By Sylvia Ulloa
Wendy James and her producer wait inside an African-American bookstore in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on a crisp morning in late fall. A small, hand-printed sign in the window announces movie auditions, “RIGHT HERE!” James is hoping the girls she has scouted from Brooklyn high schools and from the streets and buses of Bed-Stuy will come try out for a part in “Chump,” a short movie about girl street-fighters she is making.
James sits and writes in a spiral notebook. She is slender and tall, with long legs crossed at the knees; shoulder-length straightened hair and rectangular black glasses frame angular features. The two women worry aloud about who will show up. They talk about what questions to ask the girls. They should be comfortable: it’s just talking, no big deal, James says. In another 10 minutes, girls begin to swing open the door to the cluttered store with its posters of African American icons on the walls, messy stacks of books, and, oddly, barber’s stations on one side. James greets each girl with a hand-shake. Soon the room is filled with teenage girls talking and checking themselves out in the large mirrors.
Wendy James, 24, is a writer-director who wants to become embedded in Bed-Stuy, to show the grittiness of this black working-class neighborhood and the grit of the people who live there. Her inspiration was “Amores Perros,” an interweaving tale of rich and poor by Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu that she saw as a teenager in South Los Angeles. “Afterward I felt hollow,” James says. “I was emptied out of all my emotions.” That movie has many of the hallmarks of the Italian neo-realists: It was shot on location in the colonias of Mexico City, its protagonist a lower-class kid who turns to fighting his Rottweiler to win the love of his brother’s wife. As in the neo-realist films, there is no neat ending. The boy doesn’t get the girl. James, a student at Columbia University’s film school, wants to use that style of filmmaking, which is having a resurgence among independent filmmakers in the United States, to tell the story of this city within a city through the eyes of the people who live there, using the people who live there, for the people who live there.
“I want my films to be seen in the ‘hood,” she says. “I want them to realize that their stories are important, that they are important.”
James leads the first girl trying out for her movie behind a wood partition that gives a little privacy. After some warm up questions, the trio tries an improv scene. James takes the girl aside and explains: Your name is Krystal, you’ve been best friends with Trina since sixth grade, and now she’s accusing you of spreading rumors about her. James repeats this scene again and again, with teen after teen, all morning and then again in the afternoon. Until Shareema.
“How long have we been cool?” Shareema says.
“That’s what I thought,” James replies. “We’ve been cool for a very long time. We’ve been cool for 10 years.”
“No, we’ve been cool forever. Forever. So for you to even think that I would betray you and tell your business, that just gotta be wrong.”
James has found her girl. The attitude, the accent, the body language. “I was like, OK, she’s really listening to me, and she’s really trying to get something from me. The only trouble is getting them away from the idea of what they think acting is.”
James likes the neo-realist convention of working with non-actors and amateurs because they impart a sense of realism and honesty to the characters she creates and give a feel of the community she’s trying to portray. “They have no need to impress me,” she says. “Professional actors feel they have to impress their directors, especially kids, cause you’re still a little self-conscious, you know? I’m still self-conscious. So they’re a little more uninhibited. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s not about thinking for them; they just are.” In more practical terms, she says, it’s hard to find the right actors, especially teens, who can look and sound like they’re from Bed-Stuy. For James the solution is to find the right people and then show them what she wants.
“I like Wendy’s daring in working with the community and using that to bring out a sense of authenticity in her films,” says Jamal Joseph, chair of Columbia University’s film program. “I think it’s really exciting when you let people from the community tell their own story rather than have people from the outside swoop in and tell it for them.” James’ approach to directing and casting is what drew her producer, Esra Saydam, to the “Chump” project. “There are a lot of really talented people but no one gives them the opportunity.”
Bed-Stuy is a proxy for James’ childhood neighborhood of Crenshaw, a South Los Angeles area of African-Americans and Latinos, living mostly in duplexes, apartments, with some single-family homes, including the one James grew up in. Her younger sister, Cynthia James, describes the home as three times nicer inside that those of others. (Their father Roberto is a carpenter.) “We didn’t fit in with the lifestyle in the neighborhood. The kids were doing drugs, doing stuff that they shouldn’t be doing.” Both sisters were bused to a magnet school called the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, which focused on getting its students into college. “We were really lucky that we got into that school.” It was that move that put a distance between James and the kids from her neighborhood.
In some ways James is a blend of Crenshaw — half black, half Latina — but not totally part of either community. James’ mother is Salvadoran, her father a black man from Panama. While not strictly religious, they modeled conservative Catholic values for the two girls and a son, Robert Jr., 15. “Wendy kind of complains about our overprotectiveness,” her mother, Iris James, says, but that protectiveness comes from being left for several years in El Salvador before joining her mother in the United States. “So when I had my child, I told myself I’m going to be the opposite of my mother. … I knew I needed to be there for them.” That meant finding better schools for her children, and noticing Wendy James’ artistic passion and taking her to fine arts classes on Saturdays for more than six years. Despite the hopes and ambitions, strict rules and discipline, no member of the James family describes themselves as close-knit. They rarely ate dinner together, or went to family gatherings; the sisters had a hot-and-cold relationship. They seem to be a family that yearns to be close, but aren’t quite sure how to do it. “I try to connect with (my mom),” James says, “I try and listen to her. I think both my parents have a lot of issues with their parents and I think a lot of it got passed down.”
