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Interview: Ya'ke Smith ('Wolf') Is Eager To Expand On His Idea Of 'Cinematic Activism' w/ 'Heaven'

Shadow and Act By Ian Hubbard | Shadow and Act June 24, 2013 at 2:09PM

Interview: Ya'ke Smith ('Wolf') Is Eager To Expand On His Idea Of 'Cinematic Activism' w/ 'Heaven'
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Ya'Ke Smith
Ya’ke Smith is a name worthy of the respect from cinephiles whose addiction includes John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood and Fernando Meirelles’ City of God

Since 2003, Smith has created a body of films whose strength lies in the moral and ethical struggle of flawed, broken characters portrayed without judgment or condescension. His view of an America cast to sea has stung audiences without riding the metaphorical high horse, garnering awards and acclaim from the Austin Film Festival, the Dallas International Film Festival and Cannes.

His previous film, Wolf, clutched the spine of North American festivals during its 2012 run, catapulted by a landmark showing at South by South West. The psychological drama concerns the taboo of sexual abuse in the Church and its effects on an estranged family while questioning the definition of ‘Predator’ and ‘Prey’. The film never points fingers at its character’s choices or motives. Instead it presents a gut punch of humanity that combats any notion of spectacle towards the content.

Smith’s next project, Heaven, is scheduled to commence production this fall. Standing strong in harsh reality, Heaven follows the mental dissipation of a teenage ballet dancer sold into sex trafficking. 

Two teaser trailers have been released via Facebook and continue to amass excitement from followers across the web. 

Running forward, Smith is eager to expand on his vision of a ‘Cinematic Activism’.

To start with, what is your goal when you take on a project?

My goal is to challenge the mind of the audience. Film can force us to deal with our issues and prevent us from avoiding the ugly truth. It is a mirror and I want to reflect the nature of who we are. 

That is the definitive attitude in your work, especially Wolf. As its creator, did you expect the amount of respect for a project that took on a subject that has been covered extensively in the press for several years but is still considered taboo?

The film takes a character that could have easily been the "Bad Guy" – the tormented Bishop Anderson (Eugene Lee) – and made the audience understand him and, in some ways, sympathize with him. Even though it took on an institution most of us hold sacred, and one I'm still involved in, I wasn’t afraid to depict events and details as I've experienced them.

People found Wolf’s level of vulnerability and transparency to be authentic. They believed it was real and were shocked by it. That’s due in part to the performances. The actors injected a strong realism into the film, as though it was a documentary, and the audience responded to that.

Is the realization of the subject tougher when writing the script or while on set?

Writing the script. The story has to be told right. With WOLF, we had to tell the story honestly. We had to ask ‘What happened?’ to these people that validated their actions. Showing an intimacy pushed the story far beyond taboo. When a story does that, it looks to affect change in some way.

Your work has a thread of unnerving situations between vulnerable characters. I remember the uneasy aspect of WOLF was how comfortable the actors were in their most intimate scenes. How do you direct your actors to approach their character without reserve?

By looking for the truth. The actors and I spend months in preparation: reading, watching videos, meeting people who will influence their portrayal of the character, etc. I want my actors to dig into their character and know that character. I only work with actors who are willing to go on that search and I’ve been fortunate to have done so.

All the actors I’ve worked with have wanted to bring out the truth of their character and make that character so real that they leave all judgment behind. The audiences, especially those with WOLF, relate to the honesty and see the actors much further than simply putting on a performance.

How do you convince the actor that a passionate scene, such as Bishop Anderson confronting his demons in WOLF, is worth shooting?

You don't have to convince an actor that a scene is worth shooting when they believe the entire project is worth shooting. The actors must believe in the film, the message and the impact that the story is going to have on the viewer. If they do, then they can surrender to the character. 

As far as your shooting technique, how do you integrate the camera as another character into your scenes?

Yuta {Yamaguchi, Smith’s cinematographer) and I have long talks about how to incorporate the camera as an entity in the room that clues the audience into the character’s mind. I'm not a fan of films where I'm so in love with the cinematography that I'm reminded that I'm watching a movie. The camera has to invade the space and become involved in the narrative in uncomfortable ways so we forget that it’s even there. 

From our discussions you touched on the fact that you involve your students in your shoots, especially for crew work. How do you bring them on and prepare them for your execution of the material?

I watch them during the semester and really study their work ethic, determination and ability. I vet them and place them accordingly. I absolutely love bringing my students on because it gives them an opportunity to see me in action. They know that what I teach them is not just rhetoric, but tools that I use every day on set.

Your work depicts an America that most want to ignore - an Iraq vet battling PTSD, the breakdown of the Family, an orphan of Katrina, molestation in the Church. Now Heaven covers underage sex trafficking. Do you feel obliged to be a ‘truth teller’?

We learn the bulk of our information from images. The majority of us watch instead of read. Film is another tool that can be used to educate and inspire. If we can make films about hedonism and explosions, then we can make movies about what's happening in our world.

The films I grew up loving had something to say; particularly films from Spike Lee, John Singleton, Lynne Ramsey, Haile Gerima and John Cassavetes. They told stories that people were afraid of. I want to follow that path and challenge people to see reality as it is for many, to turn their attention toward what's going on in front of their eyes, to tell the stories of the forgotten. Everyone can identify with those who have been marginalized, because that’s been all of us at some point in our lives.   

So, in a way, you strive for ‘Cinematic Activism’.

Exactly. It’s an activism that wants an audience to recognize that these characters and stories still exist. That these are still issues we are dealing with. These subjects Have to be explored, or they mean nothing. They disappear.

