At 25, Ya’Ke Smith, a native of San Antonio and graduate film student at the University of Texas at Austin, is already an award-winning director. His films have been honored by the Los Angeles Short Film Festival, the WESTfest Short Film and Video Competition, and Austin’s Cinematexas International Short Film Festival. Last year his film Hope’s War won the prestigious Director’s Guild of America West Coast Student Film Award. In February it was one of five films—out of a field of hundreds—selected for Showtime’s Black Filmmaker Showcase, a televised festival that brings to the public the best short films from up-and-coming African-American directors. Next month it will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of Kodak’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase. Hope’s War is a sobering 10-minute look inside the mind of a recently returned Iraq War veteran beset on all sides by flashbacks and hallucinations, and impulses both murderous and suicidal. The movie, which was filmed in Austin, is a rush of emotions—disorienting jump shots, drunken soliloquies, and re-enactments of torture in Iraqi prison cells.
Thoughtful and opinionated, with long dreadlocks and a set of headphones permanently draped around his neck, Ya’Ke (pronounced Yah-Key) recently met with the Observer to discuss his experiences making Hope’s War and to share his thoughts on the creative process. The following is an excerpt of that conversation:
Texas Observer: Why do you make films?
Ya’Ke Smith: I always tell people that John Singleton’s Boyz ‘N the Hood made me want to be a filmmaker. Because that was the first time I saw people that I could identify with on screen. I lived in those neighborhoods, in San Antonio; I’m from the projects there. And to see that on screen was groundbreaking to me. It made me say, “I wanna make films like that so people can get a different perspective of where I come from and who I am.” Because I think Hollywood has a tendency to stereotype black people; they think we’re only one-dimensional, but we’re not.
TO: Hope’s War is a pretty passionate indictment of the Iraq War and the effect it’s having on the soldiers sent to fight it. How do you strike a balance between getting across a message in your films and making a beautiful picture, making the story move, allowing your characters to breathe?
YS: Some people would say Hope’s War is too heavy-handed, but I don’t think it is. I mean, it’s real. When I first wrote the script, it was about how I was terrified about the war and [critical of] George Bush. But I don’t think you need to have that. That fear and criticism comes across in what you’re seeing. It’s a matter of stripping your script all the way down to the bare bones and finding out what it’s really about. You know what you want to say, but your story needs to drive it because people identify with people; they don’t identify with a message. They want to see people on screen like them, people who could be them or could be in that situation.
TO: So which came first for you when you were writing this script: your thoughts about the Iraq War or the idea for the character?
YS: It was the war. One day I watched the tape of Nick Berg getting beheaded on the Internet, and I said to myself, “Man, what the hell is going on?” It hit me that we were really at war. And then I started seeing all these stories about soldiers who had come back and who had committed suicide or had killed their wives and their kids, and I thought, “Why are we not hearing about this stuff?” And you realize those stories are being suppressed.
After I saw that, the story came to me. I was like, “I have to write this story because you don’t see this. Nobody wants to deal with this right now, but it’s necessary.”
TO: Why is there so much use of handheld camera in the film?
YS: I love the way a handheld camera moves. It breathes so much life into your frame. That’s all I shoot with; it’s all handheld. Because you’re not stuck in one position. You’re able to let your actors move, and you can move with them. It seems more like documentaries in a way to me. It’s never about just being a beautiful landscape. It’s all about these characters, it’s all about their story. And that camera’s getting me right in the middle. That’s the kind of film I like to make.
TO: How do you get honest performances out of your actors, particularly [Hope’s War protagonist] Mark Banks, who’s playing such a volatile, self-destructive character?
YS: For me and Mark, most of our rehearsals were just sitting around talking. As a director you have to tell your secrets. If you expect somebody to tell you their secrets, you have to be willing to tell your secrets. We told each other things about ourselves that probably nobody else knows. And I could whisper those things in his ear when I needed him to go somewhere. Maybe there’s a certain noise that he remembers as a child that he hated or a certain person that just makes him cringe. I have to keep recall of those memories.
I brought in a lot of photos for him of the wounded children in Iraq and of wounded soldiers and a lot of news articles. I had him watch the Nick Berg tape. And I just had him do a whole lot of personal research about himself and about the soldiers over there to figure out how to get it. Because he doesn’t know anything about being a soldier, but he does know about hurt, he does know about pain, and I had to make him recall that in his own way.
TO: Is there a line in your head when you’re dealing with actors and you’re trying to bring out something in them, bring out past experiences? Particularly in relation to Hope’s War, where you have all these violent scenarios, one after another. Is there a line with an actor, and does it get blurry – you’re whispering in his ear, dredging up unpleasant memories – where the process can become exploitative?
