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Filmmaker Vanessa Black Uses Art To Mobilize Millennials

Picture of Jay M. Singleton
Jay M. Singleton
Updated: 8 January 2017
The socially conscious New York filmmaker talks in depth about her goal of using art to motivate young people, and to champion their voices and visions.
Vanessa Black in Ukraine
Photo by: Mike Berlucci

New York-based filmmaker Vanessa Black has elevated herself from being just “a kid with a camera” to an emotion-stirring, movement-spawning activist and game changer. Creating an elevated dialogue through her company, BLKFLM, she speaks to modern society through visual exploits that blend politics with pop culture.

The 27-year-old journalist doesn’t deliver the ordinary statistical style reporting, but instead puts a face to today’s controversial issues and focuses on “extraordinary everyday heroes.” For Black it’s about the people: “It’s important to make your explanation as personal as possible. That’s the core.”

Black, a graduate of University of Southern California’s film program, isn’t a recent grad with typical hopes for Hollywood. Rather, she looks to exercise a different aspect of the industry’s competency: “I love using media for education,” she says. “In entertainment, it’s underused. I like making content that’s entertaining, but that you get some value out of — hopefully to inspire curiosity and cause you to do your own research into an area.”

Black recalls a now-or-never situation that led her to advocacy through film: “I was developing all these projects that weren’t getting momentum. I was frustrated. I wanted to do projects around the ideas behind youth, passion and mobilizing young people: how they can create collective change. And then I adapted that to what was happening in Ukraine.”

Black approached individuals on the front lines of the social revolution and captured intimate portraits and camera interviews of a Ukranian post-revolutionary civilian defense group during the 2014 riots in Crimea. She then harnessed the power of social media to cultivate awareness of the insurgency and thus #UkraineRising was born.

Unafraid to tackle hotbed discussion topics or to position herself in the midst of unpredictable civil unrest, Black understands the occupational hazards and does not see them as impediments on either her success or her plans for the future. “I’ve gotten heat for my work, but I keep going forward,” she says. “My role is to say things that people don’t want you to say, which should be polarizing, [but] that’s part of the job description [and] it’s part of the occupation.”

Her approach to hashtag activism and youth leadership has lead to other serendipitous endeavors, including her latest short, Kid Warrior, which focuses on the dynamic efforts of a socially conscious and spirited teen, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, and his “tribe”.

She first met the 15-year-old “Anti-Bieber” youth leader at the United Nations Peace Day. “I was so impressed by what he had to say. I knew I wanted to work with him and I kept him in the back of mind,” she says. Black noticed a void in the hip-hop activist’s content. “He had plenty of videos, but it was all adult material to consume. He didn’t have much that [was] shareable for kids. The idea was to make a piece of content to show to other kids and to make it relatable to them.”

Martinez is an ambassador for Black’s personal belief in creativity for social good and the vital role of youngsters in causing positive revolution.

“I think young people are curious and fearless. They haven’t been told ‘no’ enough to not believe in themselves,” she says. “As you get older you’ve gotten used to hearing no, so you don’t think you can make an impact. If you can get young kids engaged, there is progress. When [Martinez] thinks about change or impact, he does it in his town. He passed a fee for plastic bags and lawsuits against companies for fracking. There aren’t many [teenagers] doing things like that. He’s good at guiding kids to take initiative.”

Kid Warrior
Photo by: Vanessa Black

Concerning the making of Kid Warrior and being with the Earth Guardians’ Youth Director and his family during the shooting. Black says, “Filming with the family was so fun and easy. I feel like I’ve known them for years and it was as if it were written in the stars to do this short together.

“It was fun goofing off between takes, and getting to see the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the boys’ lives. It’s a lot of work from their beautiful mother Tamara to pull everything off. Think about how much work it takes for the average mom to get her kids to soccer practice? Then add the trips like the Arctic, politicians, rallies and a tour schedule to the normal teen stuff. It’s pretty incredible.”

Kid Warrior is the type of thought-provoking content needed to change perceptions of today’s youth from self-involved and indulgent to socially aware. “The selfie-generation is disconnected from each other with the empty communication of the Internet,” Black says. “We need more people who are just…doing things and where it’s seen as cool and respectable to do it.” Black sums it up by saying, “We put people on a pedestal just for the sake of voyeurism — Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears — and it’s fun and sexy. You can still have that — but have some depth to it.”

The determined filmmaker has no limits to the avenues she would like to travel to spread this message. Black’s goals extend beyond shareable viral video content with plans to make her impression on a variety of mediums including “television, street art, gallery shows [and] curated art events with museums.”

She aims to use the ways in which we consume information to spur cause-minded creativity: “The goal of BLKFLM is to inspire people to think outside the box, to use art to spread big ideas and to inspire curiosity about the world we live in. At some point, I hope the company [will be] known for getting people engaged, [for inspiring] people to do their own projects, [inspiring] people to have a say in their own communities and hometown with authentic and genuine intention.

“Being an artist is a commitment to social good which is undervalued,” she continues. “Artists are people who are discussing and teaching. Art is an important part of society. Maybe it doesn’t necessarily earn high yields, but morally it does. Imagination for mobilizing people is one of the most valuable tools we have as people.

“I hope to be a role model. It’s what you can do in life. Hope to be an example for someone. Inspire one person.”

And her advice to new filmmakers is as honest and as real as her approach to her own vocation: “You can do anything.”