A: Where are you currently based?
Amberly Ellis: I am currently based in Washington DC.
A: What is your educational background?
Amberly Ellis: I received my bachelors in Communication from the University of Maryland, and I am currently completing my MFA in Film and Media Arts at American University. My areas of interest are in cultural policy, cinema and media in Latin America and the Caribbean. I am very interested in studying the influence of cinema in social movements.
A: What made you decide to become a filmmaker?
Amberly Ellis: My dad and my grandmother were my biggest inspirations to be a filmmaker. From my earliest childhood memories, I can remember seeing my dad with a camera in his hand. My dad is a documentary filmmaker and videographer based in Baltimore, Maryland. His sense of adventure, curiosity for life, and his ability to capture stories through his camera lens was something that I’ve always aspired to do. My grandmother had a big influence on me because she was a writer. The importance that storytelling played in her life and my family was even further inspiration to use my camera as a method for telling my own stories.
A: Did you consider any other career paths?
Amberly Ellis: Before filmmaking, I was very interested in journalism. I have always had a passion for writing. I realized that I wanted to capture stories visually and that is why I think filmmaking works best for me.
A: Tell us about your latest documentary Bullets Without Names. How did this documentary come about? Why did you decide to focus on gun violence?
Amberly Ellis: The documentary Bullets Without Names came about after several conversations with a former professor of mine from the University of Maryland, Dr. Joseph Richardson.
Dr. Joseph Richardson has an amazing body of work on the criminal justice system, the prison industrial complex, mental health and gun violence among black male populations. His work, as well as my own work in juvenile justice programs and non-profit organizations in Washington DC (e.g. Sasha Bruce Youth Work, Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) and Young Ladies of Tomorrow) were all major reasons why I chose to focus on gun violence.
The stories I heard and the lost lives of young people impacted everyday by gun violence moved me to do something and to say something. I wanted to explore the reasons of why and how guns have become such a major part of youth culture in Washington DC. It was these issues that led me to tell the story of Steven “Smack Stax” a young man and local artist who decided to turn his life around after being affected by gun violence.
I was most interested in looking into some of the psychological impacts that gun violence has on black male youth. I feel that when it comes to mental wellness among black male youth in this country, there is a lack of resources and support for them to manage and develop skills to cope with mental health issues. I wanted to show that death is most certainly one possible outcome of being shot by a bullet but what does life look like for those that survive?
A: What are some of your upcoming film projects?
Amberly Ellis: This July, I will be going to Dominican Republic and Haiti to start filming a documentary on Dominican immigration policies, deportation and the Dominican-Haitian community. I will also be going to Havana, Cuba this summer to research cultural policy and Cuban cinema.
A: Who are your primary cinematic influences?
Amberly Ellis: I am influenced by a variety of cultures and film movements. I am influenced by the LA Rebellion and the films that came out of that movement. I am inspired by filmmakers such as Charles Burnett, Julie Dash and Haile Gerima. The 1960s and 1970s Francophone cinema of Africa in countries like Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso are also major influences for me. I feel that I could go on for so long about films from these countries! I am also very influenced by the cinema work in Latin American countries such as Cuba and Mexico. In addition, I really enjoy the creativity of the recent cinematic works of women filmmakers in Iran! I firmly believe in the power of media for social change.
A: How do you feel about commercialization in film or in other words, films produced for profit rather than artistic expression?
Amberly Ellis: This topic is a very difficult thing for me to get a handle on as I journey through my career in the film industry. Film is a very expensive industry to be in. It is so easy to mold your ideas into what you think will be more profitable, rather than what it true to you. In my opinion, film particularly in this country has lost some depth because the demand for film production and entertainment in America (which heavily influences the rest of the world) has been put before creativity. I think that when you look at how cinema is created around the world, you will see that film is treated with more of a method of self-expression, social change and commentary. I feel that many filmmakers feel that they can only be successful and have their work distributed if they make a “certain kind” of film. It is easy at times to have your work overlooked, even when it has a strong story, just because it is not shot with the latest technology or the highest production value that other more commercial films may have. This can be very difficult.
A: What is your favorite aspect in the creation of a film (e.g. screen writing, pre-production, post-production, shooting, working with actors, etc.)?
Amberly Ellis: I think I almost like every step of the way equally. I think what I really like is the moment right before a shoot starts. It’s so exciting because you can plan as much as you want but you never know what may happen. It gives me butterflies in my stomach sometimes! It’s nerve wrecking and exciting at the same time!
A :What are some of your favorite films?
Amberly Ellis: Some of my favorite films are City of God, De Cierta Manera, Killer of Sheep, Pariah, Fruitvale Station, and Deweneti.
A: Who are some your favorite filmmakers?
Amberly Ellis: Sara Gómez, Ousmane Sembene, Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons
A: Do you work in any other artistic mediums?
I also work in photography! I really enjoy shooting black and white film photography.
A: Which contemporary filmmaker do you feel is producing the most exciting or challenging work?
Amberly Ellis: Right now, I am really interested and inspired by the work of Senegalese director Dyana Gaye. I am interested in the unique stories she chooses to tell, and also the ways that she plays with magic realism and short story telling. I love that she builds onto the legacy of such a great history of filmmaking in Senegal.
A: So far, what has been your favorite film of 2014?
Amberly Ellis: So far my favorite film of 2014 is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
A: What do think about the current state of cinema? Where do you think it’s going?
Amberly Ellis: I think that cinema technology has advanced at such a quick rate that it seems we have not even really been able to grasp all of the advancements in filmmaking in just this century alone. Some of us would still rather cut film on and shoot on a Bolex. On the other hand, there are later generations of filmmakers who don’t have any knowledge of film outside of digital production. I think that there is such a greater opportunity for people to use cinema for storytelling now, more than ever before because you can now make a film on such a wide range of devices. The quality of cameras on cellphones alone has given everyday people the ability to tell stories and that would have never been possible just 10 years ago. I think that there is vast opportunity in cinema right now. I think that if you have ever wanted to be a filmmaker, now is a better time to do so than ever before.
A: Where can readers connect with you and view your work?
Amberly Ellis: Readers can watch my film Bullets Without Names and some of my other short works on my Vimeo page. https://vimeo.com/amberlyellis
They can also follow my blog www.amberinthesky.com.
For any questions and inquires please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am so honored to have Amberly Ellis featured on my blog. She is driven, intelligent, focused , a globetrotter and she manages to stay stylish all at the same time. Be sure to check out her blog and latest film. Both are amazing and inspiring. I always look forward to her posts and I can’t wait to watch her upcoming films. Thank you Amberly for such a great and in-depth interview. You’re awesome!