We caught up with director Mary-Lyn Chambers on the red carpet of the Alliance of Women in Media Southern California’s 57th Annual Genii Awards. Mary-Lyn was presented with the award for Best Drama Short by Film Independent president Josh Welsh. Her winning short, Debris: Escombros, tells the story of a girl who arrives at an US immigration detention center with her mute younger brother and a music box.
WTM: Tell us about your film.
MC: It was inspired by the 2014 immigration crisis when over 52,000 unaccompanied children came up from Central America and Mexico. Even though that aspect of the story is based on true events, I’ve fictionalized the characters; and it follows a 12-year old girl and her mute brother in their first two days in an immigration detention center here in the United States.
WTM: How can short films help women filmmakers?
MC: I think short film can help a woman filmmaker in a couple of different ways. It gives the experience and practice we need to develop our craft. And you can use it–if you get accepted into festivals and win awards and put a tremendous amount of energy into finding its audience–you can use it to parlay your film to your next opportunity.
For me I want to translate this film that I’ve just made into an episodic television show, and I also have a feature film that is set in the middle east in Dohar, Qatar–it’s a love story set in the present day.
WTM: Where did you get the idea for your feature?
MC: I lived in Dohar, Qatar over a three-year period and it’s a place where a lot of expats congregate. I was working for a film festival there, and I got to meet filmmakers from all over the world. I got to work with a lot of the locals–from Pakistan, India, Egypt, Jordan, and the Philippines, as well as from England, New Zealand and America. A lot of the misunderstandings about the East and West go both ways. I was surprised by how much my preconceived ideas about living in a Muslim country and how I would be treated as a woman [were] the complete opposite [of my experience]. I’ve never been treated so well by men, ever before, more so than here in the United States. Those kinds of juxtapositions make it ripe for me to explore those misconceptions.
WTM: Do you have any advice for aspiring young filmmakers?
MC: Firstly, I think as women, we need to really be supportive of each other. Giving each other leg ups, and sending the elevator down if we’re lucky enough to have success. Even while we’re finding our way, we should always be doing that. We should create this habit of nurturing and celebrating and encouraging each other.
I also think women should stay true to themselves. Don’t compromise for the larger machine. Because it is your uniqueness that is ultimately going to get a response from film festivals, or representation, or ultimately with the wider industry.
WTM: We ask this question of everyone, who’s your hero?
MC: I would say Ava Duvernay is a hero of mine, for lots of different reasons. Not only is she a very skilled filmmaker that stayed true to her own voice…but she also didn’t get stopped when she’d made a couple of incredible short films and yet still didn’t have representation, still didn’t have financiers or industry coming to her. Men, who were having the exact same experience, of a couple of films doing well in Sundance and other festivals, they would get representation like that…And generally Hollywood or beyond wanted to invest in them in their next features.
But that didn’t stop her. She invented to her own mechanism of distribution and still stayed true to her vision and created opportunities for herself. She’s one of those filmmakers and directors that’s not just about making the films but she is also about changing the paradigm, shifting the culture, and breaking down the barriers.
I think all of us as artists and as women, no matter if you’re in the film business or any industry, we have to be breaking down these barriers, changing the system, and not waiting for other people to change them for us, and we have to do that in addition to being skilled in the area that we’re passionate about. I like that combination of doing the art form and being an activist at the same time. And in that regard, Ava Duvernay is my hero.