Through some sort of algebraic mystery and numbers reshuffling, the whole notion of “6 degrees of separation” has been reduced to like 2.75 in Atlanta. Social circles and networks cross-pollinate in ways that would make honey bees dizzy. For example; a college friend’s girlfriend, with whom I’d become good friends ultimately married a young man who, like her, was a budding actor. The two of them belonged to a world renowned school of young African American creatives. Though this group’s primary “thing” was theatre, they, today, are acclaimed actors, musicians, dancers, singers, visual artists, filmmakers and much more. You may have heard of this army of renaissance men and women, known as The Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta or YEA. Over the year’s, through my friend, I’ve come to know many of her contemporaries from YEA and watched in awe of their confidence, poise, talent and growth and I have the pleasure of calling many of them my friends.
One of these friends recently took an enormous leap of faith and took her “show on the road”. Camera in hand and daughter in tow, Roni Nicole of Moving Pictures fame, announced her move to New York late last summer and received a glorious send off. Those that know Roni are familiar with her gorgeous and southern-surreal photography and filmmaking. Much of her work documents an aesthetic that is reminiscent of the visuals conjured by “grandma’s stories”. Her narratives tell tales of personal magic, dreams and mystery – but all wrapped in moody hues, breeze-blown tree branches, and tingling glass bottles. If you quiet your mind just enough, you can hear the blues humming through her power-filled images.
I recently caught up with Roni to get the scoop on what’s happening in NY, what life’s like for an aspiring female filmmaker and how her grandmother helps co-direct her artistry.
T15P: What was the first piece you saw that made you want to be a filmmaker?
RONI NICOLE: There were two films, and they made an impact for very different reasons. I fell in love with the lucid treatment of memory and the supernatural in Kasi Lemmon’s film, Eve’s Bayou. Then, there was Amelie, a french fantasy film about a beautiful introvert. I watched director Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s commentary over and over. [He] tended to every detail (color, props, camera movement) to support his story and it never feels weighed down by that meticulousness. I aspire to be that brilliant.
T15P: You have the eye of a DP and the soul of an editor. How important is it for a director to be well-versed in all these different facets of filmmaking?
RN: I believe a Director needs the understanding of every department’s inner workings as a means to communicate his/her vision to them. The lenses chosen, the set, lighting, etc. all help to write the story the Director sees in his/her mind. Crews appreciate an articulate leader who knows their language, it frees them to fully manifest their artistry. I am thankful for my film education at SCAD because they made us learn every element of filmmaking so that we would be prepared to work on industry sets in whatever capacity we chose. It helps even though I am carving a more independent path for my work.
T15P: Your work has had a real “southern aesthetic”; rich colors, gritty characters and stories, even the names and costuming evoke a sort of Jim Crow era south, but somehow with a modernist twist. But now you’re living and working in NY. Has that greatly affected your aesthetic? How have you seen your work change in the 6 months since you left Atlanta?
RN: It is true that I am deeply influenced by the South–especially the eras featured in my Grandmother’s storytelling. Those visions are drawls, stretched out monuments that are now more clear to me since my physical distance from them. I was able to finish my “Making of Grace” memoir, which was difficult to do while I was still in the South. New York is a pulsing thing, like molecules pressed tighter, bouncing against themselves at increased rates. It’s made me go deeper within to center, to ground myself and to see the essence of things–the essence of myself. My work is evolving because I have had to do more experimenting in the absence of the abundant resources I had in Atlanta. I have a little point-and-shoot that a friend bought me and I am constantly capturing this city, its faces, learning its story. This will feed the scripts I write I’m sure. I believe it will be this way as I travel more around this big world and I’m excited about that.
T15P: What prompted your move to NY?
RN: Honestly, Atlanta is like home and I’m a lot of people’s little sister there. I felt like it wasn’t time to get comfortable yet, so I was a little restless even though Atlanta is a hotbed of talent and people supported my work. Simultaneously, one of my close friends, Ayesha, and I desired to begin creating work together and she’s a dynamic actor so the timing just worked out. Once I got here though, I realized it was a cosmic setup meant to refine my vision and challenge the shit out of me!
T15P: You are an alum of the illustrious Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble. How significant has that experience been to the artist you are today?
RN: Freddie Hendricks built a culture of self-expression and confidence in the power of one’s voice–regardless of age. Therefore, his “children” are bold about their ideas, about projecting them into the world and believing they will create change. He empowered us to manifest our unique voice and create magic together. This is how I approach work with collaborators to this day, with respect for each person’s artistry. I build a framework for folks to stretch and experiment and that is what Freddie taught us.
T15P: You’re a single mom and an aspiring artist, in a field that has a severe gender and racial bias. Is it difficult? Is it worth it?
RN: Still working through the whole “worth it” idea. If my daughter grows up to be a woman who follows the dreams God gave her, even when it’s tough, then it’ll be worth it. If she hates me for moving her around the world and leaving the stability of my English teacher career, then I may have some regrets.
I’m sure this field is severely discriminatory, but I know my path is for me and no bigot can block it. I couldn’t afford film school and I was granted a full ride–that is grace, and it abounds. I have to focus constantly on the people who will hear my stories and this keeps me pushing. I just visualize the millions of “moved” hearts and let God deal with the “how” of it all.
T15P: What can we look out for next from Roni Nicole and Moving Pictures?
RN: Ahh, yes. The future of Moving Pictures is twofold. I will continue to write and direct narrative films. In fact, we are working to produce a feature of GRACE, for which the script is done and ready for eager investors. The second stream is my experimental film work, which I will exhibit as projections in galleries as well as alternative spaces. This path was inspired by Maya Deren‘s work and it creates a home for my love of the dreamworld and supernatural realities, as well as performance art as there will be live elements well. The first of this “moving portraiture” series is tentatively entitled, “God in Man: The Heart of the Shaman” and it explores 9 men’s inherent magic, much of which we have become too bitter to recognize as such.
Keep your eyes on the credits, the magic of Roni Nicole will manifest right before your eyes (and I will say ‘I told you so’). Check out Roni’s reel and see more of her work via Vimeo.