Natalie Cook is a filmmaker, poet, and theater-maker. Natalie’s poetry film, “Backwards God,” received the Best Social Justice Film Award at the New York International Film Awards and was the Grand Prize Winner of the AT&T Film Awards. She is the founder of Atlanta Word Works, as well as an alumna of the First Wave Hip Hop Theatre Ensemble, the BARS Workshop at The Public Theater, and the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program. She received a Bachelor in Arts in English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing and Afro-American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Master of Arts in Film, Black Studies, and Art Education from the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study.
Within the framework of this year’s 16 DAYS 16 FILMS initiative created by Modern Films and the Kering Foundation, a short film competition that platforms female filmmakers and their films, which explore, emote, and educate on forms of violence against women, Tara Karajica talks to Natalie Cook about her short film, “Backwards God,” as well as her thoughts on the short form, women in film today and what she is up to next.
How did you get into filmmaking and what inspires you to make films?
Natalie Cook: I had the privilege of attending a Performing Arts High School, and I always knew that I was going to major in Creative Writing. When I was in the 9th grade, I was instructed to write a play for the school’s annual Dark Night production. Dark Night was a showcase that featured plays written by first-year Creative Writing students. When my peers read my script, they told me that there was no way that I could make it into a stage play, and that it was written more so as a screenplay. Although I did not like the tone that they chose to use when giving me this feedback, I took what they said and ran with it. I made a short film. The year prior to that, I made my first silent film and loved the experience, so I was actually excited to be taking on the challenge. I also watched Spike Lee’s movies – or Joints – constantly as a little girl. I remember feeling very inspired when watching School Daze, Crooklyn, and Do the Right Thing. Watching Spike Lee’s work made me want to be a filmmaker.
Can you talk about your short film Backwards God?
N.C.: When I first wrote Backwards God, I had no idea that it would become a short film. Poetry is my foundation, and for most of my life, I was completely obsessed with it. When I was in college, I studied abroad for five months, and I unfortunately experienced several traumatic events. I wrote everyday, not only because I’m a writer and I love to write, but also because it helped my spirit to survive during that time. When I returned home, I was not able to write. Anything. I was completely shell shocked and numb, and I felt like I didn’t have any words left in me. A month later, everything spilled out. And the spill is Backwards God. The dissection of patriarchy and gender roles that is within the short film all comes from personal lived experiences. Years later, I decided to pursue filmmaking as a career. It wasn’t until after I wrote many failed scripts that I realized that Backwards God was the short film that I needed to make. I also had to learn to embrace being both a filmmaker and poet, and not try to separate the two.
How do you see the short form today?
N.C.: I believe the short form is just as valid and important and necessary as any other form. Quality over quantity. One’s entire life can be changed in 60 seconds or less. Imagine being able to make a major impact on someone’s life in such a short amount of time. I not only can imagine it, but I’ve experienced it and seen it happen. You see this all the time in poetry/spoken word! Or when Andre 3000 makes his presence known on a track. Or a commercial that has nothing to do with the product that is being sold, but the message is so powerful, that you have a completely visceral experience when viewing it. I love the endless possibilities of film and all its forms.
What is your opinion on the situation of women in film today?
N.C.: I think it’s whack that this still has to be a conversation. There is absolutely no valid reason as to why the film industry is traditionally a male-dominated industry. There is no absolutely no valid reason as to why the film industry is traditionally a white-dominated industry. When people change, industries will change. When spirits awaken and consciousnesses expand or are birthed, “diversity and inclusion” will not have to be used as pacification for centuries of anti-Black, anti-Feminine practices and ideologies. People need to tell the truth. Tell the entire truth about History and how it is interconnected with the present times. And, if you don’t know the entire truth, do research. Extensive, extensive research. Most of the people in positions of power do know the truth, but they do not prioritize the truth; they prioritize power. And, I’m at the point where I don’t need anyone to validate me or my work. I’m going to find a way, with spiritual guidance, to create the work that I have been called to create. And it is going to get out into the world by any means necessary.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
N.C.: I might have to go with Lynne Ramsay! When I watched You Were Never Really Here for the first time, I was SHOOKETH. Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon definitely had a huge impact on me. Julie Dash’s Illusions hit me in a major way. I thought Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency was the best movie of 2019. Ava DuVernay’s 13th is one of my favorite documentaries. And, I love me some Love and Basketball by Gina-Prince Bythewood. I also like Josephine Decker and FKA twigs.
What are your next projects?
N.C.: My next projects are the short film, The Memory of Soil, in which I am the writer and director, as well as the documentary, Define Reparations, which I am co-directing with my creative partner, Jason Cermak. We are the co-founders of a Production company called Little Light Pictures.
This interview was conducted within the framework of the 2020 16 DAYS 16 FILMS initiative created by the Kering Foundation and Modern Films.