Unconventional Mentor no. 7 - Ava DuVernay

“If your dream is only about you, it's too small.”

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A couple of years ago I discovered the #52filmsbywomen project which was started by the LA based group Women in Films. The challenge was to watch one film a week made by a woman to highlight that, despite there being amazingly talented female film makers, only a tiny % of directors, writers, producers and composers in the film industry are women. I loved the idea of this project as I don’t watch many films, so when I do I’m very particular about what I see and using this as a way to pick things seemed like a good idea.

I’m glad I tried it as it has uncovered some fantastic films that I might otherwise not have seen. Some of my favourites are:

Mustang directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven

Divines directed by Houda Benyamina

Stories We Tell directed by Sarah Polley

Whatever happened to Miss Simone directed by Liz Garbus

Of all the women I discovered through this project, Ava DuVernay is someone who I have gone on to find out more about and look to for inspiration and advice. Choosing a quote to represent Ava was really hard because she speaks out about so many topics and champions lots of different people.

“I want more girls to be able to see themselves behind the camera creating images we all enjoy, and I want to call attention to the fact that women directors are here all over the world.”

Ava is passionate about ensuring that women and girls are represented in film, both in front of and behind the camera. Most of her films are centred on young black female protagonists and she portrays a breadth of characters in the other parts.

It’s not just her films that I love, but her whole approach to the film industry and how she champions women. Ava grew up in Compton, American where access to cinemas was very limited and it was her aunt who used to take her on trips out where she found a love of art and cinema. She talks about how she has had to challenge the patriarchy of the film industry, that we internalise the truth of the stories we see in film and when these stories are only from one perspective, usually a white male perspective, our view of the world is skewed.

Across the three series of the TV show Queen Sugar which she has produced, and Oprah Winfrey is executive producer, Ava DuVernay has selected 25 women to direct the episodes. Many of the women she has chosen were first time TV makers and having this opportunity has led to many of them getting other roles on hit TV shows.

“I made my first film when I was 35, so I firmly believe that you don't have to be one thing in life. If you're doing something, and you have a desire to do something different, give it a try.”

Before embarking on her film making career, Ava had worked as a journalist and set up her own PR firm DVAPR. It was only after several years running this business that she made her first film. As someone who is starting a new chapter in their career at 36, to see what Ava has done over the last 10 years really encourages me to dream a bit bigger than I might have done. If I set myself some big ambitious goals, then where might I be in 10 years’ time?

“When we're talking about diversity, it's not a box to check. It is a reality that should be deeply felt and held and valued by all of us.”

Ava DuVernay is leading the way for how to create a more diverse film industry and telling the stories of people who don’t usually get a main stream voice.

Mentor Advice: Dream big and make a difference in the world

The advice that I take from Ava DuVernay is that when you dream big (and you do the work) then you can produce something that impacts on many people’s lives, improving the world for the better. Ava DuVernay has done so much more than just make great films. She has challenged the norm of the film industry and made films in which underrepresented people can see themselves. She has championed diversity on and off the big screen and the ripple effect of her work and influence is huge.

You can find out more about Ava DuVernay and her work here and for information on the #52filmsbywomen project visit the Women in Film website here.

If you are inspired to take on the #52filmsbywomen challenge there is a great list of films by women that are currently on Netflix here.