How to Engage Communities, Tell Diverse Stories, and Find Your Creative Circle with Sundance Ignite Filmmaker Crystal Kayiza

Photo by Lynda Shenkman Curtis for JBFC images.
How to Engage Communities, Tell Diverse Stories, and Find Your Creative Circle with Sundance Ignite Filmmaker Crystal Kayiza

Whether in theaters or a movie night at home, film has always been a vehicle to connect people and bring communities together. In the digital era, our messages can be amplified further than we could have ever imagined. Given our ease of communication, isn’t it our responsibility to engage communities in new ways?

Crystal Kayiza is a documentary filmmaker and Sundance Ignite Fellow who is using her lens to tell important stories and make sure they’re seen by the communities most affected. Project 1324 had the opportunity to talk to Crystal about her time as a Sundance Ignite Fellow, her current and upcoming projects, and her advice for emerging creatives.

A Brooklyn resident originally from Oklahoma, Crystal recently made the jump to working exclusively as a filmmaker — leaving behind her full-time job at the ACLU where she worked to support racial justice causes and the decriminalization of poverty. She now uses film to share “nuanced and diverse stories from the black community.” As a Sundance Ignite Fellow, Crystal has had opportunities that many emerging filmmakers can only dream of, including seeing her short documentary film “Why We Stay” screen at a private Ignite screening at the Sundance Film Festival, and, as a Sundance Ignite fellow, Crystal’s found the support and freedom to create new films and grow as an artist.

Documentary film has the power to let people and communities define themselves, in their own voice.

Crystal’s focus on telling stories of the African Diaspora has made one component essential — community. A first-generation Ugandan-American woman passionate about shining a light on social justice and inequalities, Crystal gravitated toward documentary film because “it has the power to let people and communities define themselves, in their own voice,” she said.

Edgecombe at BAM CinemaFest.

The most important audience is always going to be the folks that shared their time and stories.

Earlier this summer, Crystal’s latest project “Edgecombe” premiered at BAMCinemaFest. “Watching ‘Edgecombe’ [at BAMCinemaFest] was a very moving and affirming experience,” said Crystal. A documentary short about a community with the same name, “Edgecombe” is an intergenerational story that explores trauma, but also tries to articulate the oral history of survival. Like many of Crystal’s projects, it focuses on revealing untold stories from black communities. Not only is she excited for more people to see the film and the opportunity to create more conversation, she’s especially looking forward to bringing the film back to the community it’s based on. Engaging the communities she profiles is something Crystal tries to bring to all of her projects, saying that “the most important audience is always going to be the folks that shared their time and stories.”

Behind the scenes of Edgecombe.

Currently, Crystal is partnering with a friend on a new project, “See You Next Time,” a film about the relationship between the East Asian and black communities of New York centering around a single place: a nail salon.  Stemming from a conversation, Crystal realized that nail salons are one of the only places for “Asian-American and black women to engage in interracial conversations about their places in the world.” And while many people would have difficulty creating a vulnerable and intimate film around a nail salon, Crystal is passionate about understanding the nuance of an experience regardless of where this experience takes place.

Finding a diverse community of collaborators, people that will affirm and be critical of your work, is so important. As emerging filmmakers it’s easy to begin engaging in your creative vision as hypothetical scenarios but having the support of a creative community or a mentor can make those ideas actionable.

2016 Sundance Ignite Fellow Britt Fryer and 2018 Fellow Crystal Kayiza. Photo by Lynda Shenkman Curtis for JBFC images.

As a Sundance Ignite Fellow, Crystal has had the opportunity not only to broaden her reach as a filmmaker and continue to develop her skills, but to find an artistic community. Despite the massive value in creating films and art, according to Crystal, filmmaking, especially in the moments when the cameras are off, can be an isolating process. “One of the most important parts of Sundance Ignite is the creative community,” said Crystal. “Finding a diverse community of collaborators, people that will affirm and be critical of your work, is so important. As emerging filmmakers it’s easy to begin engaging in your creative vision as hypothetical scenarios, but having the support of a creative community or a mentor can make those ideas actionable.”

By following her passions and telling stories that deserve a platform, Crystal is serving a greater purpose: furthering not just the film industry, but also expanding the conversations that we should all be having.

It’s incredibly important to tell underrepresented stories but as filmmakers I think we should also be intentional…creating more space for a diverse community of storytellers while also challenging our crafts approach to telling stories about marginalized communities.

Do you have a story that needs to be told?  Enter the 2019 Sundance Ignite Challenge. Find out more about Crystal’s upcoming work here.

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