SxSW 2021 Interview – SUBJECTS OF DESIRE director Jennifer Holness

Subjects of Desire is a film about Black women and beauty. It looks at how the media representation of Black women and the stereotypes that have been created undermine the power of Black women.

Having its World Premiere in the Documentary Feature Competition section of SxSW Online, we talk with SUBJECTS OF DESIRE director Jennifer Holness. 

Welcome to SxSW! Is this your first SxSW experience?

Yes it’s my first SXSW experience, I am thrilled!  It is a festival I have always wanted to be invited to and attend. So now I’ll have to make another film so I can attend when the pandemic is over. 

So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past!

How I got started in this business? I saw a Spike Lee film and I realized that Black people were allowed to make movies. Honestly, that was it.  I’ve worked in narrative feature films and documentaries, screened around the world but this is my first feature as a director.  

How did SUBJECTS OF DESIRE come together?

I have three teenage daughters and they started to come home and talk about Black aesthetics. Things that teenagers are preoccupied with. I started to notice the conversation included their white friends appreciating and wanting some of the features and attributes that I remember being vilified for. I began to research and saw the impact of a lot of white women in the media that were appropriating blackness and being successful at it. I pitched it to one broadcaster in Canada and they went into development with me.  It was a small broadcaster and I wanted to really figure out the film and not have someone else’s voice direct me. I was able to, over three years produce, write and direct the film. I did a lot of archival work with an archivist, but I sourced almost every material myself first with my editor.  Hundreds of hours of work for free!  Our budget was a lot smaller than we wanted it to be.  Truth of the matter, when I pitched this for the most part a lot of white executives were not interested and didn’t think this story was that big a deal. The shoot was great, I had an aesthetic in mind. I wanted to have a lot of it filmed outside. Thematically I saw black women as connected to nature and the earth.  And that has its own challenges.  We couldn’t always afford a second camera but I had two great directors of photography.  I tested positive for Covid in March 2020 and my editor was also sick and we edited the film remotely for months back and forth, back and forth.  Off and on depending on how sick we were.  With a lot of patience and respect we managed to deliver a strong film. 

What keeps you going while making a project? What drives you?

I just want to get it right. I feel like filmmaking is a privilege and I’m grateful for that privilege and I just want to get it right.  

What was your biggest challenge and what was the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The lack of funds and not getting paid was my biggest challenge. Relying on my husband to support me!  Not always getting the level of crew that we might have needed made it harder for everybody.  

Getting into SXSW on a fine cut version of the film was really rewarding because it made me think that all the naysayers and the people who thought this wasn’t that important — it just meant that there was value.  Also, when I screened the film to women and particularly Black women, how many of them in tears told me how much my film impacted them.

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how it was made.

As I mentioned, I had this huge aesthetic where I wanted to shoot outside a lot. I wanted to have a shallow depth of field for most of the interview. I wanted to make what was an essay style film have movement, and I also wanted to make sure that the women, even with the lack of resources came off looking as beautiful as they are. I wanted to have a connection of something green or natural, so in almost every scene you will see that there is a connection to the outside. For example, in every scene where there wasn’t something green, I bought something, a plant, a tree to put it in space. I worked with two DOPs and it was only after I did my second or third interview that I really cemented how this would all come together and I got the confidence to commit to that vision.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW Online?

I’m really looking forward to connecting with audiences and getting a sense of how the film resonates.

Clearly this is such a different time with virtual festivals and online screenings. How do you feel about releasing movies in this current format and how do you feel audiences will see most films in the future?

I would love to have my film screened in a theatre with hundreds and hundreds of people watching.  That’s my dream of course. But I’m really glad it’s this time where technology can help us to continue. If a pandemic was going to happen, it’s happened at a time when virtual cinema is possible and I’m grateful for that.

Where is the movie going next? More festivals or a selective release?

It’s been accepted to Hot Docs as a special presentation which is thrilling as it’s my hometown!

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or work in the business. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into filmmaking, especially now as things are evolving at such a fast rate?

Making movies requires a 200% commitment and if you’re not willing to give that, find another job. I see people who have made films and those who haven’t, that’s the difference.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

I love Badlands by Terrence Malick. I just saw it recently. The quiet simplicity and beauty of it conveyed so much with so little said.

This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to www.sxsw.com!

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