Lens Spotlight: Interview with Filmmaker, Tahir Jetter
Brooklyn, New York
How did you get your start in filmmaking?
I’ve wanted to make movies since I was 15. I saw a few movies by Spike Lee, Scorsese, and David Fincher, and was consequently amazed. At a young age I had felt like I wanted to be some combination of a writer/photographer, and after seeing what I felt were some awesome works by these filmmakers, I thought cinema was the artistic medium in which I would most love to work, as it blended both art forms and others in ways that I found really compelling.
Growing up in PG County, Maryland, I started out making comedic sketches with my friends because they were the most short-form version of a narrative that I knew of at the time. So, it was me, my friends, and a few Hi-8/DV cameras, and we just started making whatever we could. I started cutting on an early version of Adobe Premiere on a PC. I got into NYU with a short sketch called “The Super Soaking Sex Shammy” that I made with my friends. It was like a QVC ad for a sponge. From then on, I made some shorts at NYU, made another short after I graduated, made a web series which probably cost far too much, and went on to make my first feature. That was a process that I started at age 18. I’m 30 now. Time flies.
What type of stories do you want to tell and what messages do you hope your audiences gain from your films?
I want to tell stories the likes of which I’ve never seen before. I once saw this article where a renowned indie producer remarked something to the effect of, “all the stories which exist have already been told and that’s why no one’s going to the theater, anymore.” I think that that’s fundamentally untrue. I think that we’re just instead tired of seeing a lot of the same shit continue to get made, and most of the things that are at the box office nowadays and which have been made from a CERTAIN PERSPECTIVE have been done to death.
In contrast, “Get Out,” for example, was a movie that likely no one would have considered making prior to maaaaaybe 2014. But when you finally see that movie, it’s a no-brainer that it was (proportionally) the most profitable movie of the year. The concept was so simple, and yet it was completely unlike anything that anyone had ever seen in American cinema before. I’m sure the same is the case with “Moonlight” or “Call Me By Your Name,” and “Mudbound,” and “Beach Rats,” and all of these other movies that are coming out that are just detailing life from a different lens.
I think a great many of us younger filmmakers are just interested in telling true stories that it seems a large contingent of the film/tv industry has been afraid to tell and to do so in ways that are interesting, new, and aren’t concerned with painting these homogenous portraits of American life. We want to be real, even if we’re making genre shit. And frankly, many of us want to stop telling movies from the same cultural vantage point. Ultimately, I want people that see my work to know that they are not alone.
Your film, “How to Tell You’re a Douchebag”, garnered rave reviews during the 2016 film festival run. How was that experience?
Premiering my first feature film at Sundance was an amazing experience. My producers, Marttise, Julius, Kelley, Alex, they held me down. Overall, it was an awesome experience, and I don’t know that there’s a better American festival where we could have screened. The Institute is super supportive, and I was glad to have been able to have taken part.
What was the most memorable response to that project?
My most memorable responses to How To Tell You’re A Douchebag came from the experience of just hearing from the people that dug the movie. And like…all kinds of people. It was amazing to play the film at Sundance, ‘cause it was a trip having a lot of (frankly) middle-aged White people come up to me after seeing the film and say, “wow, I wasn’t sure what this was going to be about, but this film really resonated with me and reminded me of a time in my life when I didn’t have my head on straight and was just being a complete jerk with respect to how I treated and thought of women.” Like, that was extremely gratifying. We were all the way out at the Sundance resort, an amazing little venue out in the boonies of Utah, and I had viewers that looked nothing like any of the movie’s cast members telling me that they enjoyed my very young, very Black, very Brooklyn movie. That was awesome. But what was obviously great, as well, was going back to Brooklyn—going to play at New Voices in Black Cinema and going back to Philly for the Black Star Festival, and just seeing these whole theaters chock full of Black folks, laughing their asses off at a movie that had been genuinely made for them, and was specifically of the times, and of the zeitgeist, and just marveling at how (I felt like) people that perhaps hadn’t had anything to watch that they could relate to in a while really just latched on to our project. And don’t get me wrong, I think our movie could have been way better, but like, the Brooklyn and Philly audiences laughed nonstop at both of those screenings, and there’s nothing more gratifying than hearing that happen when you’re not sure how your movie is going to play for its target audience.
What are some of the risks and sacrifices you have made in pursuit of your career?
I've ruined relationships/friendships, probably advanced the likelihood that I'll need a knee replacement, foregone the opportunity to make a decent middle-class income until at least my mid-30s, inadvertently estranged myself from family members, lost the better part of my youth and pretty much experienced the worst depression I ever thought that I could withstand in pursuit of my career goals in film and television. No one tells you that if you don't come from means that this is a career that can take 15-20 years to "break in," and so if you aren't ok with that, and you aren't willing to (at times) prioritize the career above all other things, you might be shooting yourself in the foot. After I went to Sundance with "Douchebag," and we sold the film, someone congratulated me and mentioned that I should prepare for the "start" of my career. Imagine my surprise when I felt that I had been busting my ass for over ten years.
As an emerging filmmaker, what are your thoughts on what seems to be a new “golden era” for black filmmakers in television and cinema?
I’m glad that there are a lot more people that APPEAR to be working in the business, but I think there is still a great deal of improvement that could stand to be made with respect to who gets opportunities to write, produce, and direct, particularly in film. I think that the world of television, overall, is being swayed by “diversity” mandates on a much more responsive basis. Still, if you look at who gets opportunities to write, direct, produce, be an executive, etc., it seems that people of color still remain woefully behind, and not because there is a lack of qualified applicants. With regard to film, it seems like every year there are only one or two Black films that get Academy-level acclaim, less than 5 studio movies a year with a person of color as a lead which also happen to be directed by a person of color, and all despite the fact that there are hundreds of movies that get made each year. Latino and Asian-American filmmakers have an even more challenging time getting their work made than Blacks, and I would like to see them get more opportunities as well. It’s not as though the business is lacking the money, or the opportunity to correct these inequities.
What’s next for Tahir?
I have several ideas for films and television which I’m “developing” at present. I’m hoping to have my next movie in theaters before 2020.
What quote or motto do you live your life by?
"Tomorrow's another day."