Creating Community and Spaces for Collaboration: An Interview with Eboni Johnson, Director of the Denton Black Film Festival Institute
Shamethia: Eboni, first off, thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview and sharing more about the Denton Black Film Festival (DBFF) and Institute. We’re excited to be talking with you today.
Eboni: Thanks for having me.
Shamethia: Before we talk about DBFF, we wanted to learn more about you. What brought you to filmmaking? What do you enjoy about filmmaking and producing?
Eboni: I’m relatively new to the whole industry. Filmmaking wasn’t my initial area of expertise. I got my undergrad degree in wildlife and fisheries sciences from Texas A&M in 2015 and wanted to become a wildlife biologist, to study lions in Africa. After graduating I came back home to Dallas and was looking for a job, but that wasn’t working out, so I thought, “Let me get out of Texas and try a different environment.” I went to Boston and did an internship with the National Park Service for six months, and it was great. It was great just to be an adult and be on my own and figure out what I wanted to do. Being in Boston—the east coast is very heavily saturated with filmmaking, especially documentary filmmaking, so I started looking at programs there. I had come to love media and how it can educate in such an immersive and impactful way. With film, you don’t feel like you’re being taught. It feels like you’re connecting with people and learning more about them. I started marrying the visual aspects of media with educational documentaries. It seemed like the perfect marriage, and I became more interested. There are great programs on the east coast, of course, but I thought “I’m not paying out-of-state tuition” [laughs], so I looked in Texas. UNT [University of North Texas] had a program, so I applied and started in the fall of 2017. I’ll be graduating in 2020.
But I’ve always surrounded myself with media, television—it’s something I’ve done as a comfort since I was young. I’m also a storyteller. I love to write. I love creating worlds and connecting people through creative means. Filmmaking allows those things. Especially documentary filmmaking because it alerts us to the reality of the world and the people that we interact with every day. I just love art and the power it has to create empathy. To connect humanity.
Shamethia: I love how you describe your work as storytelling. Even if you’re working in zoology with the National Park Service, I would imagine that requires a bit of storytelling too.
Eboni: Definitely. I was a tour guide for the home of Henry Longfellow in Cambridge, MA. I was working in his house, and he’s a poet, so it all kind of came full circle. Storytelling is very impactful. I think one of the leading legacies of humanity is the story.
Shamethia: This is a bit off-script, but I’m curious, how did your family respond when you transitioned from zoology to media and filmmaking?
Eboni: [laughs] I love my mom. It’s been my mom, my brother, and me. I feel like she doesn’t always know what I’m really doing, so she just asks, “Are you okay? Do you need anything?” And I respond, “I’m fine, Momma.” And she’s always saying, “Okay, I’m here for you. You just do whatever makes your heart content.” I love that about my mom. No matter what my brother and I do, whatever makes us happy, she supports. She never said, “No. I don’t think you should do that. This isn’t feasible for you and your future.” Instead she says, “Are you okay? Is this what you want? Is this going to make you happy? If so, I’m supporting you.” It’s really awesome to have support like that.
Shamethia: Absolutely. Shout out to your mom and all the mommas who support the work we do. We couldn’t do it without them.
Eboni: Yes! Definitely.
Shamethia: Back to filmmaking—what are some highlights or important experiences you’ve had as a filmmaker?
Eboni: Being in the program at UNT has definitely shaped the way I engage with people and the way I engage with the power of having the ability to tell someone’s story. Oftentimes, and traditionally—especially in documentary filmmaking—it’s been people telling stories of other people and then using it in their own way. That’s kind of manipulative and, really, imperialistic and might be domineering if the approach is, “I’m going to capture the other and the other is appealing because it’s not the norm.” But as an artist of color, I’ve tried to shape the ways in which I engage communities and individuals and get them involved in the storytelling process. I think it’s amazing when you’re coming into a place and you’re open about your intentions: “Can I tell your story? Can you help me tell your stories?”
Its’s also about creating relationships—creating lasting relationships. Not just saying, “I’m going to come in and take this story,” and “Thanks for the information, and thank you for building my resume and my career.” What I ask is, “How can I create a sustainable way for you to express what’s going on in your community and your life, and in ways that support you?”
