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Writer/Director, Educator Avril Z. Tells Her Story; What's Yours?

by Tambay A. Obenson
July 24, 2013 1:18 PM
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Recapping... I did this in February of last year (2012), and got a few response, so I figured, a year-and-a-half later, with the site's audience now larger than it was back then, that I'd try it again.

I know that a significant chunk of S&A's audience comprises of actors, actresses, directors, DPs, editors, etc, etc, etc. Some are able to earn a paycheck utilizing their artistic and/or technical skills; others - and I'd say the majority - are what we've labeled the proverbial *starving artists*, working diligently, relentlessly, struggling to climb this incredibly steep hill, trying to reach some pinnacle of success - whether personal or professional. And still others exist somewhere between the former and the latter.

Where do you fall? And, as the title of this post states, what's YOUR story, and would you like to share it with the rest of the world?

Think of it as an extension of the successful S&A Filmmaker Diary series we launched almost 2 years ago. I'm looking for your individual stories of struggle and/or success, regardless of what rung on the ladder you are currently on, after all, not only is S&A just a source for news, its goal is also to become a community of cinema lovers where we can all share/debate/discuss/learn/teach/commiserate/etc.

Here's your chance. You might learn something; you might teach someone something.

What's YOUR story? You can email me ( You can submit your story in any format - written, or even documented on video. I'll post as many of them as I can. Substance and presentation are key for consideration. 

And be sure to attach a photo (large size) for me to include, and if you have samples of your work, include them as well.

It could be a story about a current situation you find yourself in; or it could cover several days, weeks, months, or years of your career. It could be that you just want to vent your frustrations; aspects of, or people in this business that piss you off; aspects of, or people in the industry that encourage you. It doesn't have to be all negative, nor all positive. We're complex people, and so I assume our stories are as well.

In today's post, Writer/Director, Educator Avril Z. shares her story:

My name is Avril Speaks and I guess you can say I’m a working artist. I first caught the film bug as a junior at the University of Maryland College Park. Not really knowing what to do with my life, I took an introductory film class at nearby Howard University and was hooked ever since. Howard introduced me to the power that film could have not just to entertain, but also to educate and inspire. The program there also broadened my film knowledge, introducing me to black filmmakers I had never heard of before like Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and Neema Barnette to name a few. Shortly after undergrad, I went to film school at Columbia University, where I majored in film directing. As my artistic voice began to develop, I looked for better ways to incorporate culture and spirituality into my work, and that became my niche. It wasn’t easy, since I never wanted to make films that were considered “safe” or provided easy answers, and that sometimes made it difficult for people to see and understand my vision.

I battled this quite a bit as a student at Columbia, yet still I managed to hold down several jobs and internships, and I directed two feature films.  I was fortunate to have a job upon graduation as an assistant at the Association of Independent Video and Film (AIVF), and I also freelanced as a videographer, editor, writer and script consultant. A couple years later, I moved to Atlanta, GA where I became involved in the film community there. In Atlanta I also became a film professor, and realized that I had an equal passion for film education.

Teaching has become a great way for me to invest in the careers of young artists, while still honing my own craft as an artist. I feel I am happiest anytime I have an opportunity to give advice to film students, or to have them join me on set for some hands-on experience. In 2010, I moved to Washington, DC and became a professor at Howard University, the very place where my love for film was ignited. It was quite humbling to teach in the very same classroom where I once looked through the eye of a film camera for the very first time.

As an artist and educator, I am always looking for ways to grow and expand. I moved to California last year (something I NEVER thought I’d do because I’m a straight up east coast girl :-) to pursue a second Master’s degree in Theology and the Arts as a means to further explore this intersection between spirituality and film. The program has challenged me to think outside of my own box, and it has also helped me reclaim the ways in which those black filmmakers I learned about at Howard have helped shape my own work as an artist. I found a teaching job at a college here in the L.A. area, which has allowed me to continue my love for film education. I’m also freelancing as a screenwriter while attending classes full-time and working part-time.

Some of my favorite projects that I have worked on include: Sophisticated Romance, a feature film I directed about male and female relationships, which won Best Film at the Sweet Auburn Film Festival in Atlanta, GA and won numerous other awards across the country; Faithfully Divided, a documentary feature I edited about racial segregation in churches, which won Best Documentary at the Reel Sisters Film Festival in 2009 and played at the International Film Festival of South Africa; and Defining Moments, a short film about how the church deals with young women and sex. Defining Moments was made as part of The Women’s Angle Project, an initiative designed to highlight female filmmakers and their unique voice. The film won many awards and I have been able to screen the film and have talk-back sessions on sexuality at various venues with teens and adults alike.

I never saw myself taking a traditional route toward being a filmmaker. I think sometimes in this industry, we think that walking the red carpet is the sole marker of success. One thing I learned while working at AIVF many years ago was that there are filmmakers all over the world who are creating powerful work that is impacting the lives of people we may never get the privilege to meet. Whether I ever walk the red carpet or not, I like to think of myself as a filmmaker who uses this medium to make a mark on this world.

I have been a filmmaker for 18 years now, and believe me, I’ve had my own share of struggles and disappointments in this business. Too many to mention on this blog. While my path may look different from others, I have come to embrace the fact that I define my own portrait of success. No one else gets to decide that but me. I feel happy and fulfilled with what I have done in the past, and I look forward to all the amazing projects that have yet to come my way in the future.

