I met Jessica Beshir at the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival. We were picked up at the airport together and just got to talking. She is a fascinating human, mother, a filmmaker who sees herself as “emerging” and yet whose work has already screened at Sundance, Tribeca, HotDocs. She grew up in Ethiopia and now makes her home in New York City. This interview is just the beginning of what I hope will be a long-lasting relationship with this artist.
How do you speak about yourself as an artist… you’re a filmmaker?
What’s happening for you when I ask that? Do you fall into the camp of women or artists who have a hard time defining themselves in the arts?
Luckily for me I haven’t had to define myself too much! It’s not like I have a huge body of work! (Laughing) I had wanted to do film for a long time. I went to UCLA but I couldn’t afford film production so I ended up studying critical studies of film… which is essentially watching a whole bunch of films. And then I moved to New York and my dream was to do my MFA at NYU in film production. But that didn’t happen. You know, life! Then I had a daughter… and slowly that idea of ever making a film got further and further away from me. I didn’t really know a lot of people here in New York, I didn’t know the film community. I didn’t know how to introduce myself—it was like so I’m here, but then what? I hit a point where I decided that I just wanted to know what this desire was about—for ME. So I finally picked up a camera.
So it was a life interrupted… but you continued to have this desire to make a film.
Yes, and truthfully the films that came to my mind or that I wanted to see myself came from Ethiopia where I was raised. I grew up in Ethiopia and so all of the images that were invading my mind were from that childhood. When I moved to Brooklyn I started going to the park every day, taking my baby to the park. One day I’m strolling, with my baby, and there was this man that I used to see all the time in the neighbourhood who had this amazing presence, this amazing determination—like he was going somewhere—carrying something wrapped in a trash bag under his arm. I wondered where he was going. One morning, very early, I found myself in the park again and discovered what he doing! I found out that he was under a tunnel in the park and that thing he was holding was a piece of wood. There he was, tapping away—tap dancing on the piece of wood that he had been carrying! So THIS was what he was doing! It was a revelation to me… and once I saw that I also saw that he wasn’t doing it for show. It was for himself. It was so beautiful. My baby was always quiet whenever we’d pass him tapping—like we both knew that this was something we didn’t want to intrude upon because this was someone’s discipline, someone’s practice.
He Who Dances on Wood
So I continued watching him from far away. Slowly, day after day, he started to notice me watching him and he commented, “You don’t talk much do you? I’ve seen you around.” Anyways, we became friends. I realized this man, 74 or 75, who I learned was a poet and photographer, was using tap to experiment with sounds. I was mesmerized by his practice and it very much informed me of the possibility for self-determination. This man, walking around with his piece of wood, showing up in that place every single day, no excuses, rain or shine…
Showing up for himself!
For himself, exactly! For what he believed and what brought him joy. I saw myself and I thought that could be me with a camera. I could walk around with a camera and do that for me. So I went and got myself a very old camera and asked if I could shoot him. He said of course, because we were now friends, and it’s not like I was going to interrupt him. He said, “You do your thing!” So I started. I taught myself how to do it all—I was essentially practicing you know. I started to see composition, what looked like what, what meant what, rhythm… and then over time (like years passed!) I had all this footage of him. I had this bad camera but an accumulation of footage… so I got a better camera to really make it look the way I wanted it to.
So he was your first documentary subject.
Did you bring your baby?
Yes of course… but by then she was grown up. Like I said, this was years in the making. She was five by the time I started shooting with the better camera. In the middle of that process I had an opportunity to go to Ethiopia. While I was there I shot several other things, came back and finished what was my first edited film: He Who Dances on Wood. Because of what I had shot in Ethiopia I now had this other thing to work on, footage about this man that I grew up watching. I grew up with no TV, so at night time if you wanted to do something fun, you would go and hang out with this man who fed the hyenas. He had this nightly ritual of feeding the hyenas (…seems there is something about ritual for me…) and, no matter what, he would trek outside the walled city where I grew up and he would go there to bond with the hyenas. He would pet them, he would hug them, he would kiss them. As kids we would go and watch him… you could just go and sit there and quietly watch.
Hyenas are dangerous right?
Oh yeah, that’s what made it amazing, his creating of this amazing relationship with them. So on that journey back to Ethiopia I decided to shoot this man’s ritual. That footage became my other film Hairat.
Now I had these short films and I knew I wanted to do something with them, but it’s not like I had the money to send them to festivals. A friend of mine who had seen the hyena film called me up and said “Today’s the last day to apply to Sundance. I think you should apply… please!” So I just did it. I remember thinking, “Jess, what are you doing? That’s eighty dollars!” And then I forgot about it. Meanwhile He Who Dances on Wood had screened in New York (thanks to my friend who runs this group and curated the line up). Right after that screening Vimeo called and said they would like to make the film a ‘staff pick’ (I didn’t even know what that was!) and then later on I got a call from Sundance. So… it’s been nice. Overwhelming.
And then you were at Hot Docs?
With He Who Dances on Wood, yes.
And other festivals.
Yes, my films have been invited to many places now.
Do you feel like you’ve made art against the odds in the sense that you didn’t have the training you necessarily wanted and you had some interruptions…?
I think in my case ‘ignorance is bliss.’ I didn’t know what it took to make these things happen. Now looking back, I feel like I understand things differently.
What now for you? Do you need to do more?
Oh yeah. I made a third film right after I came back from Sundance, which premiered at Tribeca about a painter who has been painting the same subject for thirty years: his wife. It was picked up quickly. Plus, I had really shot a whole documentary when I was in Ethiopia—I just edited the hyena piece into a short because it was a way to start building a community—so I have that footage sitting there to work with. I don’t regret not going to film school; but what film school does is give you community, which is something I didn’t have. So the festivals are also a way to create community. I mean I met you!
Now look at us! (Laughing)
My dream is to make the films that I have in my mind. A lot of them are set in Ethiopia since that’s where images of life and childhood belong for me. I don’t see these images anywhere.
You don’t see your childhood projected?
Not even close. And I have continued to think… wouldn’t it be amazing to do that. To show that life that I knew… that pace of life that is so different from here... the idiosyncrasies, the thoughts.
Do you see yourself as a feminist/activist in this work?
It seems like just doing the act of making these films is activism. I think picking up the camera and shooting exactly what I want and making my vision come alive—that continues to be an act of self-determination, an act of defiance in a way. I said that I was going to do it without a need for exterior validation. It’s not like you have 500 people telling you to do this. I believe in myself for myself. My subject matter might not be “feminist” but I think the act itself speaks volumes. I don’t have to have a female subject in order to speak about feminism. The act itself speaks.
What does your daughter think of what you’re doing?
She’s proud of me! I’m not sure if she understands how hard it is to get these things done (we both laugh!), but I want her to see me doing what I want to do, following through. I mean I’m just starting, finding the way I say things, what I want to talk about… as a director, as a cinematographer. I’m learning, which is very exciting!
Jessica Beshir is a Mexican-Ethiopian writer and director based in Brooklyn. Her first short film, Hairat, premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and has screened at festivals worldwide. Her second short film He Who Dances on Wood made its world premiere at 2017’s Hot Docs Film Festival. Her most recent short film Heroin premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. Beshir participated in the TIFF talent lab 2017 and is currently developing her debut feature film.