Ava DuVernay on the set of I Will Follow

Ava DuVernay first caught my attention when she guest blogged at indieWire posting a piece titled, “What Color is Indie” I had seen her documentary film My Mic Sounds Nice and heard nothing but good things about I Will Follow (yes, named for the U2 song)– her first narrative film, but when I read what she had to say, she had my full attention and I wanted to know more about the woman behind the films and AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement). I Will Follow is the first theatrical release from the black distribution collective and will be released on DVD Tuesday August 23, 2011. I met up with the funny, friendly and passionate Ava for brunch in Echo Park (a neighborhood in Los Angeles) to talk about her work.

Where did the story for I Will Follow come from?
It’s a personal story based on my relationship with my late aunt. Pretty much everything that happens, the broad strokes of it are true. She was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, and wanted to live in a community that she always dreamed of living in and never could afford. So I moved out of my house, she moved out of hers and we got a place at the beach. An idyllic place that she could just kind of take in and take stock, in her final years.

When it came time to make my first feature I was looking for a story that took place in one location, so I could contain costs because I knew I only had $50,000, and I was really wracking my brain for a one-location story. I was asking friends and getting responses like, “do black Breakfast Club, do a black 12 Angry Men,” which is ridiculous. Finally I remembered that the best first films are personal. I just kind of had to [think] where have I ever been in one location that had meaning. And I was like “Oh my God, in that house!” And I was there for two years, and I stayed there a year after she passed — I just couldn’t leave that space.

So the story all happens in one day, our film. The story takes place on the day that the character finally leaves this house that she shared with her aunt. And I tried to make it rich with all of the nuances of the whole experience.

Was your aunt a rock musician? Was she a session artist?
No, she was an actress. She was an actress in Community Theater; that was her passion, she as also a registered nurse. So she would work at night as a nurse and in the day she would work in community theater. But, the whole idea of this artist who is hidden, in the midstof this…you know there’s this line in the film that goes, “you can see her on the bus and not know she’s a superstar”. That’s how I feel about my aunt. She’d just be walking around taking the bus to the hospital, but you know, she was just this amazing actress who, was in a body of an older black woman who was never going to get the role that she was going up for, never was going to break into Hollywood but she was in a space that made her happy.

How did you make an independent film for $50,000, not quite a micro-budget, but certainly a very low budget by today’s standards? How did you pull that off?
$50,000 cash is what I had. We did a lot of in-kind contributions. Our executive producer Howard Barish, is the executive producer because he had equipment. He’s a network interstitial producer, he does promos for networks. So he has cameras and dollies and he had some of the things that we needed. So his investment in the production was some of that equipment.
One great way if you have a small amount of cash is really looking for producers who can do more than just, sometimes it’s not just about bringing money to the table, what else can they bring? So he brought the equivalent of money in equipment. Then I was able to put my cash towards crew and aesthetics. I wasn’t adept enough, smart enough, savvy enough to make $50,000 work in multiple locations, so I just thought, if I can contain it myself, having never produced a narrative film before, let me just make it easy for myself and get it all in one space, and then take it from there. It worked out.

That place became my home. We would go to it everyday, leave it everyday, we’d leave our stuff, walk away, come back, and it would start to take on the traits of a narrative space. It was a really beautiful first film experience for me as the director.

Though this is a predominately black cast, this is not a film about race. It is at its core a film about relationships and loss. Can you talk about whether or not you chose to consciously take on the idea of “black film”?

I purposely made sure there was no reference to race in the film. I wanted the actions and the beauty of the family itself to say everything that needed to be said about how black people live which is just like everybody else. Certainly I have conversations about race, probably 2-3 times a week. Not even conversations, just, something I say that’s very “black girl”. But for the most part, the other 90% of my day there’s no reference to it at all. It’s embedded in just how I walk through the world. I don’t need to speak to it specifically. And so I was really interested in playing with a narrative that is clearly a black film, I mean (I) am proud to say this is a black film through and through, I’m not trying to say this isn’t a black film, it’s a black independent film, but that doesn’t mean there has to be a specific discussion about it.

There are some things in the film, there are discussions about hip hop, two characters debate Nas and Jay-Z and conversely two characters debate the merits of U2. That’s the spectrum of black people. Get over it, it’s not what you think. So that’s some of what I was trying to get across in the film without saying that.

Black independent films have had difficulty in the past finding an audience, and it seems due to the fact people don’t really understand how to market or distribute them. What was that the idea behind creating AFFRM?

I started my PR firm, DVA, in 1999 when I was 27, before that I came from another big firm that dealt with independent film, and I was working on everything from Dream Girls to Lumumba to Collateral to A Good Day to be Black and Sexy. And there was a disconnect with the independent films, in terms of where to where to allocate those dollars. And too often they would miss their audience. They’d see a film was more of an art house film than a black film.

In 2011, I launched African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM). AFFRM is about saying these films are not just black films or art house films. Our goal is to present a different type of independent film to black audiences. Because too often [the message is] “this film is not for you. Yes there are black people in it, but you know it’s in black and white, and they’re riding bikes in San Francisco…
and there’s music that you probably don’t know… so we’re just going to keep it over here.” And that does an injustice to the filmmaker, who just wants their film to be seen by as many people as possible and it does an injustice to the distributor, because you’re leaving money on the table.

And it does an injustice to the audience-
-And it does an injustice to the audience because you’re withholding art from them.

So our idea was, let’s make a film – and I Will Follow was not the edgiest film, it’s simple, it’s stripped down. It was made specifically for AFFRM. I knew that I was going to launch AFFRM and that’s why I was in such a rush to launch this narrative film. I had this overall idea and I knew our film had to be the first. No one was going to give me their film to distribute without there being some guinea pig or case study. So, the film was made specifically for the AFFRM idea, which is a big idea that I’d had for a while.


Ava DuVernay is currently in post production on her second film narrative feature, Middle of NowhereI Will Follow debuts on DVD August 23, 2011.

August 23rd, 2011 • 4 Comments


  1. August 23, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Horray for people who understand the BLACK experience is an AMERICAN experience. I can’t wait to see this film. Working on getting funding for my next film INTERRUPTING LOVE and am struggling with the decision to cast it black or white because I need a certain amount of funding and non traditional black films are hard to get money and talent attached.

    Kudos to you and best of luck.

  2. RJ
    August 23, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    Im glad to see films of this type. Im white, but do enjoy “Black” films, and think that there should be alot more of them. Like Dbaptiste, I am working on my first film “Dead: The Begininng”, and i am having some fun trying to get funding since the 2 lead roles are played by Blacks. But its not so bad considering i have a student based film crew, and studen based actors. Wether or not i have $0, or $50,000, ill find a way to make the film. Good luck, and i cant wait to see it!

    • FriendsofRJSociety
      August 23, 2011 at 6:45 pm

      Friendly advice RJ? Don’t call us “Blacks.” It is dismissive. We tend to appreciate being called “Black people” or “African-Americans.” Safer bet to offend less, because I’m pretty sure you don’t want to sound like that comes off. Good luck with your production!

  3. January 2, 2012 at 6:01 am

    Inspirational to say the least. I also saw DuVernay’s My Mic Sounds Nice at an Bhagdad indie theater event in Portland, OR.
    I liked what I saw, stirring.
    I am looking forward to Middle of Nowhere.

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