Woman On The Verge of a Creative Breakthrough
Iman Shervington, MFA | Director Of Media & Communications
When I went to film school I never imagined I’d end up working at a public health non-profit for nearly 10 years. Classmates of mine have programming on major networks, feature films and more, and here I am at the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies (IWES) talking about Disease Intervention Specialists and questions on the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey. It’s a journey you don’t envision when going into a creative field, but my circuitous route has still ultimately led to creating media pieces I really care about and now I can’t see any other way my life could have gone.
When I first started working part-time at IWES I went into the office in the evenings after everyone left - and after the air conditioning was turned off - to edit projects all night and sometimes into the morning. From there it was a hard switch to a full time 9 to 5 day shift, but I stuck with it and made my way from an Administrative Assistant through multiple positions, culminating now in my role as a Director. I’ve done a little bit of everything here, from organizing files to creating social marketing campaigns, writing grants to launching Facebook (and MySpace) pages, teaching comprehensive sexuality education to planning Red Tent events and, with any spare time, getting in some Adobe Creative Suite tutorials. Although seemingly disparate, these experiences have taught me a lot of the skills I need to be a good filmmaker, and on the flip side, coming from a film background has also helped me be a better public health professional.
From Set to Desk
One of my favorite parts of being a filmmaker is being on set. The anticipatory energy of pre-production is exciting, and it’s amazing to see everything come together in the edit, but being on set is its own special experience. For a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks, you’re transported into an alternate universe where 12 hours is the base of your day and you may have to share one bathroom with people you didn’t know the day before, and after questionable craft services. So you get close pretty quickly and you learn a lot.
One of the first things you observe as someone on a production is that collaboration is key. There are so many people on set with a variety of different jobs, and if you have a small budget (like I’ve tended to have) and a skeleton crew, each role is vitally important, and people are almost always busy. For a project to come together successfully (or even to be a flop, for that matter), for most folks, especially those below the line, you have to be a team player. You have to exert as much effort as the person next to you. If conflict arises on set, you usually can’t just ignore it because you can’t really avoid anyone, and you have to figure out some kind of solution or compromise quickly and get past it or just suck it up and do your job. Shocker, working at a non-profit requires these same things. To serve the community and deliver good programming it’s important to work collaboratively with both community and staff members, meet regularly and establish relationships and connections in a meaningful way. Being on set has taught me the skills necessary to do all of that.
Jumping back to quickly getting past things, if you’re on set you have to be quick on your feet with solutions as problems will ALWAYS arise, and you have to be adaptable and open to change. An actor or crew member may drop right before the shoot and you’ll have to find someone else that brings the same (or better) skills than what you’d been planning on for weeks of pre-production. A lighting set-up may take longer than you imagined, or you may get stumped on how to shoot a scene or not get the performances you want, and by the end of the day you may have to change your whole shot list or drop a scene you really wanted to shoot. A significant prop may be missing from a take or actors could be in the wrong wardrobe (ugh, continuity), and you have to shoot something all over again, affecting the time you have for the rest of the day and actors’ morale. And do you know what it's like to try and get an exterior shot off while you’re losing light? All of these things regularly come up on set and you just have to find solutions and get over them, and not be so wedded to what you were going to do before. When working with real people and not just theories, especially working with youth with ever-changing schedules and inconsistent transportation, things change all of the time. A lot of our programs and interventions don’t have 100% guaranteed outcomes; we’re designing our programs based on knowledge and previous experience, but things can easily change once you start implementation. Therefore, it’s important to be able to assess your work mid-stream and be open to change and adaptation to create the best program possible that fits the needs of your community.
Speaking of what you were doing before, I started out as a Production Assistant (PA) in college on BET’s Comic View (no need to extrapolate my age from there…) and have been a talent escort, grip, part of the camera department, assistant director, production designer, screenwriter, editor - basically everything under the sun. I’ve been at the bottom of the totem pole and the top and I’m not above any position, and I don’t take lightly the outlook those experiences have provided me. If I’m in a more senior position, most things I ask people to do I have done myself, and I respect everyone and the role they play in the production – and that’s true at IWES, as well. Starting out as an Admin Assistant, whether it’s collecting weekly social media metrics, making copies or friending and following people on Facebook, I’ve been there, and if I have to delegate these tasks to someone else, I understand what it takes and the dignity in all of the work that keeps our office, our department, and our team running.
From Desk to Set
There are a LOT of lessons I’ve learned from working at a non-profit, and since this is already getting long I’m gonna keep my reflection on this part pretty short (well, short for me). A main focus of IWES is well-being, and by that we mean both emotional and physical. “Self-care” has definitely become a buzz word (should that be buzz words…?) these days, but taking time to not only prioritize what keeps me from burning out, like exercise and healthy food, but also reflect and process deeper existential questions about life, relationships and my relation to the universe is vital to my health and success as a filmmaker. Being on set is full of extremely long days and as a director I have to be on the whole time with a variety of folk asking a variety of questions. If I burn out, that ripples throughout the whole set and the piece I’m creating will suffer. So being at an organization that prioritizes holistic health and centers it as a main tenet has impacted the way I view a production and how I craft time for myself and my thoughts throughout the long days.
A lot of my work at IWES has been with teenagers and that has taught me to be spontaneous and flexible, incorporate humor in everything I do, find time for distractions so people don’t get bored and explain things in clear and relatable ways for different audiences. This last piece is key to me as a filmmaker trying to accomplish my vision and get a variety of people on the same page. The youth we work with have a variety of educational backgrounds, many still in school and learning new topics, vocabulary and theories, so it’s important to be able to communicate effectively and patiently with everyone and ensure the language I use is appropriate, paints a clear picture and is easy to understand.
Lastly, IWES loves to do everything with love; it’s the IWES way! I’ve said it a thousand times already and I’m gonna say it again - being on set means long days interacting with a lot of people. If I have to be around people for so long, it’s important for me to create a respectful, understanding, warm and loving space. Yes, there’s hierarchy inherent in most work structures, and film is definitely one that loves stratification, but if people don’t feel they are respected for their basic humanity and the contributions they provide, they’ll be in a miserable place and people ultimately won’t work their hardest and unite around your vision. Plus who wants to work like that? So I approach my sets with love and the desire to create a quirky, mostly-happy family for what little or long time we have together. We may not all agree, may not all get along, but ultimately we respect each other and the skills and contributions we all bring, and we’ll try to maximize opportunities for learning and growth while still making an entertaining and worthwhile product. And yes, it’s cliché, but y’all know I had to end it this way; spread love, it’s the IWES way!