MEET ALIMA, FILMMAKER EXTRAORDINAIRE
Artist Alima Jennings is carving her own path in the Los Angeles landscape as a filmmaker, DJ, graphic designer & proud co-owner of her label, Akashik Records. She seems to do it all, like most young entrepreneurs, as she finds her way. Alima is boundlessly creative, with a unique perspective, but what really sets her apart is the way she runs it all with kindness, compassion & ingenuity. I sat down with Alima to talk about music, business, and her first love: FILM. Get to know her below.
TGM: How did you begin making films?
A: Film has always been a part of my life. My mom was a video director in the 80s and she made her feature film when she was pregnant with me. When my parents divorced she had to get a “regular job” and kind of gave filmmaking up but she always showed me her favorite films. I grew up watching classic films. That piqued my interest in cinema. I never intended on studying it cause it was always around me but I picked up a film video camera one day to make a music video and after that I couldn’t stop. It’s something that I like to do, it’s something that comes natural. I definitely want to study more but everyday is a study with what you love to do. I’m constantly learning. I definitely want to get my Master’s in film. That’ll be another journey when I invest the money and time in just learning, but for now I’m doing guerilla filmmaking which is fine with me. I feel like you gotta get your hands dirty first before you learn all the technical things.
TGM: When did you shoot your first music video?
A: I bought the camera in 2013 but didn’t make anything until 2014 so it’s only been about 4 years. Before that, I used to make home movies with my mom. My first love was film photography though, that’s how I got into it. I’ve been doing photography since I was 13. When those lomography cameras started being sold at Urban Outfitters I got one and thought I was so cool cause I had the oktomat which shot 8 frames in one picture. That was a cool introduction to photography.
TGM: Why film? Why not digital?
A: I definitely give digital it’s space in my life but film is always going to be number one for me. Film is so intentional. You have to get it right cause if you don’t, you’re wasting your time and your money. You put a lot more into preparing for a film shot, into getting the aperture perfect. Everything’s manual. You’re so hands on with every part of the process, it kinda makes it feel like your manipulating it with your intention as well. The more warmth you give it, you’ll receive it on screen. Digital is technical skill, there isn’t much soul unless you’re looking at it from a cinematography standpoint. Digital is cool cause you can do way more to manipulate it. Film is you get what you get. The variables are so high, like temperature and environment. It’s always different. It’s more of an artistic expression for me.
TGM: I’ve been lucky enough to see you film in action and you get so in the zone. Once you’re in it, you don’t stop. What is going on in your mind when you feel yourself go into that place?
A: Honestly I’m trying to channel whatever energy is there the best I can and that involves 100% focus. I can’t think about anything else. Once I’m in there I’m just doing it. I don’t think of the shot-list or anything I planned prior. It definitely helps to set up the scenario but once I’m there, I’m improvising. It’s fun to forget everything else in the world and focus on this one thing.
TGM: Where do you draw inspiration from?
A: Definitely travel. I am constantly leaving Los Angeles. Going to Southeast Asia, talking to people in the street, connecting with people in different parts of the world, learning people’s stories is the most inspirational for me. I only know my own journey, my own story so if I get to know people from completely different backgrounds it really inspires me to create new storyline and characters that are outside of my comfort zone. Also old Blaxploitation films and 60s films from Africa. “Touki Bouki” is one of my favorites from Senegal. There is a lot of amazing Senegalese film by way of France. It was really French dominated so there was a lot of money put into Senegalese filmmaking. They’re really beautiful. There’s a Blaxploitation film I really like called “Ganja & Hess”. Most Blaxploitation films had White directors but this one was directed had a Black director. It’s about a Black vampire and I never see stories about Black vampires. The visuals are so intriguing.
TGM: What kinds of stories do you want to tell through your own films?
A: Definitely the stories of Black people. I feel like a lot of times our stories aren’t told by us and that isn’t fair. Many times we aren’t given directing titles or writing titles or given the chance to produce our own work. We’re having to work on sets to produce other people’s work about us. That’s why it’s really important to me to continue to tell our stories with good intention. Intention is everything. Of course Blackness right now is in fashion but we’re often still not the ones telling our stories. That’s why it’s so important we find funding. I’ve seen incredible things done with no budget. I always do what I can to tell our stories and get it out there. I know there are a lot of people in a similar place as me. I’m working to get a way broader audience and more funding so I can really tell the stories that need to be told by us.
TGM: Thinking about the amazing Black filmmakers and television writers that are getting recognition today, does that give you hope for the future of media?
