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From left: Directors Sonejuhi Sinha, Sasie Sealy, Ellie Foumbi, Kaliya Warren

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Ones to Watch

Meet four directors on the rise who are redefining what it means to be adventurous.

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When director Kaliya Warren was scouting for her film Expatriates, she found herself driving solo up a mountain cliff on South Africa's Western Cape. Her tires were shredded. It was dark and perilous—all dirt roads, no barriers—but thrilling, too. In a way, she had come full circle to the reason why she had embarked on this career: "I wanted adventure," Warren explains. "As a kid, I saw making movies as going on an adventure and making these big, epic stories a reality."

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But there are many ways to slice and dice and define adventure. For Ellie Foumbi, Warren's cohort in this year's Untold Stories filmmaking program, sponsored by AT&T and the Tribeca Film Institute, the city fills that void: Her short, Zenith, features an adopted black Mennonite woman going from rural country to inner Philadelphia in search of her biological mother. Then there are the characters these visionaries create—who take a chance, who risk, who dare. Like the tenacious, take-no-prisoners 80-year-old protagonist of Sasie Sealy's Lucky Grandma, which nabbed top prize at Untold Stories last year, or the women trapped in desperation in Sonejuhi Sinha's crime thriller Stray Dolls, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival; they're all fighters.

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But that's how we think of the filmmaking foursome here, too. Each, in her own way, is bulldozing past the stereotypes and expectations in a typically male-dominated industry. Here, they share their advice and stories.

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Q&A

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SASIE SEALY
Charlotte, North Carolina

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Her first feature, Lucky Grandma—which stars former Bond girl and The Joy Luck Club's Tsai Chin as a tough-as-nails, chain-smoking Chinese grandmother who finds herself in a Chinatown gang war—screened at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. This wasn't the first time she's made headlines at the event: Sealy, who co-wrote Lucky Grandma with Angela Cheng and started her career in photography, has picked up prizes there—twice!—for earlier shorts.

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On what draws me to film
Film is the closest you have to experiencing the world like another person. My directing professor always told me that directing is not information, images or dialogue; it's experience.

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On the inspiration behind Lucky Grandma
I had taken those buses that go from Chinatown to the various casinos in the tristate area. They were always full of old Chinese people. I thought, where are they going, how often to they go? Is this what they do all the time? Chinatown buses are a visceral experience; they always stuck in my head. The character of grandma—she emerged pretty fully formed. She's an amalgam of most of our grandmas and aunties, our moms and every other Chinese woman in our life.

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On my early influences
My dad is a total cinephile—everything from Kurosawa to Wong Kar-Wai. And my mom loves Jackie Chan; if there's a gangsta movie, she loves it. And then, of course, I grew up on American movies—the Coen brothers, The Princess Bride, The Goonies and all that. Lucky Grandma came from both those worlds.

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On being a female filmmaker
The hardest thing is figuring out how to carry myself with power and authority. Being a filmmaker is like being an entrepreneur or raising venture capital. You have to walk into a room and convince people to hand you money. I'm not only a woman, I'm 5-foot-2. I'm a Southerner and Asian. I'm nice by default. I'm not someone you think of being in charge. I have to carry myself in a way that still feels like myself.

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My heroes
Cindy Sherman and Sally Mann. Agnès Varda, David Lynch, Miloš Forman and Wong Kar Wai. And Jacques Demy—The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is my favorite film of all time.

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On carrying myself with confidence
There's a trope that women have a hard time being their own cheerleader. For me, I try to speak to the story every time. If I'm talking about the film or someone on my team, I have a much easier time selling it. I still have a hard time selling myself, but I can definitely sell the film.

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On being in the driver's seat as a director
I don't think of it like that. It's more like you're hosting a party—putting on the music, creating an environment and inviting all the right people. You're not orchestrating every little thing. You have to give the people who are working with you a little space for magic.

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"You have to give the people who are working with you a little space for magic." — Sasie Sealy

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Sasie Sealy, left, in the Zane dickey jacket with the hoodie dickey, Lucinda turtleneck and Beverly flare jeans; Sonejuhi Sinha in the Anita jacket, Cedar turtleneck and Crosbie jeans

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SONEJUHI SINHA
Delhi and Dehradun, India

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Sinha premiered her feature debut, Stray Dolls, at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Inspired by a previous short that screened at Cannes four years ago, the crime thriller stars Geetanjali Thapa and Olivia DeJonge as two girls trapped in a seedy motel; Cynthia Nixon plays the owner.

