The Next Ava DuVernays
By Liam Jamieson, Tania Bhattacharya and Jed Gottlieb
It’s about time. The Oscars are set to recognize a flood of new talent, including filmmakers from all walks of life. While it’s taken the Academy far too long to diversify, it’s clear that trendsetting directors are paving new paths — artists like Ava DuVernay, the first Black woman to be nominated for a best director Golden Globe and the first to win in that category at Sundance. OZY’s Sunday Magazine explores some spellbinding storytellers who are likely to turn heads for years to come, from a groundbreaking chef to a college basketball player turned comedian. Plus, we’ll take you on a globe-trotting cinephile tour from the Middle East to Poland. Grab your popcorn, and enjoy the show.
12 filmmakers to watch
Chloé Zhao. She grew up in Beijing, a self-described lazy, rebellious teen who loved manga and wrote fanfics — and later attended high school in the U.K. and Los Angeles despite hardly speaking English. Now Zhao, 39, is taking over Hollywood, the first woman of color nominated for best director in the history of the Academy Awards. Zhao went from political science major to bartender to director after realizing she wanted to tell stories but wasn’t great at other artistic pursuits. “You don’t have to be a master of anything, just a jack-of-all-trades, to be a director,” she told Vulture. But after earning Sundance acclaim with her debut film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, in 2015, and winning numerous awards for last year’s Nomadland, it’s clear she’s mastered one thing: mesmerizing hearts and minds.
Travon Free. The 6-foot-7 Compton native has always stood out. On the hard court at Long Beach State, where the bisexual basketball player became one of only a handful of male athletes to ever come out during their playing days. On The Daily Show as a comedian, winning an Emmy for his writing in 2015. And now at the movies, after writing and co-directing the Oscar-nominated live action short Two Distant Strangers. The Netflix short about police killings in America — which we explore in depth below — solidifies Free as a singular talent and one who isn’t afraid to speak up, as he did while joining other Writers Guild of America union members in a 2019 campaign to oppose unfair practices by agents. Free, 33, lives in Los Angeles with two dogs and more than 250 pairs of shoes he calls “his children.”
Isabel Sandoval. Sandoval, 39, sure can wear a lot of hats: writing, directing, producing, editing and starring in her 2019 Netflix film Lingua Franca. The story centers on Olivia, an undocumented trans Filipina caregiver in New York City who becomes romantically involved with a man while pursuing a marriage-based green card. A trans Filipina immigrant herself, Sandoval insists the film is not autobiographical, but it does come from a place of authenticity, as the Cebu City native has shared many of the tensions, paranoid fears and emotions of her protagonist. “The film transcends being merely a social issue drama, and becomes a story of resiliency and survival,” Sandoval says on The Carlos Watson Show. Watch Now.
Michaela Coel. The British daughter of Ghanian immigrants broke through with her Channel 4 sitcom Chewing Gum, a coming-of-age tale about a young Black woman finding her voice and sexuality in “hilariously filthy” fashion, as the Guardian put it. And her 12-episode HBO series, I May Destroy You, quickly became one of the must-see shows of 2020. Playing the protagonist, Arabella, Coel tackles the trauma of being sexually assaulted — a battle she fought herself after being drugged and assaulted in 2016. The 33-year-old East London native forces her audience to confront uncomfortable topics, and it’s resonating with British and American viewers alike. Read More on OZY.
Oge Egbuonu. Her story began with Om. Working in Los Angeles as a restorative yoga instructor, “Oge the Yogi” met Ged Dohorty, a Hollywood producer and co-founder of Raindog Films. Believing Egbuonu had special talent, Dohorty persuaded her to drop everything and dive into the film industry. The learning curve was steep, but Egbuonu embraced the challenges. Now she has made a name for herself, creating and directing the powerful documentary (In)Visible Portraits, which was recently picked up by the Oprah Winfrey Network. Broken into three sections — “Hurt,” “Resilient” and “Beautiful” — Oge describes the documentary while speaking to OZY on The Carlos Watson Show as both a love letter to Black women and a re-education for the rest of us.
Merawi Gerima. You return to your childhood neighborhood, only nothing is the same. What do you do? For Gerima, the answer is easy: You make a movie about it. The mostly autobiographical Residue follows Jay, a student who returns home from film school intending to write a script about his childhood, but finds himself struggling to reconnect with the place he grew up as it succumbs to white gentrification. Set in northeast Washington, D.C., where Gerima grew up, the Netflix film highlights how gentrification is only one element in a larger narrative about oppression in Black neighborhoods across America — walking in the footsteps of other recent films that explore otherness, including The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Watch Now.
