A Filmmaker's Journey to Cannes
Written by Marissa De Anda
“My goal is not to create stereotypes, but to debunk them.” That's what filmmaker Dwain Ya'Ke Smith '04 BA says is his reason for making films. Although Smith faced negative influences living in housing projects while growing up in east San Antonio, those very experiences created the socially conscious filmmaker of today.
Just two years ago, Smith -- filmmaker, writer, editor, producer, and McNair Scholar -- was attending UIW, majoring in communication arts and making some remarkable films, including “Black Magic,” “Family Reunion,” and “Strange Fruit.” These films received notoriety -- “Black Magic” at the Houston Multicultural Independent Film Festival in 2002 and “Family Reunion” at the Hollywood Black Film Festival in 2003. Smith was on his way to a successful career in film.
After graduating from UIW, he headed for the University of Texas (UT) at Austin film school for graduate work. There he made several films, but it was a narrative short called “Hope's War” that grabbed the attention of reviewers and launched him into wider arenas. Last year, Smith was awarded best African-American student director in the country by the Director's Guild of America. That honor landed him a chance at the biggest payoff for up-and-coming filmmakers - an invitation to show at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
Student filmmakers from around the world placing first at qualifying film festivals earned a shot at Cannes through the Kodak Company's “Emerging Filmmaker Showcase.” Kodak sent just six films to debut in France on May 18 as part of the festival. Smith's 13-minute drama “Hope's War” was among them. The film was the second of three original films he was required to make for his MFA degree.
Smith's wife Mikala '00 BFA is an accomplished alumna in her own right. Among her many honors, she received two Best Actress awards from the WestFest Film and Video Competition for her roles in two of her husband's films, “Shoppin'” in 2004 and “Hope's War” in 2005.
The film demonstrates the hardships a U.S. soldier faces after returning home from Iraq. In the film, a soldier is trying to get his life back on track, but disturbing visions from the war terrorize him and prevent him from living a normal life. Smith is a triple threat -- he wrote, directed, and edited “Hope's War” himself.
“I made this film because I wanted to show people a side of the war they weren't seeing,” he says. “Watching the experiences of the Iraq war in the media started me on the path to making this film.” He adds, “When I wrote the script, there was little coverage on post-traumatic stress disorder and how it affects troops.”
As Smith was researching, he discovered information about soldiers who returned home only to have their lives fall apart. “Although we see soldiers come back and embrace their families, we never hear about what happens six months later,” he says. “When all the festivities die down, some have to battle their personal demons. The more I dug, the more I found, and then the characters of this film emerged.”
As far as film festivals go, Cannes remains the most prestigious. He continues. “I was very nervous in the weeks leading up to the festival because I didn't know who would be sitting in the audience watching my film or what people's reaction would be. But once I got there and immersed myself in all the festival had to offer, I wasn't nervous at all. People were so supportive and eager to connect new filmmakers like me with people who could help us with future projects. Since then, several film festivals and distributors have contacted me about showing the film.”
Smith is grateful. “Every film studio, agent, manager, director, and actor working in the film industry today was there,” he says. “There are filmmakers who have been in the industry for years who have never had the opportunity to screen their films at this festival…and here I was, a student, doing something that every filmmaker dreams about.”
It's been an artistic journey, from his roots in Fort Leonardwood, MO, to San Antonio's east side where his interest in film emerged in his teens. “Ever since I can remember, I have written plays, poems and songs,” he says. I knew I had stories to share but didn't really know which medium I wanted to use to tell them.” But in 1991, his love for cinema was born when he went to the theater and saw John Singleton's debut film “Boyz N' The Hood”.
“I'd always liked movies,” he says, “but I never saw a film about my generation -- a film that spoke to what I was seeing around me every day. Singleton's film impacted me on such a deep level, and for the first time, allowed me to see how powerful the medium of film could be. I began to analyze the decisions filmmakers make and how those decisions create the world of their films.”