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On the inspiration behind Stray Dolls
I volunteered at the Women's Prison Association and came across a lot of women who had fallen through the cracks of crime. They made bad decisions just depending on their circumstances; their intentions were good—like to feed their family—and suddenly they were incarcerated for 10 years. There aren't a lot of stories with complex female characters, especially for women of color. I wanted to show the whole spectrum, weaknesses as well as strengths, that makes them human.
Within that, I started to think about a character-driven narrative. The original short I did, Loves Comes Later, explored this moral dilemma—the central character commits a crime at a hotel—and the feature expands from that to two women working in a motel, who fall into a life of crime because their circumstances are so desperate. They make these complex and flawed decisions to ensure their own survival and agency.

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On researching for the film
I went to about 50 motels all over the East Coast, spoke to the motel owners about what happens there. In one motel, a dead body was found under a mattress; in another, the owner—who was known for these karaoke parties she would throw for truckers, gang members and drug dealers—was shot dead. We collected these stories and wove them into the script.

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On the importance of taking risks
When I was in my twenties, I was very cautious with my career and made incremental progress. I did interesting projects, but didn't really do anything that put myself out there in a vulnerable way. Now, it's urgent for unique voices to cut through all the noise; it's more important, now more than ever, to have our voices heard.
It was a risk to make my feature. But I realized if you're too comfortable, not afraid, then you're not challenging yourself. I say, embrace the fear. Courage comes from not just being fearless, but from the fact you're scared to do something but you still do it.

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On being a female filmmaker
When I was making Stray Dolls, I was coming from more than a decade of working as a film editor. I've worked with highly esteemed directors like Spike Jonze and Harmony Korine. I've been to Cannes. But still people look at me and think I look too young or don't have the experience. It's this constant battle of getting people to see that I deserve to make my film and have the wherewithal to do it.

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On my heroes
Jacques Audiard—I love his film, A Prophet. Wong Kar Wai—I love his color palette. Harmony Korine—his visuals are incredibly immersive. And Jane Campion, who directed The Piano, is one of my all-time heroes.

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On being in the driver's seat as a director
My perspective on leadership in general is that my job is really to serve everybody else. I'm not here to lead with an iron fist, but to provide them with enough inspiration so they bring their A game. The best leaders come from not telling you what to do, but from listening, observing and seeing.

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On the definition of adventure
When you're so immersed and in the flow of things, you lose track of time and other life details. When you're fully in the present—that, to me, is the highest form of adventure.

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"If you're too comfortable, not afraid, then you're not challenging yourself." — Sonejuhi Sinha

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KALIYA WARREN
Grand Rapids, Michigan

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Warren is developing her own film Expatriates, which tells the story of a travel photographer shooting in East Africa who embarks on a road trip across the continent. But first: Lin-Manuel Miranda! She's currently working as the behind-the-scenes director of photography on the film adaptation of of Miranda's musical In the Heights, set to debut in 2020.

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On what I love about what I do
It comes down to adventure for me. As a kid, I saw making movies as going on an adventure and making these big, epic stories a reality. I wanted adventure. When I was young, my desire and love for movies, my love for creating stories, was a kind of escaping. Now that I'm older, I travel—this is my way to experience adventure in life and that, in turn, inspires my movies. My studies abroad in Tanzania inspired a lot of the writing for Expatriates.

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On the inspiration behind Expatriates
After Tanzania, I ended up in Uganda for the summer and met three young men who were traveling by motorcycle from Scotland to Cape Town. I learned this is a route people do. It's something that Ewan McGregor did in the documentary Long Way Down. And then I had this love story in mind and combined it with this amazing road trip and my perspective as a woman of color exploring East Africa…

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On my cinematic style
I love combining music with unexpected settings. In Expatriates, for example, I paired Eighties synth pop with this character traveling in East Africa. Also, combining intimate character-driven stories with blockbuster visual spectacle—I don't think they're mutually exclusive. And there's always some social context to my films. Our lives are just inherently political.

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On being a female filmmaker
There can't be a doubt in anybody's mind that you can do it. And it's tough because we're in such a subjective industry—a lot of it is based on whether somebody believes you can do something. I think that's where systemic issues with sexism come in. There's an inherent bias that people don't always realize. And it doesn't matter what field you're in, whether film or engineering; women have to navigate every industry. This may sound cliché, but I don't think there's one right answer—you just have to be true to yourself and who you are.

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On my heroes
Andrea Arnold—I love American Honey and Fish Tank. Alfonso Cuarón—Y Tu Mamá También. Spike Lee and Richard Linklater are also major inspirations.

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On branding
People think of directors as behind the scenes. But Spike Lee said, in a class I took, that you have to have a persona you put out there. It's helpful for people to know who you are. It'll bring more awareness to your films.

