Kiara C. Jones is a director, producer, writer and the proprietor of Cultivated Films. Her New York-based production company champions diverse storytelling and is focused on creating sustainable financial models for independent filmmakers. The Directors Guild of America honored Kiara with the Grand Jury Award for directing CHRISTMAS WEDDING BABY (Urbanworld, VIACOM, BET, Netflix). Kiara was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for producing Anja Marquardt’s, SHE’S LOST CONTROL. (Berlinale, CICAE, SXSW), and she produced the critically-acclaimed BLACK GIRL IN PARIS (HBO) and collaborated with Oscar-winning writer, Geoffrey Fletcher as the US winner for the Bombay Sapphire Imagination Series (TriBeCa). Kiara most recently directed and produced 21 AND DONE a feature documentary illuminating the plight of children aging out of the foster care system and produced PREMATURE, by Rashaad Ernesto Green (Sundance, IFC).
Describe a moment in your career you felt most brave.
Probably when I greenlit my first feature film. That was a cliff dive, but I knew the timing was right. I balanced the theory that I had just enough resources and support to be able to pull this thing off, if I also committed everything I had, every piece of me. I was still at NYU at the time, and I decided that this was going to be my graduate thesis. When you’re building a feature film, you’re commanding an amazingly talented entourage of people to build your vision. To ask all those people to gift me their skills and abilities, in order to create something that we will be proud of, is a huge responsibility.
How did you get into film?
I came into filmmaking sort of as my fourth career. I was previously in the Air Force, then worked as a broadcaster, and a live show and event producer. So I had a pretty accelerated climb into a very stable position in my life, where I was respected and made good money, but I was unhappy. I wanted to explore my creativity and tell my own stories, so I thought - film. I got into graduate school at NYU, and I found myself learning to have faith in myself and my truth. I became honest about what I was here for - knowing that I wouldn’t be able to rest if I did it any other way.
In one’s artistic life, there are some very long seconds or moments, that make us stop. There may be an epiphany or a shift. Can you tell us about a recent one
My most recent epiphany is that there is no work-life balance. People are constantly talking about this work-life balance thing, as if you can somehow figure out how much work and how much life you’re supposed to have to feel centered. As a woman, as a mother, as a filmmaker, as a creative, I don’t think that it really exists. I just came from a meeting with a high level executive who recently went from Showtime to HBO. I asked her what she would tell her younger self. After some reluctance, she said, “I would have spent more time with my children.” It made this room full of women have a deep think. For many years, as a director, my big question was, can women really have it all? Can you have a career and a family? Balance, for a woman, is a high wire act. We don’t feel balanced because we’re not supported enough by our industries, by our communities, and perhaps by our families. As much as they love us, we don’t get that same level of let-me-clear-this-space-for-you, this-door-is-open-for-you, let-me-prepare-this-for-you, as our male counterparts. It takes tremendous focus and strength to stay on that tightrope. You can be thrown off easily, with what feels like devastating consequences. Women must have the fortitude to get back up on that wire again and again. Our strength is our balance.
Now, on reflection. What was THE film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
It wasn’t really a film, but a feeling. I never saw what I truly wanted to see. I couldn’t witness my own reflection in a film or show. On Sunday mornings we’d turn on PBS to watch a few cartoons, and then they would show a movie. You’d pray for a Busby Berkeley musical or family film to dive into. Anything but a war film. Films like THE LITTLE PRINCESS and BLACK BEAUTY held such a sense of wonder, but they also had “Magical Brown People” that added value, respect, hope, and recognition. I realized that SOMEBODY has the power to put that character in that place. That’s when a light went off - I wanted to be the one to put those characters in place some day.
What was a recent film, video or series that you had a visceral response to ?
I thought that Ava DuVernay’s WHEN THEY SEE US gave humanity to the life experiences of these 5 young men that was unseen in cinematic history. Tina Mabry directed this piece for the Nextflix American Girl series, MELODY 1963. She’s infuriated because she’s telling her white teacher in her barely integrated school, where she’s the only black child, that the Pledge of Allegiance is a lie, because “We are not indivisible.” She’s watching all the riots and fires and the 4 little girls who just got murdered in their church, and she’s infuriated that the Pledge of Allegiance is a lie. And I thought, this is necessary communication for our young people. This is what we stand for. We have principles, we fight for them and we’re free to challenge them. I love being an American and all of the Pomp and Circumstance that comes with it –– we’ve got the best national anthem, our flag is fly, our eagle is boss. But if you don’t fix the underlying narrative, the symbolism becomes a lie and the lies destroy us all. The key is educating the children. They’ve got to understand American democracy, freedom and it’s fragility in a very visceral space.
On the future. What is next for you?
I’m thinking bigger, global. Looking for projects to support and stories that the world needs. Technology has created a brand new audience for storytellers. The challenge is captivating and monetizing that audience. Almost 3 billion people in the world have smart phones today. If you could get just 1 penny from 1 billion of those people, you could make 10 million dollars. Imagine if you could do that once a month, once a week... once a day.
What keeps you going?
When I travel the world, I love to meet locals in other countries - they are beautiful, and wonderful, with ideas, traditions and cultural identities deserving of space. I think the more that we share these things, the more we respect we have for others. Through film, through storytelling, we learn how to respect one another. I know that the world is better than the stories that are being told about it right now.
What does the world need now?
People need to sit down and talk to one another. The world needs to stop mindless Tweeting and threatening, and sit down and have a real conversation. Because when it gets down to it, we all want the same thing. We all just want enough space on this earth to raise our families, live a decent life, and hopefully make some sort of contribution that’s going to be worth the space we took up. We don’t have to be afraid of one another, we don’t have to be threatened by one another, we don’t have to feel like our quality of life is diminished by the presence of another human being. Generally, human beings help and support one another, they build great communities together, and they advance society. We have to believe in one another. We have to believe in one another’s humanity.
8 film scenes or filmmaker quotes that have stuck with you.
The imaginary swimming scene in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s MUSTANG. This film is a masterful depiction of intimacy without sexuality and the closeness that women/sisters share, which is something I explore in my own work. Here they are fully humanized. Great films tend to be grounded in reality, but expounded in escapism. This film is exquisitely balanced.
The Nicholas Brothers scene in STORMY WEATHER by Andrew Stone. This scene is a masterclass in getting out of the talent’s way. I’ve found as a director that I love a long take. Prepare the space for the talent and let them perform.
The bathtub scene in THE COLOR PURPLE where Celie combs Shug Avery’s hair. I have a memory of going to the film with my mother, who rarely went to the movies. Her face wet with tears after the film and then I knew I wanted a piece of that magic.
The paint scene in WHAT DREAMS MAY COME by Vincent Ward. This film came to me after the tragic death of my big brother. I was in this emotionless state of numb, flavorless, existence. Then Robin Williams slipped in that paint and a bird shit on his head and I laughed. And there it was, air. I suffered with him, the loss of his children the disconnection with his wife, his quest to save her. And I breathed again.
“A solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities." - Maya Angelou
“Whatever is wrong with you; that will get you a five picture deal!” - Todd Solondz
“Everything everybody tells you, is not the motherfucking gospel”. - My professor, Spike Lee
“Directing is a tone. Tone is the hardest thing to explain to someone. It’s like how you know you are in love with somebody.” - Martin Scorscese
Photos by Rachel Kessler
Interview by Casey Kohlberg
Edited by Shruti Ganguly
This Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.