YS: That’s what acting is all about. And actors know that. I’m not afraid of them opening up, but actors are sometimes afraid to open themselves when other people are around. Because you have to really be inside yourself to find those moments that you’ve tried to hide, find those secret things inside of you that you tried to bury. And those are the things you have to use to give off that truthful performance. If you can’t do that, I don’t think you can be a good actor. But the moment you start finding yourself in the character, that’s when those performances are great; those are the people that win Oscars.
Actors are like open wounds. They’re wide open to you and your crew and everybody else, so as a director they have to really, really trust you. If your actors do not trust you they won’t come alive for you.
You have to find out how far you can go with every actor. Some actors don’t mind you calling up those stories. Some actors will talk about the day their brother died, and they don’t mind you’re talking about that to help them get to where they need to be. Some actors do not want that. That’s too much. So as a director you just have to know what line you can cross with what people.
But if they don’t mind me going there, I don’t find it exploitative. That’s what you signed up for. (Laughs) If you want to be a good actor you have to go there, you have to recall those memories, and you have to be able to trust the director to help you to get there.
TO: How important to you is your independence?
YS: My independence is very important. But if I can find a studio in Hollywood that would allow me to be independent, that would allow me to make the work that I want to make, I will gladly go to Hollywood. I’m not married to totally being an independent person because I think more African-Americans need to be in Hollywood. We need to be making mainstream films. And I want to be one of those people that can do that. But if they won’t let me do what I want, then I’m out. I don’t want anyone telling me what kind of films to make. Because it’s not about entertainment to me, it’s not about money. It’s about a message.
Film is very powerful. Before you pick up a book, before you pick up a newspaper, you go to the movies. And that’s where you reach a lot of people. I think that’s why a lot of this generation is going downhill because a lot of shit that’s on TV is very degrading. It’s very stereotypical. And it’s not showing them any values or morals. Everybody wants bling bling. Why is that? Because of what they see on TV. Hopefully I can change that image.
I watch music videos and think, What the hell is going on? These images are so powerful, but these [filmmakers] don’t care. And that is an irresponsible use of the media. What is your message? What are you trying to say? You just trying to make some money? If that’s all you want then that’s cool, but I don’t think you should be making films. It’s too powerful. I think filmmakers have a responsibility to be positive and not just put negative images up on the screen.
TO: But what is positive in Hope’s War? There’s racial animosity, there’s torture, there’s violence. It’s no stroll through the green grass. How is that positive?
YS: I think honesty is positive. There’s no need in us walking around here thinking that these soldiers are coming back home and everything is happy, and they fought and they’re patriotic. That’s bullshit. They’re coming back here mentally scarred and physically scarred, and I think people need to see that.
It’s not a positive film per se, but I think it’s positive that someone will step up to the plate and say, “This is reality. This is what is really happening.” The Bush administration would like us to think otherwise; they would like us to think that we’re over there for a good cause and that when these soldiers come back they’re being really taken care of. They would like us to think that what we’re doing is a great thing, but I totally disagree with that.
I think if you paint me a picture of reality—I don’t care how grim it is—you’re being positive because you’re showing me something that I may not have seen otherwise, you’re opening my eyes to something. And I hope that’s what I’m doing with this film.
TO: Some people would say art is the purest form of self-expression. Others would say art is simply putting a paintbrush to a canvas and coming up with something beautiful. What does making movies mean to you? Is it an act of self-expression?
YS: It’s pure self-expression. When I’m sitting at 3 o’clock in the morning in front of my laptop, all I can do is express me. That’s what I’m pouring out on the paper: my heart, my feelings. What I feel about the situation. How I feel the situation should be resolved. It is self-expression. I don’t see it any other way. How could you write a film if it’s not expressing your own feelings, expressing you? I couldn’t. I couldn’t sit up and write something I don’t know. Because my heart would not be into it.
I think emotional honesty is the number one virtue in my films, but I’m still learning how to get the most honest performances from my actors. I think I’m an okay director, but I have a lot to learn. Unlike some directors, I want you to forget you’re watching a film. I’m really trying to give you the grit of life. I don’t know if that’s achievable, but that’s what I would like to achieve.
TO: Tell me about Cannes.
YS: When you win a major award, like the Director’s Guild of America student film award, which I won this year, you are eligible to play in Kodak’s showcase [at the festival]. It’s amazing because just going to Cannes has been a lifelong dream of mine, and now to actually have a film playing there is surreal.
The good thing about the showcase is that you don’t just screen your film, but you actually have meetings with major industry professionals. Some people have walked away from this with movie or TV deals. It all depends on how the gatekeepers see your work and if they think you could translate your form from short film to feature film. In other words, anything is possible. ?
Josh Rosenblatt is an Austin-based writer who frequently writes about the arts.