Interview: An Activist Filmmaker in Her Own Words

The Homegirl Project interviewed Jalena Keane-Lee about the intersection of activism and film, as well as the work of her company, Breaktide Productions.

by Abeeda Hussain - Kasim

A: You co-founded Breaktide Productions, a media company that focuses on women of color. What was your motivation?

J: I think my experiences as a woman of color living in the United States have led me to realize that more film content for and of women of color is definitely needed. I’m 23 right now, therefore I am neither a millennial nor Gen-Z, but I feel it was a really great time to grow up, because [people of color] had a little bit of representation. So, the idea of [diversity in film] wasn’t unheard of. Growing up there was Spy Kids, The Proud Family, and other diverse shows, and I thought: Okay, these stories do exist and they are told well, but you still aren’t getting enough of them. That is something I definitely want to be a part of. It is why I co-founded Breaktide Productions.

A: What inspires you to seek out activism-centered work? And what are you currently working on?

J: My current project is in Hawaii, and we are filming with native Hawaiian activists. There is a Hawaiian word called Kuleana. It represents your geological responsibility. For Hawaiians, part of their Kuleana is to care for their land and treat it right. I think a major part of my Kuleana is to use my passion for filmmaking to promote social justice and social change. I love filmmaking; I focus my work on powerful women of color to show the fights we are really leading and have been leading. Women have led most fights throughout history, we just haven’t been recognized for it.

A: What is it like creating films that are catered towards WOC?

J: In terms of documentaries, there is this big question of “Who’s your audience?” It’s a hot issue right now. When you write grants, a question you are asked is how you plan on reaching your intended audience. That is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. There’s this idea that the traditional documentary audience includes wealthy, elderly, white families who would go to documentary festivals and pay $20 to see something about baby penguins dying. Everything about the documentary system is made to cater to that audience. But if we’re telling different stories and have other intended audiences at the forefront of our minds, how will we reach them? How will we make sure that we’re not going through the same pathways?

A: How have responses to your films influenced the way you approach your work?

J: My first film was about female construction workers and feminism among different socioeconomic levels. I worked with different female construction workers from the lowest socioeconomic level — working with them opened me up to new streams of thought. For example, I started exploring the oppressions of society and how gender operates differently depending on how much money you have. I went to a few different festivals and it was a cool experience every time - I got some interesting and different feedback. One of my contacts who works at the U.N. wanted to do a screening of my film in his private theatre, and he invited all these important people to it. That was a really inspirational and influential experience for me because all those people were working on gender equity, too.

The audience at my friend’s screening told me that the film showed the things that they tried to explain in their reports, but much better, because it’s actual people talking about themselves along with their families and friends. So, that was great. I believe there are so many different audiences to keep in mind while making a film or a documentary.

A: If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?

J: There are a lot of words, so it’s hard to choose, but I think ambitious describes me pretty well.

A: Who inspires you in terms of activism and film?

J: All the people who are actually doing stuff to make stuff happen. I know that’s really vague, but my documentaries character subjects inspire me so much. I’m in California right now, but I’ve been in New York for the past four months following Nadya Okamoto. She’s 20 now, but when she was 16 she started PERIOD, a non-profit that provides free period supplies to homeless women. Being around her showed me that this was exactly what I wanted to be doing. These were the kind of stories I wanted to be telling, because while Nadya's extraordinary and a very complex human being, she is also an average 20-year-old that faces average 20-year-old things.

A: What importance does female empowerment hold in your life and work?

J: It holds all the importance. I was raised in all-female household with my mom, grandma, and sister. I went to an all-girl middle school, because in fifth grade, these two boys started following me home and writing me love letters. My mom had also read this study about how many girl’s math and science scores go down during middle school because of the social pressure to be hot and pretend like you’re not good at math and science. My mom was like, not my child. So, I had a full scholarship to an all-girls' school, which was very interesting. I went to a normal public high school, and then I ended up going to an all-girl college also: Wellesley, It was a great experience. The college emphasized female empowerment and importance of using sisterhood to uplift each other.

Just being a female or being feminine doesn’t mean that you are the best person, or that you have good intentions, or that you are doing the right thing for the world. I feel there are a lot of examples of that in the news-- it’s just one aspect of people’s identity. I think it’s super powerful and really great. I wanted to focus on women of color and build a community and a solidarity amongst us. So many people are doing so many wonderful things and aren’t really used to being supported. I feel that if we can support each other in such a way, we can all do a lot more.

What would you like to change about the filmmaking industry, especially in regards to activism?

The most challenging part is just the entire money aspect. In the filmmaking industry, just like in politics and pretty much anything else, the people who have the money are the people you would expect to have the money. It is still the white institutions that give you the recognition that you need to get the money, and it is up to these white institutions to give you money or not. I think that can be really challenging. I feel like these issues have urgency.

A: You just recently launched a campaign for an upcoming project in Hawaii, could you tell us a little bit about it?

J: I’m really excited about it! My upcoming project is called Standing Above the Clouds. It’s about Hawaiian activists. It focuses on the mother-daughter relationships in this Hawaiian activism group called Ku Kia’i Mauna. They have been fighting to protect their sacred mountain Mauna a Wakea since 2010, when this 30 meter telescope -- the world’s largest telescope -- was first proposed to be built on Mauna. They are such a phenomenally inspiring group of women, and I’m so glad that they want to talk about their mother-daughter relationships. I cannot wait for them to share their brilliance with a wider audience. They really want to talk about how being an activist all the time, 24/7, with your family is not as glamorous as it seems. It’s really, really hard. You have to sacrifice a lot of common pleasantries and amenities because you are always on the road, doing this very emotional and laborious work all the time. We will be going to move to Hawaii on August 1, and we’re going to be there with them for 3 weeks. It’s coming up very soon!

A: In your Hawaii project, you acknowledge your position as an ally and an outsider coming in. Why was this acknowledgement important?

J: There is this really famous “first” documentary, Nanook of the North, which everyone in the film industry has to watch. It’s very problematic. A short gist of the documentary: a white guy comes into an indigenous community and forces them to do all the things that he feels the white audience would want to see. The people of the community almost lost their lives, because they didn’t actually do things the way he wanted them to for the camera. I believe that this was the start of the abuse. Recently, National Geographic faced backlash for very racist coverage. There were these rich white anthropologist men who would go out to these countries, get their footage, and then leave. And then they would make a lot of money off of the products.

Now, there is more of an awareness about this. I think this is because there are more filmmakers of color, those who belong to marginalized communities, and allies that can imagine what it is like to be on the other side. Because of social media, people in the film can see how the film is doing and what’s going on. It’s super important for us, that we have this community building organizing spirit throughout the filmmaking process, and that we’re collaborating with people who are being portrayed. We’re the filmmakers who are trying to portray their lives, so it should reflect their everyday life and the things that they’re doing. We’re so lucky that these people would let us into their space, now it’s our responsibility to portray them as accurately and as authentically as possible.

A: What do you strive to constantly integrate or showcase in all of your work?

J: I think I strive to integrate and showcase the power and capacity of women -- just how strong women are. It’s so common; we all have experienced it in our lives, since everyone knows a woman of color. But on a macroscale, if something is not getting done, a woman of color will do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s the least glamorous job, it doesn’t matter if you’re making food for everyone, and no one is really thanking you. They are always the people holding it down, so I think that strength and capacity is something that I try amplify in my work, so that other women can know their own strength, as well.