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Programs Thu 12.14.2023

Global Media Makers Connects South Africa and the U.S. Led by the Hand of Avril Speaks

As Film Independent’s Global Media Makers (GMM) program has broadened its scope to new countries and regions, a significant part of GMM’s initiative has been to conduct worldwide film diplomacy outreach trips and international film workshops guided by U.S. industry mentors, often Film Independent Fellows.

Recent trips have included destinations such as Algeria, India, Morocco, Nepal and Tunisia. In 2022, GMM started supporting filmmakers throughout the continent of Africa. Our first trip was to South Africa was with producer Avril Speaks, a veteran program mentor who has previously collaborated with two filmmakers from Johannesburg.

Avril was gracious enough to share her experience with GMM in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria, as well as some background about her long-standing relationship with Film Independent. Here’s the conversation:



Avril Speaks at the 2022 GMM LA Residency’s Creative Producing Retreat (Photo by Gaby Zarazir, 2022 GMM Fellow)

Can you tell us about your background? Where are you from and what brought you to Los Angeles?

Speaks: I’m originally from the NY/NJ area and I’ve been a storyteller since I can remember. I went to film school at Columbia University and by the time I graduated with my Masters, I had already made two feature films. I prided myself on being an independent filmmaker who doesn’t live by the status quo, and who’s okay with creating my own path to creativity and success. In 2004, I moved to Atlanta and added college professor to my resume, realizing that I had a love for teaching filmmaking to up-and-coming artists, which gave me the freedom to pursue my own passion of making indie films. I moved to Washington, DC, in 2010, continued teaching and making films until I started feeling like it was time for a change, which is why I moved to Los Angeles.

How did your relationship with Film Independent begin? What Artist Development programs were you involved in, and how did it help you in your film career?

Speaks: When I moved to Los Angeles, I was content with continuing my path as a professor. However, I quickly realized that surviving in LA on an adjunct professor salary was not ideal nor sustainable, so I quit my teaching job and decided to go “all-in” in doing more production work, and that is what led me to Film Independent. I started working with a friend/fellow filmmaker, Nijla Mu’min, and we created shorts and eventually a feature film together. She had written a film called Jinn. She asked me to produce it and I (eventually) said yes. As two black women filmmakers who were both used to playing by our own rules, we didn’t know anyone in the industry, let alone anyone who could finance a film. We applied for Film Independent Fast Track and everything took off from there. We found our first funder through that program and were able to make the film, and Film Independent remained a strong supporter of the film and us as filmmakers. I later went on to do the Producer’s Lab and the Docu-Series Lab, and I also became part of Global Media Makers, first as a staff member, and then eventually as a Creative Advisor and mentor.

You are in a unique position as you have produced a feature film, African America, with South African producers. Can you tell us what that process was like compared to the other works you’ve produced primarily in the United States?

Speaks: One of the biggest differences was the amount of support that we had coming out of South Africa. With African America, we were able to use the resources of organizations such as the National Film & Video Foundation, the Gauteng Film Commission, and others to keep pushing the film forward. I haven’t found that kind of government support in the States. This model allowed us to maintain ownership as filmmakers and to actually have a say in what happens to our film and where it is shown. This partnership with South African producers gave the film more outlets and opportunities to be seen.

Avril in conversation with South African GMM Fellow Khosie Dali about her film African America (available on Netflix) at the American Corner in Cape Town

You have gone through a complete cycle, as you were the first mentor to travel with Global Media Makers to Johannesburg and Pretoria, and then became a Creative Advisor for our newest Fellows. Can you share what that experience was like?

Speaks: It was amazing! Having the opportunity to visit Johannesburg for the first time, I was able to not only meet some of the key stakeholders there but then to also understand the context in South Africa a little bit better so that when we had fellows to come to the U.S. for the residency, I was able to have a better framework for the stories they were trying to tell. The majority of filmmakers in the (GMM residency) Creative Development track this year were South African, which felt like a full-circle moment having just visited there the year prior. Visiting the countries where our fellows are from is extremely important to keep this program relevant and impactful for filmmakers. It was also such a joy to see such diverse talent coming out of South Africa! Each project had a unique perspective of what was happening in their country, which was a great thing to see.

You’ve returned this year to South Africa and were able to visit Durban, meet industry stakeholders there and attend FAME Week in Cape Town. What made you want to return and what was different this time?

Speaks: I fell in love with South Africa the first time I went. The people, the food, everything felt familiar even though I had never been there before. It was an amazing experience to meet so many South Africans who were just as excited about the craft of filmmaking and who were eager to build partnerships in the US. There was an excitement there that was contagious and made me want to go back and build on what we had started the year prior. I was also very grateful to go to Cape Town and Durban, two cities I hadn’t been to on the last trip because it allowed me to experience the country in many different ways. What was different this time was knowing people. Meeting up with friends, fellows, and colleagues who we had met last year, made it feel like we were coming back home to see old friends. 

Can you share with us your experience doing a GMM Creative Producing Workshop in partnership with the Gauteng Film Commission?

Speaks: The Creative Producing Workshop was great because it was a way for GMM to partner with an organization that is quite influential in South Africa and to help filmmakers in a way that was tangible for them in their context. Having the Gauteng Film Commission there during the workshop allowed them to chime in and give advice for applying to specific grants and programs. The partnership was also another full-circle moment because it was something we had spoken to Gauteng about when we were in South Africa for the first time. It was great to see the event come to fruition. My hope is that the workshop was useful for the filmmakers and that it will help them move one step closer to making their art!

GMM Creative Producing Workshop with the Gauteng Film Commission in Johannesburg

Following Global Media Maker’s 2022 Outreach Trip, the program has added six Fellows from South Africa, as well as from Angola and Namibia for to the 2023 LA Residency. GMM has also completed outreach trips to Nigeria, visiting Abuja and Lagos. Keep following this blog to learn what’s up next for GMM!

To learn more about Global Media Makers, click here. Global Media Makers is supported through a partnership between Film Independent and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Film Independent promotes unique independent voices, providing a wide variety of resources to help filmmakers create and advance new work. Learn more online and become a Member of Film Independent today.

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