The need to connect emotionally and the desire to connect to her cultural heritage — both the Latino and the black parts of her — are recurrent themes in James’ filmmaking. Issues of identity, religion, sexuality, community and alienation are layered over the backdrop of small Mexican towns or working-class black neighborhoods. A short film that James completed at UCLA film school, called “Un Cuento: A Fairytale” explores the legend of “La Llorona,” an iconic ghost story told to many Latinos about a woman who drowns her children in a river or lake and ever after wanders the banks crying and searching for children to snatch to replace the ones she lost. “I just started to think about it and about why Latinos have these myths and this folklore,” James says. “And I feel like they’re very tied to Catholicism because they’re all basically instructing kids on how to behave. There are also different versions of la llorona, so I chose a specific one where this woman had a child out of wedlock. … I used that story and tried to reinvent it to show what a girl’s experience might be when she is becoming sexual.” The film was an official selection at the New York International Latino Festival and the Orlando Hispanic Film Festival in 2008.
A film James directed at Columbia also deals with sexuality and intimacy. The title character decides to have sex for the first time with her best friend. “In ‘LaTonya,’ she tries to do it as if she could go through with it without experiencing anything, without emotions, but she realizes that it is an emotional thing.” When James is kidded about dwelling so much on awkwardness and sex, she laughs. “I know! Actually, I had to make a conscious decision to stop making films about sex because everyone was saying, ‘you always make films about sex.’ Clearly I’m still getting over something.” James plans to enter the short film for the upcoming film festival season.
Her most recent project, a short film called “Ankur” that she adapted from a screenplay written by Columbia student Mehrnoush Aliaghaei, is about the cultural and generational distance between a small boy and his violinist grandfather. Aliaghaei chose James to direct the script because of James’ experience at UCLA and because she was into the story from the beginning. “We also had a good friendship. You want someone that you are going to like working with. … I wanted the process to be collaborative.” James and Aliaghaei worked through several drafts of the story. In the film, the boy begs for change to buy ice cream against his grandfather’s wishes. Despite an undertone of generational distance, it exudes humor and intimacy. While James had a good experience with the film, and enjoyed finding ways to collaborate and solve problems as a filmmaker, she wants to put an emphasis on generating her own projects. “I think I’d prefer directing my own stuff. Or at least, I want to be a part of the creation of the idea because I always want to have an emotional connection to what I write or direct.”
“James’ teachers, contemporaries and her family describe her as passionate, strong-willed and ambitious. It’s that force that she’s going to need to tackle her biggest goal: making a feature-length film by the time she leaves Columbia University. It’s not a requirement; most Master of Fine Arts students complete a short film for their thesis projects. “I’ve made seven short films in undergrad plus now in graduate school. I just feel like I’m ready,” she says. That confidence is shared by film school chair Joseph, believes she has the skills to work as a professional director right now, but thinks James can push her craft forward by experimenting with new techniques and adding to her filmmaking palette at Columbia.
The movie she wants to make is called “’Drome,” the story of a teenage boy from Bed-Stuy who has lost his father and is showing symptoms of bi-polar disorder. It will be a challenge for this young filmmaker because she wants to tell it from the perspective of the teen with mental illness. “It’s about him and how the family’s dealing with it. You need mirrors,” she says. “I couldn’t write a film that was completely internal, from one character’s point of view, cause then you won’t feel the implications. You need someone else to bounce it off of, by recognizing it in him.”
So far James has written a treatment for the film and the first 30 pages of the script as well as shot a preliminary scene. She’s also begun to do research for the film, including attending a support group for people with mental illness in Flatbush, Brooklyn. “One of the women there, she dealt with paranoid schizophrenia and she was talking about how she doesn’t tell her counselor how she’s really feeling because she’s scared she would be sent to to the psychiatric ward. … And it’s a real fear, to be scared of being locked up in a place like. It makes it real.” She’s also reading everything she can about about mental illness and bi-polar disorder, and watching documentaries. After this year she will be free to focus just on her thesis film. “Hopefully, my emotional understanding of people will help me with reading the facts and statistics and symptoms and be able to think emotionally about what that means.”
Those complicated stories and darker themes means James will probably remain in New York, which has a tradition of independent filmmaking. It’s taken a while, but she feels like she’s finally developing connections both at Columbia and in Brooklyn. “What’s interesting though is that I had to get out of my head, that (my collaborators) had to be people who wanted to make these specific kinds of movies. You create a producer-director relationship because you’re friends and you care about each other and you want to support each other. … So I’m starting to make those kinds of relationships.” Even more, she’s starting to find a filmmaking community in Brooklyn. In October, James won a scholarship for Brooklyn-based filmmakers from the Jesse Thompkins III Foundation for Young People in the Arts. There were at least four other filmmakers who were working in Brooklyn and she’s finding artistic and financial support for her work.
James describes a film technique she is trying to learn at Columbia, which has a strong emphasis on storytelling. She calls it “writing with a camera.” If a director positions the camera outside an interaction between two characters, the viewers have the sense that they are outside the scene, that they are witnesses. Conversely, you can shoot the actors straight on, where the viewer witnesses the scene from the perspective of the characters, as if they are there, inside. That’s where James wants to be. Deep inside a community. It’s where she wants to take her audience, into the working-class world of Bedford-Stuyvesant where she finds her art.
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