Up-and-Coming Directors: The Spring Collection
Savanah Leaf
Women filmmakers delve into social injustice, giving voice to the marginalized, and “crafted realism”

SHOOT’s spring ensemble of up-and-coming directors includes a Grammy Award nominee whose work helps shed light on social injustice--and who now pairs with a company known for helping to create content with a social conscience.

Also in the mix is a filmmaker whose efforts chronicle global youth culture and marginalized communities--as well as efforts to elevate the human condition as reflected in a recent film kicking off a series for Nike.

And rounding out our coterie of talent is a director who has diversified into an ad discipline often reserved for men, breaking through that barrier with her own brand of self-described “crafted realism.”

Here’s our spring collection of several promising directors to watch:

Savanah Leaf
Filmmaker Savanah Leaf has a penchant for using art to raise awareness of social injustice with music videos ranging from Gary Clark Jr.’s “This Land” to a poignant contemporary take on Marvin Gaye’s iconic 1971 song “What’s Going On.” The latter was the first of Universal Music’s new “Never Made” series for great songs that never had a music video. By focusing on current racial and social struggles in the U.S. (including the water crisis in Flint, Mich.), the “What’s Going On” clip highlights the ongoing relevance of Gay’s musical query nearly 50 years later.

Meanwhile in “This Land,” singer and guitar prodigy Clark opens up about the racism and resulting anger, angst and pain he’s experienced as a black man in America. “This Land” earned Leaf a 2020 Grammy nomination for Best Music Video.

Leaf credited Clark for his “deeply personal and meaningful music.” The challenge, she said, was for her to make a similarly meaningful piece of art, in this case a video, representative of the song. She was surprised to garner a Grammy nod in the process, describing the recognition as a bonus added onto the honor first and foremost of Clark entrusting her with his music.

Part of that trust may have been rooted in her track record of eloquence on race and other social issues. Back in 2018, Leaf’s impactful short film The Ayes Have It gained acclaim. In it she visually interprets Tiana Clark’s poem of the same title. The short is a response to the deaths of young black men Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, tragedies some 60 years apart yet with disturbing parallels.

Park Pictures gravitated to Leaf and her body of work, recently taking up representation for the director spanning branded content, commercials and music videos. Park Pictures’ executive producer Jackie Kelman Bisbee described Leaf as “a fresh and powerful voice in the world of storytelling. From her evocative and poignant music videos to her beautifully crafted and socially impactful short films, Savanah’s work is infused with humanity and hope.”

Conversely, Leaf felt an affinity for Park Pictures, citing the company’s work which has been spurred on by--while also promoting--a deep and abiding social conscience. This was evident over two nights of the Creative Arts Emmy Awards one weekend last year in Los Angeles. On the first evening of the Creative Arts proceedings, Park Pictures Features--sister company to spot production house Park Pictures--won the Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking for The Sentence (HBO), tying with RBG (CNN), a portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for the honor. The Sentence over a 10-year span follows the unjustly harsh sentencing and incarceration of Cindy Shank (due to drug violations by her late boyfriend), showing us the toll on her family--particularly her three daughters--and then her eventual release when granted clemency in 2016 by President Obama. The Sentence was a passion project of Shank’s brother, director/producer Rudy Valdez. The Washington Post reported that The Sentence distilled the criminal justice issue down to a touching, personal story which became more relatable, helping move a number of legislators to rethink their hard-line stance, making punishment more proportional to the nature of the crime. This in turn helped to yield passage of The First Step Act which reduces mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders in federal prisons and allows some people to be incarcerated closer to their homes to allow families to more easily visit their loved ones.

Moving to the second and concluding night of the Creative Arts ceremony, Park Pictures and Wieden+Kennedy took home the primetime commercial Emmy Award for Nike’s “Dream Crazy,” directed by Lance Acord, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki and Christian Weber. “Dream Crazy” features star and not so prominent athletes striving to excel. Narrated by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the spot also touches on the controversy of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and instances of police brutality. Kaepernick was the first player to protest in this manner during NFL games, leading to his, some contend, being banished from playing professional football.

Kaepernick first appears on camera midway through the commercial. As his face is revealed, a reflection of an American flag is visible on a building facade behind him. At the start of the ad, Kaepernick says, “If people say your dreams are crazy, if they laugh at what you think you can do, good. Stay that way because what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy is not an insult. It’s a compliment.”

Leaf said that Bisbee and her Park colleagues are very “socially conscious and involved.” The director felt simpatico with Park, prompting her decision to make the company her filmmaking roost. “It’s important for me to have people around me with similar beliefs, commitments and goals,” Leaf affirmed. “I felt aligned with the company.”

