just don't have the access to the means to make larger budget films. Every story probably has someone who wants to make it and wants to finance it--you just have to find that match. Tinder for filmmakers and financiers. I think it will make it a lot easier for us to be able to see the talent that is out there and for it to not just to be on the shoulders of five people who the industry has selected to make everything.

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