Filmmaker On The Rise: A Q&A With Ebony Blanding
A talented force that is on the rise is an Atlanta, Georgia local, Ebony Blanding. She uses her talents as a Writer and Director and as a Co-founder of House of June to showcase Black women and Black people in the full cinematic universe they deserve.
Blanding credits her mother for her start in film along with her father’s early investment of buying her a video recorder. She has stuck with the craft throughout her academic studies to present day, gaining several opportunities along the way, such as the Atlanta Film Society Filmmaker Residence Program, Wonder Roots Hughley Fellowship Program, and AIR Serenbe’s 2019 Artist Fellowship.
Most recently Blanding was accepted into the Black Magic Collective “Future Directors of Studio Feature,” which is a one year program where only nine candidates are chosen to help accelerate the careers of talented, qualified women, while giving the proper guidance, equipment, and software to assist them in creating their studio feature films.
Oz got the chance to speak with this cinematic storyteller. Blanding graciously revealed her insight and knowledge on obtaining the achievement of various programs and grants, her activism through film, and some exciting projects to expect from her this year.
Oz: Give a little intro about who you are and your start into film.
Blanding: I went to Tri-Cities High School in East Point and I can credit the experience I had as a student to the film and television magnet program. It was my first true, “I’m a filmmaker”- experience, because I had to interview and prepare before I could even get accepted into the program.
I took it super seriously which set the tone for me to call myself a filmmaker, because I was around all these dope artists that inspired me to create. Earlier on, my mom was into Alfred Hitchcock; she raised me as a baby filmmaker from all the stuff she liked. I grew up watching Vertigo and these black and white films. At that time I didn't know what I was watching, I just knew I was watching stories that allowed me to sit with my mama and we would talk about it.
My mom was an artist and had this walk of different experiences in art that trickled down to me. She was truly the first person to call me an artist, and if your mom calls you something you run with it.
“I think we owe it to ourselves to show how important the storyteller is to the story."
- EBONY BLANDING
Your work is beautiful and unlike anything I've seen before. When I was watching your reel I didn't want it to end. What genre would classify yourself as?
Blanding: My partner Amber L.N. Bournett [and my] language was based on wanting to build worlds; however, we didn't have a George Lucas or a Marvel budget. Arthouse really does tend to that gritty indie element of doing it yourself, but also understanding why you’re doing certain things. Everything has an intention.
Creating arthouse films allowed me to speak to the body of work I wanted to show visually and speak to narratively, but it also allowed my budget to place [us] within the world I wanted to create at the time. I didn't feel the pressures of something being super perfect and polished. There was charm to learning and through that experimentation and [expletive] up sometimes; you just create something that's really beautiful.
All your work is so different but has a similar quirkiness to it. How does your work relate to who you are?
Blanding: I grew up on John Hughes films, so The Breakfast Club is one of my favorite films. It would come on TBS like clockwork and I would watch it everytime and be so engrossed in the work he created with coming of age stories, exploring youth finding themselves.
Of course, as a kid, you’re looking for the things that look like you and there was so much of me in the world he created but they were all white kids. You didn't see Blackness in his work and yet, because the storytelling is so powerful, I connected to it. So, what does it look like if I put myself in these worlds? It looks like my stories. It looks like visiting the candy lady, growing up in Atlanta and playing in the fire hydrant, having a big mama, aunties, spades. It looks like all these sounds of Blackness; I wanted to create that.
I talk about a character losing their job, because I literally lost my job. I’m putting myself in those spaces because they were real, but I also knew other girls could relate as well. We are used to Black women being side characters and now we’re going into Black women being superheros, which is awesome but what does the day-to-day life of a Black woman look like? She might not be saving anybody but herself. Her saving herself might look like her going to get a new set of acrylics. I tell stories like that because they matter to us.
You have your own independent work and then you have work with House of June. How did House Of June come about?
Blanding: Amber and I met at Georgia State and we were in a lighting class together. Two Black women typically stand out in the film space so we were standing in line for equipment and I spoke to her asking what she does. She said she was a DP getting into directing and I said I was a writing and I wanted to direct my works.
We met formally over tea and started creating works, some that will never see the light of day because we were learning our language together. Then we made one and submitted it to the Atlanta Film Festival and we won the competition.
Our micro budget, really our paychecks we used to make it, won at this festival. It gave us confidence and showed there was space for us. It was a Black woman's narrative in an audience with people of all demographics. That was a very liberating moment that formed the House of June and pushed us to make other works.
Typically how it would work is, she would DP and cut it and also co-direct. I would write, direct and interface with the actors and Amber in the same way but how it feels in the overall frame. We balance and play off of each other very well. We have also been able to bring in other Black women [on production] as well.
“My work is meditative in intimacy and intentionality on amplifying Black women and Black people existing in fullness cinematically.” Can you elaborate/expand your meaning behind this quote found on your website?
Blanding: I write about Black because Blackness is very important, and I do believe there should be some safeguarding around who tells [these stories] because when we talk about nuances, it’s an embodiment of who you are, the DNA, the rhythm. When we talk about documenting experiences and lives of other folks, that for me is very important work that we’re doing.
As a Black woman, I’ve seen what history has done cinematically to my image, so I just don't trust certain folks to tell my story and I feel like they shouldn't even have to when they have me and a band of other really fly Black women to tell our own stories.
When I write about a Black woman practicing self care, it's not just a buzz word for me. Zora Neale Hurston said, “Black women are the mules of the earth.” When I talk about a Black women practicing self care, it’s some super layered [expletive]. That’s me exploring what it looks like to not be beholden to anyone, putting herself first ─ which is something women in general are not taught, for her to expect to be treated a certain way and how her community shows up for her.
