Kate Gondwe: Defining Her Own Destiny

Kate Gondwe on set of Best Friends

#DirectedbyWomen team member Jacalyn Evone had the chance to speak with seventeen-year-old Kate Gondwe who, prior to graduating high school this past May 2017, made strides into the film industry.  She found writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor, and award-winning filmmaker Gondwe to be clear-sighted about her goals, and possessing strong awareness about developing her own landscape of ideas and views. Tapping into her potential early on, Kate Gondwe is at a powerful starting point in her life.

DBW: When did you first realize that you had an interest in filmmaking?

KG: As most kids growing up, movies were magical to me. That magical aspect of movies is what then made me interested and intrigued in cinema as a whole. I originally was interested in acting, but as I got into filmmaking my passion drifted to directing and writing. I started making my own films when I was thirteen and made my first film that got into a festival when I was around fourteen-fifteen.

Kate Gondwe on documentary shoot for filmmaker lab with director Mark Covino
Kate Gondwe on documentary shoot for filmmaker lab with director Mark Covino

DBW: Do you have a preference between documentary and narrative, a favorite between the two?

KG: With documentaries and narratives, they both creatively feed me differently. Each medium holds beauty in different unique ways. For documentaries I feel you are telling someone else’s story through your eyes where in narrative you personally are sharing your own imagination and experiences. I see beauty in both of those, but I feel that I have not yet made enough of both thus far to place an opinion on which I prefer.

DBW: What qualities do you look for when determining what your project theme will be? Is there some inspiration that you seek that motivates you to put the time into developing a story or documentary subject?

KG: When creating a new project, I make sure I am fully in it, because with filmmaking it takes time and I want to invest my time in what I am seriously passionate about. I also don’t want to create something that doesn’t fully represent who I am as a person. As I grow and continue my filmmaking career I hope to continue making films that represent who I am and my imagination. When it comes to finding motivation I feel like it comes easy when you are passionate about it because you just have to do it.

Kate Gondwe at Women Texas Film Festival
Kate Gondwe at Women Texas Film Festival

DBW: As a young woman filmmaker, have you felt that there have been any obstacles in front of you?

KG: I think I started my filmmaking career right at this sort of 21st century wave of women empowerment for women in film. Organizations such as #DirectedbyWomen, festivals like Women Texas Film Festival and so on have been so supportive to young female filmmakers such as myself. I’m only 17, but I’ve done things I never thought I would have. Part of that is because of my passion for my craft, but a huge part of that is because of all the support I have received. In the beginning it was really hard to believe that I could achieve and be anything in the film world because of the lack of representation. If it wasn’t for the women in film that I have met, my supportive strong mother and so on, I have no idea where I would be, because I think you can be passionate about something, but when you have no support it can feel/be impossible.

DBW: You have a range of skills: director, screenwriter, producer and film editor. Is there a particular area that you enjoy the most and, if so, why?

KG: Directing is where my heart is. I feel I am the most creatively free when directing and I also would say the same for screenwriting. I see myself also doing a number of things though and as an indie filmmaker, I think it is extremely important to know enough about every job on set and have respect for every job. That being said, I am still very young and I have a lot of learning still to do!

DBW: One of your earlier documentary projects Dreams of Nthulu (2014), how did that collaboration come about? Did you have the opportunity to travel to Africa? Quite a powerful documentary. Faced with so many challenges yet motivated by ongoing dreams.

KG: Dreams of Nthulu was my first real project I would say. I really have an interest in capturing raw unique individual stories as I feel film is the perfect medium to connect us humans with each other. As a first generation American—and having my family be from Malawi, Africa—having my first documentary in Malawi only made sense. I was already going to Malawi with my mother and I knew I needed to use that opportunity to really create a film that would show the First World what it was like to live in the Third World. I was fifteen when I filmed the documentary. I had about two to three hours to capture everything at the school in which I filmed at and I was the director, DP, sound and editor. I loved that experience, but after making films with a team, I would recommend always making a film with a team as I feel its a medium that needs collaboration, if possible.

DBW: Let’s talk about how your vision for The Puppet Lady came about. How did you come to meet Lillie Solomon? What about her led you to envision her as a creative visual documentary subject?