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On the best advice received
It's from a mentor of mine, Kasi Lemmons, who directed Eve's Bayou and the new Harriet Tubman movie. She said, "Be excellent." Whatever you're doing, put your best work into it. You never know who's watching. And, for women, I think it's true you have to be twice as good to go half as far.

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On my own career advice to others
There's a balance between self-esteem and mental health. Don't constantly compare yourself to where others are in their career. Don't think if you're being considered a b*tch or a pushover. It's not productive in terms of getting to where you want to be. You just have to be the badass that you are.

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"Don't constantly compare yourself to where others are in their career. Don't think if you're being considered a b*tch or a pushover... You just have to be the badass that you are." — Kaliya Warren

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ELLIE FOUMBI
Yaoundé, Cameroon

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Foumbi's entree into the industry came as an actress. It wasn't till the Cameroon native found herself reworking her characters—again and again—that a friend recommended she take the plunge into writing and directing. Her award-winning short Zenith—which was inspired by, of all things, TLC's Breaking Amish—is currently in development.

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On family expectations
I come from a very conservative African family—no one is in the entertainment industry, understand the entertainment industry. My parents thought I was crazy. My plan was to go to law school and it just didn't feel right to me. They were, like, what are you doing with your life? I didn't have the nerve to tell them until I went to my first audition, and booked that job. Then it was, like, okay, this is what I am going to do.

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On starting out as an actress
It was a good five, six years of me kicking the can down the road of trying to figure out how to market myself. What's hard about being an actress—or even being an artist in general—is that there's the way you see yourself and then there's the way people see you. As an actor, you have to bridge that gap.
What is it that they see when they cast you? What is that essence you bring into the room? If you don't have a trademark thing—like Danny Trejo, where you go, okay, bad guy—it can be impossible to figure out. My biggest struggle was that no one knew what to do with me because I was able to play every kind of role. When I started, in 2005, the industry was so different. Now you can see Lupita Nyong'o play any role, but that wasn't the case back then.

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On embracing her identity
As an actress, I struggled finding parts. I didn't go out for African characters because I didn't want to be boxed in. My mentor, Sotigui Kouyaté, told me, "Don't try to be like everyone else. Nail down makes you unique, and it's not just that you're African. You need to show them what is different about you. "

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On the inspiration behind Zenith
I just happened to see this show on TLC called Breaking Amish. I didn't know anything about the Amish. So I started Googling everything I could and became really fascinated. It was interesting watching them navigate the world. Then I wondered if there were black people in these communities and that's when I learned the difference between the Amish and the Mennonites, and how the latter had a history of adoption.
I found an article about a black woman who was adopted into the community. The journalist asked her if she wanted to meet her biological parents and she said no. She had made peace with it and chose the Mennonite life. In my mind, I couldn't imagine that. How could you operate in this white world as a black woman without ever knowing—or being curious about—your own culture, where you came from? So that was the genesis of Zenith: What if I could go back to the moment in her life when she was wavering between the Mennonite world and finding her mom?
I had kind of gone through that myself, as a black girl coming to the U.S. from Cameroon. In school, I was the only black girl in my class. I had so many issues navigating my identity. That's probably the reason I struggled so much as an actress and why it took me so long to accept going out for African roles. So I knew I could infuse my own personal experiences into this world of hers.

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On my cinematic style
It's always changing. But one thing my scripts have in common is that a family unit is always at the center, and I'm always interested in dealing with identity, in any way, shape or form. As a director, my style is poetic, quiet, very classical. I focus more on framing and less on just following a character. I like guiding the audience's eye in the way I want to guide it.

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On my heroes
Directors who don't typically move the camera a lot, like Louis Malle and Michael Haneke. And Claire Denis—I lost my mind when I met her at the New York Film Festival. She planted a seed in me as a young girl that I didn't know was there to blossom.

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On overcoming challenges
You have to think like a problem solver: What can I do? How can I tackle a this from a different angle? Sometimes you have to accept that something is not meant to be, but that doesn't mean something better isn't coming. I always say, "You may not get what you want, but you're going to get exactly what you need."
I'm not stubborn where it's my way or the highway. I'm humble to know that I have a lot more to learn. So my answer for a lot of this has been to just keep working. You can create opportunities for yourself.

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On working in a male-dominated set
I knew I couldn't show any sign of weakness. I had to present strength at all times. I literally had to psych myself up: Fake it till you make it, fake it till you make it… And it works, you know?

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"I always say, 'You may not get what you want, but you're going to get exactly what you need.'" — Ellie Foumbi

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