Dawn Jones Redstone: Telling Stories to Change Reality

Dawn Jones Redstone

#DirectedbyWomen team member Alex Landers connected recently with filmmaker Dawn Jones Redstone. The director of the award-winning short film Sista in the Brotherhood isn’t slowing down, recently shadowing fellow director Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), directing a web series, and prepping a new short that feels equal parts futuristic and right now. The one thing it all has in common? A commitment to women and people of color.

DBW: How did you arrive at a career in film?

DJR: I’ve been a cinephile my whole life, but it didn’t occur to me that I could make a living doing the work until I was older. I spent a lot of time teaching myself and doing it on the side, driven by the desire to tell stories that looked more like the people in my world. I read. I took classes when I could and I bought a camera—that alone was the single greatest thing that helped me move forward with my career.

DBW: You’ve had many roles in the industry – producer, DP, editor – how has that influenced your approach to directing?

DJR: It’s both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes when I’m directing, I catch myself wearing my producer hat and killing my creative thoughts before they have a chance to flourish. “Oh, that’s too expensive,” or “How the hell are you going to make that happen?” That kind of thinking can get in the way. But for the most part, I think it’s helped me be able to think ahead about how things are going to be made or look as a final product. I can edit it in my head or see the shots and then be able to communicate that to other folks on my team. And it makes me appreciate the work they do that much more.

DBW: Your short film, Sista in the Brotherhood, is based partly on your own experience as a union carpenter – a role I think we tend to see as stereotypically male, and probably white male, as well. Was it empowering for you to bring this character, this story to the public? 

DJR: It was absolutely empowering to make Sista in the Brotherhood! I’ve worked as a carpenter and then at a nonprofit where I taught construction skills to women. Over the years, through both of these experiences, I understood very well what happens when women enter this field as nontraditional workers. Telling this particular story meant shining a lot on dismal gender diversity in an industry. Construction brings millions of jobs to Americans and everyone should benefit from those living wage jobs, not just white men. Part of that is paving the way for more women by creating a workplace where they are welcome and treated with respect. That’s not what’s happening now. And the numbers have only barely moved over the years. That needs to change.

DBW: What do you hope its legacy will be?

Sista in the Brotherhood is being purchased for screenings and trainings by people within the industry around the country. It’s an acknowledgement of the power of cinema to shape our thinking, because the traditional sexual harassment videos are sorely lacking. We had a great festival run leading up to this and I was pleased that film-goers could sort of vet the story, but it means so much more to see it being screened for government officials or future trades people as a point of discussion about how we can bring true diversity to the field.

Sista in the Brotherhood
Still image from Sista in the Brotherhood

DBW: I heard you recently had the opportunity to work with Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone). How did that connection come about, and what was most memorable about the experience for you? Anything really important you took away from that work?

DJR: Yes! Juliana Lakasik is a commercial director that owns @Large Films here in Portland, Oregon. She and her team have been building up this program called 5 to 50 where directors are able to select up-and-coming directors as shadows while they work. I applied and was selected to shadow Debra Granik while she was in town filming her next feature, My Abandonment. This was kind of a test run for the program which she hopes to replicate on a national scale. It’s an ingeniously simple way to help more women move up.

My experience with Debra is one that I will never forget. I was in awe of the incredible detail she brings to her storytelling. Both she and her producing partner Anne Rosellini were incredibly generous with me. There were many things I observed and took notes on standing beside her on set, like her use of symbols and objects to communicate the characters’ experiences. But I think the most valuable piece—one that I completely underestimated—was just seeing a woman of her stature being the director. With more people talking about the lack of women directors than ever before, I’m steeped in the knowledge that what I look like, is not what a director looks like. Seeing Debra in action seemed to erase some of that feeling that I don’t belong and make my own aspirations more possible.

Dawn Jones Redstone and Debra Granik
Dawn working with Debra Granik.

DBW: Your next project is a web series called Nonprofit, with producers Luann Algoso, Rachel Hills, and Amy Nieto-Cruz. Is this your first time working in that format?

DJR: Yes. I have done documentary work and am slowly moving toward narrative. Some friends were starting up this project and asked me to join the team. I have years of experience working in and with nonprofits and I had actually written my own script with another friend that was called “Feminist Nonprofit.” Even though I’ve primarily focused on films, I think all of our media is merging and melding right now and the bottom line is telling stories—whatever the format will be. I’m really excited to tell this one. You don’t see a lot of stories out there about what it’s like to try to do good forty hours a week and the realities of what that means: what goes wrong, what goes right, etc. But also, because it’s focused on people of color who live in the whitest city in the country, we can tap into a lot of the conversations happening right now around race and hopefully show some of the nuance in a funny and heart-touching way. And yup, I’m a workaholic, too!

DBW: Part of your mission statement is working to create and maintain a balance in representation of women and people of color in the media. What initiatives, films, or makers do you see making headway in this arena? 

DJR: I’m a huge fan of Ava Duvernay, who has used her skills to bring more stories of people of color to the big screen, but also, through her doc work, is opening up discussion around the prison industrial complex AND putting more women directors to work through her episodic show, Queen Sugar. She’s successfully working across multiple formats and bringing people with her as she goes.

After spending last year on the festival circuit, I got to know many of the festival directors out there who have made it their mission to [bring to] life [the] stories of women and people of color. Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film and Lecture, Bluestocking Film Festival, POWFest here in Portland are just a few of the organizations that are creating pathways for more filmmakers. I think they aren’t recognized enough, but their role is critical in expanding diversity in filmmaking.

DBW: How are you bringing that to your own work?

DJR: I tend to tell stories that are focused on women and people of color—and I hire women and people of color.  That’s part of my mission and it always will be.

DBW: And you don’t just direct – you run a filmmaking business. You’re doing client work, commercial/industrial work, working on your own screenplays. How does it all balance out? How do you make it all work together?

DJR: Well, the business side – working for nonprofits or community minded organizations – pays the bills so I can set my own schedule and work on my narrative projects, which don’t tend to pay as well. It also helped to be able to buy all my own gear and to hone my skills. Learning to run a business absolutely informs my skills as a director/producer. But also, I’m doing the work that speaks to me. I’m not sure I would feel as satisfied doing commercial work.

DBW: Is there a woman director in particular who’s been a great influence or inspiration to you? Any woman director we may not have heard of yet that we should know about? 

DJR: I have lots of directors I follow and aspire to. So many I could name. I met Brittany “B. Monét” Fennell last year and am keeping my eye on her! I’m also a fan of Lara Jean Gallagher here in town. Watch out for these ladies!

DBW: Any new projects in the works?

DJR: Kjerstin Johnson and I received a grant to make a short film about two women of color seeking access to underground abortion services in the not-too-far-off future. Kjerstin wrote the script and I’m directing. It feels kind of sci-fi because the world is both recognizable, but darker. We’ve been working on the story since last year. It’s called We Have Our Ways. I submitted my feature film script, a tradeswoman thriller, to Sundance. [And] I’m in early development on a short with Brenan Dwyer. It’s an exploration of white male fragility as told through a single Scrabble match. More soon!

Follow Dawn Jones Redstone on FacebookTwitter and DawnJonesRedstone.com.