By Katie Chambers
Welcome to NYWIFT, Samantha Alvarez, an independent documentary and narrative filmmaker born and raised in the Bronx with six years of camera operating and video editing experience. Alvarez started her career as a multidisciplinary teaching artist. She now works as a video freelancer and is a recent alum of both the Bronx Documentary Center Films Fellowship and NBCU Academy Fellowship. She is a current fellow in Third World Newsreel’s 2022 Production Workshop. She received a BFA in Film at The City College of New York with a minor in Journalism, and is continuing her studies there as a Film graduate student.
Alvarez was recently named the 2022 NYWIFT Outstanding Woman Content Creator at the Nova Frontier Film Festival for her short mixed media documentary, In the Body. The film had premiered at the Francesca Beale Theater at Film at Lincoln Center, where it won the Best Directing in Documentary award. The Society of Professional Journalists also recognized Samantha as a video journalist finalist for the 2022 Mark of Excellence Awards.
We sat down with her to discuss her latest film, her career, and her inspirations.
What inspired In the Body?
In the Body began after learning more about my mother’s childhood experiences. She mentioned she had been considering writing a book about it, and I asked if she ever considered making a film too. She said, “Yes.”
The film started as a thesis project in college, shifting creative directions for around a year and a half. It began with a plan to reenact the story with child actors, then evolved into a new idea of having my mother step in as an actor playing as herself, while also telling her own story.
During the evolution of the film, I questioned why I asked her if she wanted to make a film about it. Aside from being a filmmaker, I thought about my relationship with her and how it was approaching a breaking point. It was then that I realized it would be interesting if I were present in the film too, since I learned her story by asking her about her past. Doing this made it clear to myself that I was also finding ways to become closer to her.
Describe the use of the telephone in this film – the mother and daughter, trying to connect, do so by phone even though they are sitting at the same table.
At the beginning of the film, right before the title appears I say, “I miss my mother, even though I live with her.” I am looking to become emotionally close to my mom even though we are visibly close in a physical form. I thought of symbolisms that would represent the distance, yet also represent the desire of a connection. I often talk to her through a phone, so I found it very fitting to sit in an area where togetherness is imagined to be occurring, but visibly we are still far apart. The medium close-ups act as that imagined closeness, but once you see a wide shot of how distant we actually are at a table, it makes sense that there is still some work to do to get the relationship to a point we are hoping for it to be at.
You are an artist who works in a variety of mediums. Why did you choose a film to tell this particular story?
Film is a medium I am growing to love a lot, because I find that motion pictures are the way my mind processes my thoughts best. I also found that it was the most fitting way to visually express a story so detailed like a parent telling a story to a child and the child imagining every word play out. As she tells this painful story to me, it brings out a lot of feelings and reactions, so I wanted to capture that in that way through this medium.
What did inclusion in the Nova Frontier Film Festival mean to you?
Nova Frontier Film Festival’s collaboration with the Bronx Documentary Center called “Restorative Families” felt like the right space for me and my film to be a part of. The NFFF showcases works from filmmakers who are from and have work that focuses on the global African diaspora, the Middle East, and Latin America. It also represents emerging filmmakers.
As an emerging Latina filmmaker, it felt like I was seen in a way that gave me an opportunity to openly and confidently share parts of myself that were vulnerable yet important and strong to express to larger audiences. I feel most connected to spaces like the Nova Frontier Film Festival because of this recognition, because I don’t always feel seen in places that don’t have this specific focus on the inclusivity of underrepresented artists too.
Who are some other artists and filmmakers that inspire you?
I have connected with some amazing and influential filmmakers over the years who I continue to turn to for advice, constructive criticism and mentorship. To name a few, I deeply admire Deirdre Fishel, Sunita Prasad, Zachary Kerschberg, Jeff Reichert, and Kirsten Johnson. I am also inspired by other filmmakers I have met such as Bhawin Suchak, Darian Henry, Stefani Saintonge, Tal Lazar, and Kristian Mercado.
