Ava DuVernay is not interested making a name for herself in the big studio business.
Despite directing and co-writing award-winning film Selma, the filmmaker said she'd much rather build her own house, a space where she can freely create meaningful content.
Following a screening of Selma for the Northwestern community, director DuVernay spoke to students at Northwestern University about the importance of carving their own paths, both inside the industry and in life.
Co-sponsored by A&O Productions, Inspire Media and the Multicultural Filmmakers Collective, the evening consisted of a screening of Selma in Alice Millar Chapel, followed by a discussion led by Medill professor Charles Whitaker and an audience Q&A. DuVernay was brought as MultiCulti's annual spring speaker, and the collaboration with A&O and Inspire was part of gaining a wider reach to the Northwestern Community.
"It's incredibly cool that we were able to collaborate with so many student groups on this, and the academic departments that supported us," said senior Abiola Aderonmu, A&O's co-chair of marketing and communications.
In conversation with Whitaker, DuVernay spoke about her own life and gave some advice relevant to all college students.
"I had to cobble together a film school experience myself," she said.
DuVernay added that she didn't think formal education was wholly necessary to pursue a passion; the filmmaker started as a director after a career in marketing."Follow your heart," she said. "When I left college I loved what I was doing but I never felt like I had to do it forever. There is no one path."
According to DuVernay, this lack of a clearcut road in life is much the same as in cinematic narratives. "There needs to be more than one kind of storyteller," she said. Though the story behind Selma is ultimately rooted in history, DuVernay made narrative choices that felt right to her in order to honor the struggle the freedom fighters went through.
"To tell any story where it feels light any airy was disingenuous," she said. When asked why certain events played out on screen the way they did, she replied simply, "Because I'm the storyteller and that's my choice."
In response to what many saw as largely homogenous pool of winners at this year's Academy Awards, DuVernay stated that she was not surprised her name was not among the list of nominees. She sees the Oscars as an extension of a system that doesn't place value on art for its own sake. "We're not cultivating a culture that takes art seriously, so we need a measuring stick, we need one word, and that's studio, that's Oscar," she said.
To increase representation of women and people of color in the media, DuVernay advocated for consciousness and passion.
"There's just too few of us that have our hands on these instruments, these weapons. We have to be careful with what we're doing," she said. In a world that is unforgiving to creatives of all creeds, DuVernay believes it's important to stay strong despite inevitable adversity. "If you feel like it's too hard because you're not being accepted or heard, then you should go," she said. "You need to be on fire to make this work."