Vikas Khanna. “Don’t wear your crown all the time; it will break your back.” That’s the advice Khanna’s grandmother gave him. The humble star followed it, even as the globally renowned chef cooked up an extensive list of accomplishments — including Michelin stars, dozens of published books and multiple Ph.D.s. His most recent unlikely endeavor? Filmmaking. Directing Bollywood drama The Last Color, now on Amazon Prime, Khanna delivers a story about the unique friendship between a 9-year-old tightrope walker and a widow, confronting taboos around caste, widowhood and gender roles. Whatever is next for Khanna, 49, it will surely be quite the treat. Read More on OZY.
Ben Bray. The absence of a Hispanic superhero inspired Ben Bray’s feature directorial debut, El Chicano, about a barrio vigilante who defends L.A.’s Latino neighborhoods from gangsters and crime. Raised by a single mother in the city’s San Fernando Valley, Bray, 52, took inspiration from his own life watching his brother Craig go to prison and then fatally overdose. While working as a successful stuntman, Bray learned the ins and outs of the business, falling in love with storytelling while ducking out of danger. Read More on OZY.
Sameh Alaa. What can you do in 15 minutes? This previously unheralded director is a breakout star for his short, I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face, which last year made him the first Egyptian filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or. The tale of two lovers determined to come together after being separated for 82 days is based on a personal story and a reflection of the fear of forgetting people who are gone. In fact, Alaa insists he only makes films about personal feelings or experiences. Just 34, Alaa, who lives between Brussels and Cairo, has much more ahead of him . . . if only people could find him or his film, which is not yet available on any major English-language streaming platform (for now, you can watch his 2017 short, Fifteen, on YouTube).
Małgorzata Szumowska. Polish cinema has been making waves in recent years. With films that look like works of art — some grotesque, others gentle — Szumowska made her English debut with the 2019 horror film, The Other Lamb, about life in a cult. A former art history student, the Kraków native is the daughter of two Polish journalists and has used her inherited critical eye to inform her directorial works. The 48-year-old’s upcoming feature, Infinite Storm, stars Naomi Watts.
Chaitanya Tamhane. The Indian filmmaker, 34, burst onto the indie movie scene in 2014 with the unforgettable Marathi film Court. Based in Mumbai, Tamhane is fighting, as he puts it, to write films not for the Western eye but for his fellow Indian citizens — although he admits it can be challenging to get attention domestically without international recognition. His second film, The Disciple (exec-produced by Alfonso Cuarón), premiered in 2020 at the Venice Biennale and has won awards at pretty much every festival where it’s been screened. It heads to Netflix on April 30.
Desmond Ovbiagele. Nigeria’s film industry has soared in the last few decades, and Desmond Ovbiagele, 48, is one director leading its charge. The former investment banker’s sophomore film, The Milkmaid, tells a compelling story about two sisters’ fight to reunite after religious militants invade their village. It won five African Movie Academy Awards, despite the Nigerian government’s censorship of the film — which included cutting out all references to religion. Ovbiagele is reinforcing Nollywood’s prominence in international film circles and hopes Nigerians will soon be able to view his uncensored vision once the movie is released on a to-be-determined streaming service. Read More on OZY.
12 must-see indies
An All Too Familiar Refrain. Nominated for a 2021 Oscar for best live-action short and now on Netflix, Two Distant Strangers puts a kind-hearted artist (Joey Bada$$) through a horrific Groundhog Day-like loop where he must relive the daily brutality of a New York City cop. Smart, funny, tender and absolutely nightmarish, the aforementioned Travon Free and his filmmaker partner Martin Desmond Roe shot the featurette while living through the dual pandemics of police killings and COVID-19. “When we set out to create this short in the middle of the simultaneous pandemic and social justice crises, we didn’t know what to expect,” Free and Roe said in a statement. “But in just five days, we pulled off the nearly impossible to make this incredible film.”
Instant Olaf. Disney’s theatrical features sometimes take a decade to go from idea to blockbuster. But director-animator Hyrum Osmond and actor Josh Gad pulled together a series of Disney shorts in a matter of weeks . . . while isolating in separate houses. Starring the Frozen snowman, the first episode of At Home With Olaf debuted in early April 2020 thanks to their speedy work, with Gad joking that quarantine restrictions forced him to become an ace sound engineer. The episodes are simple vignettes, and each clocks in at around a minute. But considering it took four years and some 80 artists to animate Frozen II, the mini, made-from-home Olaf adventures are impressive feats.
Saving SXSW Treasures. When the annual SXSW arts festival in Austin, Texas, had to abandon its in-person events last year, indie film company Oscilloscope Laboratories and streaming platform Mailchimp Presents rushed to the rescue. The two companies created #SupportTheShorts and put dozens of festival offerings online for free. With filmmakers in the double bind of trying to work during a pandemic and win publicity without a traditional festival support network, the companies have continued the #SupportTheShorts campaign with even more free films. The effort championed work ranging from professional to high school amateur productions, including Texas junior Jessica Lin’s documentary Beyond the Model. Packed into just five minutes, it’s a stunning and economical look at what it’s like to be a “model minority” in the wake of rising anti-Asian hate crimes in America.
