Reuniting With My First Love
As activists in Chicago’s Black Power Movement during the 1960’s, my parents used films such as Roots, El Norte, and Dry White Season to educate me about the experiences of marginalized people. They coupled the films with bedtime stories of my ancestors, instilling in me an appreciation for storytelling as a tool for addressing political and social injustice. I desperately needed the strength of my family’s stories, as I grew up in Atlanta’s affluent, predominantly white suburbs. I frequently suffered from racism at the hands of school administrators, including a high school instructor who removed me from a journalism class after I published an article about the prevalent racism at my school. I dreamed of going to film school in California or New York. When the racism became too much to bear, I opted instead for Spelman College and a four year break from racial discrimination.
At Spelman, it was a joy to learn without the burdens of representing an entire race. The curriculum connected us with the struggles of marginalized groups worldwide, and films like Battle of Algiers were required viewing to deepen our understanding. Dr. James Winchester, my Philosophy instructor, had the hugest impact on my development as a student and writer. Instead of regurgitating words from established scholars and writing in the third person, Dr. Winchester demanded I use the word “I” in my writing, making my voice and opinion known. Following his instruction, I wrote without constraints and felt absolutely free. Senior year, I maintained my love for film and social justice, however September 11th changed my plans. I wanted to ensure Muslims and Arabs avoided the type of discrimination impacting African Americans. Accordingly, I enrolled in The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University to study International Relations.
Following graduation, I moved to Washington, DC and worked for Defense Intelligence Agency as an Iraqi tribes and culture analyst. My position required that I brief members of the National Security Council’s Iraq Staff, the National Intelligence Council, and the Director of Intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While deployed to Iraq, I met tribal leaders who were tortured with electric drills by Iraqi militias or survived assassination attempts, and it seemed none of my research and analytic papers could change their lives. Realizing that the problems in Iraq were much broader than what I could impact, I briefly went to work for the Army, then resigned from my job.
Over the next few months, I turned down offers to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq. As my money dwindled, I questioned what I was put on earth to do and how to be happy again. Each day I argued with God, then prayed and surrendered while playing gospel music to keep my faith in fighting shape. Finally, I made a very short list of everything that made me smile (movies) and another list of all my skills (writing). As the bill collectors called, I sat down to draft my first screenplay. I told God I had faith He would direct my path, as long as I continued writing. I was so broke, Ramen noodles were a luxury, but I refused to take a job that wasn’t meant for me or to stop writing my screenplay. When I couldn’t afford Washington, DC’s nightly happy hours, I kept myself entertained by learning to paint with a set of watercolors I found in my storage closet.
Getting Too Comfortable
My faith paid off. Within days of finishing my script, I received a job offer that gave me time to write in the evenings without deploying to a war zone. I was paid well enough that I could go to restaurants several times a week and an overseas vacation each year. However, all the money I spent was covering up how annoyed I was at my 9 to 5. I knew I wasn’t working in what God had for me. I was afraid of losing the financial security that came with my job and had to take baby steps towards gaining my courage again. The first step was submitting a new script to the DC Black Theater Festival and directing a staged reading of my play. Two years later, I said goodbye to a six-figure salary and attended University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. I was the sole African American in the Writing Division’s 2012 entering class, and the sole feature writer to graduate with distinction.
Setting My Own Course
There are two schools of thought on how to succeed in Hollywood. The first is to work as an assistant, then after a few years, you will hopefully be promoted. I tried this route for a while. I placed well in a few screenwriting competitions and secured meetings with executives who said they “responded” to my work (Hollywood speak for, “I like your script but don’t want to commit to anything”). Ultimately, I was offered unfulfilling opportunities, advised to write screenplays featuring less people of color, and referred to training programs for “diverse” writers and filmmakers. The industry pretends filmmakers of color and women aren’t being hired because we lack training, when the truth is inherent biases are still at work. (See several filmmakers’ #justhire tweets).
The second school of thought says the key to success is to make a movie on your own. It’s much easier said than done. Making movies costs money, and so does paying your rent. Running out of desirable options in Los Angeles, I returned to Atlanta to save money and figure out a career path. It took a lot of faith, but I continued to say no to opportunities that I knew weren’t right for me.
Since relocating, I’ve transitioned from making short films to directing music videos. Keep an eye out for “Needurluv (stay with me)” from Cashus King and “Lil’ Man” by Yamin Semali. I was introduced to both of these opportunities through manager and producer Jeff Johnson II, who I met while he attended Morehouse College. In addition, I was commissioned by my Spelman College classmates to create commemorative paintings for our reunions. While I saw my artwork as a hobby, God turned them into another source of income.
Making films has taught me to strengthen my faith in God and to know the impossible is possible. I don’t have to settle for a satisfactory life and career. I can aim for happiness and reach it.
Advice To Filmmakers
This is a faith walk. Becoming a filmmaker requires all of your faith and endurance. You will hear that you should give up, that you should go work for someone else, or find a steady career. If this is what you are supposed to do, you will succeed. But remember that faith requires action. Quit waiting for someone else to hand you your dreams; get to work bringing them to fruition.
Know your limitations, and counter them with your strengths. If you have a small budget, offset it by writing a strong script with minimal actors and an inexpensive location. If you don’t know any actors, search for aspiring actors and train them. It’ll enhance your skills as a director.
Every choice must move you towards your goal. You’re becoming a filmmaker to create films and share them with an audience. You’ll be offered jobs for little to no pay with the promise that it’ll help you land a career in film. If the work you’re doing is in service to someone else’s dream without giving you new skills or a better understanding of the industry, it’s time to press forward.
Prior to her career in the arts, Kafia Haile worked at the Pentagon and in Iraq as a cultural analyst for Defense Intelligence Agency. Following her deployment, Kafia turned to the arts to further explore social justice and global politics. As a visual artist, her work has appeared in The Cradles Project for the XIX International AIDS Conference, as well as the group exhibition They Reminisce Over You: We Are Troy Davis, a response to racial disparities in the U.S. legal system. In addition, Kafia created live paintings for RAW Artists (Washington, DC) and Blackout for Human Rights (Los Angeles, CA).
As a filmmaker, Kafia placed in the Top 50 of over 7,000 screenplays submitted to the 2015 Nicholl Competition, administered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 2016, she was selected as an Official Artist of the New York Television Festival. Under her production company Zenzele Pictures, Kafia wrote, directed, and produced the short film CAST THE FIRST STONE, screened at the California Women’s Festival. She is the writer of MR. HALL’S INTERVIEW, lauded in Fortune Magazine as “a film that everyone who works should see.” A native of Atlanta, Kafia is a graduate of Spelman College, The Fletcher School at Tufts University, and University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.
Twitter : @KafiaHaile
Instagram : @_KafiaHaile