I make it a priority to watch films all of the time and to stay updated on artists, musicians, dancers by attending shows and searching online. I find inspiration through many different art mediums and many past and present artists. It would take a while to name them all, but their work speaks to my interests and creative process a lot because it represents stories and communities that are often overlooked or not heard of enough. I find all of these artists to be risk-takers, bold, honest, selfless and imaginative, which is the artist I see myself to be too.
What is next for you?
I am currently co-writing a musical film that I will also be directing, which is a first for me but has been a fun experience so far. It is based on both romantic and platonic relationships that build on trauma bonding.
I am also currently enrolled as a grad student in the City Film MFA program at the City College of New York and gaining experience as a production assistant, camera assistant and camera operator in the city. I have a lot more to learn and I am looking forward to all of the new connections I will make and continued fun and knowledge I will have and gain.
Welcome to NYWIFT, Aisha Amin! Aisha is an NYC-based writer and director. As a director, her work expands across narrative, documentary, and experimental forms to tell authentic stories built from real experiences. Her past film projects have explored and highlighted overlooked communities particularly in New York City, including formerly incarcerated mothers and communities struggling with the presence of gentrification in their neighborhoods. Amongst her directing, Aisha is an emerging screenwriting and was selected to participate in Cine Qua Non’s 2022 Screenwriting Lab. She is a 2022 recipient of NYFA’s Tomorrowland Grant and a 2021 recipient of the NYFA Women's Fund grant. She was a recipient of the 2019-2020 Sally Burns Shenkman Woman Filmmaker Fellowship at the Jacob Burns Film Center where she directed two short documentaries. She is also a recipient of The Shed's Open Call Fellowship where she expanded her film practice to installation art. Aisha spoke to us about her favorite styles of storytelling, the intersection of narrative and documentary, and her latest projects.READ MORE
Welcome to NYWIFT, Lorena R. Valenica! Lorena R. Valencia is a Mexican writer-director based in New York. Her directorial debut and MFA thesis film, Cuanacaquilitl (Dandelion), received the 2022 National Board of Review Student Award and is an Official Selection in several international film festivals, including the Morelia International Film Festival, the Atlanta Film Festival, the New York Latino Film Festival, and the NewFilmmakers Los Angeles Film Festival. Lorena is passionate about both narrative and documentary storytelling and is interested in addressing issues such as reproductive rights, identity, and belonging. Currently, she is directing Mi Ranchito, a documentary short film that explores resilience and love for the land, while she is developing her debut feature film, Mayahuel. Lorena spoke to us about inspiring empathy through storytelling, the overlap of narrative and documentary filmmaking, and her latest projects.READ MORE
NYWIFT Member Elivia Shaw is a producer and co-editor of the fascinating new documentary How to Have an American Baby, which just make its New York Premiere at DOC NYC 2023. The film is a a nuanced, behind-the-scenes look into the booming shadow economy catering to pregnant Chinese tourists who travel to America to give birth in order to obtain U.S. citizenship for their babies. Told through a series of observational vignettes, and with extraordinary access to the maternity hotel industry and their clients, the film outlines the invisible contours of the underground birth tourism industry and its unexpected actors in the U.S. and China, while probing deeply into the lives of several protagonists caught up in the phenomenon. What results is an intimate and compassionate portrait of women’s reproductive journeys, family, traditions, and capitalist desires. Shaw spoke to us about her collaboration with director Leslie Tai and the unique joys and challenges of the project.READ MORE
NYWIFT Member Emily Sheskin’s return to DOC NYC 2023 is particularly meaningful. In 2017, she attended the festival with her short film Girl Boxer, about a 10-year-old champion female boxer and her adoring father. Six years later, Sheskin returns with a feature-length film following the same family, now facing an entirely new set of challenges. In Jesszilla, New Jersey’s own Jesselyn Silva, a three-time national boxing champion, is on her way to superstardom, dominating the junior ranks at the age of 15. With her every step of the way is her father, Pedro, a single parent who helps her navigate coaches, training schedules, and the angst of teenage life. When a devastating diagnosis threatens the father-daughter tandem, the pair turn to each other to fight their greatest opponent yet: cancer. Director and Executive Producer Emily Sheskin spoke to us about her unique journey following this family.READ MORE