If you would like to see or read any of my work, feel free to visit me at

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  • kee | July 24, 2013 4:52 PMReply

    Beautiful smile!!!

  • Avril | July 25, 2013 10:57 AM


  • CareyCarey | July 24, 2013 4:31 PMReply

    "as of late, I've been craving some good, old-fashioned gospel music and hymns mixed with some contemporary gospel. I also miss seeing the mothers of the church and the teenagers all worshiping in one church together. I miss seeing the stewardess ladies in their matching white suits and hats serving on communion Sunday. I miss a good choir, I miss the "bounce" of the sway when rocking to your favorite song, I miss the sound of an organ–I miss SOUL." ~ Avril Z

    Hello Avril.

    I've been reading S&A for quite some time, although I appreciate and enjoy the thought provoking articles and the heads-up on everything related to the black cinema, I love their "upfront and personal", as I like to call them.

    Whether it's an interview of a director or actor, Mathew Cherry's Journey (S&A Filmmaker Diary), What's Your Story or Cybel Martin's piece: A Cinematographer's Plea to the Budding Film Auteur : Move Your Camera, I love to hear the voice of the artist. Each give me something I can "use".

    That said, having come from a religious "background" your degrees caught my eye which lead me to your above quote. Now, I'm sitting back looking an attractive black woman, with a clean, bright and refreshing looking smile, who has a theology degree, yet works in the film business. WOW...

    Okay, I am suggesting the film business (Hollywood style) and the word are not the most compatible couples, if you know what I mean. In fact, Christian themed movies are not the favored choice by many who visit S&A. And, I just had to throw in your attractive looks (that's the man in me :-).

    Anyway, if I can ask, what has been the Pros & Cons of having a "belief" in a society and business which, to a large degree, can be hesitant to associate themselves with those with religious and/or spiritual foundations? Also, what affect has your belief system (read religion) have on your own projects, and those you'll pass on? In essence, for you, is there a line between the person and their art?

    Btw, I also read your piece on Trayvon Martin and your thoughts on racism. In short, you're a very good writer.



  • CareyCarey | July 26, 2013 11:44 PM

    And Avril, I am not worthy and you scare me :-)

    However, I need you and it's safe to say S&A needs more voices like yours.

  • Avril | July 26, 2013 1:53 AM

    Oops...the most liberating *thing* haha

  • Avril | July 26, 2013 1:51 AM


    I've just come to a point in my walk where I'm not afraid to live in the tension. Just like the father in Mark 9:24 could say to Jesus "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!" Just like Peter could have Jesus' back and sit at the table with him, he could deny him in the very next breath. As much as I like to think I've "arrived" in my faith, life shows me that I haven't got a clue. I don't have answers to everything, I don't even have answers to why I do some of the things I do. Admitting that has been the most liberating this that has ever happened in my life because I still see God as there. So if you call that my faith "taking a back seat", ok I guess. I just call it life. And isn't it beautiful? :-)

  • CareyCarey | July 25, 2013 7:30 PM

    Ouch.... cannot co-exist in the *same* heart.

  • CareyCarey | July 25, 2013 7:07 PM

    Hello again Avril,

    Thanks for your quick reply.

    Now that I've seen your videos (i.e., A Picture, Something Worth Waiting For, Touch and Go Rough, Joy in Suffering and Defining Moments) and read about your "struggles" with the AME church, in conjunction with your last comments, I have to say you're a very interesting person.

    I admire your sense of self-awareness and honesty. In particular, when you shared the following I felt the honesty to - yourself.

    "My faith has shaped who I am, and it does influence my work. However, I recognize that my faith is messy sometimes"

    I believe I understand what you mean by "messy". I am reminded of the phrase "Fear and Faith cannot co-exist in the say heart". Now, I could be wrong but I took your words as a testimony that sometimes your "faith" takes a back seat (for various reasons). Heck, to that I say, who doesn't harbor "doubt", fear, temptation and mess, sometimes? However, not but a few men share their journey as you have.

    Well Avril, as you can see, I could talk with you for days. So, maybe, sometime, I'll take you up on your offer to talk by email. Until then: James 1:2-4

  • Avril | July 25, 2013 10:56 AM

    Hi Carey!

    Thanks for your comments and the compliments! You ask some great questions, some of which I'm still grappling with myself, but I will try to answer them...

    1) For me, there is not a line between my person and my art. The stories that I create bear my belief system in some way. It is not always explicit, but there will always be some aspect of it there. My faith has shaped who I am, and it does influence my work. However, I recognize that my faith is messy sometimes. I don't always get it right. I like to write out of that tension because I feel like that's what humanity can identify with.

    2) I struggled a lot with my faith and the business a lot when I was in film school. Mostly because I didn't really know how/if those two worlds could go together, and I didn't know how to talk about my faith in a way that people in the business could relate to. And I definitely had no idea about how to effectively incorporate my beliefs into my work. One thing I've learned over the years is that the divide between spirituality and the business is not as wide as we may think it is. I think the faith community has missed out on a lot of really great films that could spark some great discussion, theological or otherwise, because of this perceived divide. These days, I'm finding that Hollywood and the industry's values are really not that different from what we value at the core. But there is a certain hostility there from both sides. Would love to talk to you more about it. Feel free to email me.

  • Dui | July 24, 2013 3:43 PMReply

    Thank you for sharing your story lady!!! Keep Pushing...

  • Avril | July 25, 2013 10:58 AM

    Thanks for reading!

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