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Meet Chan C. Smith: The Filmmaker Fueled by Raw Narratives

Chan C. Smith is a student of her craft. A lifelong learner and lover of cinematic storytelling, Chan hails from Chicago and is known for the world she creates in her riveting narratives.  Before she became a freelance video content producer, Chan graduated from Northern Illinois University in 2009. She picked up a name for herself as a visionary, creating videos for friends and associates. Over time, word spread about her handiwork behind the scenes and Chan scooped up a number of opportunities on a national and local level including directing music videos, narrative filmmaking, documentary filmmaking and overall video production for artists, entrepreneurs, and businesses.

Ahead of the New Year, Chan is already locking down documentary projects and writing more narrative film projects. Chan demonstrates resilience and depth in her art. Above all, her work ethic is unmatched. In our interview, Chan shared her metamorphosis as a filmmaker and the moments driving her to tap into the fullness of storytelling.

Tyler: Tell us about your greatest hurdle and how you conquered it.
The greatest hurdle I’ve overcome has been creating my first short narrative film. I believe that
filmmakers are also artists on many levels. Filmmakers are piecing together elements of sound, visuals, and writing and hoping to translate their message to their viewers. I’ve always worried about how people respond to my work or if they’ll understand the story that I’m trying to tell. And one of the most nerve-wracking things for me is being open and vulnerable enough to share my vision with the rest of the world.

Tyler: Your short film FEAR, the story about a black teen shot by a police officer, is generating buzz. What inspired the story and what message do you want to send?
FEAR was inspired by the numerous accounts of people, specifically people of color, who have lost their lives at the hands of a police officer. Oftentimes when we hear about these incidents on the news or see videos of police misconduct, our hearts become heavy and we try to rationalize what the victim could’ve done differently or what preventative measures the officer could’ve taken to preserve this person’s life. FEAR is simply a visual representation of the thoughts and emotions that are experienced on all sides prior to the actual incident. I wanted to show how prejudice, the environment in which you live in, anger and misunderstandings can lead to the death of an innocent person.

Tyler: Describe the moment that you realized your calling in life.

The moment I realized my calling was in 2011. At that point in my life, I wasn’t doing much of anything with my craft. After graduating from NIU, I didn’t have any job opportunities lined up so I worked as a delivery driver for a few years. It wasn’t until I got introduced to the love of God that He began to strip away the things that were keeping me stagnant, and showed me that being a visual artist was my true calling. I’ve always been a creative person, but when life comes at you fast, you start to lose focus of what you were truly meant to be.

Tyler: What drives your creativity as an independent filmmaker?

My creativity is driven by everyday experiences and people. I’ve always been interested in how people are feeling and what stories they have to tell. I also look for different ways of telling a story, ways that are not predictable and visually captivating. I’m more interested in creating a project with a flow that captures the viewer’s attention and holds them until the end of the visual, whether that’s through the shots that I capture, the editing, or even the music. I’m also inspired by TV shows and films that experiment with different angles, lighting, and storytelling.

Tyler: You’re working on a new project titled, Behind the Silence. Can you tell us details about it?

Behind the Silence is a short film written and executive produced by Crystal Joy, who also plays the role of Paula. The film follows the story of a young married couple who are trying to adjust to having a child with special needs. It explores the social, emotional, financial, mental struggles that are experienced by families with special needs children and offers a glimmer of hope to those that may feel discouraged by this circumstance.

Who is your fantasy league of women filmmakers? If you could assemble a team of any women to collaborate to bring a film to life, who would they be?

My dream team would definitely lead with Ava DuVernay, she has been soaring and creating award-winning content across all platforms. I’d also love to have the passion and writing that Lena Waithe brings to her projects. Regina King is also a phenomenal director and actress and I would love to have her be a part. One person I’ve become familiar with recently is Tracy Y. Oliver, she directed Jhene’ Aiko’s narrative film for her latest album ‘Trip’ and has written and produced films such as Girls Trip, Barbershop: The Next Cut, and Awkward Black Girl. Lastly, one of my favorite directors/producers is Melina Matsoukas, she’s created music videos for artists such Beyoncé’, Rihanna, and directed episodes of Issa Rae’s, Insecure.

Tell us about your tribe. Who are the women in your village that help you to create and continue to drive your narrative as an underrepresented filmmaker?

My tribe is slowly growing but the people that I love to create with are first and foremost, my good friend LaToya Cross. she is an incredible writer, creative director, and producer. We’ve worked together in many different capacities and she’s one of the few people that share a similar vision. I also work with Ashley Mills, another great storyteller and cinematographer. In terms of producers, I’d say, Jessica Estelle Huggins, who worked on FEAR with me and Zanah Thirus, who I’ll be working with in 2018 on a documentary project. And I can’t forget to mention these talented women: Jovan Landry, who was my editor for FEAR and Kalyn Jacobs, who was my cinematographer for FEAR.

Why do you think it is important to have a strong team of women around you?

I think it’s important to have a strong team of women around because from what I’ve experienced, we don’t talk down to each other or discredit anyone for what they do. Filmmaking is not only creating, but it’s also problem-solving. When we all come together on a project we keep the story at the forefront. We do whatever it takes to make sure the story translates properly on screen. Outside of that, I think we all know how much harder we had to work to get to where we are. While in school, I was 1 of 2 women in my advanced media studies classes, and the only black person in the class at times. I’ve experienced men in the class who just wanted to put my name on a project and they do all the work. I’ve experienced racism and prejudice from teachers and classmates. And there’s nothing like seeing women that are just like you and have had the same experiences working together at their highest capacity.

In making your mark in the industry, what is your wish for the next generation of black women directors?

My wish for the next generation of black women directors is for them to be strong and stand their ground. Get the respect you deserve. Get the opportunities that you deserve. And get out there and create at your highest level possible.You’re no stranger to stepping out on faith and investing in your dreams.

What advice can you give to women who feel stuck, even hopeless in pursuing their goals?

The biggest thing I’ve learned on this journey is that your process takes time and cannot be rushed. Those of us that have dreams of being something greater have to know that it takes time, it takes the right connections, and it takes a lot of courage. You also have to understand where you are currently and work with what you already have. As my pastor Gaylena White recently said, “Some of us are so obsessed with future success that we haven’t opened our present.” I believe that if you evaluate what you’re able to do now and work with that, one day you’ll look up and can’t believe how far you’ve come and what you’ve learned.

Immerse yourself in Chan’s world. Take a look through her lens. 

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