Last summer I made a documentary about housing discrimination centered on west Dallas and the gentrification in that area. I connected with a pastor in that community. He and I still connect today, and I think that’s really special. I’m a very reserved and shy person, but I’m honored that I still have a relationship with him and am still able to help promote his ministry and the work he’s doing in the community. I want to use my talents in the best way I can to help other people who don’t have the means or who don’t know the technology, so one of my most important goals and key interests is to the democratize the camera and allow a diverse range of voices to have accessibility and tell their own stories.
Shamethia: I appreciate how your frame your work in terms of relationship-building and “helping someone tell their story.” Those comments remind me of feminist and Indigenous approaches to research and community outreach that I’ve been reading about recently, particularly the principle that a researcher or anyone else working in the community should be accountable to those communities where the work is being done.
Eboni: Yes. Absolutely.
Shamethia: What you’re describing sounds like co-writing with communities.
Shamethia: So how did you get involved with the Denton Black Film Festival in particular?
Eboni: Coming into the program, I was hungry to gain information about what can help me as a filmmaker, and immerse myself in knowledge about this industry. In 2017, before I even started the program at UNT, I saw a flyer for the Denton Black Film Festival in Dallas and thought, “That’s really cool”; then I saw another flyer at school and thought, “Let me reach out to them.” So I emailed them about volunteering. I went to a meeting and just sat and listened, and it sounded really intriguing—a local black film festival. It checked all of the boxes I wanted, so I approached Mrs. Linda Eaddy who is the director of film programing. I said: “Hi, I’m Eboni. I’d like to help in any way I can,” and she kind of just yanked me [laughs] and said, “We could really use you.” So I’ve been yanked in ever since, and my roles have changed. My first year I helped Mrs. Eaddy with the film programming. They’d started workshops and panels in 2018, so I also helped plan the panels, invited people to come, and co-led them with the workshop director, Erica. After that year, Erica left and I shifted into the director role for workshops and panels. This past festival , we officially became the DBFF Institute. I’m the director of that program. Agatha Beins is the assistant director, and she’s been awesome and wonderful. I couldn’t do a lot of it without her.
But it’s been a great experience. I think it gives me an edge in the way it helps me understand the business of filmmaking. You can make a film, but you have to get it out there. You want people know who you are. You want to see you work out there and have an impactful engagement with communities. There’s a lot that goes into the process: filmmaking, knowing the community around you locally and connecting with them, and understanding what goes on beyond production and postproduction such as distribution. Everything that follows is significant to your work as well.
Shamethia: Kudos to you for seeing those DBFF flyers and deciding to engage. You followed up and were “yanked right in.”
Eboni: [Laughs] I was.
Shamethia: Can you tell us more about your role as the institute director and describe the relationship between the institute and the festival?
Eboni: Yes. So, during the 2019 festival we launched the institute. The institute is ever-evolving, but I want to have an impact for filmmakers and to create community collaboration the same way Sundance would in their institute. Apart from the Academy [of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences], Sundance is the most prestigious institution creating resources and development opportunities for filmmakers. We know there are opportunities in Los Angeles, opportunities in New York—on the coasts—but there’s really not much in the middle of America, especially Texas and Dallas. The institute is an educational body: we want to provide workshops and panels and discussions for filmmakers. But we’re also creating spaces for creatives to come together to know each other, collaborate, utilize their talents, and discover effective means to elevate the quality of work in Dallas—elevate us as artists on a national stage. We want the institute to be a national organization but while also keeping a local focus, recognizing the talent around us and supporting their aspirations as filmmakers. I’d say our work, right now, is education and artist development, but with the 2020 festival, we’re also launching the Technology Expo that will be a part of the institute. Overall, we’re bringing together different resources for creatives and fostering different conversations for black artists in general.
Shamethia: Since you mentioned black artists, what do you hope the festival conveys about African-American cultures and lives?
Eboni: I think it’s important to understand the diversity of the diaspora, that there’s not a monolith of blackness, and that we all have such unique and impactful stories. We need to not only educate the world but educate ourselves in understanding how blackness is a spectrum. We have so much to learn from one another, and there are so many ways we can connect and create community for one another. Historically, we’ve been divided in some way or another, for one reason or another, but filmmaking and art in general is such a unifying experience—whether you’re in a gallery and you’re looking at a painting or you’re in a movie theater watching a film for 90 minutes or 120 minutes. You’re in that space, and you’re able to dismantle all those areas of identity and the biases you might have for those minutes. The DBFF calls us to experience one another in our truth and our essence and understand that the culture is so beautiful and diverse. It’s amazing to see the vast talent that we have and the beauty that has come from our historical struggle. We can come together and recognize and be highlighted for the work we are continuously doing to uplift ourselves.
