Conversation with a Creative
Prof. Melba Williams-Kirk joined the Media Arts Department full-time in August after working as an adjunct. Before joining MTSU, she was an instructor at the Art Institute of Tennessee’s Department of Digital Filmmaking and Video Production.
She has a B.F.A. in Radio, TV and Film from Howard University and a master’s in documentary film production from Stanford University.
She has numerous films and productions in her list of credits and her skills include directing, producing, screenwriting, editing, production management and budgeting. She has mastered Adobe Creative Cloud, Digital Video Camcorders/HDSLRs, Audio Recording and Lighting.
She spent three years as a freelance field producer/videographer, where she worked on several shows for MTV and BBC-NY. She was also an associate producer for State of the Art, Inc., where she assisted an Academy Award-winning producer in creating documentary TV specials on public health.
She has served as co-chair of the Programming Committee of the African American Genealogical and Historical Society of Nashville and given workshops on “Interviewing and Videotaping Family Relatives.”
She talks to Beverly Keel about having her film shown at the Sundance Film Festival, her interest in exploring mother/daughter relationships on film and on the shows she’s watching now.
Please tell me about the film A Thousand Words. Talk about working on this project. What does it mean to you to have your work showcased at the prestigious Sundance Film festival?
My short documentary A Thousand Words is my film that has had the most traction. I made it during graduate school at Stanford University’s documentary program and it was invited to compete in the Sundance Film Festival, along with many others. I’m quite proud of it as it is an homage to my Dad, and really to any war veteran family that has endured the acute and long-term impact of PTSD. Most recently, it was collected by the National Museum of African-American History and Culture as a part of their canon and participated in their first Film Festival.
You’re in pre-production on a short film, My Mother’s Child. What can you tell us about it?
Yes, I am currently producing and directing this short, with the goal of shooting this summer. I usually work in documentary, but I have been writing a lot of fiction lately. So I’m really excited to explore this visually, but more nervous about working with actors. My Mother’s Child was a screenplay I wrote in a writer’s group some 15+ years ago that I found recently while going through some old works. Reading it was surreal, as I honestly didn’t remember the script existed, yet, what stood out was that it explores themes and imagery that continue to be recurrent for me. It is a story that explores mother-daughter relationships and now as I am a mother, and my own mother is now deceased, it feels ripe to explore this even further. Of course, I’ve made some updates to it now with a matured perspective (and a taxi driver, is now an Uber driver).
Why do you think you have been drawn to themes of mother/daughter relationships, identity, family bonds and secrets?
I’m really interested in that precise moment when the child realizes that their parents are three-dimensional beings, that have lives, that have had loves and loss outside of the child’s knowledge. The point when that happens is different for every person, but it is a huge maturity factor – to see someone outside of the role they’ve played just for you, allowing them that freedom. Also, the little things that are passed down from generation to generation have always been fascinating to me - a person’s laugh, a walk, or certain habits. All those DNA codes are little gifts, or little curses depending on how you look at it.
Why is it important to you to establish an archive of black cinema created at HBCUs?
Studying film at an HBCU gave me such a rare and rich perspective on my own approach to filmmaking and how I view other works. As a Black woman, it had not occurred to me up until that point that our entertainment was primarily from the perspective of someone else. Our professors at Howard University were adamant about teaching us to create works from the context of our own lives, and this is long before the movement we are in now. Instead of the usual canon of cinema that is taught, we studied the works of our professors as points of reference, as well as African and Caribbean filmmakers, such as Ousmane Sembene, Thomá Alea Guttiérez, and Euzhan Palcy, and many of the works of the “L.A. Rebellion” filmmakers, such as Charles Barnett, Julie Dash and Larry Clark. I’m extremely grateful for this awareness and encourage my own students to tell vulnerable, relevant stories that center their lives and not mimic what we’ve already seen on screen. Ironically, this past spring when we all converted to virtual, offered a beautiful opportunity for students to explore their own homes, neighborhoods and families. And they certainly rose to the challenge and created some of the neatest first films I’ve seen so far.
You are editing a performance work that is part of The Black Index. What can you tell us about it?
My film professors had such a profound effect on me, so I always saw teaching as part of my future but had not anticipated it happening so early in my career. I taught full-time at the Art Institute of TN – Nashville a few years ago. After working in DC and New York for a few years in doc and TV, this became my first “ongoing” gig after moving back home to Tennessee. AI is where I met my friend and colleague Allie Sultan and she always spoke highly of MTSU. So, when an opening became available, I quickly applied. The thing I love most about teaching is that aha moment for a student, when theory becomes practice and watching their competence and confidence unfold. It’s a deep privilege and contract of trust that I don’t take lightly. In fact, my mother and grandmother were teachers (ha ha, that DNA again).
You are so productive! How do you manage to get it all done? Do you have any tips on how to find more time to be creative?
Well, I’m a busy mom, so my time is very compartmentalized. However, I have found that working with people that place the same premium on time as much as I do, has made all the difference. I think it’s just important to not deny yourself the things that feed your soul, so it’s essential to carve that out. At least a couple times a year, I try to squeeze in a film festival or solo trip. A good one can sustain me for quite a bit.
What do you do when you aren’t working?
Other than hanging out with family and friends, I love studying genealogy and most recently astronomy. And happily, this year, lots of catching up on movies and binge-watching shows!
What have you binged on during the pandemic?
Oh goodness, so many things. My favorites over the past year have been This May Destroy You, Little Fires Everywhere, and Fortitude (S1). Right now, I’m working through the Small Axe series, Designated Survivor and The Investigation.