Deliberate Deception. Four filmmakers recruited 20 of their friends to each make the same short at home with no budget. Everyone believed they were making a chunk of a larger feature that would be stitched together. Instead, the project masterminds sent them all the same scene — and watched as each filmmaker brought their own artistic take (replete with animation, sock puppets, child actors, cat actors, etc.). The Frankenstein project, The Transformations of the Transformations of the Drs. Jenkins, finished with a hilarious fictional story in which the producers pretended their plan to split the script up went horribly wrong. The filmmakers “all understood why we had to deceive them slightly,” producer Michael Epstein told OZY. “Some were surprised. Some had suspected. . . . It’s quite fascinating to see how much we all apply the same creative ideas and norms to fill in the gaps.”
Something Surreal. The indie film collective Surreal16 is revolutionizing Nollywood. In 2017, the collective’s three Nigerian filmmakers — Abba Makama, C.J. Obasi and Michael Omonua — released Visions, a compilation of shorts touching on themes of spirituality, religion and conflict. When not working together, the filmmakers are toppling the status quo individually, with works like Omonua’s The Man Who Cuts Tattoos, Obasi’s Hello, Rain on Amazon Prime and Makama’s The Lost Okoroshi on Netflix. Read More on OZY.
Body As Canvas. Wanting to explore the struggles refugees face in a capitalistic world, Kaouther Ben Hania directed The Man Who Sold His Skin — and bagged Tunisia’s first-ever Oscar nomination. Inspired by the unusual story of Tim Steiner, Hania’s film follows Sam, a displaced Syrian refugee who becomes a work of art, selling space on his skin to artists as a means for him to travel freely across borders. Hania contrasts the very different worlds of contemporary art and refugees by placing them side by side. Available on movie rental services, including Vudu and Amazon Prime, the film provides a fresh glimpse of the refugee journey.
A Day of Reckoning. Looking for something dark that might also make you laugh? Actor and writer Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, A Promising Young Woman, made waves for tackling a tough topic (the trauma of sexual abuse) with flair (think candy-colored sets and snappy dialogue). Up for five Oscars, the film deftly mixes doses of black comedy, romance, thriller and social commentary. Watch as Fennell masterfully heroes a vigilante protagonist who takes no prisoners while avenging the rape of her friend.
Circus of Life. In February, Pakistani cinema lovers watched hopefully for Zindagi Tamasha (“Circus of Life”) to earn an Oscar nomination after the film documenting Lahore’s fascinating old quarter became the nation’s official 2021 entry for best international feature. However, most of those cinephiles weren’t able to watch the film — at least not fans in Pakistan, where it was banned after conservative religious groups accused it of blasphemy, just as the singing protagonist is shunned in the film after his sensual onstage moves become a viral sensation. The movie presents an unvarnished look at hustlers and prostitutes, devout clerics and drug dealers, and anyone lucky enough to see it say it’s a sight to behold — but finding it online is near impossible for now.
Rap and Reflect. The rich and intense Mogul Mowgli, by Karachi-born American director Bassam Tariq, stars Riz Ahmed — who has also been nominated for best actor in Sound of Metal — as a British Pakistani rapper about to get his big break … unless a sudden illness derails him. A fascinating and poignant exploration of the threat to one’s identity when disability sets in, Ahmed brilliantly plays his role to the beats of Qawwali music, a form of Sufi Islamic devotionals particularly popular in Punjab, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The film can be streamed with a subscription to the British Film Institute.
Venerable Vignettes. Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s hauntingly simple Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a treat to watch — a compilation of three short stories about women, with the intervention of fate serving as the only common thread. Premiering in March and winning the grand jury prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, the vignettes explore “coincidence and imagination,” says Hamaguchi. And while that seems a high-minded (and frustratingly generic) endeavor, the filmmaker creates vividly delineated character sketches in a trio of deceptively simple stories.
Desert Oases. Hana Alomair’s Whispers, Netflix’s first Saudi thriller, revolves around the death of a patriarch whose secrets spill out days before the launch of his company’s new app. Across eight episodes, the drama explores the perspectives of various family members engaged in personal feuds and business subterfuge. The show followed Netflix’s February 2020 release of a series of Saudi Arabian short films, “Six Windows in the Desert,” that tackle social taboos, love and extremism.
Challenging Perspectives. Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu is set to helm the adaptation of Ali Benjamin’s novel The Thing About Jellyfish, starring British actress Millie Bobby Brown. But Kahiu first made her mark with several award-winning short films, including From a Whisper in 2009, a fictionalized take on a terrorist attack in Nairobi that challenges universalist Western perspectives in Africa through the eyes of a child protagonist. It won five Africa Movie Academy Awards and can be seen on Vimeo.