Leaf also feels that the stars are starting to align for her in the advertising space, noting that brands are becoming increasingly interested in “telling stories that are true,” seeking out filmmakers who can connect with and speak to audiences. “They’re looking for an honesty in storytelling that connects people with something that’s beyond themselves. It’s exciting to get the opportunity to do this in the commercial world.”

The director has already made inroads in the ad arena, in part stemming from her background as a competitive athlete. Her experience as a 2012 Olympian volleyballer lends unique insight which she has applied to directorial collaborations with such brands as Nike, Adidas and Fila.

Leaf’s initial exploration of a career in filmmaking came about when she sustained an injury which forced her to take a year off from sports to fully recover. During that time off, she became interested in photography, worked at a music video company and made a short film. She then began to work professionally on videos and commercials while continuing to turn out shorts of her own on the side. As a self-taught director who was an industry outsider, she brought a fresh perspective and dimension to filmmaking, which started to garner attention. Prior to joining Park Pictures earlier this year, she established herself at production house Doomsday.

As for what’s next, in addition to pursuing projects via Park Pictures, Leaf is currently gearing up to release The Heart Still Hums, a personal documentary about adoption and her close relationship with her younger sister. 

Jess Kohl
Back in 2015 the London borough of Hackney got its first semi professional football club in nearly a century. The Hackney Wick Football Club was launched by Bobby Kasanga, a former semi-professional footballer who served two prison sentences as he was swept up in gang life at an impressionable age. His incarceration, though, had a silver lining as he began to honestly assess and reflect upon his situation. During his second stretch in prison, he wrote two novels (published in 2014 and 2015) and pursued an education in criminology and social policy. In the course of his studies he discovered that although crime was his choice, there were underlying factors that led to his taking the wrong path, including not enough positive male role models, lack of opportunities, the closure of youth activities with the only ones available being too expensive and of limited access. 

Shortly after his release from prison in February 2015, Kasanga started Hackney Wick Football Club, which has steadily built momentum ever since, engaging youngsters and young adults through training, fitness and football matches spanning nearly two dozen teams for youths, men and women, as well as sessions for children with additional needs. The club offers training, employment and community projects which promote health and well-being alongside community safety.

The Hackney Wick Football Club has assumed a high profile in the borough, garnering attention through varied media coverage, the latest spotlight being shone by Nike’s From the Grounds Up series of films--the first of which, Think Outside the Blocks, focuses on Kasanga’s story. Selected to direct the film--from which a 40-second commercial has been carved out--was Jess Kohl, an up-and-coming British filmmaker and photographer who’s handled worldwide by production house PRETTYBIRD, which teamed with Girls in Film to produce the Nike job. She helped bring an empathy and authenticity to the film, doing justice to the inspirational dynamic embodied by Kasanga.

Kohl related, “The process from start to finish took a good few months. As it’s a very sensitive story, we wanted to give it the time it needed to develop. We met with Bobby as an initial part of the process. As I listened to him speak, I thought about how to communicate his story in an original and engaging way. He told us about the pep talks he gives his teams before games, and I asked him to talk to us as if we were his team. As soon as he started, I knew this was how I wanted to approach the campaign--seeing him talking to the next generation felt like an emotive way to communicate his story, and allowed us to show the different personalities involved in Hackney Wick FC through the simple set up of a pep talk.”

Kasanga and the community of Hackney came together to form something special. “I wanted to keep the kids off the streets, keep them occupied, and give them a path,” said Kasanga. Kohl helps us traverse that positive path, bringing a storytelling acumen that is being recognized across different platforms. She was the recipient of both the Best Director and Best Documentary award at the Milan Fashion Film Festival in 2019, and won Best Documentary at the Athens Fashion Film Festival. Her short film Nirvana won the Short Film Award at One World Media Awards in 2019, and was screened at the BFI Flare London Short Film Festival. Nirvana--which highlights the contrast between Indian and western queerness--gained recognition at Ciclope 2019 and Underwire Film Festival, also in 2019. In Nirvana, Kohl takes us to India’s 18-day Koovagan transgender pride festival, introducing us to a pair of trans women--one shunned by her family, the other embraced and accepted.

Kohl’s work reflects an affinity for crafting films that chronicle global youth culture and marginalized communities. She documented the U.K. queer Jewish underground scene in her film Buttmitzvah, delving into the lives of three young men in East London. She followed a band of rebel Filipino punks living under President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” in her documentary short Anarchy in the Philippines, which gained recognition at the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Kohl’s talent has also translated into advertising as she’s turned out work for brands such as Carrera, Tinder, VSCO and Facebook. Also among her recent credits is a music video for “Switched Up,” Oliver Malcolm’s debut single. The clip signals Malcolm’s graduation from producing for the likes of IDK, AlunaGeorge, Joey Bada$$, Jay Rock, Masego and Tinashe to being a musical talent in his own right. His “Switched Up” is a hybrid of rap, R&B and hip-hop.

