A Girl Like Me is an eight-minute short that brings issues often frought or thought of as taboo, front and center. As an eighteen-year-old filmmaker, I am startled at the impact the film has had since its first screening.
The Film: A Girl Like Me is an award-winning short film that explores the standards of beauty imposed on black girls today. Through a number of frank interviews with girls from my high school, the film delves beneath the surface of the issue. A Girl Like Me is able to creatively express how such standards affect self-esteem and self-image in black youth. After watching the film, viewers will come away better understanding the origins of these standards. The film also features the famous “doll test” originally conducted by Dr. Kenneth Clark. The test was the catalyst that led to the ruling that de-segregated schools during the historic case Brown vs. Board of Education.
During the test, young black children were given one black doll and one white doll. When asked which they preferred, the majority picked the white doll. I re-created the test to see how much we have evolved since the 1950’s. The results shown in the film illuminate the reality of how little we have progressed. The film sends a very important message to the world about a country who prides itself as a successful example of diversity and equality. Yet, even though the doll test is a pivotal moment in the film, A Girl Like Me was really inspired by the experiences of myself and my friends as young black women.
Getting Started: The film was created with the support of my school, Urban Academy, and the organization Reel Works Teen Filmmaking. My mentor for this film was the director of award-winning film, Chisholm 72 – Unbought & Unbossed and past Media That Matters Film Festival juror, Shola Lynch.
I had already directed some films, but this was my first taste in documentary. I feel that the experience was key in my development as a filmmaker. I worked on the film for half a year, never thinking I would get the reaction I got. From the first screening, the audience gasped throughout the film, even bringing some to tears. At that moment I realized that the film touched on an important issue that America needs to see. The idea of getting my film into the hands of those I thought would benefit from the content began to interest me. Additionally, it was my hope that the film would be used as a tool for change. How could I get America to see such a film?
Where to Start: After making a film, outreach can seem even more overwhelming than the film production itself. Any good “outreacher” knows that your best audience will be those who collaborated with you on your film. The first place A Girl Like Me screened was with other youth-produced works at HBO, a sponsor of my youth filmmaking group. Then there were two screenings held at the Boys and Girls Harbor daycare centers in Harlem, where I conducted the “doll test.” The director of the school required that all staff members view the film. After viewing it, the daycare sites both altered their curriculum to incorporate activities and lesson plans that focused on exploring issues of identity, self-esteem, and celebrating differences. As it turns out, a film festival judge was in attendance at one of the screenings and he helped get the film into his festival which was a great start to get the word out. By this point, outreach and impact was already in progress and in many ways I was already satisfied with the outcome.
The daycare example became a way to open doors to more outreach opportunities. Being able to showcase such successful results so early in the process proved to be great publicity. Very early on I realized that in outreach, a filmmaker should never overlook the small venues. Not only is there potential to make a more immediate impact, but you never know who might be in the audience! Since the first screening I can say that I met people who have had a direct impact on the film’s success. The best example was meeting ex-Arts Engine Outreach Coordinator, Wendy Cohen, who put together the sixth annual Media That Matters Film Festival. When I took her business card I would of never imagined how vital this festival would be to my film’s outreach.
Outreach and Beyond: The whole outreach initiative was quite an amazing journey. Interest from the audience in one small screening would lead to another and another, until outreach opportunities and film screening requests were raining on me. Being a young, woman filmmaker helped me stand out. A great majority of people didn’t imagine that the film was youth-made. This was very gratifying because I was helping to redefine “youth media” and creating a new space for it. My film is an example of how youth-made pieces can co-exist with pieces made by adult filmmakers. Many people have admitted suprise not only about my age, but that my film was accepted into festivals, won awards, and competed with adult films.
Requests for me to speak and screen my film at media and race conferences, youth groups, social work gathering, schools/universities, educational functions, and numerous other community groups and organizations have not stopped. A year later, A Girl Like Me has been presented around the country. One of my favorite events was speaking at the Kenneth Clark Anniversary where I was given the North Side Center Kenneth and Mamie Clark Legacy Award.
The international interest in A Girl Like Me was one of the most surprising and exciting outcomes. My voice has been dubbed in Spanish for interviews and I have had outreach requests for places as far as the Netherlands, England and Barcelona. The film has even been covered in Italian and Muslim newspapers. It has featured in small town newspapers as well as publications like the Daily News.
