Student film '(re)breathe' balances director’s hopes and fears
Written and directed by Elon University senior Mia Watkins, the short film, influenced by the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, tells the story of an African-American woman attempting to find her voice in today’s society.
Elon University senior Mia Watkins, a cinema and television arts major, tries her best to rely on actions more than words.
In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two black men killed by police officers in 2014, Watkins said she was angry. A native of Ferguson, Missouri – also the hometown of Brown and site of weeks of protests and unrest – the senior described fall 2014 as “upsetting,” and she tried to channel her energy into promoting social justice for the black community.
To bring awareness to campus, Watkins – who works professionally under the name Mia Ginaé – participated in speaking engagements to educate and inform the college community. At the invitation of D'Netria Spear ’15, leader of Elon’s Black Student Union, Watkins also created a video piece for an artistic showcase titled “Let Us Breathe.”
“It was an opportunity for black students on campus to express their feelings, through their artwork, about everything that was happening in our country,” Watkins said.
Her contribution, a short film titled “(re)breathe,” began as a poem “about my personal fears and hopes as an African-American female in today’s society,” the Communications Fellow said. “This piece was more than just something to throw on my reel. It was my way of being a social activist.”
At the February exhibition, the four-minute film premiered and garnered rave reviews. Nearly a year later, the accolades continue and the project has received official selection into four film festivals, including the 2015 Citizen Jane Film Festival. At the four-day event celebrating female filmmakers, Watkins participated in a panel discussing her creative process. She will also be featured in an upcoming article in “CinéWomen,” an international magazine highlighting independent female filmmakers.
Watkins credits Assistant Professor Youssef Osman for encouraging her to submit “(re)breathe” to film festivals. The film's trailer is available on the School of Communications’ YouTube channel.
The film stars Jordan Frazier ’15, who brings life to Watkins' poem with an emotional, one-person performance. The main character’s personality is split into three personas: the storyteller, the ancestor who haunts her, and the alternative, free-spirited side of herself – who dons a gas mask – and is suffocating from the world around her.
“In deeper contexts, the film talks about my fears of race anxiety in school, the haunting of not living up to your ancestors, and of trying to be who you are,” Watkins said. “To try and be your authentic self in a world that does not want you to be authentic is a big challenge.”
Shot exclusively in black and white, against a dark backdrop, the film features strong contrast. Yet, the message isn’t meant to be harrowing, but rather optimistic, Watkins explained. “The film has its ups and downs, but overall it is sort of hopeful,” she said. “I’ll keep fighting. I want to keep breathing despite all the things that come my way.”
Watkins applauded Frazier for her powerful onscreen presence, and Ved Kumar ’18 and Andrew Steinitz ’18 for their assistance and expertise as the project’s cinematographers.
“Jordan brought so much emotion to the film,” said Watkins, noting the actress’ expressive eyes and use of hands to elicit feeling. “She looks very angry and distressed. She’s distraught, and she doesn’t know where to turn. She is fighting the best way she can in a world that’s trying to knock her down. But yet, in the end, she also has hope.”
Attending film festivals to support “(re)breathe” has motivated Watkins to continue to use film as a platform to promote social commentary. In fact, attendees at the Trinity Student Film Festival in Connecticut were quite vocal, she recalled. “Although I didn’t win there, the support was really incredible,” she said. “They told me to, ‘Keep doing this. To keep telling the stories that not many people are going to tell.’”
“When this all started, I wanted to use an outlet that was genuine and authentic to me,” Watkins said. “Using my art form as a way to protest was something I wanted to explore. And it’s put me on this path where I am using my art as a social justice tool.”