So it was natural that Smith wanted to study film in college. While at UIW, he received the foundation he needed to begin a filmmaking career. He was bright and introspective, described as a modest, thoughtful and quiet person. “His reserve and his quietness have a lot to do with the fact that he is really observant,” says Dr. Patricia Lonchar, professor of English and Smith's mentor. “He watches. He listens. And he pays a lot of attention to small details that a lot of us miss, because he has an eye like a camera. He is always thinking in terms of film.”
Turning Out Films and Awards
Smith has made several films including “Home” -- a documentary short on the lives of three people living at the SAMM Shelter in San Antonio, and “Shoppin“-- his first 16mm-film project that won Best Student Film at the Houston Multicultural Independent Film Festival. “Shoppin” also aired on the nationally syndicated program African-American Short Films and was one of 11 films selected by the Chamberlain Brothers International Short Film Festival to receive an honorable mention and be named in their book on sale in book stores nationwide.
“Hope's War” won several additional awards: Best Texas Short: Deep Ellum Film Festival; the Grand Jury Prize at the WestFest Film and Video Competition; Best Short Film: Community Arts Month National Association of Latino Independent Producer's Film Slam; and Best Short Film at the Jumpcut Film Festival. It also aired nationally on Showtime's Black Filmmaker Showcase and on African-American Short Films.
Among his many achievements, Smith was a UIW McNair Scholar and exhibited unusual talent from the start. McNair Scholars coordinator Dr. Roberta Leichnitz was impressed: “His perception goes well beyond what is normal for a lot of young people his age.”
Another mentor, professor Dora Fitzgerald, feels we need more filmmakers like Smith who are conscious of social issues that people need to see in film. She notes, “Ya'Ke came to UIW with a vision for what he wanted to do with his life, and he did it. From the moment I met him he talked and breathed film, and look what he's doing now.”
Smith shares his success with his wife Mikala Gibson '00 BFA, a graduate of the theatre department. They met in Smith's first year on campus when he was assigned to write an article about her for the student newspaper, The Logos.
“She was a senior at the time and had just been nominated for a Globe Award for her role in Shakespeare's “Twelfth Night”, he says. “We became good friends because we shared a lot of the same interests, and soon we went from being friends to being in a relationship. She has acted in the majority of my films, from the first one I made at UIW to Hope's War’.” Smith believes, “It's much easier to survive in this field when you have someone who understands what you do and supports you in all of your endeavors. She's a great woman.”
Smith received his MFA from UT-Austin in August. He's currently working on a feature-length story of three senior high school boys and their struggles to overcome circumstances and fulfill their dreams. He has also created a film company, Exodus Filmworks, as a means to use media to reach people and make a difference. He established Exodus five years ago and says his base is wherever he makes films. “I realize that until I get established, I will have to go where the work takes me; but Texas will always be my permanent home.”
He wants to continue making films that challenge people's minds. “I've lived places where I was constantly bombarded with negative temptations,” says Smith. “But instead of falling into the traps, I became an observer. I am tired of seeing people on screen basking in “hood” life. I want to make films about people who once lived that life, but woke up. If people see through others that there is a way out, they will want to get out themselves. I want to make films that comment on the world around us and hopefully cause people to reevaluate their decision making.”
To aspiring directors, Smith offers these words: “Study, study, and study some more. The most dangerous mistake that any new filmmaker can make is to assume that all it takes to put a film together is to place a couple of people in front of a camera and press record. That is so far from the truth. You have to learn your craft. Find filmmakers you admire and study their work.”
Although he admires many great filmmakers, Smith says one stands above the rest. “Director Spike Lee is a pioneer,” he says. “He made sure that people knew that he was just as good a filmmaker as any of his counterparts. Spike is a fighter and opened doors for all the people that came after him.”
There is another person that Smith holds in high esteem. “I admire and love my mom,” he says. “She refused to let me settle with good enough and made me reach for greatness. She always reminded me that it can be done.”
From humble beginnings to the grand showcase of Cannes in France, Smith's life shows that reaching for greatness can make you achieve it. But his work is not done. With his watchful eye and attention to detail, he's on the lookout for more ways to challenge people's minds through the power of film.