Interview With Karsonya Whitehead, Author Of ‘Notes From A Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis’

June 27, 2014

Check out our interview with New York Film Academy graduate & author of Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis – Karsonya ‘Kaye’ Whitehead.


NYFA: Hello and welcome film fanatics around the world. My name is Zeke and today I’ve got a very special treat for you. Earlier I had the privilege of talking with Professor Karsonya Whitehead, one of New York Film Academy’s very own. And since graduating with us in documentary filmmaking, she has gone on to receive not one, not two, but three New York Emmy nominations.

Kaye’s story is a fascinating one and I know you’re going to love it.

First of all, tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up, and how you came to be here.

Karsonya Whitehead: OK! Well, I grew up in Washington, D.C. and I went to undergraduate at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. I did my graduate degree at University of Notre Dame in Indiana and it was there that I decided I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. I was on the track towards academia and someone asked me to be in a film. I’ve never acted before so I said, “Yes, why not?” And being in this film made me realize that perhaps there’s another way to tell stories. I said I really want to go to film school. I don’t know how. I don’t know how you go about the process of doing that, I just knew I wanted to do it. I heard about this film contest and they were looking for the next emerging black filmmaker. And first place was a full scholarship to attend the New York Film Academy as well as assistance in moving to New York and making a film. Well, I submitted my film idea with these very short, kind of clips I put together, very amateurish, and lo and behold, I won first place!

NYFA: I also think it’s been a really good decade for documentary film. There’s been so many great stories being told, often by amateurs and people with very little budget. How did you feel New York Film Academy helped you kind of tell your stories?

KW: Well, when I got there, at that time at the New York Film Academy you could actually look at a number of different tracks. I knew I wanted to do documentary filmmaking, but they also felt, my professor said you also have to be trained as a narrative filmmaker, you also have to learn the equipment, which was new for me, you have to know how to work the camera, you have to learn how to work the audio. One of the things that I think the New York Film Academy did best, and that they did first, is that they taught you how to be a backpack filmmaker, which meant you knew how to use every piece of equipment. So if you didn’t have anybody else with you, you knew how to fix your audio, you knew how to actually cut film. I remember working on this theme bag and the first time I actually cut through one of my little pieces here, and I was screaming. And my professor said, “But that happens, you won’t do it again. You have learned by experience and that’s what we teach you here. You learn it by doing it.”

NYFA: Yeah, it’s all about taking that knowledge and being ready to cope with any situation out in the field long after you graduate. And on that note, what advice and what lessons did you gain from the New York Film Academy that you are practicing now in your working career?

KW: Well, quite a few things from that time in my life, which I consider to be a very important time and I speak about it all the time. I learned that everybody has a story to tell and that even if the story is not the same story that you have to tell, it’s just as valid, it’s just as important. You can be a jack of all trades and a master of one. I used to believe it was either one or the other and the New York Film Academy taught me you can know how to work the camera and the audio and still be a superb director. That you don’t have to give up the camera just so you can be the director. You should know how to work everything. The New York Film Academy taught me how to work as a team. I had, as you said before, been a lone wolf and I didn’t recognize or realize how important it was to rely and depend upon my camera person and to expect them to know just as much as I do, if not more in some cases.

NYFA: I think in the forge of creativity, there’s a lot of brilliant movies that are made in the spirit of team work and camaraderie and similarly there are plenty of flops and projects that have fallen apart completely because people have wanted to take it all on themselves and, like you say, not trusting your cameraman, not trusting your dolly grip or whoever it might be on set and I think that’s a very important lesson.

KW: It’s interesting because the film that I wrote and I edited and produced and directed was my film Compositions, a thirty-minute film. And it looked at the life of an African-American female and male who were in a relationship where there was domestic violence. And Compositions, it wasn’t an excellent film, it was a good film. It was actually sold to BET films and aired on television quite a few times, but that film is really what helped me get my start in television.

NYFA: What would you say to students who feel that their initial project, like Compositions, is maybe too ambitious, or tackles a topic that is really heavy, or really quite adventurous. What would you say, just get on and do it? Have that grit?

KW: I would say take the grit and get on and do it. What’s interesting is that when I finished Compositions and they had this contest at Cannes at the time, they would have what you call the “dead zone” hour and it would take student film projects at Cannes, so there would be films airing twenty-four hours a day. So my film Compositions got into the dead hour and I would say there were probably, I could be overestimating, five people in the theater at twelve o’clock at night and that’s five including my mom and I. Two women came in and they sat directly behind us and they talked the whole time about how bad my film was.

NYFA: Oh no!

KW: (Laughs) And they were like, “Oh, this is just horrible,” the filmmaker, and it was horrible and the woman kept saying “This filmmaker has talent. She has, she’s obviously been to film school, she needs some real world experience.” And that’s what she kept saying. So when the film ended, all thirty minutes, the lights go on and she leaned over her chair and said “That was horrible! What did you think of it?” And I said, “You know, when I made it I really liked it when I made it.” And she was like, “Oh, you need some real world experience. You really have talent. Where did you go to film school?” And I said I went to the New York Film Academy, I said I was well-trained, but you know, I haven’t worked in the business. And Compositions was my first exercise. And she said, “Well obviously you’ve been well trained. Take this phone number, call my best friend, and she’ll give you a job.”

NYFA: Oh fantastic!

KW: And I’m like, OK, that’s interesting. I got back to America and my mom said, “Well, are you going to call?” I said, “Well, why don’t I try? I have no idea who this is, but as my professor said you won’t even know until you try, you might as well jump out there and see what happens.” I did call the number and the woman’s best friend happened to be Judith McGrath who was the president of MTV at the time and I started as an associate producer at MTV less than a week later. And the woman says “I know New York Film Academy, I know you’re trained, we’re going to start you as an associate producer.” Not as a PA, I started as an associate producer.

NYFA: Wow.

NYFA: Thank you Kaye. And once again, you can check out all of Kaye’s fantastic work down in the description box below and do remember to subscribe to this channel so that you can hear more featured interviews like this. It’s always a pleasure to chat to our alumni, especially to people who are doing such amazing work as Kaye, so do hit that subscribe button, give this a thumbs up if you found this advice useful, and drop us a comment in the box below. Ciao!

KW: Ciao!

This was just a snippet of our interview with Karsonya Whitehead. To view the full interview please visit here.