Human Rights Watch Film Fest 2021 Women Directors: Meet Ashley O’Shay – “Unapologetic”

Ashley O’Shay is a Chicago-based DP and documentarian whose work focuses on illuminating marginalized voices. Most recently, she filmed the final episode of Dr. Martens’ “Tough As You” series, starring the band Phony Ppl. In 2019, O’Shay co-produced the Chicago episode of KQED’s award-winning series “If Cities Could Dance,” which became one of their most viewed episodes to date. Her work also appeared in the critically acclaimed Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly.” O’Shay is currently an associate with Kartemquin Films.

“Unapologetic” is screening at the New York edition of the 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. This year’s fest is digital due to COVID-19, and runs May 19-27.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words. 

AO: “Unapologetic” follows two young Black queer women, Janaé and Bella, embedded within the Movement for Black Lives in Chicago. It takes place over the course of four years, reflecting on the campaigns to address the police killings of Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

AO: In the fall of 2015, Chicago was abuzz with young Black people organizing around different causes. Many of the events and rallies at the time were not only centering young voices, but Black women and queer folks in particular. I had seen little visibility of these identities in the media, as well as in my many years of formal education.

The work that groups like the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) and #LetUsBreathe Collective were doing immediately resonated because of my shared identity. I felt a deeper connection because the people leading in the space were young Black women just like me.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

AO: After watching “Unapologetic,” I often encourage folks to investigate what’s happening with policing in their own city or town. Many of the infrastructures we depend on every day — education, economics, etc. — are directly impacted by how resources are allocated to the local police department.

In Chicago, 40 percent of the city’s budget goes toward policing, leaving many other institutions crumbling. Understanding your local infrastructure is a good starting point to determine what issues need to be organized around, and then the next step is finding the people already doing the work and directly support them.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

AO: Honestly, the will to complete it. We spent much of our time away from production to raise more funds and find support for “Unapologetic.” I spent the first year-and-a-half shooting much of the film myself, while also serving as the director, producer, and sound recordist.

When it came time to pitching for support, we were committed to remaining honest to our subjects and the team behind the project, many of whom were also young and Black.

Major support did not arrive until spring of 2019, when we were deep in post-production. In many ways, we had to build the plane as it rose up, but I’m so thankful to the many funds and supporters who took a chance on my first film.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

AO: Our first bit of funding came via an Indiegogo campaign in 2016. It was only $8,000, but that amount had a huge impact in building the initial team and taking care of some outstanding bills. Following that, we received the remaining funds from a mixture of grants, fellowships, and individual donations.

Our major grant came from JustFilms/The Ford Foundation in the amount of $75,000. That grant allowed me, producer Morgan Elise Johnson, and editor Rubin Daniels to work on the film full-time for three months and get the film prepped for festival submission.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker? 

AO: I’ve always been interested in the processes and elements that hold something together. When I discovered that roles behind the camera lens existed, I began to explore the possibility of a film career. Even when I was throwing together makeshift music videos of myself and my family members, I realized the power of shaping how we see someone or something.

This especially shines through in my documentary work, which focuses on marginalized groups and individuals. They deserve the delicacy and attention to detail those in the mainstream already receive, and being a filmmaker lets me collaborate with that focus in mind.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received? 

AO: Best advice: Trust the process. There was a point where I thought “Unapologetic” would be done in one-and-a-half, two years max. Enter many veteran filmmakers advising me that this would likely not be the case, especially since the film called for so much further development. Once I accepted the truth behind the words, I was able to better spread out the stressors and needs that came about during the process.

Worst advice: Be willing to go into debt to complete your project. Although we found difficulty in repeatedly starting and stopping the process due to inadequate funding, it allowed us to build the trust and access with our subjects necessary for an impactful narrative. If we rushed the process through quicker financial means, it may have created a more rushed narrative and certainly more debt I did not have the means to pay off.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

AO: Don’t be afraid to ask for clarity when you come up against things you don’t know. So much of directing this first feature required learning and unlearning what I had been taught during film school and before. I’m still learning as we go through distribution!

I try to not be intimidated by more experienced filmmakers or institutions; every time I’ve asked a question, it’s provided clarity so I could make better decisions.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why. 

AO: At this moment, I’d have to say my favorite is “The Old Guard” directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Without having much background on the comic universe this script came from, I deeply admired her attention to character development outside the action, her casting of Kiki Layne as a Black female co-lead, and doing a badass job directing an action film.

I hope it leads to more widespread funding of women-helmed action films.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

AO: While I typically work as a freelance DP, the pandemic allowed me the time to really focus on completing “Unapologetic” and figuring out my next move once complete. Like many, we had to pivot our distribution strategy to the virtual space once the pandemic hit. Despite having to premiere on a digital stage, we were able to safely gather 100 audience members in Chicago for an outdoor screening the day after our premiere at the BlackStar Film Festival.

I also further invested in my hobby as a DJ and hosted a number of Instagram lives to keep the positive energy flowing while we stayed safe inside.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive? 

AO: Hire and pay Black women! We need more people from our communities in decision-making positions, especially those that shape the distribution landscape.

Also, trust in young, emerging voices. They hold the future of media and culture and often bring fresh perspectives we’re unable to see at this stage in our experience.

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