KG: Prior to creating my second doc, The Puppet Lady, I was really interested in making a series about the creative mind and what it is like being a creative person. The subject in my film The Puppet Lady is actually the mother to my high school college counselor, Annette Shamas. I had spoken to her about my interest in doing a series around creative people and she suggested her mother. After hearing about Lillie, I knew I had to capture her creativity and I hope I did! I ended up just making one documentary on her alongside my camera operators Izzy Reagan and Rithwhick Chary. Now I am in pre production—starting a documentary series on women creators in all art fields called Girl Creators which you can follow up on @girlcreators for coming soon announcements.

DBW: The Puppet Lady was among your award winning films. What was the feeling like being recognized with both nominations and awards for your films? An Official Selection for 2016 All-American High School Film Festival. Selected to screen at the Women Texas Film Festival in Dallas. The Scholastic Art Award, a part of the 2016 Eastern Kansas American Visions Medal. Winner of Best Emerging Student Documentary Award Tallgrass Film Festival (2016) along with Scholastics American Visions Nominee (2017). That is a mouthful in such a short period of time.

KG: Being recognized for my filmmaking only motivates me more to be better. I have so much growing still to do and so many films to make. I feel the most “okay you got this” way not when I win an award, but when I see progression in my films. Winning an award for something you love is a complete honor. I feel so blessed and grateful for all that has happened with my film career thus far and can’t wait to work harder and see what is next! I know I could have been placed in a position in which I wouldn’t have had doors opened for me to achieve my dreams as so many don’t. I can only hope all this is an inspiration for someone else watching me like I was and still am with other women directors!

DBW: You also participated in commercial filming as well highlighting community businesses? Is that an area you want to continue to pursue commercially?

KG: I have now made several corporate commercials for local companies within my location and that has also been an honor. Getting paid to do what you love is an amazing thing and I am so grateful for all the referrals and opportunities. Being only a teenager, I feel sometimes intimidated to do so, but I always learn something new and it gives me chances to hire more advanced cinematographers, sound operators etc. and I learn more about different aspects on set which is great! Commercials aren’t something I would like to pursue as a career as it doesn’t feed my creativity enough, but I still would love to do some on the side.

DBW: What is your vision for the future?

KG: As I said before, I am working on a documentary series called Girl Creators which I have high hopes for. I also would like to create more shorts and do more film labs at bigger and better film festivals. I plan on continuing taking steps to achieving my goal in being the filmmaker I envision being and also dabbling in VR and tech. Part of my career is also empowering others around me and I think people will see that in my film projects. I hope to start creating my first feature later off of one of my shorts in college as well! I’m very excited for the future, but I know everything will take work and time. Right now I am just so grateful for everything thus far!

Kate Gondwe
Kate Gondwe [Photo: Bryant Mora]

DBW: With the current success you have experienced from your projects, do you feel this is something that you will continue in as a career? You certainly have the vision for success.

KG: With perusing a career in the arts I feel like you have to be either one hundred percent invested in your craft or just not. With filmmaking I think about it everyday. It’s a part of my life and I see that not ending anytime soon. I love it and certainly the little success I have achieved so far is a huge motivation to continue.

DBW: It is clear to say you belong among the many wonderful women directors gracing the pages of #DirectedbyWomen. What would you say to other young people, particularly young girls considering going into any aspect of filmmaking?

KG: I am a seventeen-year-old black first-generation female interested in a field in which women and women of color make up seven and less % of. You have to realize the beauty and POWER in you and your uniqueness and just go for it or else the world will eat you up and you won’t achieve anything. I truly believe if you are passionate about something and you exude positivity in the world, the world will give much back to you. Be the change, be the first, create the representation and make your dreams happen! It is hard and sometimes you feel like giving up, lost or stuck, but that’s all part of the processes I realized. Find a mentor and go to him/her for advice. You aren’t going to be like the greats over night, but that is okay, because no one is—not even they were. Work hard and your skills will start to show. I’m still working hard to better my skills, but I now know that it takes a journey for everyone to get to their peak, so be patient! If you don’t have someone in your life supporting you, just know I SUPPORT YOU & BELIEVE IN YOU & if I can do it, you can!

#DirectedbyWomen continues to grow its list of talented and gifted women directors and filmmakers. To—at such an early age—begin to establish what certainly looks like a rewarding career in the film industry, her success to date is phenomenal. As she moves to attend Emerson College in Boston this fall, Kate will assuredly continue to inspire.

Be on the lookout for Kate Gondwe’s short film Best Friends. She plans to share it on Vimeo in the near future.