Media : Stories of the ’hood are mine

Ya’Ke Smith is on his way to Cannes, but he carries SA with him

It’s a muggy evening in the Alamo City and filmmaker Ya’Ke Smith has returned to his alma-mater, the University of Incarnate Word, to screen his award-winning short film Hope’s War. Running at about 12-and-a-half minutes, Hope’s War tells the story of Sam Hope, a U.S. Army soldier who, upon returning from the war in Iraq, struggles to re-adapt to civilian life despite the brutal visions of war that haunt him. The powerful film has received numerous critical nods, including the Director’s Guild of America Student Film Award, and recognition at the WestFest Film and Video Competition, the Deep Ellum Film Festival, and the Pan African Film and Arts Festival. It was recently selected for the prestigious Kodak Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the 59th Cannes International Film Festival.

Ya’Ke Smith directs actor Mark Banks in the Cannes-bound Hope’s War.

Born and raised in San Antonio, the 25-year-old Smith made his first film while a sophomore at Sam Houston High School, where he graduated in 1999. After Sam Houston, Ya’Ke attended Incarnate Word, where more short films followed. This fall he will gradutate with an MFA from the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas. Like many young filmmakers-of-color, Ya’Ke cites director Spike Lee as a major influence, but credits John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood with sparking his interest in cinema.

“That was the first film that I remember seeing that was really dealing with an issue that I was living with, because I’m from the ’hood in San Antonio,” explains Ya’Ke. “To be able to see those images on screen was amazing to me because those were the things that I was living with. I’ve had bullets fly through my house and I’ve had god-brothers who were drug dealers and members of street gangs and I’ve always wanted to make movies about the people that I knew. Not just to glorify those people but to say this is the lifestyle they are living and this is where it can lead to.”

Ya’Ke also credits his mother Bonnie and sister Dwin for initially and constantly supporting his passion for movie-making and drive towards higher education. He has made at least one film per year since 10th grade, and these days Ya’Ke also leans heavily on the support of his wife, Mikala Gibson, an actress who delivers a strong performance in Hope’s War.

For UT Assistant Professor Cauleen Smith, one of Ya’Ke’s mentors, the success of Hope’s War represents Smith’s evolution and growth as a filmmaker.

“Ya’Ke is really immensely talented and has a wonderful future because he works so hard,” says Cauleen. “He also has a really sort of muscular and accessible directing style that I think people are responsive to. That, combined with the fact that he deals with present-day issues that he cares about, makes him really incredibly promising.

“Ya’ke doesn’t do the sort of Black identity, long-suffering stories. He does movies about complicated Black people living in a complicated world,” she adds. “He’s not trying to be a cheerleader for his race, he’s trying to be a story-teller and he does it humanistically, from his point of view.” Actor Mark Banks plays the lead in Hope’s War. “A friend of mine likened him to a young Spike Lee and I’m sure that it was taken as a compliment,” says Banks, “but `Ya’Ke` has a directing style and an editing style that’s all his own and if this is what he’s doing at this point I’m super excited to see what he’s doing 5 years down the line.”

Ya’Ke is currently wrapping up his thesis film, which focuses on an estranged father returning from prison to make amends with his children. After graduation, he plans to shoot a feature film, again focusing on soldiers returning from war. He makes no bones about his ultimate goal: “I want to work in Hollywood to be honest with you,” he says. “I want to do independent films and make sure that I do films that have a message and films that do deal with real-life issues, but I feel like we need to be taking those films to the masses.”

But, says Smith, he won’t turn his back on his ’hood. “Eventually I want to end up back here because I feel like this is where I came from and there are a lot of artists here who just haven’t had the opportunity to really make it,” he says. “I feel like as an artist from Texas it’s my duty to come back and help other people.”

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