San Antonio native and film professor at the University of Texas at Arlington Ya’Ke Smith (Wolf) says his latest short film Dawn is probably the most personal project he has ever created. Inspired by his oldest sister, who has spent a lot of time in and out of the prison system, Dawn explores the difficulty one woman has transitioning back into society after being incarcerated.
Dawn, which was an official selection last year in a number of festivals including the American Black Film Festival, Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival and Austin Film Festival, will debut Feb. 5 at 10:40pm on HBO Zone East. It is currently available on HBO GO.
You’ve returned to making short films after some success with your first feature, Wolf, in 2012. Talk about that decision. Are short films just what fit in your schedule right now?
Well, not only the schedule, but the budget, too. (Laughs) Making a feature can be very expensive. I was originally going to shoot Dawn as a feature, but we just couldn’t get the money together. So, I decided to make a very compelling short – something I could do on my own with help from a few people.
How true to life is this film to your sister’s personal story?
There are some things that really happened the way they do in the film. I witnessed them. There are other elements of the story that I created for dramatic purposes and to make sure the character had a full arc. I took a lot of liberties, but I wanted to make sure I stayed true to the essence of her and her struggle. I wanted to paint a humanistic portrait of her and others that have been in and out of the system. A lot of times, these people are vilified and demonized in the media. There is more to them than their record.
What did it feel like to put something so personal on the screen for an audience to see? Was it therapeutic to revisit those issues or did you feel exposed?
Both. I asked my wife [Dawn lead actress Mikala Gibson] to co-write the story with me because I kept censoring myself. I was telling myself, “Oh, no, I can’t say that. What if the family gets upset?” It was emotionally draining to write the piece. She would say to me, “I know this is hard and you might not want to put that out there, but this is how it happened.” The first time I screened the film in San Antonio, I sort of cringed in my seat because my mom and nephew were there, and I didn’t know what their reaction was going to be. After the screening, my mom told me, “That was real.” She liked it because I think she felt I was giving another dimension to the story and us as a family.
Your past films all have had some sort of message to take away. Is there one you hope audiences understand after watching Dawn?
I want people to realize how hard it is for someone who has been in and out of prison to come out and say, “OK, I’m going to live my life differently now. I’m going to do it right.” When you’ve been institutionalized, it’s a difficult transition. Society doesn’t make it any easier. I want people to stop judging ex-convicts. Nobody is born a criminal. A lot of times people are acting based on the circumstances they’re handed. Prison shouldn’t just be a holding cell for people before they’re released back into the world. These people are human. The have to fight for themselves, but they could use some help. If we can give them a second chance and help them through the rehabilitation process, then maybe our prison system can actually work. Some of these people are just trying to right their wrongs.
Are you also trying to say something about racial disparities concerning the number of African Americans in the prison system right now? According to statistics from the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
In so many cases, black and brown folks who go to prison for petty crimes struggle the worst because they are punished much more harshly than their white counterparts. Some don't have the support system or financial stability to start over. I'm in no way saying that all minorities who go to prison are innocent or don't deserve some sort of punishment for their actions, but so many are criminalized at such a young age because of social, educational and financial disparities that they are almost "groomed" for the penal system. Once in, the system doesn't always offer a way out.
Why do you think it is so hard to transition back once they do get out?
I think sometimes when they imprison people they give them a formula like, “If you do A, B, and C this is going to be the result.” But we all know, even if you do everything right, sometimes you get a result you didn’t want. If you sell someone on the idea that if they just do these things it’s going to be different and then that doesn’t happen, that feeling of disappointment is like experiencing emotional whiplash. I feel like that happened to my sister. It emotionally jolted her and sent her spiraling back down.
Is your sister incarcerated right now?
Yes, she is back in.
When your sister gets out of jail, what do you hope for her?
I hope my sister understands there are consequences for her actions. Everybody is not ready to accept you with open arms and believes you can totally change. You have to work hard to get people to change their perception of you. I hope my sister gets out and really separates herself from the things that have been weighing her down. If that means getting out of San Antonio and staying in a rehab program, she needs to do that. She needs to be sure she is emotionally ready to move forward. I want to see her be successful. I want to see her start over and be a better mother, sister, daughter and person. Unless a person has no breath left in their body, there is always a possibility for change. I want to see her become the person I know she has the ability to become.
Much has been made about the fact that no people of color were nominated for an Oscar this year for the first time in 20 years in the four acting categories. As an African American filmmaker, how do you think we can fix the diversity problem, if you feel like there is one?
Oh, there is definitely a diversity issue, straight up. There always has been. Sometimes Hollywood wants to only see one version of who we are as minorities. It limits the images you see of us. If Hollywood won’t do it, then we have to figure out a way to make sure people see all the different colors and layers of who we are as people. Until we come together as minorities and make our own ways and create or own platforms and show them that there are audiences for our work, there’s going to continue to be a problem. We can’t just keep on knocking on doors. We have to start kicking those doors down.