Shamethia: I’ve been really interested in how filmmakers and other artists are using Afrofuturism and science fiction to narrate black experiences. Of course, there’s Jordan Peele’s film Get Out, Ava DuVernay’s reconceptualization of the novel A Wrinkle in Time [by Madeline L’Engle], and even Missy Elliott’s performance at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards generated a lot of buzz because of the costuming and sci-fi themes. When you stop and think about it, Missy Elliott has been enacting a version of Afrofuturism since the 1990s.
Shamethia: What are some other creative and innovative ways you see artists telling black stories? What gets you excited about current trends in filmmaking and storytelling?
Eboni: I love seeing the pervasiveness of blackness in the mainstream. I think it’s exciting to see the way we have come to the table and shocked people, dumbfounded the people who are holding power. With Black Panther the reactions were, “Oh my gosh, Black Panther made so much money, we’ll have to make another one of these films.” The success of that film shows how we can show up for one another and how powerful our culture is, how significant it is that we’re able to sit at the table and show ourselves in positive ways. Having an opportunity to make known our multiple dimensions, personalities, and complexity as people shows that we’re not a monolith. We can talk about things in such vast ways and in to varying degrees. I’m excited about this wave of artists who are steeped in this thoughtful consciousness about blackness, unity, and progress. I hope that art is the leader in creating cultural revolution. I hope these thoughts, conversations, and dialogues that are being created around film and created around different art practices can lead to other social and political conversations and progressions.
Shamethia: I’m glad you mentioned Black Panther. You can’t see me since this is a telephone interview, but I’m doing the “Wakanda Forever” pose right now. [Laughter] We could probably devote an entire interview just to the storytelling choices in that film, but I’ll try to stick to the topic at hand. You mentioned the Tech Expo that will be featured in DBFF 2020. What other events will be part of the 2020 institute programming?
Eboni: A key panel this year is on social responsibility and media making. It’s going to be a conversation about filmmakers as storytellers and our sense of advocacy, how we communicate stories in our society and do so in ways that are ethical and responsible to the people we are presenting and representing on the screen. I’m excited about the lineup we have for that. Each of those panelists has a different way of telling stories and will discuss how they approach social issues in their work. I haven’t seen this kind of conversation happen a lot, so hopefully we’ll have a good gathering of filmmakers and creatives to discuss the importance of making media ethically and consciously.
We also have workshops on distribution. I have a good relationship with a company called Seed&Spark, and one of their directors is coming to the festival and will do a do a workshop about distribution. That’s a very important discussion to have. What do you do after your film is made? How do you get it seen? There’ll also be a discussion about pitching: How do you get money from different organizations. How do you express your work and talk about your ideas in a way that can get you in different places and lead you to different resources. Another event focuses on black filmmaking and the historic context of black representation in film. We’ll have a speaker analyze the ways black characters are presented in film—how we always have to entertain or serve the mainstream culture. The speaker will look through film history and talk about the different black archetypes like the Mammy, Uncle Tom. . .
Shamethia: The Magical Negro. . .
Eboni: Yes. And those archetypes are still evident. I’m excited about that workshop as well. The schedule is available on the DBFF website, and we hope everyone comes out and enjoys these events.
You can buy a pass for the whole festival or get tickets for individual screenings. All workshops and panel discussion are free except a workshop on freelancing, which is going to be great. If you’re an independent artist, you’ll probably have to freelance a lot in order to make money. So we’re offering a freelancing workshop from an artist, David Heredia, who’s an animator from New York and wrote a book about freelancing. He’s going to lead a workshop on how to start your business and market yourself. That’s going to be a vital workshop to attend. But, yes, go to the DBFF website for information about events and how to RSVP and purchase tickets.
Shamethia: That’s a great point that you make about the practical aspects of filmmaking. I think there’s a sense around filmmaking that it’s an exciting and sexy venture, but there’s also the need to pay your bills and have the money to fund your projects.
Eboni: [Laughs] Yes. Definitely. It can be a struggle, but it’s worth it.
Shamethia: Do you have suggestions for educators who might be interested in learning more about the institute or integrating film into their teaching? I know you’re deeply interested in bridging education and media.
