IN Conversation with directors Zaiba Jabbar and Joan Summers
Interview: Zaiba Jabbar & Joan Summers
A conversation between directors Zaiba Jabbar (behind ABRA's "CRYBABY" music video, and founder of Hervisions) and Joan Summers (creator of SISTERHOOD featuring Rashida Renee and Lotus Lopez.)
Zaiba Jabbar: I'm excited! Please tell me a bit about yourself?
Joan Summers: I'm a filmmaker born, raised, and working in San Francisco. I was accepted into a theatre arts program after high school as an actress [then] after a semester, dropped out and went to film school! I'd been given the opportunity to write and produce an original 2 act play and discovered, through that experience, that my interest in the arts lied outside being just an actress. I wanted to have it all! I skipped my film theory lectures to make experimental documentaries with friends, instead. And for my senior thesis, wrote, directed, and starred in my debut SISTERHOOD, a docu-narrative hybrid about a year in the life of me and all my friends. Tell me about the first time you picked up a camera? What did you make? What were your inspirations?
Zaiba Jabbar: I actually wasn’t much of a fan of school. My grades were good but my dad had died just before I started secondary school and I fell truant quite a bit. Leaving school was a revelation and perhaps, gave me the freedom to explore my world in a visual way. I decided to try a graphic design course and really thrived on the creative outlet it gave me. From there, I made it to Central Saint Martins to do my BA in graphic design. Because the course was so broad, it was here that I had my first taste of experimenting with moving image. I didn’t pick up the camera per se. My first understanding of moving image was actually using a rostrum camera. I made weird little stop-motion animations with a character called Mr. Pill-head, and other odd experimental films. I really fell in love with the combination of sounds and visuals. One of my first inspirations was the film La Jette by Chris Marker (the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkey’s) thinking back now. It was this combination of stills and graphic compositions merged with sci-fi themes that are still prevalent to inspiring my work today. I love your sense of colour and aesthetic. Who inspires or influences your work?
Joan Summers: John Waters, whose devotion to the beauty of 'bad taste' is what initially shaped much of my early work. I also have binders of fashion magazine cutouts that I've curated since at least middle school! '90s Versace editorials and early Tom Ford for Gucci ad campaigns still inspire many of my shot designs and color palettes if I'm being honest! Who are some of the women that inspire your work?
Zaiba Jabbar: Cheesy but defo my mum's drive and optimism. So many of my peers and close friends. Artists like Lucy Hardcastle and Sam Cannon, my good friends Kate Bones [who] makes amaze gifs and Diana Chire of SheZine. Artist/director Margot Bowman, Nikola Vasakova from GIF, and women who build their own path. I find women in tech, emerging artists and inspiration on Instagram truly fascinating. It's what led to me launching and founding Hervisions, a showcase which celebrates short form moving image made by female creators. [What are] your needs within the arts?
JS: As a visible and vocal trans woman, it is always important for me to hire and surround myself with other trans women. I firmly believe that the conversation around visibility in the entertainment industry needs to expand beyond just who we see onscreen! I also find that gatekeepers within our industry are reluctant to not just cast trans women, but hire and mentor us as well. The need for trans women who have access to these spaces has never been greater, and I hope that in the next few years, those of us establishing ourselves remember to look back and pull more girls through.
ZJ: I found being a director you need to have a holistic approach to life as rewards are far and few between. What would you say motivates your journey?
JS: My mind and body are both tools that need constant upkeep and care. Exercise and lots of weed are definitely my secret to staying sane in this industry!
ZJ: What were some of your challenges and successes this year?
JS: I'd like to start with the dual theatre and online premiere of SISTERHOOD. After having worked on bringing the short to life for over a year, the response (and size of our audience) moved me beyond tears. The countless messages I received from trans girls around the world continue to inspire me and the entire experience has felt surreal. My drive bolstered to finish writing the feature I've been working on. On the flip side though, my greatest challenge this year was definitely myself. As I've been vocal online about struggling with depression and an eating disorder, I'm not afraid to say that both of those things almost K.O.ed me completely in 2017. Oddly enough though, it was the state of this world and our country that brought me back from the brink. I realized that I had to get healthy, continue fighting, and making art that is challenging and (I hope) inspiring. It wasn't my time to go, and it won't be for a long time! I refuse to leave this world while there's still trans girls growing up afraid, alone, and surrounded by prejudice and violence. Fighting back those demons was the biggest challenge of my adult life, but it taught me so much about who I am, and the art I want to continue making.
ZJ: How would you advise young directors wanting to turn their stories in to films?
JS: It may sound corny, but the only person who can tell your story is you! And to the young women looking to get into film directing, remember, men have been telling their stories for a million years. Don't look back! Don't get trapped in the cycle of telling other peoples stories when yours still hasn't been told yet! This is 2017! Anyone can pick up their iPhone and create something that will be seen and shared by millions! What projects are you currently working on?
ZJ: I’m actually writing my first short. Well … simultaneously writing a few actually. I’m super stoked about this new chapter as a director. My background is mainly in commercials and music videos. It's challenging but rewarding for me to pull together the ways that I visually problem solve to produce something new. I have a collaboration with two friends that I’m hoping to shoot in September. I’m also planning another Hervisions event, and have an exciting collaboration with another female focused collective, which I would love to share more a little further down the line. [What are your] upcoming projects?
JS: I'm working on my first feature film! I can't give away too many details yet, but it's tentatively titled 7 Lovers, and will once again star myself! Beyond that, I have a few smaller projects lined up, like a podcast I'll hopefully premiere within the next few months Did you always want to be a film director?
ZJ: No not at all. I never really even understood it was real career until I was at CSM. I’d fallen into graphic design and that led me to discover film. My first break came with my directing debut for Lulu Kennedy’s Fashion East scheme for the designer called David David (who also came from a fine art background having previously worked with Tracy Emin.) I was part of a vibrant young creative scene in London where your next collaboration could be put in motion on the dance floor. I experimented making fashion films for London based designers when the fashion film genre was just emerging. It was here that I won a Vogue Italia and A Shaded View on Fashion Film (ASVOFF) competition for the designer William Richard Green. Since then, I’ve never looked back.
JS: You've worked with so many incredible artists, brands, and creatives. After which gig did you feel the biggest sense of accomplishment?
ZJ: Thank you for your kind words. There's been a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. My reel has been a real personal journey. And that's such a tough question. I would have to say the one take video I did with Tiny was an awesome sense of achievement because until you’ve nailed it, you never know it's going to work. It was also such an honour to work with Trace Lysette from Amazon's Transparent series. That felt pretty special, she's such a babe!
JS: Your aesthetic [has an] impact. Where do you find yourself looking for visual inspirations?
ZJ: Contemporary culture, [i.e.] the Internet! Music is a big inspiration, where I live, and I'm also big fan of surreal artist Jean Paul Goude , directors Michel Gondry and Pedro Almodovar. David Lachapelle is a bit of a hero. His fusion of colour and mad concepts that amplify personality in front the camera is so inspiring. Robert Lepage’s fusion of performance married with projections is lush. Dance is also a massive inspiration. I adore Busby Berkley, Pina Bausch, and Ryan Heffington.
JS: If you could work with anyone on your next project, who would it be?
ZJ: I’m kinda in love with the 'famous on Instagram' artists. I love @uglyworldwide. It would be great to make a futuristic short with her. I just think the androgynous beauty she carries off with her cartoon aesthetic inspired by online culture is dope. I’m also obsessed with Greta Gerwig. Her physical comedy is great and I’d love to make something that merges comedy fashion and choreography, like the Kenzo film Spike Jonze made!
Originally published in IN #6, Fall 2017