Alicia K. Harris
Education: Ryerson University – Image Arts: Film Studies (BFA)
Years of Experience: 4 years
When you were a child, did you envision becoming what you are now?
Not quite. I always envisioned that I would be a singer. It’s interesting because I can see how that dream led to my new dream. When I was younger, I would write songs and that was my first storytelling outlet. Eventually I started watching movies with great soundtracks and doing plays in high school drama class. There, I saw the full picture of how it feels to be a director. I still love music and credit music for leading me to eventually become a director and falling in love with the arts. Music is what made me interested in storytelling and art.
Can you please tell us about your journey? When did you first think to yourself, “I made it”?
I want to highlight that even though so much of me being a filmmaker and artist involves self-encouragement, many people believed in me along the way. In high school, even before I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, my band teacher, Marco Marrone, encouraged me and told me that I could do whatever I wanted to do. When I graduated from film school, I had a producer I looked up to named Karen Harnisch, who saw that I was talented and hardworking and gave me all of my first jobs in film. My producing partner, Rebeca Ortiz, invested so much time, love and care into the work we made together. She helped me achieve my dream of making PICK.
I did not have one defining moment where I thought, “I made it”. Instead, I realized I made it after a series of moments when people continued to support me. These moments include: when I raised money on Kickstarter for PICK and over 300 people supported me, getting my first Ontario Arts Council grant for PICK, winning the ArtReach pitch contest for the first film Rebeca and I made together titled Love Stinks and winning best director at Ryerson at the end of film school. There are so many people I can turn to in film who want me to succeed. Four years later, I would not have gotten to the point of making money as a filmmaker without all that love and support, especially the support of my family and mom.
Did you face any challenges on your journey to get where you are? Do you currently face any challenges?
One challenge I face is ensuring I prioritize rest and other things that are important to me. Like most freelancers and artists trying to succeed in a competitive industry where there is no clear path, I went through long periods of doing nothing but film. I was working on projects at all hours of the night, leading to burnout. It’s still a process for me to set boundaries and implement rules into my life about when I work, but I have become better at it. For example, I have reached a point where I finally decided to make my desire to learn piano a reality and take piano lessons. The quarantine period really gave me perspective and time to think about the things I have always wanted to do. My dreams will come true, but I am not in a rush to make them happen. I would rather get there slower and have spent time with family and friends and pursued different hobbies. I used to feel like I was in a race with myself to get somewhere. Now I believe that it’s more important for me to enjoy the journey than to get to the end goal.
Feeling like I am not going to be able to succeed in this industry because I am a Black woman in an industry that favors the stories and perspectives of white men is one challenge I have faced. I was once at a stage of graduating from film school and being one of two Black women in the program, never having been taught by a Black teacher and rarely being shown Black artists. I came out of that not realizing how damaging this was for me. Going into making a film that was very black, about my experiences with black hair directly after that stage, I noticed how difficult it was for me to be in predominantly white spaces and film circles and consistently explain the film to people. I thought to myself “is anybody going to get this story?” and every time I told people about the story, I felt like I had to justify it. It was not as if people were not excited about the project because they weren’t black, it’s that I got tired feeling like I had to over explain the project in order for the story to be seen as important in people’s eyes.
I will never know the opportunities I did not get because I am Black, or the things people assumed about me because I am Black. What I do know is the isolating feeling of being the only one in a space, which I often feel in this industry. Now I have a strong community of Black female filmmakers around me who I feel are with me when I am physically alone in a space.
What skills do you believe a person needs to succeed in your profession?
I think that being kind to people is important because while people want to fund and help projects, they also want to fund and help the people behind the projects. When I have projects that I need help with, people are willing to help because we previously had a good experience on set together. I want people to remember how even when times were difficult on set, we created an environment where people supported each other. When you are making a product, you should definitely think about the end product, but you should never forget to treat the people who are onboard to help with kindness. It’s not worth becoming a bad person because you want to succeed.
Believing in yourself is a skill. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one is going to believe in you. People often say I have so much confidence. The thing is that, I was not born with this confidence; I developed it over time. I could have allowed my knowledge of the fact that only four Black women have ever directed a studio feature film, lead me to believe that I am never going to make it in the film industry. Instead, I have chosen to take the perspective that those four Black women prove it is possible. It took me a long time to change my thinking and perspective. This switch did not happen overnight. This took years of me declaring self-affirmations and telling myself that I am worthy. Believing in yourself is not as simple as knowing you are talented. Believing in yourself means overcoming everything that the world tells you that you cannot do.
What advice would you give to others who aspire to be where you are?
Have other hobbies. Having other passions that are more important to you than film is crucial because tying up all your self-worth, success and dreams into one aspect of yourself is dangerous. I have been in a place where I tied up my entire worth in this identity as a filmmaker. If something goes wrong in your film making life, then your whole life and sense of happiness is derailed. I do not think you should have other hobbies and interests just because they will make you a better filmmaker. Of course, hobbies and interests will indirectly help you be a better filmmaker because you will be rested and inspired, but that should not be your main objective. Having other hobbies is important because we are not on earth to be one thing. We are here to be kind, growing and evolving humans and it’s hard to do that when your whole existence is tied up in one part of yourself.
Can you please share one goal you achieved that you are extremely proud of?
I think a goal I achieved which is the most important to me is being a confident director. This took years of work. Today, I don’t have imposter syndrome or show up to a set thinking “am I the right person for the job?”, because I know I am. If you talked to me years ago, I would not have been able to say that. This confidence in my ability as a director is what has led to my other achievements such as getting a paid directing job. I would not have gotten there without achieving the goal of becoming a confident director first.