Eboni: Hmmm. That’s a good question. Even the topic we were just discussing—black archetypes in media and film. I want to have more of those dialogues, and I think they often come from those people who are steeped in film studies and media studies and academia—who have the history and research to talk about those things. I want to connect those conversations to creatives and filmmakers because I think, a lot of times, like you said earlier, we go into projects thinking they’re sexy and cool, but we don’t have the full context or history, so we lose some sharpness. We aren’t able to approach the topics in a purposeful manner. So, I don’t have an answer for how. . . I definitely want to start connecting with the local universities like the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University and creating spaces for those conversations. But that’s a great question! I’ll have to continue this dialogue with Agatha. She is wonderful. I know she wanted to open up space where people could develop and propose their own workshops for the institute, and we would review it in a manner similar to an academic conference. We could tell interested professors: “Yes, this sounds great. Let’s create a space for you to talk about this. You are a professor. You know this topic. You want to discuss this in a wider setting. So let’s talk about it in a film festival because attendees want to know these things as well.” It’s something I definitely want to happen.
Shamethia: There seems to be a lot of student interest around these topics as well. Texas Poet Laureate Emmy Pérez visited TWU in November and led a workshop on social justice writing that was well-attended. Like you, she was interested in using stories to represent one’s lived experiences and advance social change.
Eboni: Yes. That’s it.
Shamethia: How do you see your own interests in filmmaking overlapping with the mission/vision of the institute?
Shamethia: Do you notice how we’ve saved some of the heavier questions for the end?
Eboni: [laughter] That is a big question. I don’t know how long my tenure is going to be as DBFF Institute Director because I have to get a job and pay off student loans [laughter], but my biggest desire—I suppose my filmmaking philosophy—is community and creating space for collaboration. With this position, I want to help create those spaces or at least establish a foundation and allow people to get out of their own genre and not feel alone. People sometimes don’t know where to go, so they try on their own, and it’s not successful. The institute creates opportunities and places for creatives to gather. It tells people, “You are a cinematographer, you are an editor, you are a producer. Let’s find ways for you all to get together and make an excellent piece of work that you can show and then move on nationally or globally, to create a bigger name for yourself.”
But, overall, community and collaboration are my biggest goals for the institute and for myself.
Shamethia: Thank you for that answer. Now, these final questions are hopefully light and fun. What are the filmmakers and/or films that you’re currently excited about? Who is your favorite storyteller?
Shamethia: I said they were light questions, but they might be more complicated than I thought.
Eboni: [Laughter] They are! So much pressure. What filmmakers am I most excited about? I would have to say I’m a big fan of Ava DuVernay and the work she’s doing. Especially her documentary, 13th. That is amazing. If I could make a work that conscious and articulate, that’s all I need. Another filmmaker would be Jordan Peele. Having a black man redefine horror films—
Eboni: He’s stepped into a space where we haven’t been represented historically and is shaping things in a way that are socially and politically moving and engaging. I look forward to the work that comes from those two, and I would love the opportunity to work with them, if I can, in the future. And my favorite storyteller?… Ohhh… It would be a toss-up or a tie, I guess…
Shamethia: You don’t even have to choose. Talk about all of them if you’d like.
Eboni: [laughter] Okay. Probably Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.
Shamethia: (claps enthusiastically)
Eboni: [laughter] I would also say James Baldwin after watching a lot of his interviews. All of their voices are so unique and so engaging. They way these three talked about blackness, and the way they painted pictures of worth and value, of blackness and struggle and complexity, is amazing to me. They feed my soul. They make poetry through words—
Shamethia: Yes! Agreed!
Eboni: So that would be my three.
Shamethia: You don’t even have to say anything else. That’s a benediction! [Laughter] With your comments on Morrison, Angelou, and Baldwin, you’re reiterating a point you made earlier about using art and stories to document lived experience, complexities, struggles, all that—
Shamethia: And since we’re on the topic, when Toni passed not too long ago, there was a photo floating around of her and the black women’s writing group she was a part of in the 1970s that included Alice Walker, June Jordan, and Ntozake Shange. Have you seen it? The picture showcases how many black artists wrote together and supported each other’s work, which is what the DBFF seems to be doing with the festival and the institute. I’ll have to send the photo to you.
Eboni: Yes, please do!
Shamethia: Well, this was a wonderful interview Eboni. Thanks so much again for your time.
Eboni: Will we be seeing you at the DBFF festival this year?
Shamethia: Definitely. I’m looking forward to it. I’ll try to bring an entire crew [laughter]. Thanks again Eboni!