The “Switched Up” video captures the energy of Malcolm’s performance. Kohl collaborated with Malcolm on the creative concept, pairing a cinematic feel with the rawness of youth which has become a signature of her work. The promo was shot on a wintry day in the Big Bear mountains on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

“It was a labor of live, with a team who worked hard to bring this vision to life over one cold, long day,” recalled Kohl. “The process was very collaborative. Oliver had an idea of shooting out in the snow, and we worked together to develop that into the final film. It was important that this video was really focused on him without too many distractions, as it’s his debut single. He has a ton of energy and is a natural performer so was able to hold the space that we created for him.”

Karen Lavender
In coming up the industry ranks, first as an assistant TV editor in South Africa, then a production coordinator at a commercial production house in Los Angeles before becoming a hands-on producer, Karen Lavender began to define her career goal as that of director. Just as importantly, she defined her approach to directing with the phrase “crafted realism” which she explained is “the spontaneous spirit of documentary filmmaking which in essence contains a very authentic, human element, but it is crafted with shot selection and cinematography to elevate it towards more stylized filmmaking.”

Via her L.A.-based production company LiveTribe she’s brought that craft to life, along the way carving an atypical niche for a women filmmaker--sheet metal or more specifically heavy duty truck and van advertising. She has solo directed a series of films via digital agency No Mimes Media which tells us the stories of small business owners such as an ice cream maker who delivers his sweet tweets to retailers via a RAM cargo van. Shot in assorted cities and rural areas in the U.S. and Canada, the 12-part RAM series is very people-centric as we see the role RAM plays in folks’ lives and livelihoods. Their way of life comes alive while being strikingly lensed by director Lavender in collaboration with her DP husband Gary Ravenscroft.

This well-received Commercial Customer Profiles campaign built a level of trust between Lavender and RAM, yielding further collaborations on Small Business and Agriculture campaigns--this time part of a national effort for the truck line out of Dallas agency The Richards Group. Lavender directed in tandem with co-director/DP Ravenscroft. “By planning each profile to make them very filmic, we precisely choreographed every shot to showcase the world of RAM trucks and the people who rely on them,” related Lavender who all the while kept that slice-of-life, real-people orientation.

Lavender’s attraction to wheels in motion came at an early age. “I grew up in South Africa riding horses, taking off-road adventures on wild game farms and watching stock car races,” she said, adding that her father was a car fanatic, passing the motorhead genes onto her. “This way of life resonates with me but it’s still perceived as a rough-and-tumble man’s world. My goal was to bring in a feminine sensibility, a human touch, without being obvious about it.” Her alluded to producing experience set the stage as she helped in logistical planning for campaign fare ranging from the National Guard to the U.S. Navy, Yamaha Motorsports, NASCAR, and the likes of such manufacturers as Hyundai and Ford (an Eco Sport launch with Ryan Seacrest and DJ Khaled), as well as ambitious motorcycle-driven content working in concert with Keith Code, former motorbike racer, founder of the California Superbike School and considered one of the leading on-track motorcycle instructors in the world. 

The RAM Agriculture campaign bearing Lavender’s directorial stamp introduces us to varied farmers. “While many of these people face the same challenges as city-dwellers, their livelihoods hinge on good weather, fertile soil, and stable markets,” said Lavender. “This lifestyle is the legacy a new generation inherits, for in their blood is a passion for farming, and a century’s worth of traditions--all of which is supported by the RAM trucks that help them get the job done. We wanted to celebrate the tradition of the family farm, and the innovation of the heartland.”

Helping her to capture the “heart” of heartland was a filmography steeped in people storytelling. Lavender’s first film, the short documentary Robin, profiled Robin Orlyn, a South African dancer and choreographer. During the time of Apartheid, Orlyn went into segregated townships and taught modern dance to black youngsters who didn’t have the opportunity to come to “white areas.” Lavender recollected, “I was in awe of her bold courage during an era when she fearlessly stood for what she believed and helped an underserved community in spite of the consequences and political climate at the time.”

Later came the docu-short My Right To Be A Child, which chronicled human rights violations impacting children. The project took Lavender to varied venues, including an orphanage providing shelter to victims such as a teenage girl who had been raped. The intent was to shine a light on injustices to help promote international awareness.

The “crafted realism” concept started to take shape for Lavender with the self-described “artumentary” short From Fire: An Odyssey of Glass, which profiled glass artist Marlene Rose. Lavender captures Rose’s life and her creative inspiration as we watch her glass creations emerge from flames. Similarly for Lavender the notion emerged of mixing lifestyle spontaneity with polished, stylized filmmaking, a combination that has become her directing signature.


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