Humans communicate history, teach lessons, instill values, entertain each other, and even stage revolutions through storytelling. When only certain voices are widely heard, the story-making space is a false, fractured reflection of the human experience.

To get closer to the truth, Adobe has partnered with Sundance Institute to create the Women at Sundance | Adobe Fellowship, which helps diverse creatives attain the means—both in funding and experience—to grow their filmmaking careers.

We interviewed three of the Fellows for this story: Jameka Autry, Milisuthando Bongela, and Dionne Edwards. For more about the Fellowship in general, see "Elevating the voices of women in film."

Jameka Autry: Reframing the Narrative

"I was drawn into the documentary film space to make films that revolve around the invisibility of women and people of color," says documentary producer Jameka Autry. "As a Black woman in the United States, I feel that my role within the structure of this country lies somewhere in between caretaker or political pawn. That doesn't give a sense of who I am as a person. Many of the things we see onscreen aren't representative of the depths of my experience and I want to help frame the narrative in a different way."

After taking courses at the Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, Autry relocated to New York City and joined Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg at Break Thru Films. There, she moved up from intern to assistant editor and co-producer of In My Father's House. Almost four years later, she transitioned to Cinereach and worked on two films: the documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. and a fiction film, We the Animals.

"Through that experience, I really began to hone my voice and learn what projects I wanted to stand behind," Autry says. One of those projects is Through the Night. Director Loira Limbal approached Autry about a year and a half into the shooting of the footage. "It's a beautiful and lyrical film that was conceived of as a love letter to single mothers," explains Autry. At the center is Deloris “Nunu” Hogan, who runs a 24-hour daycare with her husband Patrick, and the two single mothers who rely on her. "She's basically the hero of this community. But it was important to the team that the story wasn't told in a way that made anyone feel like either a victim or a villain, which is really key in shifting the narrative around how communities of color are seen and portrayed in the media."

Trailer for Through the Night. 

It was critical that the film crew was comprised mostly of women and people of color. "That was a mission that let us focus solely on the story without having to contextualize it; we could just be in the process of storytelling," she says. "It may seem simple, but it's not that common."

Other recent projects include Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops, , recently nominated for two Emmy Awards and directed by Jenifer McShane. The film premiered at SXSW, where it won the Audience Award, and was quickly acquired by HBO Documentary Films. Ernie and Joe focuses on two members of the San Antonio Police Department’s mental health unit who practice compassionate policing. Autry also consulted on The Future of America's Past, a television show that frames historical events for a new audience. You can catch the show on PBS stations.

Trailer for Ernie and Joe. 

Trailer for The Future of America's Past. 

For the film industry as a whole to become more diverse, Autry calls out at least three areas that must change: "We need people of color as gatekeepers, first and foremost. If you're a gatekeeper but don't recognize the value or context of the stories coming across your desk, you are likely going to pass on that project. To shape the true story of this country, we need diversity at the highest levels." Autry is also concerned about financing, which is especially shaky in the current pandemic, and about where funds are spent: "Budgets keep growing, but that money is going toward technology—people still aren't getting paid what they're worth. We have to move forward with sizable grants and other initiatives that support artists."

Autry's advice to aspiring filmmakers is to "be open and flexible. Especially in the early days, be flexible and learn as much as you can about all the roles. There are other key positions outside of ‘Director’ that might be a better fit for your goals or skills." Collaboration is also key. "Filmmaking is a team sport," she says. "If you go into this industry trying to do it all on your own, it will limit your growth. The point, especially in documentary film, is to learn something—this applies not only to audiences, but I hope filmmakers learn something during the process as well. I hope to challenge and change perspectives, bringing context to my work and exploration of people.."

Milisuthando Bongela: Seeking Liberation

Milisuthando Bongela has a knack for asking questions, not only about the world but about herself. And it’s in the journey to answer those questions that her creativity finds a valuable outlet.

After studying journalism, media, and history at the university currently known as Rhodes in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, Bongela became an avid writer, blogger, and later the editor of the Mail & Guardian's Arts and Culture section. She’s worked in a number of art-related industries, including music and fashion.

Now 35, she’s on the cusp of finishing an autobiographical film born from her insatiable need to question the world around her, and specifically, post-Apartheid South Africa and its lingering effects on the psyche of a young Black girl.

Currently self-titled, the film details Bongela's journey from Transkei as an eight-year-old who was unaware of the realities of Apartheid South Africa. As a semi-independent state, Transkei was governed by Black leaders. It was considered a homeland and as such, it was a vastly different landscape in comparison to the rest of South Africa, where the separation and oppression of people of color was rule of law.

Trailer for Milisuthando.

“I didn’t grow up in a place where white supremacy and white people were around to tell me my hair means one thing or my blackness means one thing. My language and my culture were my first points of call. I was fully embodied in myself,” she says.

When her family moved in 1993, she found herself swallowed up by a world shaped by white supremacy. Journal in hand, her first outlets were writing, movies, and the encyclopedias her parents brought home for her. As she grew into herself, she reached a juncture at the age of 29.

“I would say I truly became politically conscious of who I am, the world I live in, and my blackness which really confronted me, at 29 years old. I was very ashamed of that for a very long time,” she says.

This political awakening was soon followed by what she calls a “delayed anger”. “Things were still the same in South Africa. White people were still living with impunity. Black people were still poor and I was just one of the privileged few.”

Her frustration led her back to her Transkei, where she asked more questions: “Who am I outside of my womanness? Who am I outside of my blackness?” Bongela resolved to tell her own story—a story in which she recognizes her past and decides to choose liberation.

“Personally, justice is being known. We know everyone else's language and culture but they don’t know ours. So how else will they get to know me? I feel like that’s how liberation can be acquired,” she adds. “Equality says, ‘We must get space at the table that was badly designed in the first place.’ Liberation says, ‘Let me create my own table, just don’t stand in my way while I’m doing it.’”

Dionne Edwards: Crafting Characters

A few years ago, UK filmmaker Dionne Edwards' breakout short, We Love Moses, screened at more than fifty festivals worldwide and picked up nine awards. Since then, she's worked on Netflix's Top Boy and is developing her debut feature film, Pretty Red Dress.

This already-impressive CV belies her humble demeanor. As a queer, Black writer who spent time in the foster care system, her views have been shaped by myriad influences. “I’ve known I wanted to write and direct since I was 14,” she says, recalling a filmmaker’s workshop recommended by her drama teacher. Later, after an internship and time spent working for agents, she decided to jump into short film.

Trailer for We Love Moses.

“I was doing all these jobs in the industry and thinking that I would be able to work my way up to writing and directing and that would be my ticket, but it really didn’t work like that,” she says. “I just wanted to take the plunge, make some bad films, and learn what I was doing.”

With that hands-on experimentation under her belt, Edwards moved on to Pretty Red Dress. The film is about a father who—while outwardly stereotypically masculine—expresses his femininity by wearing dresses, and the events that unfold when his family discovers this expression.

“I thought it would be interesting to have this Black man who was involved in gang life and who came up in a difficult life find it so important to express his femininity,” she says. “I’m attracted to characters who fit into the mold on the surface, but there’s a lot of depth to them.”

Dionne believes that complex, flawed characters are an honest way to tell compelling, disruptive narratives—but only when diverse voices join in the telling of stories to deliver detail born from lived experience, not interpretation.

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