Equal parts audacity and vision are often required to bring forth untold stories to film. Filmmaker Victoria Mahoney showed such grit in creating her debut feature-length film Yelling to the Sky, an independent coming-of-age drama about family, racial identity and survival. Bohemian darling Zoë Kravitz stars as 17-year-old Sweetness O’Hara alongside an accomplished cast that includes Academy Award nominee Gabourey Sidibe, Black Thought (of the Roots) and Tim Blake Nelson.
Anchored in emotional turmoil and traumatic events, Mahoney’s film provides a rare, nuanced look at a young woman of color grappling with identity and self-worth. At the same time, confining binaries like good/bad, Black/White and predator/victim are given a more kaleidoscopic approach, preventing Yelling to the Sky from falling flat.
To both write and direct a major film is no easy feat, but neither is abandoning an unfulfilling, yet profitable acting career to pursue one’s precarious passion for storytelling. And yet Mahoney executed all of that, premiering the film in 2011 to much acclaim from fellow filmmakers, critics and audiences.
Along with being named one of Filmmaker's 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2010, Mahoney also received a Golden Bear nomination, the highest prize awarded for the best film at the Berlin International Film Festival. Yelling to the Sky hits select U.S. theaters, iTunes and Amazon this Friday, so EBONY.com took the opportunity to speak with filmmaker Victoria Mahoney about her unconventional creative decisions, her risky switch from on-camera to behind-the-scenes, and her must-watch movie list.
EBONY: What would you like audiences to take away from Yelling to the Sky?
VIctoria Mahoney: A sense of inquiry. To walk away asking: Why did she want to tell this story? Why did she choose to tell it unconventionally? Why are circumstances still the same for young people right now as it was for her years ago? Why aren’t we evolving as a society in regards to economy, race, education, employment and gender? Why did it take so long for a film with people of color to be financed? Why isn’t this film in indie houses of major cities? Why aren’t films with people of color (in front of and behind the lens) regarded in mainstream press? What can I do to change the way I see myself and those around me?
EBONY: Stories about young women of color are largely absent from Hollywood and independent films. What drew you to create a story centered around youth rather than a twentysomething-year-old woman or older? How much resistance did you face?
VM: I chose a teenager because I’m interested in pivotal moments and events that force us into deciding who we are going to become from that moment forward. Resistance is tricky in this scenario, because people were trying to help me tell the story I wanted to tell. But innocently, they would say things that further cemented a need for cinema to present different points of view. For every notes screening with adults in the film industry, I would simultaneously hold a screening with young people in the thick. The teenagers always, pound for pound, picked up on and treasured story elements that some adults—who are more fixed in their ways of traditional narrative—couldn’t grasp.
EBONY: Was there any difference in how the film was received by audiences and critics abroad compared to in the United States?
VM: All over the world, audiences of all ages, colors and economic strata for the most part, connect deeply on a private level, to one or more characters, and/or one or more themes.
Critical response varies. Many people have noticed there is a type of person, same age range, same gender and same race, who feel entitled to use an incredibly specific tone. The subtext is similar to: "We didn't tell you, you could be a writer and director. We absolutely didn't tell you, you could dare to take risk." Funny enough, that group has never once mentioned the camera work, prod design or any artistic risks. Their opinions are weapons they've loaded and need to fire. The tone is so particular it betrays itself, making the instinct to internalize impossible–as transparency makes clear the screams built upon "hate."
Raising a bigger issue, the imbalance of diversity within mainstream and indie critics doesn't permit a wider perspective on which films are made for whom. My film is not for everyone. It is, however, a love letter to many.
EBONY: In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, you told the interviewer you received "a skill set for writing instead of my [previous] fantasy of being a writer." Can you explain this further?
VM: There's a stretch of a writer's life where they [talk] about being a writer, versus the stretch of time where we're actually seated, pounding away, lost in a parallel universe–writing our days and nights away…Writing isn't one day magically having a finished film or book in hand. It's middle of the night. It's hours upon days upon weeks. It's rewriting until common words in your native tongue sound unnatural. It's lost love relationships, and missed dinner parties, and skipped birthdays. It's watching the sunrise come up on no sleep…It's rejection layered with rejection. It's in between paychecks. It's backwards and upside down. It's the willingness to sacrifice everything for the portal to an ounce of truth.
EBONY: Your own transition from primarily acting to directing and writing is so inspiring. How difficult or easy was that move?
VM: It was extremely easy because I didn't spend five seconds contemplating it. I just leapt. I had to. I knew my artistic sanity depended on pushing past safety and finding out what I was made of, with or without support. I decided, headlong and headstrong, come what may, I was taking the trek.
On a practical level, I've never struggled more than when I shifted from acting and put my whole being into directing. I've put everything I am, everything I own, into this film. And I wouldn't change any of it. Well, I would change how the film was released and distributed but the twelve plus years that I've carried this film including the three years cast/crew have carried it–is sacred.
EBONY: I would imagine that many actresses would have stuck to the craft, especially after appearances in major television series and films [like Legally Blonde and Seinfeld,] in hope of finally landing a project in which they believed. When and how did you draw the line when it came to making compromises for the success of your career?
VM: I was never given a chance to fully challenge myself as an actor, in film. I fought and begged for what I eventually realized, amounted to morsels. I knew if I kept going, I'd wake up one day in a shiny house with a shiny zip code, incapable of lying to myself about the level of my artistic-professional hollowness. I've never had to battle the decision to preserve my love of storytelling. My only battle is with outdated rules about who gets resourced and supported.
EBONY: Thinking back on classics and contemporary titles, what films would you recommend to EBONY.com readers interested in developing a wider taste in film?
VM: Tricky. I wouldn't dare pre-suppose what EBONY readers have or haven't watched. With respect to film geeks amongst us, I will lay out some of the classic, contemporary and current films that continue to inspire and push me; Lucretia Martel's Headless Woman, Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere, Zhang Yimou's Ju Dou, Nadine Labaki's Caramel, Andrew Dosunmu Restless City, Akira Kurasawa's Madadayo, anything by Ousmane Sembène, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, Jacques Audiard's The Prophet, Gitonga's Nairobi Half Life, Haile Gerima's Sankofa, because it's one of the greatest indie film, self-distribution stories ever.
EBONY: What projects do you have lined up next?
VM: I just finished post-production on a short film called WRACKED. I'm knee-deep into my next feature called CHALK. It's the story about a person on a hunt to find murder suspects. I had to do an exciting amount of research on opposite ends of a nationwide issue. And I'm finishing the script for an untitled TV project, that's been rip roaring fun to navigate.
Patrice Peck explores the complex intersection of culture, entertainment, race and gender as a multimedia journalist. Follow her latest work on Twitter @SpeakPatrice and visit her website for more writing and video.