It's not a burden for me, it's an honor. I understand the words I'm writing and the visuals I’m directing are creating real universes in real time. I want us to know that there are spaces we’re creating for our stories that we are actually telling.
Do you believe that only Black people can write Black stories?
Blanding: When it comes to telling stories, my first thing is if a member from that community is not telling the story, I want to know why. Is it because they can't find anyone? Because it's just not true.
If we have a story that centers the life of a transwoman, there are some really dope trans woman filmmakers that can tell it. Why wouldn't we be going to them and asking for them to be in the room who the story is about?
Apart from that, The Color Purple comes to my mind. Spielberg directed that and it's one of my favorite books and films, but that's also from a different time where there wouldn't be any conversations of a Black woman directing that story at that time. We are having those conversations now and it should be the point of no return. If that were to happen today I would not understand it.
I think we owe it to ourselves to show how important the storyteller is to the story. It is our responsibility to bring in consultants, people who know the world you are going to direct, because a great director can work from any lens if you are doing the work and studying; it is not that you aren't capable.
We are just asking for folks to be in the room who should be in the room for obvious reasons. I think a lot of us as artists, to a fault, are very concentrated on getting it done opposed to some of the layers and seams that can be appreciated because of the amount of care that has been taken to create it.
"My mom was an artist and had this walk of different experiences in art that trickled down to me. She was truly the first person to call me an artist, and if your mom calls you something you run with it."
- EBONY BLANDING
What are the experiences of directing your own work versus someone else's?
Blanding: Both of them are deeply personal because for me to do something it has to become my thing in a sense. There's some ownership in it, even if I didn't write it, I believe in what I’m doing so I also believe in what's on the page. With that, even if I didn't write it, the research is still there.
I still have to buy the same books. I still have to dig through my archives and do my discovery process. The connections to studying, whether it's another project or my own, doesn’t switch up because that is my overall process of investing and sitting in the work.
I guess one of the biggest things in directing other work versus my own is the life expectancy that I have of the project. With directing my own work, especially now, I still have to baby a lot. I show up aware that it’s independent and that I’ll have to wear multiple hats at any given time.
When I’m directing others work I don't typically take too many passion projects, because I’m doing my own passion projects. [Work I do for others is] typically documentary or commercial, and there's a different part of my brain that is not utilized because I don't have to stay with it for years down the line. With my own work the life span is much more like an embodiment.
How do you get all these grants? What’s the secret?
Blanding: This is the thing, more people need to talk and be more transparent about. I’m very new to this part of my career, so it's still a bit surreal to me sometimes. [When] receiving grants and funding you're playing for the long journey. You can't look at it in a short context way thinking you applied so you’re going to get it.
If you are at a part in your career where you are still emerging a lot of your practice will be just you applying. You are applying so people can get familiar with you and your work, which is what it boils down to. Then they get to see the lifespan of you refining whatever it is you said you were going to do. It’s a numbers game so be very exact. How much money do you need and why?
The recent grants I have been fortunate enough to receive are because I have had a period in my career where I've applied to a lot of things and I simply didn't get them. Some of those things I felt like I should've, but as I’ve gotten further into my career I realize why I didn't get them and some of those things just weren’t for me.
Overall, it's refined my process and how I speak to my work. Everytime I apply to something I get sharper about how I frame who I am as a filmmaker and then I learn about how to incorporate more structure to how I’m disseminating my information.
I realized grants ask for the same things so my bookkeeping for applying to grants is sharper because I keep everything and then I go back and review it. I may have to take things and reshape other things. It's not magical, it's not because someone is more special than you, it often falls down to where you are in your practice and how you articulate where you are in your work, and if you've started to build community around your practice.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Blanding: The future is bright! I'm excited about filming Jordan, my short and epic tale about a Black mermaid. My goal for that is to have it completely filmed this year and then push that into the festival market and get into some notable festivals.
Recently, I got into a female directing program for Black Magic Collective and it is for women in film who are positioned to direct their first feature film and I’m working on developing my feature film Discovery Camp for Trill Black Girls during the fellowship. It's a group of badasses and I'm super happy about it and it's one of my biggest experiences as far as getting into a program. I was just in a Variety article, which was amazing.
What lessons/knowledge have you gained thus far that you would want to share with other creatives?
Blanding: To realize that our business is a very nonlinear path, like really know that. In knowing that to them give yourself grace and allow yourself to experience the journey. If you're going to do this, it's going to be a lifelong journey where you may feel like nobody sees you and you’re invisible. There’s going to be a lot of questions because there is not one real answer, and that sounds very cliche.
I love Ava, Issa, and Spike, but when you hear their story it's all very personal. Give yourself grace again, because what worked for them may not work for you, but because it worked for them, know that it can work for you.
Understand that this is just a journey of experiences and if we call ourselves storytellers that means we are living life in real time, so don't stop living life in pursuit of your goals. Allow yourself time to do this work, which was one of my biggest challenges. Explore making meaningful relationships that you nurture. Do a lot of research before you reach out to people because most answers are already there. Come to the table with ground work and don’t expect people to just dump all this information on you.
I hear a lot of conversations about mentorship and I remember praying to Jesus and Tyler Perry for a mentor [laughs]. A mentor isn't going to give you a brain dump of all they know, they are going to be asking you lots of questions so it all comes back to self and you understanding how you want to tell your stories.