A: What everyone is doing right now is inspiring as fuck but I honestly do feel like there’s a time limit, which is why I’m trying to get in these institutions before they close the door. When power shifts, people get scared and try to take their power back by any means necessary. It’s happening in our government right now. There was a Black renaissance in media that was prevalent in the 80s and 90s that fizzled out. Maybe it just comes in waves. It’s an ebb and flow with these kinds of things. It could be a trend or it could be lasting now that people are seeing history repeat itself everyday. I have hope that it’ll last and everyone’s story can be told. I know a lot of Latinx people finally getting to tell their stories. I have a friend that’s used her position to tell stories of undocumented workers getting displaced and ICE raiding neighborhoods. She’s telling the stories of the legalization of marijuana and what that means for POC bodies that are mass incarcerated from the war on drugs. There is so much to tell and I hope now we are really given the space to say what we need to say.
TGM: Is there an ideal project you would do if you had all the funding?
A: I have two life projects. My mom actually wrote a film about my father I’d love to make. It’s about when he was runnin’ and gunnin’ in Queens, NY in the 80s tryna make money and pay his momma’s bills. He ended up getting locked up and then had a second chance to move on or continue what he was doing. It’s a story many of us can relate to and I really want to tell his story. I also want to make a film about the Harlem Renaissance. There is so much rich and important history there that has been pushed away and forgotten. Black people were doing some really amazing work. I really like writing about history. I’ve always been a history buff. I look back to be able to decipher what is happening now.
TGM: Do you have any specific idols?
A: Oh ya! I feel like most young Black filmmakers would say Kahlil Joseph and Arthur Jafa. They’re incredible. Bradford Young. Obviously Ava Duvernay and Issa Rae. They’re all doing the real work that needs to be done and Khalil is doing it in the realm of the fine art world which I think is really interesting. He’s kind of making his work inaccessible to most but in the art world his work lends itself to the space your in. You have to interact with it in a different way, instead of just watching it on a computer screen. He makes you step inside of it. That’s why I’ve presented most of my work only in museum and gallery spaces. I want people to not just look a clip for 2 seconds, but take it in. I am giving my soul to you.
TGM: Let’s switch gears a little. You’ve spoken about all the work you do to prep for film but you also do a lot of DJing. How do you prepare for a set?
A: I’ve been playing at a lot of museums which are usually 3 hour or longer sets. I’ll go through my BPM and start slow, then build it up over a few hours. When I’m doing more consolidated sets there’s so much I want to play that I’ll jump around. You also have to take into consideration the audience. For example I know I can play whatever I want at Low End Theory because the crowd is really receptive. I’ll go from Soul to R&B to House music in 3 songs there. I don’t like to be type casted in anything I do, but especially DJing. It’s so easy to get labeled a Trap DJ or Socca DJ or Funk but I want to play it all. That’s part of why I don’t like to call myself a DJ. Sometimes when I get booked for certain parties I will feel pressured to play certain things but then I play weird shit I like. I like a lot of 70s music because the writing is so good and I can still connect to what they’re saying today. I don’t want to play music I don’t agree with, I want to play music I feel comes from my heart.
TGM: What’s on your current music rotation?
A: Definitely all the albums on my own record label, Akashik Records. There’s this new vocalist Lynda Dawn that is contemporary but pulls from some awesome funk and soul in an authentic way. I really love having a label ‘cause I find these people making great music that aren’t really given a platform so I try my best to get them out there. I also like listening to new music so I know what’s out there so I don’t just stuck in the crates.
TGM: How does being a woman of color influence your filmmaking, DJing and being a label owner?
A: I feel blessed to be a woman of color because I have so much to say and there is never a shortage. There is so much against us and I believe to be an artist you have to have struggle to create from. The best art comes from struggle and the life of a woman of color is full of it. I’ve had a lot happen to me that I’ve been able to unpack and process through art. That’s why I’m really grateful for art. It’s given me a voice. In business it’s hard because at times I feel I need to overcompensate. There are stereotypes of Black women being angry and hostile so sometimes I find myself being overly nice to people know I’m excited to work with them. It’s draining at times.
TGM: Why is artistically expressing yourself important?
A: If I didn’t I think I’d die. Seriously. Last year I was going through some really tough stuff and unpacking a lot of trauma alone. I didn’t want to worry my family so I felt I couldn’t talk with them and I don’t like to burden my friends with my problems sometimes so all the weight was on me. I ended up making a film about what I was going through and if I hadn’t, I don’t even know what I would have done. If I didn’t have a means to create, I don’t know what I’d do with myself.