Is there any satisfaction in dealing with America’s forgotten characters?

There is so much satisfaction in that. So many times, we have the tendency to judge people without understanding their whole story. We create a full narrative about a person merely from their appearance. We react to a mask that people wear.

With your body of work, are you mapping out your own universe where the actions of the previous film affect the circumstances of the next film?

Heaven will be the second in my trilogy of "children and sexuality". It’s a subject that I have recently gained the courage to tackle. It's an uncomfortable subject to research. Every time I talk to someone, part of their pain stays with me. Some I shake easily, others stick for a long time. But I take it all and put it on the page in hopes that it will eventually help someone battling similar demons. 

Which leads into your next project. How far are you into the production of Heaven? You recently released another teaser trailer on the project’s Facebook page and it looks powerful.

The teasers are more of promotional shorts to show people the project has progressed. The script is going into its fourth draft. We’re still interviewing people – pimps, prostitutes, workers who got out, counselors who now work to help women trying to get away from the life. It’s been very revealing and has enhanced the whole idea of what we want the film to be.

Heaven is very different from anything I've done. The story deals with fantasy, taking place in a world the protagonist creates in her head. She's an aspiring ballet dancer lured into child trafficking and in order to stave off a mental breakdown, she creates a world where dance is her escape. It's part ballet, part visceral social drama. It's now my biggest challenge, and one that I look forward to taking on.  

The film will delve into the breakdown and grooming of the victim: the mental trauma inherent in the work, the dissociative and post traumatic disorder that many of the women and men experience and the pain of spiritual escape after the physical relationship is broken. Heaven is not about the girl that is tied, gagged and forced to work against her will. It is a question of will and how one's spirit can be broken down to the point where a weapon is not necessary to keep them bound. 

You’re looking for more than gratuitous sex.

The sex is one ingredient. It’s what makes the women feel they belong; it’s their job to do. But it’s only the surface. And I think many movies and television shows only graze the surface. They glamourize the sex or the event and ignore the consequences.

I want to explore the reasons why someone like the character Heaven, who is a hell of a ballet dancer and a talented young girl, ends up in this life. The psychological part is her creating this fantasy in her head of being a ballet dancer. That fantasy becomes violated and it traps her. She eventually grows comfortable being trapped and being aware she can’t escape.

I can imagine the script calling for bold, even dangerous actors. What are you envisioning for your lead?

One of our main challenges will be finding an actress that can dance beautifully and dive to the emotional depths her part requires. We found a great dancer who is a company member of the Dallas Black Dance Theater. She is featured in the first teaser. I really liked what she was able to do with the small part she had, so she's definitely a potential.

What was your reaction to interviewing workers in the sex industry?

It was eye-opening. To sit in front of someone that has experienced that life elevates the research and changes your perspective. The cadence of the person, the way they move, the look in their eyes as they recall certain events, it all has informed the small nuances and intricate details of each character in the script. 

How common was it amongst the women you spoke with to do the same and create a fantasy to help them endure?

One woman I spoke with said it was The way to endure. It was her way of measuring the trauma. It became a survival technique.

Did anyone whom you interviewed admit to enjoying what they did? Seems many interviews with people in the sex industry shows they’re affection for what they do.

I can’t say I have talked to anyone who said they actually enjoyed it. They do it out of necessity. It’s a way of being they’ve embraced as the only worth they have. They grew up in broken homes, many of the women were molested as young girls, and it’s created this isolation and alienation that resides in them. It’s much more psychological than it is sexual. Many of them have embraced it as a means of survival, and that creates camaraderie between the pimps and the girls.

It confirms that what these men and women do really is the life they have, not another job.  

There is a psychological damage that occurs in people who work in the industry for years, but it’s rarely mentioned. It’s the sex that is glamourized. Pimps are glorified as having endless money and women at their disposal and the workers are the Pretty Woman prostitute who lucks into the good life. None of that is real. I talked to a few pimps who see it only as a business. It’s a hustle, they’re always on the grind for the next dollar. If they’re not on it day-to-day then they lose out. That attitude leaves no room for pleasure.

With this project – especially working with a young lead – is there a line you feel needs crossed, and a line you do not wish to cross?

The line to exploitation with Heaven is glamourizing the sex. It’s what people would expect.

Is there a difference between prostitution and pornography?

There is a difference, but one fuels the other. Some of the women I've spoken with have gone between both worlds. The research we’ve done when writing the script showed us that many men who watch excessive amounts of porn eventually leave the virtual world and begin looking for the "real thing”. Soliciting a prostitute allows one to have sexual contact without intimacy, similar to porn.

With the influence of our ‘Porn Culture’, do you think there is a threat of Heaven playing to sexually desensitized audiences or audiences who expect more visually?

I do. I really do. We’re steeped in sex, regardless of the avenue. The line of what is explicit has disappeared. I am not interested in adhering to that standard and Heaven will suffer as a film if I do. There’s a depth to the character and story that the audience will discover if we’re not cheap with the sex. It comes down to finalizing what is necessary to show in order for this film to be effective.


Ian Hubbard has been hacking it out in Toledo, Ohio for an experience beyond vice and doom. Eagerly awaiting his moment in the sun, "Big Homie" has contributed to Hush Magazine, Dissident Voice, Film Slate and others, tackling subjects of  politics and Cinema. He moonlights as a creative consultant and is said to give great back rubs. Mr. Hubbard can be reached at 
ian.hubbard89@gmail.comFacebook under his name and Twitter under Bickle76.

This article is related to: Ya'Ke Smith


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