By Masha Dowell | Shadow and Act May 18, 2012 at 4:34PM
In 2004, I remember hearing about the Guy Hanks and Marvin Miller writing program at USC School of Cinematic Arts. However, I never pursued my curiosity about the benefits of the program, yet I was intrigued.
Fast forward to 2012, and through various connections, I met the programs current African-American history and culture visiting professor Shahari Moore. It was through that meeting that I realized that she was both an assistant professor of African-american history, writing, and a new filmmaker.
I was intrigued to learn more about her transition and balance as a writing professor to new filmmaker, so I sat down with her before her trip to Cannes to learn more about her new filmmakers journey, her "Cannes" preparation, and the films mission.
Masha Dowell: Please tell us about your professional background as a filmmaker. Feel free to share as much as you'd like.
Shahari Moore: Well, I was born in Los Angeles and raised on the South side of Chicago. I am the editor of the ESSENCE Magazine bestseller book, “Violets”. My short story entitled, “Liberation appears in Spaces Between Us”, was published by Third World Press. I graduated from Chicago State University, where I earned a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I currently teach African American History and Culture with the Cosby Screenwriting Fellowship at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.
Masha Dowell: Your short film, "Swimmin Lesson" was accepted into the Cannes International Film Festival. Congratulations! What inspired you to write the story?
SM: I was very upset by the way survivors of Hurricane Katrina were portrayed as looters and objectified by the media. I felt that there was a severe disconnection from the fact that these individuals were human beings who were in extreme peril and in need of real support. I later took a writing class led by noted author Sandra Jackson Opoku and she gave us the assignment of writing flash fiction, based upon images of Hurricane Katrina. My image was of a mother pushing a shopping cart through the water with a baby on her hip. I thought, what if this was a father? What would he say to his child? That’s how Swimmin’ Lesson was born.
Masha Dowell: You co-directed the film as well. Tell us about the relationship between you and your co-director. Did you initially start out as a duo, or did it just happen?
SM: Dr. Christine List was my instructor at Chicago State University. She taught me how to write a screenplay and was the first person to educate me about story structure, Final Draft, and the business of film. After graduation I continued to write and would ask her to give me notes. Through this process she saw the growth in my work and became a major supporter of me as a writer. We began to talk and brainstorm about projects. One day she said that she was looking for a new project. I pitched her a few projects and she gravitated towards Swimmin’ Lesson. While working on the film we were pleased to find that our sensibilities are quite similar. We are open to each other’s thoughts, and even when we don’t agree we do a great job of finding middle ground and moving on. Did I mention that we are both Capricorns?
Masha Dowell: Cannes is a pretty big deal in the film world. Your film was accepted, however, are you self-financing your visit to Cannes? Who will attend the festival? When you began this journey, did you incorporate something like this in your budget?
SM: We self financed Swimmin’ Lesson. And when we started out we had no idea that the film would ascend to the Festival de Cannes. We were struggling to attend festivals in the US, and unfortunately we actually missed a few due to finances. So, when we got accepted into Cannes we were not (still are not) financially prepared. We launched a campaign on indiegogo.com.
Masha Dowell: While we are on the topic of budgeting for travel expenses. Your film has won several awards in various locations. Do you have any advice for new filmmakers on making sure that they are covered well in advance in the event that their film gets accepted at several festivals? Fundraising suggestions, funding programs, other resources?
SM: I love indiegogo.com. I’d also suggest building marketing and travel into your initial budget. Start out with family and friends, then find ways to reach a wide audience based upon common interests/causes.
Masha Dowell: What are your next aspirations as a filmmaker?
SM: I’d love to sell my short at Cannes. I’d love to write and direct a couple more shorts, then graduate into the feature world. I’d love to do what I love, which is write on a full-time basis.
Masha Dowell: Tell us more about your involvement with the Cosby Screenwriting Fellowship.
SM: I currently teach Black History, Media, and Popular Culture with the Cosby Screenwriting Fellowship. This is my second year. The program was founded by Dr.’s Bill and Camille Cosby and is based at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. The program offers a solid foundation in the history of African Americans with a special focus on how people of African descent shape and are influenced by media and popular culture. While in the program, Cosby Fellows solidify their craft in either film or television. Our “Fellows” emerge culturally, interpersonally, and professionally industry ready.
Masha Dowell: You are based in Chicago, and LA. You work as a professor, tell us about how you manage working & living in two cities. Please share some advantages and disadvantages.
SM: Living in two cities is hard and quite expensive. The advantages are networking, resources and wider access to creatives on all levels. My goal is to base myself in Los Angeles by the fall of 2012.
Masha Dowell: Do you have any advice for people that are just starting out as filmmakers in Chicago? Any resources?
SM: Craft is key no matter where you live. If you are writing, write well, directing, direct well, producing, etc…
Masha Dowell: Thanks again for taking the time to interview with S&A. In one sentence, please tell us what you hope that we take away from your film?
SM: Swimmin’ Lesson is a call for humanity, sensitivity, and the understanding that each remnant image of Hurricane Katrina represents thousands of lives that were forever changed as a result of this traumatic event.