Online Outreach: Word-of-mouth was one of the biggest outreach tools I used. And there is no better complement to word-of-mouth than the internet. Having the film online has been by far the best method of allowing people to see the film. It was especially effective at getting the film’s message out to the general public making it easy to access world-wide. A piece like mine would have never gotten such a wide audience or made this kind of impact without the internet. The turning point for this was when I got accepted into the sixth annual Media That Matters film festival, run by Arts Engine, Inc. The Media That Matters Film Festival is a selection of sixteen short films, no longer than eight minutes, that deal with a social-issue. These films are showcased year-round online along with take action tools for each film. A Teacher’s Guide is then compiled with a lesson plan pertaining to each film, which is taken into schools and organizations across the country. People are able to comment and discuss the different the issues surrounding the films on the website. I have heard from numerous people who have, upon viewing the film, e-mailed the film’s link to everyone in their address book. This cyber-outreach has been vital to the viewer ship of my film.
But, while this is great for the “virtual world,” I also make sure that in the “real world” I always mention the website, pass out postcards and get a list of e-mails that I can add to my address book. Today, if you “google” A Girl Like Me, you get hundreds of sites that link to my film, blog about it, or mention it. My youth group estimates that it has reached over half a million people through screenings around the world and online streaming. Even a year and a half after the premiere, people continue to comment, blog, and post to personalized pages like myspace. This allows for dialogue on race, identity, and standards of beauty amongst peers and young people all over the world!
Using uniqueness to your advantage: I am happy that this film has been able to reach so many people, especially as a short film and a youth-made film—two aspects that usually work to a film’s disadvantage. In this case, these were its greatest strengths. The length allowed for it to be easily viewable on-line, as well as integrating it into a lesson plan, a community gathering or as a discussion starter in any context. Also, the fact that the film was inspired by young women and made by young women made it very relevant to the 18-25 age group that becomes difficult to target with documentary film. This being my first film, I never really focused on selling it. Just by having an outlet for people to discuss the film and the issues brought up was a goal that I saw unreachable. A little bit of outreach effort has gone a long way. It has also been invaluable to be part of the “race” dialogue in the United States, and to have a role in furthering it as a young women of color. I want to invite you to discuss ideas and strategies and Take Action!
Audience: Getting a target audience was an interesting task and is similar to a consumer science where you have to match the product to the most eligible consumer. I never really got into narrowing the audience down because I didn’t want to leave anyone out. I felt that a short seven-minute documentary would be able to spread to people of diverse backgrounds.
Some Helpful Tips:
- Don’t sell yourself short when it comes to selecting a target audience. in my case, I saw “standards” as something that affects us all.
- You never know who you will meet, always carry postcards.
- Keep a running list of emails to add to your list.
- Make a list of groups you would like to present to.
- Target specific times of year to plan screenings around your film. A great outreach/screening month for A Girl Like Me was Black Histroy Month.
- Don’t short sell your film. Know its worth and convey that when you speak about it.
- Strategize on what contacts to follow-up on. One person that truly believes in your film is better than eighty people who think “you’re nice.”
- There a thousands of festivals. Don’t get bogged down, but make a list of the top 10 festivals you want to be apart of and focus on those.
- When you do a screening, always have a Q & A because it will spark dialogue and invite people to come talk to you about opportunities.
- Giving the audience a chance to voice their opinions will make them more likely to get involved with the issues the film presents and more likely to tell someone about the film.
- Start you own website and visit mine at KiriDavis.com.
- Include contact information, screenings dates, resources and complete film information on your site.
- Release new DVD.
- Continue to make films that inspire others.
Final Thoughts: Before making A Girl LIke Me, I figured that speaking to people about these issues would be sufficient. It is only after seeing the impact of this film that I realize how important film is in conveying a message. Showing an audience concrete examples of how imposed standards affect the self-esteem of young women carries a different weight than telling an audience.
An important aspect of making this documentary was the opportunity that it gave me both on a personal level and as a filmmaker to interview my friends. I learned that putting girls in a position where they have to talk about these issues gave us all an opportunity to look deeper into our experiences and examine them in the larger context of society.
I realized that experiences we thought of as unique to ourselves, run very deep in American culture and American roots. I hope that this film will invite all young women to look deeper into their experiences and to realize that choices today, affect generations to come. The question that I came out with after making this film was: How does society affect and shape who we are? After this year of outreach, I want to invite young women to ask themselves: How can our choices and who we are affect and shape society?
By Kiri Davis
Photo courtesy of Arts Engine