WFilm founder, Scarlett Shepard, talks with award-winning Writer/Director and San Francisco Native, Maria Judice about Palm Trees Down 3rd St. which screened at our annual film festival back in 2009, won the Adrienne Shelly Award for excellence in directing, and aired on BET’s Lens on Talent. The film continued to move audiences at the 10th Annual Urban Film Festival this past November in San Francisco. In 2016, Maria launched Indigo Impact and is working to bring left of center stories and creators to global audiences as an Impact Producer.

Maria fondly remembers her humble beginnings as an emerging filmmaker developing Palm Trees Down 3rd St. while earning her M.F.A. from Cal Arts in Film/Video. She always wanted to make films with a message. In Palm Trees Down 3rd St. she turns the lens on two girls and their bond in San Francisco neighborhoods. This short is not only about searching for identity, but also addressing San Francisco’s rapidly changing identity.

Scarlett: I want to talk a little bit about your short film that you directed, Palm Trees Down 3rd St. This is one of my favorite short films that played at the festival. This is your first short film, correct?

Maria: It’s the first one that I felt comfortable putting in public. I was in the Film/Video M.F.A. program at  Cal Arts, and had to make a film basically every semester. I made five or six shitty films before I got to this one that I actually felt comfortable to present to the world.

Scarlett: Agreed, I personally had to make some shitty films to make one good film. As a filmmaker I think it is important to find your voice, and build your chops as a director, writer, and producer.  

Maria: I think your voice is getting honed with every film that you do. I always wanted to make films about social issues that were important to me. I remember one of my first films that I made in the Cal Arts film program. In the film, we had a bunch of people with picket signs and protesting, and no one got it. Everyone laughed during the screening, and I realized this wasn’t common grammar for my classmates in a private privileged art school. I was working in the protests space, the equality space, the space where marginalized people stand up. I had to go back and really do that work and massage it over and over again with every film. I made Palm Trees Down 3rd St. as a letter to my people struggling amidst the rapid changes in the city. From the late 70s through the 90s, I grew up in a multicultural community where Black people consisted of 12% of the population (mirroring the national average). Palm Trees was about the San Francisco that reflected my experience, my community, and the places that I loved on the Southeast side: Downtown, the area now called SOMA, Bayview/Hunters Point, The Mission, The Tenderloin, and those “cuts” in the hills with the breathtaking views.

Maria: Palm Trees is a visible nod to the declining populations of Black, Brown, low-income families, and artists. It was a subtle finger pointing to the socioeconomic pressures mounting and weighing on the city. Underneath the issues, it’s a simple story of two girls – sisters, city girls, daughters of the Bay – finding their father and reconnecting two broken family histories.

Scarlett: What are some films most influential to you?

Maria: Hirokazu Kore-eda is a Japanese filmmaker who made this film called Still Walking. It’s a really simple film in the Ozu style, and he is one of my very favorite directors. Anytime I see the lens turned on a simple story, and the imperfection of simple life being shown, I’m totally into it. It has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, economic class, or anything. There’s something in our profession as filmmakers where tools are used for manipulation. What he presents is an objective view on this world to let us make our own decisions, but also pointing out these contradictions within life.  

Scarlett: Why do you think representation in film is so important?

Maria: I would say that it’s not as simple as representation matters in the film industry. It is important that representation matters in storytelling. Storytelling is, and always has been, a way to disseminate knowledge, and have a discourse about society. We have to make sure we’re giving the fullest amount of representation that we possibly can give to understand where we are coming from and where we’re also going. If that story does not include marginalized voices, if it does not include women, which is 50 percent of the population, we’re blinding ourselves in the future. There are so many women’s stories that have not been told. In history books alone we’ve been dismissed, and filmmaking is a place where we can do some of that correction work. I think we have to start having those hard conversations with each other because much of the Hollywood industry has been an industry of our grandfathers. It has an old antiquated way of working, and that has to eventually be laid to bed so that we can open the industry up and breathe.

Scarlett: What advice can you give to filmmakers?

Maria: Jean Renoir talks about early on making Grand Illusion. It was a commercial bomb. He wasn’t getting money to make his next film – Rules of the Game. It was a social issue film. He’s like “I gotta camera and I gotta bunch of friends, and I’m going to shoot and see what happens.” He let go of his need to have resources, financing, and backing that opened the floodgates for this film. It was a bomb and the audience were asking “What is this social issues film? We don’t want to watch this film.” Ten years later, one of these French critics pulls it out of the archives, and decides this film is one of the most amazing films of the modern era. He [Renoir] said the only way to make a film like that is to let go of what he thought he needed to make it. I think of that whenever I feel I can’t make a film because I need X amount of money. I say to myself, “You got a camera right there. You have a camera in your pocket.” It is exciting because maybe it’s not you and a crew of 30, but maybe it’s you and a crew of 2, and you get be more inventive.

 

Scarlett: What are you working on now?

Maria: I’ve dusted off my acting hat, and I’m acting in a web series called Foundher about women in tech. It’s about a black girl in Oakland that’s a single mom, and trying to pitch to a VC (venture capitalist) for funding as she’s in night school. She dropped out of college because she was a teenage mom and is living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

I’m currently part way through shooting, directing, and acting in a feature film called ElephantElephant is about a woman who witnesses a murder on her front doorstep and suffers from a prolonged mental breakdown that renders her incapable of leaving her apartment.

Also, I’m working on the Indigo Impact project, which is me working as an impact producer and doing the same work that we’re talking about bringing marginalized and left of center films to the forefront. I founded Indigo Impact a few years ago using tools of ethical marketing, promotion, audience, and community building that I learned by self-distributing my own films. I began simply by supporting filmmakers whose work I enjoyed. I found filmmakers in my circle that were struggling for attention and platform because their films were tackling difficult subjects, pushing the boundaries of cinema, or filmmakers that were up against biases of race and gender. I’m committed to bringing their films to local and global audiences. I saw a hole that needed to be filled and used what resources I had to fill it. Indigo has grown to support over 25 films from around the world. 

If you want to learn about Maria’s film projects and Indigo Impact visit:

http://www.mariaaj.com
https://www.indigoimpact.co/