When briefly meeting the very young looking, petite – and very pretty - videographer and filmmaker A.V. Rockwell for the first time at the Brown, Black & Digital event at MIST Harlem in New York City last spring, I was very intrigued to learn she was the helmer of one of the best - and most shocking - shorts showcased that night. In Open City: Kids (watch HERE), produced by Amy Collado, a couple of East New York siblings, and an infant, playfully get their hands on – literally – cocaine owned by their family for trafficking purposes. It’s one of those types of bold, stylistically and visually powerful pieces that leave you yearning to see more.
Upon further research, at 23 years of age, Rockwell – whose birth name is Alina Victoria - has been steadily forging her path as a prolific indie filmmaker for the past few years. Rockwell majored in Film and Television at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and she began her career in Hip Hop videography, working for the likes of Atlantic Records, Island/Def Jam and BET.
Rockwell has also been building her very own collection of short films, curated for her Open City Mixtape website, which successfully reached its $6,000 crowdfunding campaign goal last year. And this past October, Rockwell was invited to join the launching campaign for Diddy’s Revolt Network (see the campaign video after the interview). In our chat below, Rockwell talked more about the gritty nature of her work, especially her latest short Open City: B.L.B. (you are highly recommended to watch HERE), her inspirations, filmmaking challenges and much more.
VM: Was there a defining moment that you thought filmmaking/storytelling is for me?
AVR: Not necessarily, I’ve always had interest in film, but it was not something I seriously wanted to pursue until I was like 19 or 20; that’s when I realized this was what I was most passionate about, so I’ve been going full speed since.
VM: It seems like you’ve consistently hustling in the past 4 years!
AVR: [Laughs] I’m very eager to where I want to be. I want to make feature films also, so until I get there…
VM: You’ve worked on several hip hop videos. Are you inspired more by the world of film or music?
AVR: More by film, that’s where my focus is. The music industry overall… it’s something that I’ve dealt with in doing a lot of videography work and so forth, but film has always been my passion. My ultimate goal is to do feature length films, so that’s always going to be the priority.
VM: Talk more about your inspirations for your films so far. There are certain disturbing elements to your stories, which also have dark comedic overtones.
AVR: It’s not something I can attribute to one specific thing. I’d like to think the work I put out there is somehow a representation of me. There might be some dark humor which means that could be sarcastic or it just shows dark parts of my personality. But really, it’s more how I feel about the world. For instance, in B.L.B., there were obviously a lot of lighthearted moments, but it [B.L.B] touched on some very heavy topics. Troubled youth has been something that’s been bothering me for the past two years. I’ve seen a lot of different literature, films, TV stories and the news that deal with troubled youth, like, in Chicago and so forth. It’s one thing to say “Oh yah, it’s sad to see 14, 15,16 year old kids that are wrapped up in gang violence;” these hard and heavy crimes that they go to jail for, but what hurts the most is that a lot of them are so far gone that you can’t even do anything to change that, or to rehabilitate them, and that’s what’s really heartbreaking, and so, I think that sentiment went into making the film and why it ended up being so dark.
It’s something I’ve explored. How do kids end up like that? How do they end up going down that path? What are some of the ways that spark that change in their character, not to say that people are innately bad, or whether you’re a good or a bad person; some people are shaped by their environment; some people are just born the way that they are. I wanted to explore nature versus nurture. The dark elements of Open City come from dark circumstances; therefore, the dark elements of inner city life couldn’t help but to be part of the undertone of it. But Open City is still a small piece of the iceberg in terms of what I want to do as a storyteller.
VM: How did you come across the story for your short Kids?
AVR: Well that came in a conversation with a friend of mine, who talked to me about her life and I found it very compelling. I asked her if she would be open to turn that experience into a short film and she was open to make it happen. Ultimately, she was happy with it and reintroduced a conversation between her and her family about her childhood that hadn’t happened in a while.
VM: Did you personally encounter these inner city perils while growing up?
AVR: I’ve never had trouble with the law. I come from a very humble background, from a single mom who had 3 kids. She came from the West Indies and we were raised in Jamaica, Queens. She didn’t have a great education when she came to this country, so she really pushed me and my siblings to make a life for ourselves so that we wouldn’t have to sacrifice our dreams the way that she did. Growing up in a single person home is what I drew from. I tried to bring that experience into my characters. I was fortunate enough no to go down that road, but I had friends that were in such circumstances and did way crazier things.
VM: How challenging is it to make a living as an artist?
AVR: It’s a struggle trying to balance a creative life, especially as a really young artist, but also making sure you can make a living for yourself, so being a videographer makes me happy because I get to provide for myself, but also do something that still isn’t too far off from what I want to do ultimately, and that allows you to meet people within my industry. I want to focus on exploring things that are more directorial and have some great music videos under my belt.
VM: Aside from inner city living, what other type of stories are you interested in telling?
AVR: I have a big curiosity for stories that involve fantasy so I look forward to showcasing that side of my personality as a filmmaker.
VM: What artists/works are inspiring you nowadays?
AVR: I’m excited with what’s going on in digital film. It’s more than just a camera thing. There’s so much you can do with like CGI. I was just looking at how so much of the Wolf of Wall Street was done after it was shot, and also a film like Life of Pi, just opened my eyes; those are two films that have really inspired me this past year.
VM: What is the most challenging aspect of filmmaking process in New York City?
AVR: We’ve been hassled sometimes; I would say that the times we’ve gone out to shoot projects it tends to be a really small crew, sometimes really just me and my producer Amy Collado; it’s two small women and we’re putting ourselves in compromising situations. There was one time when we walked maybe 50 blocks with two graffiti artists under the subway tunnels, and it was like the scariest experience. I was praying and praying that we would make it [laughs].
But really, the biggest challenge we face is more within ourselves, like how much are we going to push ourselves? In terms of how fearless we’re going to be with the things that we want to do.
VM: Do you get the feeling people don’t take you seriously, especially if they don’t know your work?
AVR: Yeah, that’s something that I have felt for a long time though, just having to earn my stripes. I don’t know if it’s always necessarily a physical thing, that we’re black girls or whatever, but people just kinda size you up and say “Ok, you say you’ve shot music videos and you can work a camera..ok,” but they don’t take me seriously.
When I first started and was doing videography, I would go out on set and people would just try to teach me how to work the camera, and it’s like, “I never asked you for your help. Thank you but no thank you.” If I were a guy you probably wouldn’t be trying to correct me. If anything, it serves as motivation to keep working hard and keep giving people reasons to be wrong.